Have you ever been in a dance class where the follows have been told to ‘Just Follow’?
Have you ever heard someone told that follows have it so much easier because they ‘Just Follow’?
Have you ever heard a female instructor devalued because ‘She is a follow, not a lead’?
To me, these types of situations indicate the social dance scene’s tendency to devalue the level of difficulty involved with following. Somehow, leading has a reputation of being so much harder – both in the eyes of leads and follows.
What’s so hard about following?
There seems to be a prolific opinion within social dance that the follower somehow has the ‘easier’ role in the dance. While it is true that at the very beginning follows tend to have an easier time social dancing, that does not make the skill they need to learn any less difficult than that of the lead.
Following, as a skill, involves split-second interpretation of things that are almost never perfect. It involves looking good, keeping balance, maintaining connection, and being prepared for any movement at any time. We don’t get a road map. What we get is the person in the passenger seat yelling out ‘TURN LEFT’ when we are 10 meters from the intersection. If we’re lucky, the lead told us we needed to be in the left lane.
There’s also an increased pressure to look good if you are a follow – but our styling can’t interfere with our connection. It’s like doing two completely different things simultaneously – like piano. One hand does one thing, the other does something completely different. At the same time. And if one thing goes wrong, it all generally tends to fall apart unless you are *really* comfortable in what you are doing.
On top of this, follows generally spend a much larger proportion of their time spinning or otherwise in athletic situations. Before you start telling a follow how easy she has it, you try spinning 5 times and coming out perfectly centered… with no break before the next move. Or, perhaps an immediate dip. Double if you realize the lead doesn’t know how to lead it properly and you need to correct what is wrong.
So… if this is the case, why is it devalued?
Within a classroom setting, it is much more difficult to teach follows than leads. With a lead, you get to tell them exactly what to do to get a desired result – the rest is just fine tuning. With a follow, you need to somehow get them to follow what is led in class but also understand how to react to the imperfect leads on a dance floor. Instead, many times we get the ‘just follow’ approach as a result of teachers either a) not knowing how to teach to follows or b) legitimately believing this is *all* following is.
This is not to be confused with situations that get the leads comfortable with the pattern before addressing the follow on both how to follow the movement correctly and troubleshooting techniques for if it is not.
We also tend to be sympathetic to the new leads in the dance scene – who do have a much harder time in the early days getting through a single song. Since their ability to dance in the beginning depends on knowing combinations, a new lead needs time to build up his repertoire first. As a result, it is easier to fake following – but if you ask any experienced dual-role individual, it is just as difficult to dance with a new follow as it is to dance with a new lead.
What is the result of this devaluation?
There are a few results:
1. Follow solo instructors aren’t taken as seriously as male solo instructors. The assumption is that the follow (who, in 99% of cases is a single travelling female) can only teach styling and follower’s movements. By contrast, a solo lead is thought to be able to just ‘guide’ a female student through a cool new pattern or complex movement.
Of course, this is false. If someone is an instructor, they are expected to have mastery of *both*. That means that it doesn’t matter what your primary role is – a decent instructor knows both and can teach to both roles equally. But yet, the assumption is that a follow is less credited as a solo teacher than a lead. (This possibly overlaps with some sexist undertones that are still remnant in the dance scene, but that’s a different discussion.)
2. Follows get the idea that their own role is less important or finessed than a lead’s. This is perhaps the saddest result. This premium that we put on leading causes follows to believe that their skills are less important and less a result of skill than a lead of equal ability. It also causes many follows to shy away from leading (I’ve heard many follows tell me ‘Oh, I could never lead. It’s too hard. I’d rather just follow.’)
3. Teachers continue the vicious cycle of ignoring follows. If we don’t make the idea of following as a skill dominant, it is hard to encourage teachers to teach to follows and leads. If it is ‘just’ following, it means that it does not require work, skill, or training. In fact, there are many important ways to teach to follows… if we don’t just push them to the side as an ornament.
4. Leads don’t treat follows with the respect they deserve. Whether it’s writing off the opinion as ‘you’re just a follow’ to leads saying ‘I can’t learn from her. She isn’t mainly a leader’ (yes, both these have been said to me), the devaluation of following is deeply problematic from a mutual respect standpoint. How, after all, can we respect someone we feel is in a ‘lesser’ role?
