We know how awesome it feels to dance with a great lead or follow. We know that it’s important to be able to assess your partner during the dance to maximize your positive experience. We know that attitude plays an important part, and that there are some things you just shouldn’t do.
But, how much should we compensate for a partner who is doing stuff wrong? When there’s a person who is obviously not trying to really mess with the dance, but they’re just not at a place yet where the dance is comfortable?
Note: compensation does not mean putting yourself in danger. Both leads and follows have the right to not engage with something that they feel is dangerous. Compensation means things you can do to mitigate the negative without sacrificing your safety.
For an extreme example, think about if you’re in a confrontation with a drunk friend. Mitigation and compensation would be using your words to calm the individual down, even if it wasn’t your fault the fight started. Confronting the situation would be escalating it (like by telling them to throw that punch they’ve been threatening). This would be the equivalent of digging in your heels and refusing to compensate: your way or the high way. You could also just ‘take’ the punches (the equivalent of putting yourself in dance danger), or you could choose to completely disengage and walk away – if the situation was threatening enough.
My Rule: Compensation First
If I enter a dance with the attitude that I will ONLY do what they lead and will NOT compensate, I will generally be disappointed. If I enter a dance with the attitude that they WILL follow what I lead, I will also generally be disappointed. I prefer to save this attitude for the classroom, where it is actually helpful.
You know those leads and follows that EVERYONE loves to dance with? Everyone loves to dance with them because they compensate for their partners like crazy.
I do not necessarily claim to be an expert in this all the time, but the results of trying are quite successful. I have had dances with people who could barely do the basic who told me afterwards that it was the most amazing dance ever – and that they finally figured out how fun this was. That they didn’t feel self-conscious with me, despite the fact that I’m a teacher.
Usually what I did were not ‘official’ steps or techniques. Leads went in weird directions at weird times. Feet weren’t necessarily where they needed to be. But, I made it fun for myself. I played a little more, worried about dancing ‘correctly’ a little less. I didn’t take the stance that I would NOT do the movement if it wasn’t a ‘good’ lead. The result? They loved it. I had fun. Everyone was happy.
I want you to think of a pro who you really really enjoy social dancing with. I want you to think of that feeling that they give you: everything works in some way. You feel great about your dancing. You aren’t nervous. I guarantee that at some point you have done something they weren’t expecting, or that was imperfect.
The reason it felt like it worked? Usually, they decided to roll with it. They ENJOY rolling with the unexpected. Conversely, when a pro that we really want to impress does something unexpected or messes up a little, we try really hard to work with it because we assume it is our fault – not theirs. So, it feels like it worked anyways. And suddenly, you have a happy, connected dance because you and they wanted to make it a happy, connected dance.
Compensation Opens Up Possibilities
The beautiful thing about compensation is that it adds a sense of creativity to the dance that cannot be found by only following ‘the rules’. Some of my best playful moments as a follow have been when I screwed up and said “F**k it, I’ll just play.” Some of my best and most creative leads have been when something reaaaally didn’t work, but the follow found a creative way to interpret it. Suddenly, it turns into a ‘really cool thing’ that I would never have thought about by playing within the rules.
Playing outside the rules doesn’t mean you don’t know and appreciate the foundations of the dance. The more advanced and trained you are, the easier it is to compensate for a partner. The newer you are, the more difficult. This does not mean taking responsibility for the other person, but when an individual says that they ‘can’t’ dance with a less experienced dancer because they’re ‘advanced’, it usually immediately tells me that this person only *thinks* they are advanced. The truly advanced can literally dance with almost every person – if they want to. They also have a stronger ability to compensate for more problems.
“But it isn’t my responsibility!”
Well, yes, and it’s not my responsibility to lend a quarter to that person who will miss the bus. Or return that person’s wallet. Or to give that upset person a hug. Or to give that person a compliment. Or any other number of things. They’re still nice things to do, and can make you feel good.
Just because it isn’t your ‘responsibility’ doesn’t mean it’s something that would make the world any worse. You’re absolutely right: my responsibility is not to compensate for a lead or follow. My responsibility is to have fun while dancing. If I feel uncomfortable with a lead or in danger, sometimes I don’t compensate. Sometimes I’m tired and really don’t feel like compensating. That’s fine – but this isn’t my rule or default because it doesn’t ‘add’ anything to the dance.
