What does it mean to be a ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ follow? No, seriously, what does it mean?

I’m getting pretty curious about how these ideas and words circulate.

I haven’t heard a decent international teacher use the idea of ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ follows in years. But I still hear it at a local level.
This makes me think that either local teachers aren’t updating their learns regularly by taking classes/workshops (for whatever reasons – cost, time, inclination, etc), or those mid-level traveling teachers who do a _lot_ of teaching are still using the term and concept.

Anyways, now I’m starting to think about these quick-fix jargon type words (frame, light/heavy follows, compression, extension, etc), I’m wondering what people really mean when they use these terms.
It doesn’t seem to be used in reference to leads, which immediately makes me suspicious.

There seems to be this persistent myth that follows are 90% responsible for connection, which is then related to the idea that a good follow ‘just follows’, which suggests that following is magical unicorn trait. That tied to this inexplicable ‘heavy/light’ thing suggests some scary stuff about body size/weight and gender.

To turn it back into a teaching issue, how exactly does using this term and concept help people learn to dance?
What exactly are teachers trying to communicate to their students when they use this language?
I mean this as an honest question.

What is the difference between a ‘light’ follow and a ‘heavy’ follow?
The former responds really quickly to a lead, with no delay? The latter takes longer to respond? If this is the case, then how do we account for a follow takes the ‘right’ amount of time (eg 8 counts)? And then, how is this time measured?

Is it about time?
It really feels as though this idea of light/heavy follows is about response time. And this idea of ‘response time’ is separated from the idea of ‘time’ in a rhythmic/musical sense. A beat is a beat is a beat. The band sets the ‘time’, and if a follow is keeping that time, then they are always ‘in time’ and never ‘too late’ or ‘too early’…

Unless it’s all about responding to the lead. In this case, then it’s not that follow is too late or too early, but that the follow is not keeping the same time as the lead. This is a) bullshitly control stuff, or b) both partners neglecting the music, because we both have a responsibility to take care of the music.

Or is it about weight, mass?
But if it’s not about time, then is it about actual physical weight? That seems weird, because as a fat chick, I can easily make my hand float in my lead’s hand to ‘feel light’. It has nothing to do with my physical body weight.
Even so, I don’t think that the actual weight of a hand (or a body) is the issue, as we aren’t dead weights, we are active bodies, moving ourselves. Unless leads are asking follows to be dead weights physically wrenched around the floor. But that’s dumb.

Or is it about touching someone?
So perhaps it’s meant to be a way of talking about connection, in the physical and emotional sense? ie the difference between a limp hand that’s just being held by someone else, or a situation where two people are actively holding each others’ hands?

I’m down with that final scenario: when we dance with someone, we _both_ hold each others’ hands, and we both hold each other in our arms. Including follows. We are actively present with our partner. We are here, now.
But even here, we have moments when we aren’t 100% on. When we’re tired, or laughing too much to stand up properly, or when we’re holding our loved one, or … etc etc etc.

Can we just throw this term out the window?
Again, I think that I’m most interested in the idea of partnership as active, responsive, ever-changing, mutable. A ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ partner sounds like a fixed state. I don’t want to be a static or fixed state. I want my partner to know how I feel all the time, and vice versa. Because this is communication, not a leader giving follows directions.

Gendered language in class

I’m ok with talking about gender and using gendered pronouns in class. I just like to be sure I’m not just using the same two boring pronouns all the time, and that I’m using people’s preferred pronouns.

I’m not ok with gendering leading and following, or skills related to leading and following.

This is partly why I’m not ok with some elements of the ambidance movement: I don’t want to do away with all gender.
But I do want to do away with the essentialist coupling of skills and ideas with two gender ‘norms’.

How then do I work to deconstruct gender in lindy hop when I’m teaching?

1. Use the words ‘leads’ and ‘follows’ (or the role name, and I’m with Dan when it comes to avoiding leader/follower) rather than ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘men and women’, ‘she/her/he/him’ etc etc.

2. Use people’s actual names rather than the role. It’s nicer generally, but it also encourages us to think of people as individuals, not roles. I try to use my teaching partner’s name.

