Leading, following, and their relationship to the beat

Ok, so I’ve been thinking about the way leads and follows relate to timing and tempo. I’m not entirely sure what I know, and what’s accurate, because I’m still working my way through this stuff.

I have big problems with the insistence in some quarters that leading and following are interchangeable. They’re not; they’re very different. Not just because one of you leads and one of you follows. At first I thought it was because the lead had to ‘be more confident’ and initiate stuff (which we tend to associate with hegemonic masculinity). But now I don’t think that’s quite it. I have found that the biggest difference between leading and following, for me, is about my relationship to the beat. And this is why I am finding it harder and harder to switch between leading and following these days: I have to consciously change my relationship to the beat. I’m getting better at this (especially since starting tap), but I’m definitely not there yet.

I think that leads are closer to the beat, and follows swing a little more. They’re further behind the beat. Not just because of physics (ie leads ‘go first’ so they are closer to the beat, and follows physically a moment behind). But because of the way this makes us feel when we dance to swinging jazz.

I can’t remember the reference, but I’m pretty sure I read in Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era, about the different parts of a big band having different relationships to the beat. I think that we also addressed it in a session with a band a couple of years ago. The rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, guitar) all have slightly different relationships to the beat, and it’s the way each of them work together that then makes for this lovely complicated network that makes dancing so much fun. And so interesting. It’s not just that everyone is sitting way deep in the pocket. It’s that some people in the band are a little deeper than others, and this relationship – an almost-tension – is what makes the music feel so good.

Anyhoo, a drummer friend Andrew Dickeson linked up Ethan Iverson’s blog post The Drum Thing, or, A Brief History of Whiplash, or, “I’m Generalizing Here” on facebook recently, and it caught my attention. I don’t think it’s the most coherent or awesome of pieces, but it did ping my radar a little. So I wrote a long comment there, which I’m going to copy here:

I’ve been thinking about this article a bit.

Tuesday night in tap with Ryan we did this exercise where we tapped a rhythm straight, then swung it. The straight version was very stressful, because it feels like you’re rushing and there’s less time to move your body.
On Sunday at the Unity Hall Jazz Band gig, I danced to a nice swinging, yet faster, song with a lead who was rushing the beat, and it made the dance stressy because we didn’t have time to get through movements. I was following, and follows typically lag a little more than the lead. I found that the lead was cutting me off before I could finish my rhythms or movements, and this was stressy, and difficult, because I never quite had enough time to move from point A to point B, because he was starting the new move before I’d finished the last one.

Last night in class, Alice and I were looking at how slight changes in our posture, and covering less ground affected our timing and ability to dance faster. If covering more distance = using more time*, then it’s harder to dance fast if you try to cover more ground (ie move too far away from each other). So we were working on staying closer together, but with a free-er, less controlling lead**. So the follow had more time to complete her movements. If the lead (that was me) swings more – ie doesn’t rush the beat – then the follow, who sits naturally a bit further behind again has more time to finish things, and the whole dance looks and feels really relaxed. Hence the ‘swing’ in lindy hop. Or, in african dance terms, you get a ‘cool’ body with ‘hot’ legs (ie chilled, relaxed upper body, and energised legs and feet).

Anyhoo, we were testing stuff out with different songs. Because I’m still crushing on that Lester Young Mosaic set and listening to lots of Basie, we started with ‘Feedin the Bean‘ (Basie 1941, 180bpm). It feels really relaxed, and felt super easy to dance to. As a DJ, I often use this song when I want to build energy for a faster, more exciting follow up song.
Then we moved to ‘Pound Cake’ (Basie 1939, 186bpm). It feels similarly chillaxed and not fast at all. Then we tried ‘Lopin” (Basie 1947, 190bpm). It has a more exciting, energetic feel, so it feels faster.

The point is, these are only incremental changes in tempo, but when you dance fast, you need to relax your upper body so you can move faster. If the rhythm section is pushing pushing pushing the beat, you feel as though you have less time to move, so it’s stressier, and you tense up. If the lead is too close to the beat, and stressing, pushing the beat, the follow doesn’t have time to get shit done, and complete their rhythms nicely. The syncopated triple steps that are central to lindy hop just get flattened out. And that just makes a mess of the whole thing. It feels yuck.***

Anyhoo, we noticed that the chillaxed drumming was really important. The base gives you the tempo, but a chillaxed drummer takes the edge off, so you can make it swing.

When I DJ, I find this ‘feel’ or energy in the room is what I’m manipulating with song choices. I might move the tempos up and down, but I want to move the energy up and down too: I think of it as working the ‘feels’, and it’s about the way everyone in the room is sharing feelings. I don’t know why humans do this, but when I read the quote from Ellington in this article, it just articulated what it’s like when the room is ‘warmed up’ (that’s how I think of it – when I DJ or lead a class, I need to ‘warm up’ the room before we start going hard):

Sonny Greer and I were real tight buddies and, naturally, night creatures. Our first night out in New York we got all dressed up and went down to the Capitol Palace…

My first impression of The Lion – even before I saw him – was the thing I felt as I walked down those steps. A strange thing. A square-type fellow might say, “This joint is jumping,” but to those who become acclimatized – the tempo was the lope – actually everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo The Lion’s group was laying down. The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly – one of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had. The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out, or around the place walked with a beat.

