It is very easy for teachers to fall into the leader trap. Very often, it makes the most sense for many movements to teach the leads the structure, and then have the followers just “follow along”. But, this has unintended consequences.
For example, the lack of follow-centric teaching in many classes causes followers to feel disillusioned with the learning process because they feel like a prop. It can also reinforce the idea that following is “easy”, and always the result of the leader’s quality. And, it stunts the ability for follows to have a conscious understanding of why, when, and how to do their part of the dance.
With that in mind, here are five easy ways that any teacher can bring the follower role to the same level of prominence in class as the leaders – and two bonus ways to enhance the experience for both leads and follows.
1 – Say “Leaders and Followers” when teaching widely applicable technique
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard teachers explain a concept for the leads – and, at the very end, throw in “followers do basically the same thing.” If that is the case, direct the instruction to both roles. This turns the follows’ minds to the material, which can make them feel like this is something important for them to learn too. Otherwise, you’ll often spend however long teaching the material to a room with checked-out follows, only to belatedly include them after the learning opportunity has passed. It also makes the follows feel like their instruction on the element was an afterthought rather than a planned feature.
Even if one role is a mirror of the other, you can say something along the lines of “both leaders and followers need to know this, even though you’ll be doing it [in opposite directions/on opposite sides]”.
2 – Consider what aspect of the movement to teach first
Some movements actually work better when the follower learns their aspect first. For example, I teach Zouk simple turns with the leaders “following” the trajectory of the follower’s properly-placed arm first before explaining how it is led.
While this may not be the best approach to all movements, switching the order of instruction to feature a follow-centric movement first can help balance the focus of the class and highlight the technical requirements of the follower role.
3 – Avoid inference-based follow instruction
Many teachers teach a proposal-based style of movement. For example, explaining a movement as “Leaders, to make the follow move, you need to do ___ to them”. This is not inherently wrong, but it needs to be followed up with a second part: “Follows, when you feel ___, this is what you need to do to respond properly to it.”
For example, do they need to step further into the movement? Create a delay? Engage/relax a certain part of the body? Keep their body stacked? Basically, explicitly tell them what they are responsible for to make the movement happen – and make sure it’s a focus, not an afterthought.
If you forget that explicit instruction, it becomes inference-based follow instruction. This means that you, as a teacher, are requiring the followers to fill in their side of the teaching on their own, rather than providing the instructions relative to the execution of their role.
A bonus effect: if you get used to explaining to followers how to react, you’ll end up with students who can proactively troubleshoot when a movement is not working much earlier because they understand what they need to do within the follower role to make it happen. And, many leads start to develop an awareness that the follow has to contribute something specific, which means that more force is not the answer.
4 – Give followers troubleshooting advice
More teachers are becoming aware of the importance of teaching leaders how to safely manage/navigate the needs of various follows. For example, how/when to close hold, signs of discomfort, etc. But, not as many teachers provide instruction on what followers can consciously do to manage a dance. This includes everything to how to work with common leader errors, to managing rough or uncomfortable leaders.
For example, how does a follow make a decision on whether to follow a less-than-ideal lead, and how can they make it comfortable? How can they protect themselves from injury in a worst-case scenario? What are some of the things they will feel, and how can they real-time troubleshoot these to create a better dance? All of these things are things that a follow needs to learn how to manage for a social dance environment.
5 – Push follow technicality
If you have a simpler pattern that follows have learned before, don’t let it turn into leaders learning something and follows mindlessly repeating. Instead, focus the follows on specific things they need to improve – for example, weight transfer, posture, alignment, engagement, spotting, etc.
It doesn’t matter how simple the pattern or how good the followers are. You need to give them something to focus or work on to avoid the follows-as-props-for-learning-leads dynamic.
Bonus 1 – Ask followers (and leaders) questions
I pop-quiz both roles quite frequently. This can be anything from “leads, what do you do if the follower doesn’t step in?” to “follows, what is your cue here?”. Or, “what did I tell you to focus on last time?”
I try to spend my time pretty equally divided between the roles in terms of questions. The important thing is that a good chunk of the questions need to be levelled specifically at follows to make sure that they are engaging with the material.
Bonus 2 – Teach Feedback Principles
All of my classes have a lot of practice time, and all my students are expected to learn how to constructively work together to learn. A main part of this is open communication about what each person needs to learn better. For example, more repetitions, less force from a lead, a follower waiting more, or a slower practice speed. This gives the followers agency to use their voice and to help direct the partnership in a way that will be constructive for their learning.
It also helps the leaders understand that class is not just about them learning a new move – it’s about both them and their partner improving their dance.
A New Era
Let’s change the old-style class instruction methods, and let both leads and follows share airtime equally. It leads to happier, better dancers and communities.
Do you have any strategies I missed? Leave them in the comments below.