3. Rather than talking about or around your teaching partner (eg “The follow will do this,”) speak to your teaching partner, asking them to describe what they’re doing (eg “How do you know I’m asking you to move forward, Alice?”).

Then there are trickier, less obvious things.
1. Always ask permission before you touch someone. It’s quite common for leaders to simply ‘grab’ a follow in class/their partner to demonstrate on them as though they were an object. I always try to ask them if I can touch/demonstrate. And I always apologise if I’ve just thoughtlessly grabbed them.
I started doing this after we started asking students to always introduce themselves and ask someone to dance before touching a new partner. It rubbed off on me :D
This stops us treating our partners like objects/just ‘the follower’. And this issue happens more with leaders grabbing follows than vice versa.

2. Conceptualising lindy hop as something other than ‘leader says, follow does’.
We are currently using ‘call and response’ and both partners can do it. We also use ‘leader invites follow to do X, follow decides whether to do X, how fast to do X,’ etc etc etc.

3. Don’t use words that position follows as objects.
eg never using words like ‘push’ to describe what leads do: ‘the leader pushes the follow’. No. This a) not technically accurate, and b) disrespectful.

4. Always try to talk about and think about your partner as a human with feelings and emotions.
When we get really technical, it’s easy to reduce our partner to an object force/momentum happens to, or a subject who generates force/momentum. We are real people with real feelings. So while physics is at work, our feelings and emotions are much more important. So we use language that describes what’s happening from that POV first. In nerd terms, this means using ‘external cues’ rather than ‘internal cues’.
eg. I ask Alice if she’d like to go to the snack table, then I take her hand and go with her to the snack table. vs ‘I hold her hand with my fingers in X position, then I engage my core, prepare, and then lift my left foot, swing it back 20*, place it back behind me, and then she engages her core and activates her frame…..’
The technical jargon encourages us to talk about our bodies and partners as technical objects, not as real live humans. It also slows down learning :D

5. Speak and act as though your partner and other dancers have opinions, and that these opinions may differ from yours.
We often try to hide the way we ‘make the sausages’, but it’s more useful for learners to see us discuss things, perhaps disagree, share different ideas. So ask your partner and students what they think and feel. Allow yourself to learn from your students and be surprised and delighted by this new information.

-> all this stuff is about deconstructing not just a gender binary, but a hierarchy of gendered power with straight white bro at the top.

And what of historical accuracy in all this?
I think it’s important to talk about gender in a historical context when we talk about lindy hop. So while a gender neutral pronoun is very much something white, middle class Australian teachers are experimenting with, that’s not how black dancers might have spoken of each other in the 30s.

Again, though, I like to take care about generalising. While some dancers today would have us believe that the 30s were a time of rigid gender norms, that’s not entirely true:
– There were women leads and men follows (and every gender ID ever) in the olden days,
– There were queer dancers and musicians (I’m currently reading about queer culture in NY in the 20s-40s… helllooooo genderflex ID and jazz dance!) and genderflex lindy hoppers fucking up the patriarchy then. Lester Young, anyone?
– Some of the most supportive teachers I’ve had have been black OGs, who’ve used gender neutral language and openly said they support women leads/male follows/genderflex dance IDs.

So when we talk about ‘ungendering’ lindy hop, that’s perhaps not helpful. It’s more that I want to widen my understanding of gender (and sexuality) in dance to more than just straight men leading and straight women following. The world is huge, and jazz asks us to improvise and innovate.

I have written about this many times before:

Class ‘content’

We’ve just finished a six week long beginner lindy hop block. This whole block could be summarised in one hour (as we did tonight) with the below points. If I had time, I’d also list the specific class plans we had for each individual class.

