Lead and follow
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In some types of partner dance, lead and follow are designations for the two dancers comprising a dance couple. In the case of mixed-sex couples, the male is traditionally the lead and the female is the follow. The lead is responsible for guiding the couple and initiating transitions to different dance steps and, in improvised dances, for choosing the dance steps to perform. The lead conveys his choices and direction to the follow through subtle physical and visual signals, thereby allowing the couple to be smoothly coordinated. These choices are communicated by partner connection.
- 1 Theory
- 2 Social partner dance principles
- 3 Weight transfer
- 4 Travel
- 5 Lead
- 6 Follow
- 7 References
The amount of direction given by the lead depends on several factors, including dance style, social context of the dance, and experience and personalities of the dancers. Some partner dances (e.g., Lindy Hop) employ an open position that encourages improvisation by the follow. Others, such as Argentine Tango, involve a close embrace (or closed position) that requires the follow to strictly conform to the lead's direction.
Social partner dance principles
Partner dancing requires awareness and clear communication; this is essential both for safety and for the overall success of the dance. If following in the dance, it helps to maintain a centered readiness to the leader. This helps the follower be ready for cues both visually and physically: a lifted hand likely means an upcoming turn, for example, or a hand brought in front of the abdomen might signal a send-away. The leader of the dance will best support the follower by giving clear direction.
For the Leader and Follower to interact with each other, communication needs to occur between the dance couple. Because it's not practical to discuss moves, physical contact is the most effective means. More advanced dancers will take many cues from each other through this connection, with the Follower using it to communicate feedback to the Leader just as the Leader uses it to suggest moves to their partner. The most accomplished dancers use connection as a line of communication which allows the leader to incorporate the follower's ideas, abilities, and creative suggestions into their own styling and selection of moves.
In many partner dances, the lead's steps differ from the follower's. In face-to-face positions, the follower generally "mirrors" the lead's footwork. For example, if the lead begins on their left foot, the follow will begin on their right foot. In choreographed pieces and other situations where the follow is in a tandem position or shadow position, the lead and follow will use the same footwork. Usually both partners move together as a unit, but in some dances the partners move in opposite directions - together and apart again.
In partner dancing, dancers seek to work together to create synchronised or complementary movements. The lead is largely responsible for initiating movement, whereas the follow's role is to maintain this movement (though they may choose not to). Many dancers describe this process as involving the initiation of momentum or 'energy' (by the lead) and then the subsequent maintenance, exaggeration, decreasing or dissolving of this momentum by both partners. This momentum or energy may be manifested as movement (in its most obvious form), or in a range of more complex interactions between partners:
- Compression (where each partner 'compress' the energy by bending joints and moving towards or 'into' their partner, to varying degrees);
- Leverage (where one partner - usually the lead - exploits the development of compression or connection to shift their follow's weight or to 'ground' (develop 'compression' downwards, with the contact their feet make with the floor) themselves more thoroughly before initiating movement);
- Tension (is the opposite of compression - partners moving away from each other but still in contact)
It is also helpful for dancers to regard their partners in terms of their points of balance to help the Lead initiate movements for their Follow partners. These points of balance include the front-facing side of the shoulders, the front facing side of the hips, and the Follow's center (the abdomen). If the Lead wants his or her partner to turn, he would take the Follower's hand from the hip area to the shoulder area while indicating the direction in which the turn should occur. If the Lead wants to bring the Follow close, the Lead is to apply tension and draw the hand in and down toward his or her own hip; to send the Follow away, the Lead would guide the hand toward the Follow's center and add compression, signaling the move away.
For partner dancers, using weight transfers is a way for a Lead to communicate a 'lead' for a dance step to a Follow.
In another example, for a Lead to have their Follow walk forwards while connected, the Lead begins by taking his or her center back, indicating a backward walking move. As the partners arms/points of contact move away from each other, they develop tension, which the follow may either break by dropping their arms or breaking the hold, or 'follow' by moving.
