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.

Lindy hop ‘rules’ I loathe

Jon T said on fb the other day:

Telling people hard and fast rules … just creates unnatural motion and stress

‘Rules’ in lindy hop create the idea that there are wrong and right ways to do things. My only class rules are ‘take care of the music, take care of your partner, take care of yourself.’

Here are some rules that came up in a discussion:

…follower should offer their hands to the leader if possible all time, since they can’t know, what comes next and when the leader needs this hand. Also not having elbow behind the body, cause this simply hurts.

I’ve heard this elbow rule repeated a zillion times over the past years. I suspect it came out of a class on sugar pushes that someone influential taught in the mid 2000s, and it’s just stuck in people’s brains, which they’ve then passed on in their classes when they started teaching.

I can think of a million points in lindy hop where my elbow goes behind my body: hand to hand charleston, tandem charleston, texas tommy, when I’m jazzing….

I’m also unsure of the ‘follows should offer their hand to the leader all the time’ rule.
Why? Sometimes I don’t want to stop jazzing.
Sometimes I have to scratch my arm while I’m dancing.
If a follow has jazzfeels, they may need their hand to express that. It’s all good.

…in our beginner classes we do a lot of telling leads to ‘not be afraid to be firm, give clear directions’ and follows to ‘help the leads learn to lead, by not doing the move for them, but really giving some resistance until the direction is clear’.

I’m a bit scared reading this directive to leads: ‘not be afraid to be firm, give clear directions’. If you’ve never danced before, ‘firm’ often translates to ‘omg that’s rough and you’re hurting me’ or ‘I am the boss’. There are also gendered associations at work here (eg a man being ‘firm’ with a recalcitrant woman). Nope.
If you are always working with the assumption that all leads are just invitations to do a particular shape, then ‘firmness’ isn’t helpful.
‘Clarity’ might be more useful. Or ‘purposeful’. I use phrases like ‘if you’d like your partner to do x rhythm, then you need to dance it as clearly and purposefully as you can, as though you are teaching a stranger a completely new thing you’ve just invented and want to share with them’.

I’m also a bit unsure of this: ‘help the leads learn to lead, by not doing the move for them, but really giving some resistance until the direction is clear’.

  1. It’s not a follow’s job to help a leader learn to lead. Yes, we are a team, but we are all responsible for our own bodies.
  2. What does ‘resistance’ mean to someone who’s never danced before? It could be translated as ‘fight the move’ or ‘resist’ or ‘don’t do it’. All troubling concepts in a teamwork environment. Maybe, if you extend that ‘invitation to dance’ idea, a follow dances and continues a rhythm or momentum or whatever they’re doing until the lead suggests something new. They suggest a new rhythm or direction or whatevs, and the follow decides whether to do it or go that way or not. Both are legit options.
  3. I find this conceptual framework deeply troubling. It sets up leading and following as antagonistic, whereas I much prefer the idea of us as a partnership, a team, sharing ideas, rather than executing steps perfectly.

…put a little weight in your partner’s hands…

I honestly have no idea what ‘put a little weight into your partner’s hands’ might mean. It sounds suspiciously like the ideas of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ follows, and who cares about that stuff. It’s rubbish.

…it’s def8natley important to explain to people when and how to collapse their frame if they feel they need to, for safety or comfort.

In principle I agree, but I’d never explain it like that. I often say to follows, “If a lead is holding you too tightly or you feel uncomfortable, or you’re just not into it, let go!” And I say to the leads, “If your partner lets go of your hand, _don’t try to keep hold of them!_ Let them go! Let them goooooo”.
And of course, the idea is that if a follow lets go, it’s because they don’t want to hold your hand. Or it slipped out of your hand. Or whatevs. Its a signal to you, so look at them, and see what they feel. Are they solo jazzing? Are they angry? Are they crying? What? Just ask them, and they’ll tell you.

The lesson for leads, here, is that they need to be ok with follows saying ‘no’ to physical contact, and that they need to pay attention to follows all the time. It’s not a one-way line of communication.

I think that follows are often told to maintain the physical contact _at all costs_, and this scares me.
If I’m going to get hurt, I eject! Get on out of there! It’s ok to just let go! It’s ok to step out of your partner’s arms. You might not be ready to say “Stop! I don’t like it!” but the best and simplest option when you’re worried a person might hurt you is to step out of physical contact. BOOM.

Honestly, the more I think about this line of thinking, the more upset I am.
I think we should teach leads and follows that discomfort, pain, or fear are _not_ something we should tolerate or hide. Leads: don’t be hurting people! Follows: don’t hide your pain to salve a lead’s pride!

Language is important: decolonising dance jargon

‘Gliding’* came up in a fb discussion about great things to teach brand new dancers.
Gliding is just moving around the dance floor in closed position without any particular rhythm, with or without music. In our classes, we want them to experiment with working with a partner in closed, with no pressure to perfect a rhythm or shape.