How can you say these things? How do YOU know they’re equally hard?
I do both roles. Equally. And don’t anyone dare mutter ‘she’s just saying this because she’s a follow.’ Otherwise, I’ll just tell you that you’re simply not listening ‘because you’re just a lead’ 😉
Remember: it takes two to Tango. Or Salsa. Or Zouk. The roles may be different – but they are certainly equally difficult. So, the next time you find yourself in a ‘just follow’ situation, take the chance to educate others on how that may not be the most accurate statement made today.
Your article raises some really good points that left me pondering whether there’s an underlying cause behind these attitudes. Perhaps there’s a mentality among leads of not wanting more than a passive/obedient being to dance with (or would ‘at’ be a better term) which leads to the devaluing of following as a skill?
Very true! That could certainly bee a root cause 🙂
Zach, there is no ‘passive obedience’ whatever. You make that silly stuff up. Sounds very PC and sophisticated though. Feminists and hangers-on will totally love you for it.
But no truth to it whatsoever.
Leading is difficult, following is to a certain degree. Lady in dance class told me last week that she didn’t know a dance style but could follow because the leader was showing good frame, posture and communication.
But of course, Zach… it could be all Tony Abbot’s fault… ;o))
Let’s see you follow sometime then 😉
Leading and following are equally hard. I can make leads do things they never thought they could when they’re new. Same is true in reverse.
Men need to swap and be a follow for a while to see how difficult it is. I love to sabotage moves just to see the look of panic on their faces! As a dual dancer I know how difficult both parts are.
THANK YOU. Learning to follow makes you a better lead, period. You find out when is too late to get a signal, what works, what doesn’t, what hurts (!), and how much – and how often – a follower needs to compensate for a poor lead. Every higher level male student should have to spend at least one full class as a follow, for both the skills and the humility. Then they’ll be less likely to take a good follower for granted.
And for the record, every higher level woman should learn to lead for the same reasons, like what it feels like to lead someone with spaghetti arms or too-rigid arms, or when the follower’s styling interferes with the next move, etc.
It is an important learning experience on both sides. You can’t have one without the other, and both sides should be equally respected.
As a ‘ dual’ dancer, I believe each role has their own difficulties. I find following physically more tiring – which is probably why I do more leading 😉 leading makes me use my brain in a logical way and following makes me use my brain in an artistic wAy ( both have their challenges). I have utmost respect for female instructors though, because they have to teach the part of the move that they are not doing, a male instructor can teach as he goes ( so to speak). And, as mentioned, dependent upon where you are in your dancing journey, then the ‘challenges change. So I can dance lead quite easy if I stick to moves that I know really well and I have a good follower who knows where to put in her flourishes – but dance the same moves with a beginner, or someone with inadequate connection and my job suddenly got harder. So peeps, no right or wrong here, just different, so let’s celebrate being different 😉
I completely agree with this. Classes focus so much on teaching follows the footwork pattern instead of how to follow the move, yet if you can follow the move, the footwork will come naturally most of the time. One thing though is that I do say “just follow” but don’t mean it to belittle following, but to say focus on following when follows get caught up trying to think what footwork pattern they were taught. I think the salsa scene is much more guilty of this than other dances, and I am sure glad I learnt swing first, otherwise I would have never learnt how to follow. I have tried to lead male teachers that teach both parts and I know they are for sure missing fundamentals.
You say “If someone is an instructor, they are expected to have mastery of *both*. That means that it doesn’t matter what your primary role is – a decent instructor knows both and can teach to both roles equally.” But that is often not true – lots of male teachers don’t follow at all, or if they do, not very well. This is less true for female instructors. They HAVE to lead and follow well. This has bothered me for years.
Thank you so much for this article! To me, the main problem doesn’t go back to the attitude of leaders and the devaluation of the followers, but more than often has to do with the preferences and the lack of understanding from the followers. I can’t count the numerous ‘oh, it’s okay, just do something I will follow’, an occasional ‘why should I keep my frame, after all he should notice and guide me the right way to make it work’ to a ‘Sorry, I was too much into the music’ and ‘I don’t need to practice, I can’t use those techniques during social dance’ comments..
I have witnessed tons of followers diving into the ladystyling side of dancing to make them look more desirable, wanted and sadly more professional instead of understanding that
tagging along during a dance or placing some styling while looking at the floor or away from their partner is NOT what makes it a partner-dance. I hope this article will educate followers as well to voice their opinion to their teachers and dancepartners, not to be noticed and/or to be more valued or respected, but to show that they also want to learn the dance more than just to follow. Go out and ask! Just like it’s now luckily more common to ask a leader to dance, go and show your worth and dig into knowledgesharing from other great followers or start practicing with leaders while working on your skills.
Leaders more than often have it worse when it comes to getting their dance database upgraded when they are just starting out, but I would also sympathize with the beginning follower who doesn’t just want to have fun and be lead, but also would like to study her part of the dance role. Though in West Coast Swing we stress the importance of both roles from the very beginning, followers have the tendency to not paying attention to their leads and just trying to follow the pattern given by their teachers. We correct that immediately as it should be kept a 50-50% equal sharing of the responsibility and experience on the dancefloor. Our connection is the most important part in our dance, so this is what both partners need in order to survive on the dancefloor. A great advice from you was that we should switch roles every nowandthen, so we can experience the difficulties a lead or follow will witness during a dance.
And last, in West Coast Swing we certainly have a huge amount of female followers who are holding their own, from advanced, all the way to the beginners level, because we make no exception in practicing both parts. Our follow instructors are emphasizing technical points, body mechanics and bodyflight which makes them automicaly respected in any group that they are teaching. This level is needed in order to be taken seriously, just like their male colleagues. Great article!
As a teacher, my observation is that the learning curve for follows and leads is very different. Both follows and leads start out with a lot to learn. Usually, leads struggle a bit more in the early stages because they are trying to figure out how to move their own body and this other person’s body as well. It’s just a steeper learning curve at the beginning. But, follows tend to hit a steeper learning curve once the basics are mastered and styling becomes more of a focus. It is relatively easy for a lead to add styling since they “know” what’s coming next. It’s much more challenging for a follow to be responsive OR ask for the space they need when incorporating styling.
Thanks for making many great points. However, in your result #1, I saw unparallel terms that undermine your secondary message of dance role not being tied instrinsically to gender. Namely, the parallel opposite term for follower is leader. The parallel opposite term for female is male (or woman and man).
Shouldn’t it say something like this? “1. Follower solo instructors aren’t taken as seriously as leader solo instructors. The assumption is that the follower (who, in 99% of cases is a single travelling female) can only teach styling and follower’s movements. By contrast, a solo leader (who, in ?% of cases is a single travelling male) is thought to be able to just ‘guide’ a follwer (often female) student through a cool new pattern or complex movement.”
(I’m not sure what percentage of solo travelling leaders you think are male, so I left that as a question mark.) Thanks for the thoughtful post regarding the importance of following!
Very good points! At that part of the article, I almost went into the possible ties between sexism and the lead/follow roles in dance, and how that affects our perception. I decided that discussion was better left for another time 🙂
As a male who is trying to switch from primarily lead to primarily follow, I appreciate reading about following…especially when the article is written about follows rather than about women. 🙂
I may be showing my age here (!) but I remember my Mom watching Fred Astaire movies and grumbling about how Ginger Rogers didn’t get nearly as much praise and acclaim. “After all”, she would say, “Ginger does all the same moves, but backwards and in high heels!”.
The only dancing I’ve done is Contra where leads and follows are not dictated by biology. I prefer to follow. I find it much easier but also just much more pleasurable to follow. I occasionally lead but don’t feel the sense of connection with another person that I do when following. Perhaps this is as much a matter of personality. In my other life roles I have to switch from leader to follower to leader through out the day (but then I would think many folks do that). So to focus my dancing in the follow role is relaxing and feels safer and more comfortable.
I have noticed that some of the regular dancers where I dance are sarcastic about my choice to prefer to follow. That reflects a problem with their assumptions. At that point I take a social lead by reminding them their sarcasm is not productive or needed-while trying to convey my thoughts in a positive and friendly manner. While my contra group describes itself as gender free it is still not personality free. Even in dancing there remains a need for social negotiation.