A more experienced Lead may realize (if only on an unconscious level) that the most effective execution of even this "simple" step is achieved by preparing for movement before the step begins.
The Lead-Follow connection facilitates this. The principles of Leading and Following are explored to their most extreme limits in contact improvisation of modern dance, though they are as ancient a process as a parent carrying a child.
Advanced swing dancers do this to enhance their dance connection and to add more fun into the dance. Another way of "breaking the routine" of the dance is syncopation (the second meaning, making more steps than required by the standard description of the dance pattern). Syncopations are easier for the lead to cope with, since the lead does not have to change the intended dance figure, although experienced dancers try and match the fancy footwork of the partner, at least in rhythm. So, in a sense, syncopation may be perceived as mild hijacking. This is not as difficult as it might seem, since good dancers match their footwork to musical accents.
- Additional Dance Terms
Closed Position: The basic dance position has the leader and follower facing one another, with the leader's right hand on the follower's back and the left hand holding the follower's right hand. The leader's left hand may be raised just below shoulder level to create the frame, or loose by the leader's side, depending on the style of dance. The right foot should point between the partner's feet.
Open Position: An open position will have the leader and follower facing one another, holding with one or both hands. Partners have slightly more distance between them than in closed position.
Apart Position: No hands held or contact made.
Promenade Position: A closed position that forms a V-shape. The leader will turn approximately 1/8 of a turn to the left and the follower 1/8 of a turn to the right, with heads following in respective directions. These degrees of turn vary, depending on the style of dance. Partners are walking with toes pointed in the same direction.
Counter-Promenade Position: Similar V-position as above, with partners walking in same direction yet with toes facing opposite directions (towards one another).
Outside Partner Position: A closed position where both of the leader's feet step on the outside track of the follower's feet; right leg will be against right leg.
Alignment: Indicate the directions the feet face in relationship to the room. Utilizes the Line Of Dance, which creates orientation positions in the room where the dance is taking place.
Turn: Direction of the turn indicates which shoulder will move backward as one turns. In a Left turn, the left shoulder will move backward. In the Right turn, the right shoulder will move backward.
Sway: Sway indicates body movement in the opposite direction of the moving foot. Sway Left stretches away from the moving right foot, while Sway Right stretches away from the moving left foot. Straight indicates no sway, holding an upright position.
Counter-Sway: Body moves in the same direction of the moving foot.
Rise and Fall: Refers to the body movement ascending and descending to create dynamic levels in the dance.
Contra Body Movement (CBM): Describes the body movement when the opposite shoulder moves in the same direction as the opposite or moving leg.
Contra Body Movement Position (CBMP): Describes the foot position when the moving foot is in the same line of position as the opposite foot (as in being on a tightrope).
Fall Away: Both dancers walk backwards.
A general rule is that both lead and follow watch each other's back in a dance hall situation. Collision avoidance is one of the cases when the follow is required to "backlead" or at least to communicate about the danger to the lead. In travelling dances, such as Waltz, common Follow signals of danger are an unusual resistance to the Lead, or a slight tap by the shoulder. In open-position dances, such as Swing or Latin dances, maintaining eye contact with the partner is an important safety communication link.
Recovery from miscommunication
Sometimes a miscommunication is possible between the Lead and Follow. A general rule here is do not wrestle and never stop dancing. Techniques of the recovery of connection and synchronization vary from dance to dance, but there are some common tricks.
- In dances without obligatory body contact (Latin, swing, hustle, American Smooth), free spin recovers from anything.
- In dances danced in body contact (Waltz, Tango) it is very important to recover the feet match. To recover, Leads may initiate a well-known (i.e. basic) step with slightly exaggerated sideways shift of weight to force the Follow to free the required foot. For example, in Waltz or Foxtrot a good suggestion would be to end a measure in the open Promenade position, there would be no doubt as to the direction of the movement and which foot to use at the beginning of the next measure.