Gliding teaches them:
– closed partner connection
– floor craft
– the joy of being with a partner with no pressure to do a rhythm
– confidence to experiment on their own
– how to change direction (as a lead and/or follow).

In this discussion, there was a comment by someone using a lot of dance industry ‘jargon’. And a couple of words that I wasn’t entirely sure were being used correctly.

…or, more generously, were being used in ways I wasn’t sure I understood.

Anyhoo, I asked for clarification. And got some more jargon. Partly an ESL issue, but also partly… a confusing thing.

The biggest problem I had with this comment, was the author’s correcting our use of the word ‘gliding’:

…gliding is a modern subculture term, progressive ( in line of dance) would be the common teaching terminology.

I immediately felt very uncomfortable with this correction. Because Frankie Manning used the term ‘gliding’ to describe a more organic, natural movement about the floor (distinct from a very clear straight line). So I asked for clarification. And felt it was… massively patronising and also WRONGTOWN and full of some bullshit white elitist crap. So I figured I’d just ignore it, because life is too fucking short.

Luckily Damon Stone was feeling patient. I’m sorry I didn’t step in; it’s not cool to leave all this hard work to POC.
This is Damon’s great answer:

It feels like you are using te[rms] from one subculture of “ballroom” and applying to all other dances done in ballrooms.

The terminology of different American ballroom chains at one point differed from each other and there are still terminology differences between American and International ballroom studio associations.

When you compare both style technique, composition, and terminology between ballroom studios and the people who created the dances it isn’t uncommon to find slight to wild variations between those created by African American or Latinx peoples.

Progressive definitely implies line of dance, gliding doesn’t. Frankie definitely used the term in my lessons and classes with him to indicate dancing within a general space as opposed to on the spot or line of dance.

You absolutely could glide in line of dance and yes the earliest version of lindy hop appears to be rooted in a progressive structure but, in my experience, that was not how Frankie wanted it done.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using American or International ballroom terms of you get a lot of dancers with that background, if you teach in a that type of studio and how your lindy hoppers will also study that style of ballroom, but this dance also has a language developed by its own originating and innovating dancers, keeping that terminology in the dance is a great way to pass along parts of the culture.

I’d be super careful about correcting someone’s terminology if it can be traced to people who danced at the Savoy even if it was terminology they added to the dance well after the Savoy was torn down.

I did end up chiming in (of course I did). Paraphrasing Damon’s clever (and patient) comment, I added:

I want to emphasise this idea: if we use the language of the white-run and owned ballrooms and dance classes of the day (and now), instead of the language of black dancers who invented and owned this dance, then we are recreating and reinforcing white colonisation of black dance. An insidious sort of appropriation of black culture for white profit.

In more practical terms, a lot of the language and ‘technique’ of OGs who danced on crowded dance floors reflects the practicalities of a crazy packed dance floor. You have to behave like social creatures when you social dance.
An insistence on straight lines, slots, fixed figures, etc etc is often profoundly anti-social as ‘rules’ don’t account for crowds of humans with varying skills and attention. Not to mention actual live music.
I think that this is one of the most important parts of vernacular dance. It changes and improvises to account for the needs of real humans in social spaces <3 It _belongs_ to the people dancing it, not to a rule book and codified pedagogy. *Do a search for 'gliding' here in this blog and you'll find a bunch of posts.

Dealing with men who use classes to pick up

Men propositioning women in class, touching too much, touching inappropriately, and all that other gross harassment stuff sucks. But you can totally resolve this!

We always begin the ‘touching’ part of class (ie after warm ups, etc) by saying, ‘this is a partner dance. I’m the follow, x is the lead.’ Then we demo some lindy hop, and explain that the lead is suggesting a move/rhythm and the follow is deciding whether or not they’ll get on board and do it.
Then we say, “Now you need to choose: do you want to lead or follow. Make that choice. Next, we need to find a partner. Watch us do this thing”
And then we do the little ‘asking someone to dance role play’:
eg I approach pete, and say
S: “Hello, I’m Sam. Would you like to dance?”
P: “Hi. I’m Pete” (we offer each other hands and shake hands). “Yeah, sure. Do you prefer to lead or follow?”
S: “Following, ,please”
And then we move to join the circle.

Then we say, “Please find a partner and have that conversation.”

Then they do it. We let them take a bit of time to do this.

Things they learn here:

  • Don’t touch someone without knowing their name and asking them to dance (we repeat this MANY TIMES in class, verbally, and we teachers always ask permission before touching students in class).
  • Don’t assume someone leads or follows, ask instead.

All this stuff may scare off your Difficult Men. If not, there’s more!