Compensation doesn’t mean a follower is suddenly a leader, or vice versa. It means that you care about trying to elevate the dance, and to turn the experience into an incredible, positive feeling. Sometimes, it’s not even about you: it’s about making that beginner feel like they are AWESOME and can actually have a decent dance – inspiring them to become a great dancer in the future
This happens! You can be that person who inspires someone to not just ‘give up’ and instead become amazing. I have had a person tell me YEARS after I first danced with them that it was a turning point. That they felt like they could ‘do this’ after our dance. That it gave them the courage to pursue learning properly. Trust me: there is no. better. compliment. ever.
I’m not telling you that compensation is mandatory. I’m saying it’s something you can do to enrich the dance. You will have more positive dance experiences by working with partners instead of putting up a wall. Feel free to take this advice or not – but I would suggest at least giving it a try the next time you’re stuck in a ‘not-ideal’ dance.
Is there going to be another article on how to compensate? I’ve seen people write about it in ways that differ so much that I’m not even sure they are talking about the same thing. What you write sounds more like “play with it” or “have mutual fun with things that go funny”, but then there is also the camp of “do elastico when you think he meant it, even if the lead is utterly off”.
How do _you_ compensate?
Hello! Thank you for your comment. For me, compensation is in stages:
1. I know what he led but he led it imperfectly: In this case, if it is safe to follow, I follow anyways.
2. I’m not sure where he was going with that movement, but the general dance is still intact: I follow the general direction and try to turn it into something similar to the dance by keeping timing, etc.
3. It’s basically not Zouk: I just give up on ‘dancing Zouk’, and follow the general direction of the movement.
Playing when things go wrong is a method of compensation. It is taking something that would have otherwise just been an awkward failure and turning it into something to make the dance fun. Usually this occurs in situations 2 and 3 above. Situation 1 is less of an issue, and more has to do with an imperfect-but-still-followable movement.
Thank you for the reply.
2 and 3 I do, 1. is very hard for me, nearly impossible Knowing instead of feeling just drops me from dance mode in seconds. Even if I have been there, and seen that this leader was in the lesson where they did basic, lateral and elastico, it would be hard for me to do 1, and still feel I was dancing with them So I tend to in that case also follow with what their lead feels like, as long as it is safe to do, even if it ends up being funny. Makes for good giggles for both, but clearly not for the ultra-serious dancers.
I think that’s great! 🙂 there’s nothing wrong with you compensating in your own way, as long as it makes the dance safe and fun 🙂
I had this exact situation at a dance last night. It was an EC swing that, as I it got going, I realized was much faster than I’d expected, and I was having trouble keeping up. And so, proper technique and foot placement went right out the window in favor of keeping things light and fun, and by the end, we were both laughing and happy rather than stressed and frustrated.
The swing dancer’s credo:
“No mistakes, only new moves”
I understand that in west coast swing follows can hijack the dance when the follow and lead feel comfortable. I have not yet experienced this in zouk. Is it a thing?
Hijacking is an often used term, but it’s not necessarily accurate. In West Coast Swing, the lead has the option to give space to the follow to create. A good follow won’t just randomly take over, but will recognize opportunities to add her input. A good lead will follow those options when a follow takes them
The same concept is present in Zouk – but not done as frequently, as it requires that the lead and the follow be well-trained to avoid injury. Renata and Jorge are the masters of this, and I have also heard Allison and Audrey teach the concept. However, I can only add my bit if I’m confident the lead won’t try to pull me out of it prematurely because of the risk of upper body injury.
I agree that using play to help deal with mistakes during social dance is really important (and really fun) I think it might also be helpful to discuss in more detail when compensating is actually detrimental to your partner. I had the experience in a smaller dance scene (mostly EC but some WCS) that there were only a few skilled leads who had made efforts to travel to learn more, but there were no follows of comparable skill level. The leads were spending each social dance compensating for the follows so that the follows didn’t even know they could be doing better. The leads also didn’t take the time to try to teach follows how to get better. It led to a stagnation of follows’ skills in the scene because the follows felt as if they were dancing perfectly and nothing could be going better in the dance with these skilled leads. Compensating completely, and compensating in every single dance ever with these follows led to lack of follows trying to (or thinking they could) do better.