Anyhoo, thanks for linking up this article, Andrew. It’s been rolling around in my head since I read it, and really joining up some dots for me.

*This is why the lead taking a huge rock step on 1-2 of a swing out is an issue. It extends the first 2 counts of that move, and changes the emphasis of the rhythm. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, we change rhythms all the time. But if you do it on every rock step of every move, you change the entire rhythm of the dance. It also means you take up lots of room on the floor, and you feel you like have to RUN to get to the end of the movement, as you’ve ‘used up’ a lot of time at the beginning. For the follow, it means that you have to take an enormous first step which throws off your balance and timing. If you want to dance fast, you’re really going to struggle, because there’s less time for each step, and the follow has to cover more ground in less time. It also means you won’t be emphasising the rotational part of a swing out (the 3-and-4), which means you won’t be getting that centrifugal force that you need to then sling shot back out again into open.

In dancing, distance = time. So you have to take that into account when you’re dancing to a specific tempo. It’s especially interesting when you’re looking at air steps, where gravity is a constant (ie it always takes the same amount of time to fall), and you have to take that into account when you’re timing a landing. This really struck me watching this video about the physics of Simone Biles’ turns. She adjusts her rotation and timing just by moving one hand against her body!

**By ‘freer, less controlling lead’, I mean a few things. First, that the lead doesn’t ‘steer’ the follow out of closed using their left hand. They just step back and out of the way, dropping that hand immediately so the follow can ping out of closed position, choosing their own speed, direction, and rhythm.
Secondly, the lead lets go on 5 of a swing out, so the follow can come out sideways rather than always coming out backwards. Follows who are always let go later and always asked to come out backwards tend to habitually turn themselves to come out backwards. Ain’t nothing wrong with coming out backwards. But if a follow always turns themselves to come out backwards, rather than having variations in directions, we have an issue. Even more importantly, taking time to turn your body 90* takes time and energy away from booming out of closed like a gun, or rocking out like a rhythmic jazz superstar.

But more important than the direction a follow comes out of closed, is the fact that by letting go earlier, the lead gives the follow more physical freedom, earlier. The longer I touch the follow, and keep that back connection, the longer she has to pay attention and respond to me and that connection. Well, she doesn’t have to. But by letting go, I’m making it super clear that she can do as she likes, and is 100% responsible for direction, timing, angle, etc. Experimenting as a follow, I also found that letting go earlier means that the follow needn’t go as far away from the lead. They can choose to reach the ‘end’ of the swing out earlier, and turn and be ready to come back in again earlier. They don’t have to end earlier, but they can.

I hope I’m making it clear, here, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. But if we always do things one way, then there’s an issue. We… well, I aim for flexibility and mindfulness. I want to make conscious choices about the way my body moves, so that I am mindfully responding to the music and absolutely present with each partner, rather than just dancing by rote. Because dancing by rote is boring and limited. And dancing mindfully with each partner makes dancing with everyone much more interesting.

I am suspecting that insisting a follow goes really far away into open (ie covering a lot of distance) + the larger rock step by the lead on 1-2 = changing the rhythmic emphases of the swing out. Instead of being a constant state of motion, the swing out becomes two extreme stretches in long, straight lines, with a tiny bit of rushed rotation in closed in the middle. I’d prefer my swing outs to have constant energy throughout, so that I’m not dividing the music up into blocks of 8 counts so aggressively. I want my swing outs (or moves) to just be different shapes put on top of rhythmic movement across the floor, where the emphasis can vary, and the rhythms are functional as well as fun. ie the triple step, with its added step, is not just rhythmically interesting, it also gives you an extra step to travel further, or to turn or to ground yourself as you rotate at speed.
And, to sum up this digression, if you give the follow more time in open, or with a less demanding, less intense connection, you give them more independence. This means that they a) bring their rhythmic wonderment, and b) pay more attention to you, because they don’t feel like they’re waiting for the rare chance to bring their shit; they know you’ll give them plenty of time, and that you’ll be working together, with their hot shit integrated into the dance, rather than slotted in as a separate ‘gap’ in the lead’s predetermined pattern.

***Or you change your basic steps, replacing the triple step with a kick. If you check out very early lindy hop, you see more kicking than triple steps, because the music had that more vertical feel. It feels super exciting, because it does push a little bit more, but it doesn’t make you triple step or swing out the same way. It’s not about tempo (ie speed), but about the relationship to the beat each musician holds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *