Followers, have you ever had a mediocre dance night? What about nights that needed to have a really great dance with a really great lead to get back on track, or nights with “not enough (good) leads”?

What if there were a way to maximize how many good dances you had from the available pool of leaders?

A Leader’s Perspective

As an ambidanceterous person (I both lead and follow), I can tell you that the way a follow interacts with me has a massive impact on whether the dance goes well.

For example, I have had top-level follows who came to the dance with excitement and openness. Those dances are among my highlights. I’ve also had top-level follows who came to the dance with an unreadable or apathetic energy. Those dances have largely been flat and uninspired.  The difference in these cases was not the skill level (these follows were equally accomplished); it was the energy that the follow brought to their dance with me.

When I lead someone who is excited to dance with me and is willing to work with what I can do, more possibilities open up. I feel inspired to be more musical, and get out of my pattern box. I am inspired to relax, have fun and connect. In contrast, if I dance with someone who is waiting for me to perform to a certain standard, my dance becomes more flat and dull. I make fewer artistic choices, and more “safe”, boring ones. I spend a lot of the dance managing insecurity as opposed to enjoying the dance.

I’ve noticed this same trend in follows across different levels: those that create engagement and excitement on their end are much more likely to get a good dance out of me than those that do not. This isn’t because I consciously want to give better or worse dances; it’s because having a follower engage and create with me gives me the confidence in the partnership to do more, better.

Active Contribution

The engagement that helps leads do better is active contribution. This goes beyond taking responsibility for your own dance (active following). Active contribution is where the follower takes responsibility for the dance as an experience between the partners. It means accepting and owning that what we bring to a dance as a follow directly impacts what the outcome of the experience will be.

This can include:

  • Matching or creating the energy/space you want in the connection
  • Positive body language (which may include smiling, laughing, eye contact, or behaviour)
  • “Picking up the slack” in led movements that aren’t perfect but are followable
  • Adding your own flair (where appropriate and comfortable) as opposed to “just following”

“But what about the leader’s role?”

You’re absolutely correct that the leader also needs to actively contribute to the dance.

On a whole, I’ve seen more passively engaged followers than I have leaders. Part of this may stem from remnants of the ‘just follow’ mentality. After all, that approach puts the onus for a ‘good dance’ squarely on the leader’s shoulders and minimizes the role the follow has in the partnership.

The power of followers to actively contribute is not contingent on whether the leader is actively contributing (and vice versa). Much like an engaged leader experience can sometimes pull a follow out of a slump, an actively contributing follower can also put a leader back on their game.

“But what if I’m not feeling up to it?”

That’s OK! No one can be on all the time. Sometimes, we just don’t have the reservoirs to be able to actively contribute – and that’s fine! The goal is to recognize that it is a tool in your follower toolkit, and use it when you feel it will be useful.

“But what if I’m not a super amazing follow?”

You don’t have to be an accomplished dancer to be able to apply this principle. It’s true that some people may not respond with as much enthusiasm to less experienced followers trying this approach, but it helps in a significant number of cases.

I know that when I’m leading beginners, feeling like the follow is having a good time helps me be more confident in what variations and movement types I’m going to try with them.

With Confidence

A lot of why active contribution is so important to the dance experience comes down to confidence. Followers often follow better when they’re confident in their dancing; leaders also lead better when they feel like they’re doing it ‘correctly’. Very often, a passively-engaged partner of either role can eat away at your confidence because it feels like you’re the problem and that you need to impress the partner and live up to their expectations.

When we orient ourselves in active contribution, we can start changing the script to one where we help our partner give us better dances. And, as a bonus: our partner gets to feel better about themselves, too.

It’s the best type of selfishness: it benefits everyone!