Have you ever been told that you were a ‘heavy’ follower, attempted to become lighter, and were then told that you were too disconnected or floppy? Or, have you been told your connection was too “light”, attempted to adjust, and then found yourself being called too “heavy”? If so, this article is for you.
The “Heaviness” and “Lightness” Problem
Frequently, social dancers use heaviness and lightness as catch-all phrases to encompass the idea of “connection.” A follow who is “too heavy” often has too much tension, pushes down their arms, and can feel immovable. A follow who is “too light” may not be engaged through the arms, may not maintain connection in their hands, or generally does not have a pathway of communication open for the lead.
The thing is, heaviness and lightness cover several aspects of connection. And sometimes, your partner may not be able to pinpoint which aspect is giving you problems with your connection. Today, we’re going to discuss three aspects of connection that can contribute to being “too heavy” or “too light”: movability, tone, and contact.
Note: teachers may not always refer to these concepts using the same terms that are in this article. However, the idea is the important part.
Contact is the physical touch you maintain with your partner, regardless of the hold. In some dances, it’s described as the magnet between two points of contact. It can also apply to the hook or hand connection used in an open hold, or the full-bodied embrace connection. In short, it is how you physically touch your partner.
Some follows mistake good contact as pushing down on a lead, rather than plugging into a lead. For example, contact between the arms in an embrace is ideal. You need a certain amount of that contact to make communication easier. However at least in Zouk, the contact should be towards your lead’s core, rather than pushing down on the arm towards the floor.
On the flip side, some follows try to become light by removing a solid point of contact. For example, they may not provide sufficient contact to feel when a partner moves away, or their hand may open when a lead tries to walk them forward in an open hold.
It’s necessary for follows to maintain a solid point of contact in order to not float away on the lead. Confusing a follow’s lightness for very light contact frequently occurs with follows who have been told they are too heavy.
Symptoms of contact deficiencies
Your contact might be too little or too light if:
- you tend to lose connection with your partner frequently
- have gaps of space between you and your partner’s frame
- are delayed in responding when your lead moves away from you
Your contact might be too much or too rigid if:
- you are physically holding on to your partner in a way they cannot escape
- you are physically gripping your partner’s fingers
- your point of contact never slides or moves, even when the lead establishes a new direction or point of contact
You might be sending your contact in the wrong direction if:
- your partners get sore arms because your arm or hand weighs too much
- you notice that you are often putting weight downwards
Tone is how a follow uses their muscles and structure to feel what their lead is asking through the points of contact. A lack of appropriate tone can cause things like floppy arms and twisting frames.
On the contrary, adding tension (seizing up muscles) instead of tone (engaging muscles) can lead to a lack of body mobility, raised shoulders, and a jerky connection through the arms.
To feel the difference between tone and tension, get a glass of water. First, pick it up normally and take a drink. This is tone. You are using your muscles to lift the glass and take a sip, but you still have mobility. Next, do the same exercise, but tense all the muscles in your arm and your shoulder. You should now feel that it is much harder to move the glass to your mouth to take a sip. The water may also splash around more. This is because of tension.
Tone in dance is similar. It is designed to keep your body in the alignment it needs to be, which allows you to understand what a lead is asking for. It also helps you maintain balance. Ideally, the amount of tone matches the strength of the leader’s direction. If they use a stronger lead, your body will require more tone to help it stay in the appropriate alignment.
Symptoms of tone deficiencies:
You might have tension instead of tone if:
- your level of tone prevents you from moving the engaged parts of your body
- your shoulders are up
- you feel your arm muscles constricted
- your elbows are tight by your sides
- you cannot move your body into a new shape
- your breathing is shallow
- you feel ‘bumps’ or hitches in your ability to follow movement (like hitting the end of a rope with no stretch)
You might have too little tone if:
- your elbows frequently end up behind your body when your partner applies pressure
- your shoulders come forward, or you leave your hips behind when you respond to a lead (note: this can also be a movability problem)
- your frame “breaks” (shoulders or upper body does not stay in alignment with lower body; overrotating away from your partner, etc.)
- your arm moves in a direction before your body goes with it
- you aren’t always sure how long a step your lead is asking for, or when the weight transfer is happening
Movability is what your body does after you recognize a lead. Basically, it is your physical ability to move your body to where it needs to go.
Highly movable follows respond well to a small amount of direction. This creates lightness. Highly immovable follows require greater force because they rely on the lead physically moving their body, rather than interpreting the lead and moving their own weight.
If you move beyond being highly movable and become hypermovable, you are likely to start backleading. This is when you respond before an appropriate direction has been provided, which means you assume rather than wait for enough information to make a decision.
Each dance (and even each dancer) has its/their own measure for how movable an ideal follow is. The reasons that dances have different measures of ideal movability (and as a result, different models of connection) is because of the different mechanics present in each dance.
If you have a dance that relies on seeking the furthest point (“stretching”) away from the partner, it is likely the dance will require you to wait for more pressure before moving. In essence, you do not enter an available space until you have a positive direction with sufficient energy to move you forward. It would be considered backleading for a follow to occupy the available space without an appropriate lead forward.
In contrast, dances where partners are expected to seek towards each other rely on the follow filling the available space as soon as it is present – unless there is a specific force blocking the entrance to that space. In these dances, seeking back and “waiting” to be led forward from a stretched position would cause the follow to feel “heavy” to the lead.
A simplified way of thinking about this is to determine whether your dance relies on moving to the end of the available space, or whether it is about seeking in to your partner.
