Over time, dance communities are moving towards a greater focus on follower empowerment. We are becoming more aware of the value followers bring to a dance, and the need to teach to both followers and leaders. But, some people are still a little bit foggy on what follower empowerment is.
What follower empowerment is not
As we explore what follower empowerment is, we need to remember that it is not about making followers more important than the leader, or insinuating that leaders are the bad guys. Rather, by giving more weight to the responsibilities and importance of the follower role, it actually reduces the expectations on leaders.
Follower empowerment is also not about claiming that a follower does not need a leader within a dance. It does not involve followers doing what they want, when they want – even if the leader doesn’t lead it. Instead, it is focused on equalizing the partnership in a way that recognizes follower contributions as 50% of any good (or bad) dance.
Lastly, follower empowerment is supposed to give followers more of a voice when it comes to creating safe, fun dances – rather than expecting leaders to guess what a specific follow is or isn’t comfortable with. It’s about removing silent expectations, and replacing them with an active attempt to shape the dance into a better experience for both parties.
What follower empowerment is
Follower empowerment is the action of giving more weight to the rights and responsibilities of the follower role. For example, it highlights the need for follows to:
- train and hone the craft of following
- contribute to the dance by compensating for leads with weak areas
- actively engage in shaping the dance into a safe and fun experience
- be valued as 50% of the dance partnership
Let’s explore each of these aspects of follower empowerment.
#1: Training and honing the craft of following
The first part of follower empowerment is encouraging followers to understand the important role their own technique and movement has in the dance experience. It is moving away from the idea of “just following”. As a result, it reduces the pressure on leaders to perform perfectly, or to ‘force’ a follower to do something. After all, if the follower is responsible for their own movement, it automatically means that the leader is not responsible for forcing a follower through movements.
While it is true that a good leader can help a follower execute movements properly, the ultimate responsibility for follower technique rests with the follow. It is false that a lead is responsible for everything that goes wrong. The follower is responsible for holding their balance and posture. The follower is responsible for using the correct techniques for their dance. And, the follower is responsible for responding appropriately to the signals given by the lead.
#2: Compensating for leaders with weak areas
The second part of follower empowerment is the recognition that, just as we expect good leaders to compensate for our weaknesses, we are supposed to compensate for theirs. This does not mean following dangerous movements (see point #3), but it does mean using our skills to help keep leaders on time, and to follow the intention of their movements.
One of the marks of a great follower is when any leader can dance with them and feel like they can lead competently. It doesn’t mean that they are doing everything right – but that is the feeling that a follower with great active compensation skills can give the lead.
“But… if I compensate for everything, how will they learn what they are doing wrong?”
You need to decide if your reason for social dancing is to tell leaders what they’re doing wrong, or to create great dance experiences. If you are not trying to “teach” the lead, there is no reason for not compensating to the best of your ability in a social dance. Leave the teaching to the teachers – rather than making it part of the dance floor experience.
#3: Actively shaping the dance into a fun and safe experience
To me, this is the most important aspect of follower empowerment. This is about how followers can address and mitigate uncomfortable or unsafe behaviours in an appropriate and kind way.
In my social dances, I will very often physically reposition leaders in a way that is more comfortable for me. This includes moving a thumb that is pushing on the top of my hand, using my free arm to slow or support a dangerous rotation or arm movement, or holding tightly to a leader to prevent an unsafe dip. I will create resistance in my connection or use my hand to stop a movement if I see my leader is about to run into something. I will also reposition a leader’s hand if they’re placing it somewhere it shouldn’t go, or create extra space when they are too close to me. When a physical cue does not work, I will ask for what I need. This means that I now very rarely (if ever) have dances in which I feel unsafe, or in which I am unable to prevent injury.
In my opinion, all followers should cultivate their ability to shape dances to be more comfortable and safe. New followers should be educated on this as soon as they enter the scene. This would help to eliminate or control many of the silent bad experiences that follows have, in which we feel powerless to redirect a dance into better territory.
I also recognize that the overwhelming majority of uncomfortable dance behaviours are unintentional. This means that any physical repositioning or verbal feedback that I give is coming from a place of simply trying to make a better experience – rather than chastising or ‘fixing’ my leader. After all, in the dance, I am their partner – not their teacher. Further, because these behaviours are bad habits (aka, muscle memory), I recognize that one reminder in any given dance is often not enough for the leader (or follower, for that matter) to make a full-song change. As a result, I will use the same techniques repeatedly in a dance if a bad habit recurs multiple times in the same song.
