This is what I think:
1. I don’t think everyone should have to learn to lead and follow. It’s totally cool to just do one. But whatever you or someone else chooses, aim to be excellent to each other.
That’s why I don’t like the idea in this post – Won’t Follow? Then We Won’t Dance. – that if a guy won’t follow, you shouldn’t dance with him at all. It is so not your place to judge if a bro asks you to dance, then doesn’t want to follow, but does want to lead.
In that piece, however, the author argues that they don’t want to dance with a particular type of guy – the yanky, rough, disrespectful lead. And their solution is to then ask them to follow instead. I’m actually ok with not wanting to dance with a yanky guy. That’s cool – I can dig that. But in that case, why not just say “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather not just now”? If you know that bro doesn’t want to follow, but does want to lead, why not answer the question he’s asking: “Do you want to follow while I lead?”
I mean, if a woman asks you to dance, but doesn’t want to follow, we should be cool with their decision not to follow. We don’t have to dance with them, but we don’t get to decide that they have to or should follow as well. That’s totally not our business. And it’s disrespectful to question someone’s choices about leading and following.
2. Knowing how to both lead and follow is fun. And it means you can dance with anyone.
3. Leading isn’t just ‘for men’ and following isn’t just ‘for women’. What someone chooses to dance isn’t really any of your business. So get over yourself.
4. Leading and following are different. Sure, there are some basic principles of biomechanics and things that are common to both, but they are different. Yes, good leads are receptive and responsive, but great leads lead. It’s not like following.
BUT if you want to be serious about your dancing, and really work to improve and push yourself:
1. You need to learn to solo dance. And I don’t mean just hippity hop or dancehall or African dance. I mean 1920s, 30s, 40s era solo dance. Tap is great. If you want to be a lindy hopper, you have to be able to dance alone. If you want to be a good lindy hopper, solo skills is a fundamental prerequisite. Because lindy hop requires the skills solo dance gives you: superior balance, core stability, independent mobility, a degree of improvisation.
2. You can be a brilliant, gifted lindy hopper and never do aerials. But you have to be able to dance alone, and dance well on your own.
3. You need to do some sort of other fitness/strength work. Pilates, yoga and other conditioning/stretching disciplines are really important. Chances are you’re learning some bad habits in your lindy hop (particularly if you do self-guided work), and these other sorts of practices help you become self-reflexive in your dance work. They also often have a much longer history of practice than modern day lindy hop, so their teachers and masters have mad skills.
4. Here’s where I get controversial. If you want to get really good at lindy hop, you’re going to have to decide whether you lead or follow, and then devote your attention to that.
Yes, they do have some similar traits, but they work in fundamentally different ways. Leads initiate momentum, follows maintain it. Leads plan out the steps and moves, follows make them happen. Both bring improvisation and rhythm and all that stuff. And each dance and partnership is independently negotiated by the partners. But leading and following are not the same.
And at some point, your dancing has to move to becoming unconscious responses as well as conscious decisions. And if you have a moment when you’re dancing, where your body/brain pauses and can’t decide whether it’s leading or following, or it decides to lead when you’re following (or vice versa), you won’t be dancing at your best. You will interrupt the partnership. And if you’re dancing fast (which lindy hoppers usually are – 140bpm is faster than modern dance music), you need quick responses.
I strongly believe that the best lindy hop happens when there is a clear leader and a clear follower. Yes, you can have lovely dances where you share the lead and follow, and it’s often not clear who’s leading and who’s following. Yes, that is good and fun. No, I don’t think it should be banned. I quite like it.
But if you are serious about getting really good at lindy hop, you need to have a clear division of roles. Particularly if you’re interested in the sort of dynamic lindy hopping that people like the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers or Dean Collins’ dancers did.
I believe that in each dance, I have an unspoken contract with my partner: I will lead or I will follow. I don’t care who does what, or if we swap half way through (or every phrase), but when I am leading, I am leading. And when I am following, I am following.
Because I have always found following creatively stifling, I now try to make my following quieter, and transfer all that pre-empting into my leading. I’m not hugely good at that, which is why I’m not (and probably won’t ever be) a brilliant follow. I’m just not that way inclined, temperamentally.
These days I’m quite strict about who leads or follows: I like to lead for a whole song or follow for a whole song. I don’t care which I do, but I like to see the thing out. A whole song has a pattern and a series of relationships at work, and I want to be a part of that in a consistent way.
When I’m feeling less strict, I like to keep to one role for at least the whole phrase.
…Now I feel like I’m being too anal. I won’t go nuts if we swap half way through. Sometimes that’s nice. But these days, I’d much prefer it if we danced two songs – me leading one, you leading the other. Unless you are a very good friend, and we have talked about this. Or you decide halfway through that you just can’t continue in the role you’re doing – in that case, we’re cool. We can swap.
There. I’ve just surprised myself with my own inflexibility.
But, really, what do you care what I think about this, unless you’re dancing with me?