Specific dance stuff:
– gliding (dancing in closed with no particular rhythm), aka floor craft, partnering, leading and following, comfortable closed position, finding 1, stopping and starting independently;
– circles, aka a specific rhythm (which someone pointed out tonight is 2 x 4 counts) with a specific direction and shape – leads leading and follows following, efficient and deliberate movement through space, being able to choose a smaller step size, etc;
– swinging out from closed position, aka knowing where ‘halfway’ is in a circle (on count 5 or after the triple step), continuing rhythm, leading with your body and the physics of rotation, understanding how far to go away from your partner;
– jazzing in open, then re-starting again, aka keeping time and changing between a single time rhythm and a step step triple step rhythm, leading in from open using your body, following in from open;
– using rotation again to ‘catch’ the follow, making contact with your body to follow the lead;
– combining the two to make an open to open swing out, with or without time jazzing in open, aka hearing 8s, phrases, keeping time, swinging time, etc, improvising, changing rhythms;
– charleston on your own (and using the groove to transition between the two);
– moving from a circle into side by side charleston then out again (using the groove to keep time, knowing when to change, using your body to change direction and suggest a change in rhythm, recognising changes in your lead’s body movement, maintaining a rhythm until it changes);
– the kick through in side by side charleston (how to lead by moving your own body – kicking in and out, pivoting on one foot, pivoting on one foot and turning, a new charleston rhythm, etc etc)
– leading the whole group in a big apple, in turn (hearing the phrase, knowing how to prepare for, then pass the turn to your neighbour, knowing how to pass without stressing, understanding how to lead a move successfully for a group, etc)!
– moving through space (rotating partners!)
– swivels, boogie back and forward, itches, push it, push it out, etc, rocking, and many other jazz steps.

Learning skills:
– learning-by-watching;
– working with a partner;
– dealing with not getting it right first time (aka patience and perseverance);
– i-go you-go learning style in pairs and in groups;
– sticking with a task (no matter how ‘simple’) and refining it;
– working with a range of partners of different abilities, and finding the fun;
– knowing how to stop, chillax and find the groove, then restart and start dancing again with many different partners (esp after ‘making a mess’);
– working on a problem or challenge before asking for help (independent and team problem solving);

Social skills:
– how to ask for a dance, how to accept one, how to introduce yourself;
– how to ask a partner how to change how they’re touching you, how to accept that comment from a partner;
– stopping, then chillaxing, then restarting with a partner to manage stress or making mistakes;
– staying calm and cheery under pressure, and accepting challenges and obstacles as a useful part of learning, without getting angry or anti-social;
– respecting partners’ bodies, and when they ask to stop, change, or adjust a physical contact;

Musical skills:
– finding the beat;
– swinging the beat;
– finding the 1;
– finding the 8;
– accenting 2, 4, 6, 8 (as in boogie back);
– difference between 20s and 40s jazz and how it affects charleston emphasis;
– finding a phrase (consciously and also implicitly);
– recognising a 12 bar blues and 32 bar chorus format;
– finding the right place to start in the music, then getting started and dancing;
– moving between different rhythms (single time, half time, step step triple step, charleston, a range of other rhythms) in partners and alone as solo dancers, and also as solo dancers with a partner;
– being able to recognise, retain, then repeat a given rhythm (as in I-go, you-go);
– being able to transfer a rhythm from clapping to different parts of the foot, to stepping, to physical movement through space.

They learnt so much!
I’m also happy that I’ve learnt how to rethink a class and course structure. I used to teaching thinking ‘ok, what moves will we teach’, and now I can think ‘ok, what skills do we want’, then develop a class that fosters these skills implicitly (rather than through lots of talking). But still uses and shares historic vocabulary and musical knowledge.

Teaching: follows’ skills

Someone asked in the teaching group this week:

Planning a workshop focused on follow mechanics. What skills do you think separate great follows from good follows, and how would you train those skills?

There were some interesting comments from people asking if there would be leaders in the class (yes), a male lead chimed in to say how much he learnt as a lead participating in this type of workshop, and there was general chat about how to run this sort of thing. All fascinating.

Me I tend to feel that leaders and follows have very similar goals and skills. I do think of leading and following as very distinct roles within the partnership, though. Leaders have the map, the follow is driving the rally car. The leader points out a side road ahead, the follow decides whether to turn, how fast to turn, whether to u-turn etc. An approach I learnt from Jenny and Rikard. So my response below reflects this.
I also see this question as a consequence of a general push in lindy hop teaching to address follows more directly in class.