For the receiving party, the intention behind an adjustment with the intent of comfort and safety is noticeably different from a correction designed to chastise, embarrass, or teach. An adjustment isn’t a big deal. It’s not hurtful, and it doesn’t create a lasting feeling of being an undesirable or shitty dance partner (even though some adjustments may create an initial bit of embarrassment). I would encourage all followers to give adjustments from a place of kindness and understanding, rather than judgment.
“But what if the leader takes it poorly?”
Leaders have the responsibility to be able to take alterations to the dance as a suggestion for a better experience, when they’re given kindly. However, from time to time, leaders may not have the greatest reaction to such a request. In these situations, I maintain my perspective and will be more direct, if needed. If a leader cannot accept my desire to have a safe and fun dance, I will walk away.
Please note that I don’t walk away simply because I have had to give the same, well-received adjustment multiple times in a dance. Particularly with bad habits, multiple adjustments may be necessary because the leader isn’t aware that they’re drifting back into the uncomfortable territory. The difference is that these leads will continually take the readjustment without complaint, and try to do better while they can remember it. For example, the leader with squeezy thumbs, or the beginner with the hand that slides from shoulder to waist (not butt) is probably simply lacking the bandwidth to remember that adjustment for the length of a song.
“But what if it is intentional bad behaviour?”
Intentional bad behaviour does happen, albeit rarely. And, even in the context of inappropriate behaviour, direct communication often is a powerful tool. Particularly with beginners who are not acclimatized to social dance etiquette, direct communication can cause an ‘aha!’ moment that this is not a pickup venue. With more experienced dancers who are behaving inappropriately, they will often back down pretty quickly if they get called out on the bad behaviour.
If you are absolutely positive that the bad behaviour was fully intentional, do walk away. This is inexcusable in the context of social dance. However, if there is any doubt in your mind as to the intention of the movement, I would recommend favouring an adjustment or verbalized request over walking away.
“But I’m shy…”
A lot of dancers are shy – myself included. And yes, it is difficult to cultivate this ability if it does not come naturally for you. But, to have a better dance experience, it is important that you take responsibility for your communications with your partners. You are not a passive object. You are a person, and a partner. It is your responsibility to do 50% of the work in the dance relationship, even if it starts off as uncomfortable and difficult.
I always advocate paying attention to your partner’s body language, and attempting to ready body signals when something isn’t sitting well with them. But, that doesn’t negate the fact that some people are poor at reading body language, and that direct communication is the best way to ensure that you have a positive dance experience.
Being 50% of the dance experience
This is more a social concept, as opposed to something that happens on an individual dance experience level. As a group, we need to continue to move towards the idea that followers represent half of the dance experience. We need to value the technique associated with following, which includes valuing teachers who primarily follow in social dancing as much as we value solo leader teachers.
We also need to relieve the pressure on leaders to ‘give’ good dances. At a beginner level, it can cause new leaders to feel like bad dances are all their fault. At an advanced level, it can cause followers in epic videos to be less valued than the leader, as the perception is that follower did all that stuff because the lead “told” them to.
We need to recognize that with beginners, the follower has an important role in contributing their half of the dance to create a successful experience. And, we need to recognize that with advanced dancers, an advanced leader can only create that amazing stuff because their follower has the skill and ability necessary to execute what is asked. It’s a team effort, in which both parties bear 50% of the responsibility.
Social dance is a team effort, and the best teams are formed when each contributor is fully recognized and responsible for their contributions. Follower empowerment is designed to reduce the overburdening of leader responsibility, while also encouraging and promoting followers to take a more active role in shaping a positive and fun dance experience.
If you are a follower, think about how you can become a more positive, active force in the context of your dancing. Are there ways for you to move towards a kind, active role, and away from a passive partner that ‘allows’ things to happen to them? Are you willing to step up, and shape the dances into something you enjoy?
If you are a leader, think about how you react when a follower does assume more responsibility. Are you willing and ready to accept adjustments to give the follower a better dance experience? Are you OK with valuing their contributions and preferences within the context of your dance, without taking any adjustments as a personal insult?
I think our communities are headed in a great direction, and I look forward to seeing more followers become fully active partners in their dances. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to leave them in the comments.