You might be hypermovable if:
- you arrive somewhere before the lead has asked you to arrive in that location
- you have been told you backlead too much
- you often try to preempt what the lead is asking for (note: this is sometimes also related to tone)
You might not have enough movability if:
- most leads do not feel like they’re ‘strong’ enough to get you to move
- you often take steps that are too short
- you constantly feel like you’re being pulled forward (note: this can also indicate a tone problem)
- you are not sure where you’re supposed to step, and don’t continue momentum until the end of the led movement
- you don’t always transfer weight fully on steps
When you are missing one (or two) components
Very often, issues with following may overlap more than one area. Here are three examples where a follow may have issues in more than one area, or where they may have tried to correct one area in a way that weakened their overall connection.
Example 1: A follow leaves their hips behind on steps
This follow may be struggling because they need to move their own body more (movability) and engage their core to keep their body aligned (tone). They do not feel heavy, but do feel unresponsive and a bit disengaged.
Sometimes, one of those issues actually stems from trying to correct one element by focusing on another element. For example, the follow above may have decreased their core tone so that they didn’t feel like they were being ‘too heavy’, when the real issue was actually that they weren’t stepping as far as the lead asked. As a result, they created a new problem (disengaging the core) to try to fix heaviness.
Follows that do correct the wrong element may even get positive feedback. For example, the follow who disengaged the core may feel “lighter” in terms of the physical pressure the lead feels, but the lead will probably also find that they’re not able to get the follow where they need to be.
Example 2: A follow feels good with light leading, but loses their partner every time the lead tries to add a contrasting faster or stronger movement
This follow likely is using very light contact, and possibly also very light or little tone. While it works well on slower, softer leads, they may ‘crumble’ or find the contact dissipating if the lead tries to vary or contrast movements. For example, their hand may open instead of maintaining a hook in open hold. In this case, the most obvious issue is contact. The follow needs to ensure that they maintain enough physical contact so that they do not lose touch with their partner during movements.
However, the follow may also have issues with a lack of tone (where their body moves out of alignment with any additional pressure).
Example 3: A follow is difficult to move, and requires leads to be extremely strong and force them into a new position if they want to make certain movements happen, but also tends to arrive at the end of a movement before the lead
This follow may have issues with tension, where all their muscles are seized up. This can prevent them from being able to alter their body’s angle or position. However, they may also have issues with moving their body in space, which results in the lead having to use a tremendous amount of effort to control the speed and trajectory of the backleading follow (or, the lead has to them run their course without interference).
Of course, a reasonable leader won’t try to fight the tension. Rather, they will not perform the movements that the follow does not move into – especially considering that some follows may do this on purpose when they don’t want to do a movement. But, the considerate leader doesn’t solve the follow’s issue that their tension and movability may make several movements impossible with all but the roughest leads.
Finding the “right weight”
Most partners have their own preferred partner weight. This is the combination of contact, tone, and movability that they find it easiest to dance and connect with. Some prefer very light partners, and will take a disconnected, wiggly follow over a heavy, tense one. Some prefer follows that give a little bit more weight and tone.
Stronger follows have an easier time responding and adapting to these different asks. As you become more able to change your own tone, movability, and contact style, you will find it easier to accommodate a wider range of preferences. Understanding and adapting to these preferences can also help to curtail leads that feel rough or reckless, as finding the right connection style can temper or mitigate their less-nice tendencies.
If you are trying to work on elements of your connection, remember to pinpoint exactly what is causing your light or heavy issues. This will make your efforts to improve your following targeted for the maximum possible benefit.
Have thoughts to add? Leave them in the comments below!
I am told with delight all the time that I am as light as a feather but I am also told a couple of times that “I can’t feel you”
You just can’t win!
I agree with you Lilly. To me couple dancers should be partners not a leader and follower, so the connection must be as light as possible, so the guy needs to be aware of what she’s doing and no to impose “what he wants”; unfortunately in social dancing frequently the guy doesn’t know what he wants but he was “taught” that needs to lead. Having the partner as a reference for our moves is just the opposite of using it as a support. I can see great dancers moving together without the need to always be in contact. The rule to me is that the lighter to contact is the easier to respond (threshold response); the other extreme is to have a forceful connection.
I’d be interested to know which dance background you’re coming with, because in most partner dances there is, in fact, a leader and a follower. This does not mean they are not ‘partners’, or that the follow does not have a voice.
And yes, there are certainly visually-led movements… that just doesn’t happen to be the topic of this article!
I’d argue that light and heavy are opposites, and forceful vs gentle… as opposed to forceful vs. light.
a very good example with the waterglass 🙂
I just wanted to add, in Argentine Tango we do sometimes let the upper body rotate first and let the connection between ribs and hips expand until it almost automatically pulls back together with a bit of a delay, which creates another dynamic (for example when we do ochos or boleos). But as you wrote, each dance has its own measure how a connection (also within your own body > hip-shoulder) is ideal.
This article is like a free private lesson, wow
Hello, Ms Riva….and Thank You!
You have written a magnificent article! Such an ARTICULATE and WELL CRAFTED composition is rare. And…about the subject of partner dancing which figuratively consumes some of us. You have given me vocabulary and conceptual models….that will expand my love and passion for dance. Thank You. I would suppose you to be an incredible dancer.
And I am only a 50 year veteran of road house dance bars, honky tonks, and country/city Country Western dancehalls from the Rio Grand Valley to the Texas Hill Country across to the refinery towns east of Houston and on into Louisiana.
What you have written and communicated is already helping this old kicker improve his dance and increase his pleasure. Thank You.
Super article. I appreciate how dance agnostic it was, while acknowledging that different forms have different needs. Very clear writing. Top content!