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Things I might look at with follows:
“You are responsible for carrying the beat, and for maintaining your own rhythm. Don’t sacrifice that for the lead.”
This means that you take the steps and move across the floor in a way that feels like the music, and is also a choice. So not always reacting to the lead, but completing each movement, giving each piece of the rhythm the right amount of time, whether it’s a quick weight change or a slow one, a tap or a jump or whatever.

“Know what you are doing.”
This might not be a conscious brain thing, but your body should be making confident choices about your movements. I _choose_ to echo my lead, to synch with them, to add something new. Just as I _choose_ to echo the music, synch with it, or add something new.
This is about being PRESENT in the dance. I am right there in the moment, in my partner’s arms. I’m not predicting the next step. I’m there, with them. Emotionally, physically, rhythmically.

“Both partners find a shared sense of groove.”
This means that it’s not the follow’s job to just ‘match’ the lead. It’s both partners’ responsibility to listen, express their groove (ie dance, not just ‘wait’) and find a nice ‘connection’ (both physical and social – communicative). I think of it as ‘taking the measure’ of a partner before you start to do moves.

“If leads call the rhythm, follows respond.”
In the first few steps of the dance, a leader might ‘call’ step step triple step, or step-step kick step, kick kick-step with their bodies: swing out or charleston. As a follow, I respond to this. I might (as I describe it), listen for a second, and then say “ok, yep, I’m on board with this” and then pick up that rhythm. I hold that rhythm until the lead suggests a change. eg I hold down that step step triple step until the lead suggests a new one ( eg step-step kick step, kick kick-step).
I think of that as the first sort of ‘finding consensus’ part of a dance. As a follow, I say with my connection and facial expression, “Ok, I’m paying attention. Where would you like to start?” and then we do that rhythm together. It’s like the lead lays down a time step, and I get on board and do it too. Until we change it up.
From here, as the music changes, and I get the measure of my partner, I may add in rhythms – ‘call’ a rhythm. The lead can ‘get on board’ by joining in, or by listening, or by holding down that time step/basic rhythm while I improvise on top. It’s all good. But the the type of relationship you have with that partner depends on who you are as people, what the music says, how you feel, etc etc.
So as a follow, you pay attention to how the lead is feeling about all this.

-> As a lead, I don’t want the follow to just copy everything I do, and try to synchronise with me. It makes me a bit sad (and frustrated, really), as a lead when a follow apologises for ‘not getting it’. It’s ok. If we’re together in our embrace, we can do completely different stuff below the waist.

“The follow’s feet are their own business.”
As a lead, I don’t try to tell the follow how to get from point A to point B. I do NOT demand they synch up with me perfectly like I’m the boss. NO.
I might suggest the speed and direction, but they choose whether to maintain that, change it, do something completely different. Because I expect this active response from the follow, I have to pay lots of attention: with my eyes and my body.

“Take care of your body.”
If it hurts, let go. Stop. A lead who clenches your hand when you’re trying to let go is bad news. Leads: if a follow wants to let go of your hand – “Let it go, let it goooooo!”
You want a nice, natural posture with a neutral spine and engaged pelvic floor as default. Don’t ‘stand up straight’ or ‘squat’ or whatever as default. Your natural resting position should be whatever feel right for that dance with that partner. That first moment in closed, hearing that song will tell you what you need to be safe and ready. From here you can adjust or engage or disengage muscles as needed. You don’t have a ‘frame’, you have a lovely system of muscles and veins and bones and things, that you use in lots of different ways to respond to lots of different signals in the music and your partner.
So you want to be able to choose what to do when, not default to something out of panic or habit. So being mindful of your own body, and really present, is really important.

-> learn to read the signs. Sore shoulders? You may be tensing up in your upper body. So soften your knees, think about your pelvic floor, let your arms swing, maybe reorient to your partner from squared up to 3/4 profile (or whatever). See how that feels now. One sore knee? You might be overusing that leg, so perhaps make sure that the other leg is being placed on the ground clearly and with purpose.

etc etc etc. Basically, observe, accept, be ok and safe.

“Check in with your partner”
Visually – look at them! How do they feel? Are they smiling?
Physically – do they feel ‘on’ all of a sudden? Are they relaxing in their muscles? etc etc
-> use your observation skills. Don’t worry about the next ten beats, be right there in this beat, with this person.

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