Then we teachers get into the middle of the circle, gather them all reeeeeally close, and say something like “Now, we’re going to touch our partner.” And they all giggle. But we get into closed and say, “This is how we’d like you to hold your partner” (it helps if the follow says it). “Please observe us, then have a go.”

We don’t tell them to do anything, or say anything, we just demo it.
Ramona says: “The museum is open. Please come and have a good look.” If they don’t have it, you can say, “The museum is still open. Please come and look at the display again.”

They get into closed position
Then we say, “Because we’re all different sizes and shapes, we need to see if we have this comfortable for our partner.”
Then we do the ‘am I touching you right’ role play:

S:”Pete, is my left hand too far around your shoulder?” And Pete visibly thinks, then takes my hand and moves it, saying “I think it’s a bit too far around for me.” And I say “Cool, ta.”
Then Pete does the same.

Then, and this is KEY: You say “Please have this conversation with your partner.” And you leave them to talk about it and try it until you see them move into non-touching related talk. This is THE MOST important part – they really need to actually practice verbalising asking someone to change how they touch their bodies, and practicing responding to this. So don’t rush them. Intermediates will try to brush off their partner with ‘it’s fine’. Don’t allow them to do this; ask for real conversations.

After the first two or three times they rotate, we say, “Remember, each human is a different size and shape, so you need to figure out if the fit is right. Please check in with your partner.” And they have that conversation.

Anyway, all this skills up your students to:

  • ask permission to touch,
  • ask for feedback on how they’re touching someone,
  • actually practice giving that feedback (they are told explicitly that they can’t just say ‘yeah fine’. They have to stop, think, feel, then articulate their feels).
  • practice responding to feedback,
  • Think about the way their _whole bodies_ touch someone, not just their hands (we often drop this in when we’re talking about how follows are touching the leads with their backs).

This will skill up your women to deal with the too-touchy men, and it’ll train the men in how to touch respectfully.
You won’t need to police the students all the time. You can step in when they’re all dancing and experimenting for extra one-on-one comments, but mostly they police themselves and each other.

Best of all, the truly dodgy bros will get the shits and stop coming to class, because they can’t get away with any bullshit.

We do other follow up stuff in class to compound these skills:

  • eg when they finish practicing to music we say (Because we always see it): “I really liked it when one person in a couple got in a mess, said, ‘hey, can we start again?’ and both people stopped and grooved before starting again.”This emphasises what we _like_ and how they can handle these issues.
  • We might also say, “I saw some really nice, relaxed bodies. I could see people holding each other comfortably, and asking their partner if what they are doing is ok.”
  • I often say, “If you’re not sure if you’ve got it right, ask your partner – they’re a specialist in how their body works.”
  • The teachers often ask each other things like, “How did you know I wanted you to stop there?” as a way of modelling how to talk to each other, how to avoid ‘leader first’ language (so we ask the follow how they knew, which requires follows think actively about what they’re doing, not ‘just following’, etc etc).

I think using positive language (telling them what you liked) is better than ranting at them about what not to do. Because you’re just repeating the bad stuff and that’s all they’ll remember. So just repeat the good stuff. We also add in ways follows can eject from dances or moves if they don’t like it, and how leads should respond (let the follow gooo, let her gooooo).

Moving away from gender essentialism in teaching talk

In a recent facebook talk about teaching and gender in lindy hop we took the next few steps past not using gendered pronouns to describe leading and following. We then went on to look at how people gender particular dance styles or movements in essentialist ways.
Here are some comments from that discussion.

I’ve had teachers ostensibly ok with non-binary/non-bro peeps leading, then unable to even look at me when we split into lead/follow groups in class.
But there are definitely teachers around who are good at dealing with their own errors and then fixing them. eg Georgia and Kieran.
I am definitely on board with the goals of uncoupling leading and following from gendered archetypes. I’m personally not interested in switching roles mid-dance, but I do lead and follow, and think of the two roles as functioning in very different ways.

I was interested at a recent weekend workshop to hear/see Kieran talking about ‘attacking’ a rhythm to make the lead/follow element work. This is often a word associated with masculine archetypes. But he was asking leads _and_ follows to try this. Which effectively asks all peeps to try on this masculinised characteristic, ‘even’ while following. Which then reconstructs following as involving stuff outside archetypal femininity.
Even more interestingly, Georgia asked us at later point while we were playing a game where you copy your partner’smovements/rhythms without touching, to ‘not hesitate’. She asked not to pause and worry about being right, but to continue through.
Same concept as with Kieran’s comments, but different language: confidence, continuing despite lacking certainty. This is particularly important for women, who are trained to self-doubt or try desperately to ‘please’ their partner.

I think this approach – describing one skill in a range of ways – helps deconstruct the gender norms at work in our ideas about leading and following.