History of gender roles
Traditionally, the male dance partner is the Lead and the female dance partner is the Follow, though this is not always the case. Many social dance forms have a long history of same-sex and role-crossing partnerships, and there have been some changes to the strict gendering of partner dances in some competition or performance contexts. An example is a "Jack and Jack" dance contest.
Another form of partner dance where there is a Lead and Follow is Ballet. Roger Copeland(1993) describes how in ballet the male (Lead) is in control manipulating the movement through his Follow, the ballerina. The Lead is consistently in control which leaves the Follow in a submissive position(p.140).
Methods to lead
- Body Lead
- Arm Lead
Body lead vs. arm lead
A body lead occurs where the leader initiates a lead by moving their body, which moves their arm(s), and thus transmits a lead to the follow. 'Body lead' means much the same as 'weight transfer'. An arm lead occurs where the leader moves their arm(s) without moving their body, or moves their body in a different direction to their arm. While an 'arm lead' without the transfer of weight (or movement of the body) on the part of the leader is often a marker of an inexperienced or poorly taught dancer, the process of leading and following, particularly at an advanced level, often involves the contra- and contrasting uses of weight transfers and 'arm moves'. As an example, a leader may lead a follow back onto their right foot through the leader's own weight transfer forwards onto their left foot; yet at the same time turn the follower's torso to the left from above the hips.
Techniques of leading
The Lead has to communicate the direction of the movement to the Follow. Traditionally, the Lead's right hand on the follow's back, near the lowest part of the shoulder-blade. This is the strongest part of the back and the lead can easily pull the Follow's body inwards. To enable the Lead to communicate a step forward (backward for the Follow) the Follow has to constantly put a little weight against the Lead's right hand. When the Lead goes forward, the Follow will naturally go backwards.
An important leading mechanism is the Lead's left hand, which usually holds the Follow's right hand. At no point should it be necessary for any partner to firmly grab the other's hand. It is sufficient to press the hand or even only finger tips slightly against each other, the Follows hand following the Leads hand.
Another important leading mechanism is hip contact. Though not possible in traditional Latin dances like Rumba, Cha-cha, Tango Argentino because of partner separation, hip contact is a harmonious and sensual way of communicating movement to the partner, used primarily in Standard or Ballroom Dances (English / slow Waltz, European Tango, Quickstep etc.) and Caribbean dances.
Types of follow
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- Active Follow
- Passive Follow
Techniques of Following
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'Backleading' is when a Follow is executing steps without waiting for, or contrary to, or interfering with the Lead's lead. Both are considered bad dancing habits because it makes the Follow difficult to lead and dance with.
Backleading can be a teaching tool that is often used intentionally by an instructor when dancing with a student lead, in order to help them learn the desired technique.
Backleading sounds similar to "hijacking", and indeed it is often used in place of "hijacking". However the two terms have significant differences, stemming from intentions. The first, superficial, difference: hijacking is usually an occasional "outburst" of the Follow, which otherwise diligently follows the lead, while a "backlead" may do this almost on every other step. The second, a more significant one: hijacking is an actual Lead, i.e., a hijacker does their stuff and watches for the 'Lead' to 'Follow' (reversed roles!), while backleading is taking care only about one's own dancing.
Sometimes the follow steals the lead and they reverse roles for some time. This is called hijacking (also known as lead stealing). Hijacking requires experience and good connection, since without proper timing it may look like sloppy dancing. A signal for hijacking is typically an unusually changed (mostly, increased) stress in the connection from the follow's side. "Unusually" means more than typically required for the execution of the current step (by these partners). For a follow to hijack, they must be sure that the lead will understand or at least guess the follow's intentions.
- Joseph Daniel DeMers (2013), Frame matching and ΔpTed: a framework for teaching Swing and Blues dance partner connection, Research in Dance Education, 14:1, 71 - 80, DOI: 10.1080/14647893.2012.688943