But after all is said and done there remain those moments when with my partner for the dance we become the unity of body and mind which results from the focus, clarity and simplification of dance. A few seconds of heavenly connection.
I love this article! I recently started taking a dance class as a follow, and I have been struggling at times and I get told “Just follow” and I think “but what about all of those moves we were just taught? what am I supposed to do over here? shimmy until I guess where you want me?”
As a leader i always asked my followers during danceclass their feedback abt my lead, especially what they think abt my timing, my technique etc. vice versa i will give my followers my humble opinion how they can improve their following. its a 2-way interaction.
“Just Follow” should not have negative connotations ! It means that the follower does not need to know or memories steps but use her technique to the best of her ability to interpret the music and the leaders request and interpretation of the music. I have had on a few occasions a follower not taking an obvious lead because they had not learned that step ! On other occasions followers have completed a number of steps/moves because that is what they think that is what i will ask for. So I think “Just Follow” means to use to the best of your skill to interpret my lead ! “Just Follow” is a skill of its own
It always surprises me when someone thinks following is easier. I tryied it few time and I was not able to do it at all. I just can imagine how the followers do it 😀
There are actually few steps where it seems like magic to me. I dont have a feeling I lead them. I have no idea how it can be recognizable for a follow. Yet they follow my movement without misake. How? It is a big mystery for me 😀
But on the other hand I believe follows has easier start in social dancing. beggining follow can go to party. And if she has a few dances with skilled leaders, she will be able to enjoy it and dance steps she has no idea that exists. When a beggining lead go to fist social dancing he want be able to do nothing. he will fight with begginer follows. And feel very akward with good follows.
But if you want to be good dancer, than following is imho more difficult that leading.
To me (who practices both roles in WCS), “just follow” translates to, “don’t self lead, allow yourself to be led”, a difficult skill to acquire, especially considering the variety of leads out there. I think we’d be better off to change the language to, “allow yourself to be led”, I think it’s more positive, “just follow” had intonations of, “know your place”.
In both roles, I take mental notes of, what does my partner do that I want to emulate, that I want to avoid? In the end, as in life generally, it’s, be engaged and work to be better.
[Almost two years later, I’m just coming across this post… Isn’t the Internet wonderful?]
The analogy I like to use for why following is harder than leading is that Dancing Is Like Learning a Foreign Language.
I took three years of French back in high school. That’s /just/ enough that, if I needed to, I could probably cobble together enough simple sentences to get my point across. Leading is just like that: you only know a finite number of “moves”, and you use them as best as you can to express yourself.
Conversely, if I’m watching / listening to a French film (sans subtitles), I’m completely lost! They’re using words and phrases and idioms I’ve never heard before, and it’s all happening so quickly, and with so many different accents and colorful figures of speech that my brain just can’t keep up… THAT’S what it feels like learning to follow!
Eventually, though, I stop trying to decipher each and every single line of dialog, and simply observe the contextual cues: HOW the characters are speaking tells me what they’re FEELING; WHAT they do tells me WHY they feel that way; WHERE and WHEN they move in relation to each other tells me WHO might be about to do WHAT to WHOM; etc. If I’m lucky, I might pick up a word or two here and there, and start to fill in the missing pieces in my mind. I might not “get” all the jokes, but at least I’ll walk away satisfied that I’ve enjoyed an interesting story, and if I watch it again, I’ll have an even better idea of what’s going on next time.
So whenever I’m dancing with a follower who’s struggling to keep up, I’ve found it helps to say, “Don’t focus on ME; don’t try to figure out what ‘moves’ I’m about to do. You can NEVER know what I’m about to do… Why? Because most of the time *I* don’t know what I’m about to do!
“Instead, try focusing on the *MUSIC* and feeling the move-MENT — because I’ll let you in on a little secret: that’s what *I’M* focused on… By listening to the MUSIC (what I call the ‘Source Code’ for dancing) even though you might not know *WHAT* I’m about to do, at least you’ll know *WHEN* I’m about to do it! And by the time you figure out what you were [air quotes] ‘supposed’ to do, it’s already happened; you’ve already done it!! «grin»”
PS — Then, like going back and watching the movie a second time, I do always try to end with, “That was great! Wanna do one more??” 😀
Great article and something that I deal with quite a lot. I’m a follower who also leads a lot and I do so decently judging by the feedback I get. But all too often, followers are so impressed by that.