And I think ethnicity and class are key in this. Eg white, m/c, younger women are trained to self-doubt and not ‘attack’ movements. So we might also look at the dancing of Anne whatsit from Whitey’s as an example of a woman who really attacked rhythms.

Alex asked:

Have you seen the opposite? Teachers asking all students to try on feminized characteristics? With anything like the same frequency? I’m not sure I’ve ever considered this topic in this context, but I’m aware of the phenomenon of attempting to address gender inequity simply by offering masculinity to women and girls but not doing the same with femininity and men and boys.

And I replied:

yerp, marie n’diaye talked sbout it explicitly in the chirus line stream at herrang last year: asking people try ‘masc’ and ‘fem’ styling.

Other than Marie, nope. I know lots of men/non-woman-IDing peeps who dance femme, but no teachers asking all students to try.
Ask men to dance femme? Their penises would fall off, right?

Alex then made some more really good points:

And I guess that wasn’t quite what I was asking. If I understand correctly, the teacher you referenced above didn’t ask students explicitly to try something masculine, but he asked students to attack the rhythm and you picked up on the gender association. My guess is that it’s more common for teachers to ask students to so things or adopt characteristics associated with masculinity (attack the rhythm, be assertive, take over) than it is to ask them explicitly to “do this masc.” So I’m wondering about the presence and frequency of calls for students to take on feminine characteristics or engage in feminine activities, rather than being asked to “do this femme.”

Now that I’m thinking of it (and talking with Samantha) we do this a little. Telling our students to pretend that their partner is a terrified newbie and to take care of them is an example. I’d like to think about this more and see where else we can do this. For instance, I see plenty of people attack the rhythm. I’d like to see them treat it gentle more. Nurture the rhythm.

And like… How far can we take this? Gestate the dance. We’re just out of the intro, if you try to birth it now it won’t make it. And don’t feel like it needs to be big. You’ll tear.

Then Magnus chimed in with a good comment:

Yes, Marie N’diaye showed us examples of dancing “feminine” and “masculine”, and we tried dancing the different styles. She also talked about how some famous dancers back in the day would dance feminine or masculine opposite of gender, although they wouldn’t call it that (Cab Calloway for instance).

To me, I don’t connect these styles with feminine or masculine, these words are just cultural constructs. But it feels good to dance in a style that some people may deem feminine.

I think this is what’s key for me: these characteristics are just characteristics or qualities. They only become ‘masculinised’ or ‘feminised’ in a wester cultural setting that uses gender binaries.
I keep thinking about other cultures where there are more than two gender roles, and how these variations offer us so much more creative room than a boring old gender binary.

I also agree, Alex, that we tend to see masculinised qualities prioritised/valued in an anglo-celtic western culture. That’s pretty much the definition of patriarchy right there.

Other ways of describing stuff that isn’t masculinised that I’ve heard teachers used:

  • Lennart has described having clear rhythm as ‘eating the rhythm’. With our students, we say “eat the rhythm, swallow it down, and now it is in your belly, right in your belly.” It’s a very useful image, because it also encourages groundedness, a physical vs cerebral understanding of rhythm, an idea that the core/our pelvis is the birthplace of rhythm (how’s that for gynocentrism? :D ) and is just nice.
  • Rikard and Jenny and peeps like Ramona talk about it as ‘taking care of the rhythm’, and Lennart talks about ‘taking care of the music’. I like to say ‘make friends with the music’ and ‘take care of the rhythm’. This idea of ‘taking care’ and congeniality is really nice because it’s a nice contrast to that ‘attack the rhythm’ model. _But_ the attack the rhythm image does give you an impetus and energy that ‘take care’ does not.
  • I like to talk about dancing every rhythm or every step as though I’m teaching it to my partner, or demonstrating it so well that they can pick it up and then dance/steal it too. This of course grew from my own teaching guiding my dance practice, but we found games like i-go, you-go reinforced this model. If you are dancing as clearly as you can, as though you are showing someone, you dance really clearly, _and_ you connect with a partner. This makes dancing a way of connecting with a human (reciprocity) rather than just artistic self-expression (individualism).

I’d be super curious and really excited to see how people from different cultures describe and imagine dancing clear rhythms. I mean, the whole shift from ‘doing footwork’ or ‘good technique’ or ‘clarity of movement’ TO talk about rhythm, call-and-response, etc etc, in American/Anglo/Australian/Canadian lindy hop discourse is evidence of a clear ideological shift. A shift away from a very antiseptic lindy-as-science, towards lindy-as-art, lindy-as-social-connection. I know that it’s very tempting to see this shift as proof of a shift towards positioning lindy hop as vernacular dance (again), but I’m not convinced. All this _talk_ about dancing in class is simply another way of doing what middle class, white capitalism has been doing with dance for a century or more: commodifying dance with particular words and discourse.