“How do you know all that?”
“For how long have you been dancing?”
“I could never do that.”
“But isn’t leading like super hard?”
No pal, it might take some time to learn but once you got it, it’s equal effort to learning how to follow, if not a bit easier because you know what you want it to feel like for your partner and you mostly don’t have to execute these really complex movements but instead give the directions for them. And again all too often, then these questions are followed by them playing down their own role since they “Just follow” like they aren’t equally important in the dance and not that decisive in quality. That is so freaking annoying. It took me a long time to learn how to follow properly since the just following I heard in class and from friends never worked for me. However, if you explain the steps to me and what there is to interpret in the directions I am receiving from the leader, I’ll be capable of performing the movement. It took me a year of trying to just follow as a hella heavy lead in WCS. However, once somebody explained that I was a bit too heavy of a follow and what that meant I was able to adjust in a month. Because solid advice is something one can actually work with and improve.
There is no such thing as “just following”. Following means waiting for that split second between too early and too late, shifting your weight at the right moment, generally a good timing, executing complex movements, being ready for these at any time, correcting your lead’s mistakes (bad wording but definitely something that usually adds to the dance), clean and reasonable hijacking if you like it, styling when you don’t know what comes next and much more. It’s a challenging and enjoyable (yes, leaders, believe me even if it isn’t that much fun the first time you try it) task and can never be taught in two words.
And on a side note: I mostly learned leading from other follower’s feedback on what felt good and where I could improve and even if your first role is leading that should be what you build your knowledge as a leader on because while you may have great technique, footwork or whatever else, that is what makes the difference between a great leader and a great dancer in my humble opinion.
And on a side note on that: If she knows both roles but you think, she’s not good enough to teach you because her first role is following, chances are you’ve got a lot to learn.
In conclusion, learn both roles, they’re both awesome and challenging and most importantly happy dancing!
I’m a guy trying to follow in West coast swing and Salsa.. of course, being a male follower, means most leader WOULDN’T want to dance with me!
Yes, following is not the same with leading, it’s difficult in its own right. Many leaders can’t follow!
I think I follow much better than leading though.
Don’t see how anyone can think that following is easier than leading.
Leading and following have a heavy overlap of skills. The primary difference is the leader has to create a suggestion of what to do next, while the follower has to try to figure out what the leader is suggesting and respond. I definitely think that the latter is the more difficult task! That difficulty is compounded even more, because the leader often asks the follower to do things the leader doesn’t do, like one-footed spins or multiple turns or being dipped.
I’m a little sadden by how you attack the “Just Follow” line. In the context you provide here, it works perfectly well. Following is not as easy as simply just following. Yet, there is another context where I think it is important for the follower to “just follow”. I’m sure you’ve been in the workshop (or sometimes social dancing) where you’ve had that follower who is just a moment ahead of you because they know the pattern. Or you want to be sure you’re leading things correctly, but you’re just not sure cause you don’t know if they are following, or just doing the pattern they have been told.
So I think “Just follow” in one context, can be as very irritating, because of how it make following sound like a lesser skill, while in a different context “just follow” can be very challenging, especially in a workshop, cause I’ve often asked myself, and I following, or am I moving the way I am because that is what is being taught.
Otherwise, great article..
There are times that focusing on following is good. However, I’d change how that’s phrased from “just follow” to “focus on following” or even simply “follow.”
It’s the word “just” that is problematic; not the idea of focusing on what following is.
I think “follow” is also problematic. Not because it’s wrong or has bad connotations, but because as an instruction it’s atrociously imprecise.
A beginner, trying to “follow” without any other explanation, will wait for the lead to start something, guess what move that is, and step through the thing they know. That’s definitely not what the instructor means, but they don’t know that.
As someone who has spent hundreds of hours following socially and in classes, if an instructor says to follow… there are so many things involved that I may have no idea which they’re critiquing or warning is a common problem. Balance? Footwork? Frame? Resistance? Momentum? Anticipation? What aspect of that doesn’t work right? When does it start falling apart?
Without more detail, does simply being told to “follow” ever actually help anyone?