Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Teaching Follows to Swing Dance

Chris and I have had a couple opportunities to teach Balboa and Lindy Hop recently, and we've gotten very gratifying feedback on how well we teach together as a team - especially how much we work with the follows in class. Chris gets as much credit for this as me, because he's very conscientious about making sure the follows have material to work on. I'm just a loudmouth and make sure I get heard in class. :)

Photo courtesy of Dave Welch at Photos With Class
Because of the nice response from our students, I've been thinking lately about our teaching partnership. Of course, we aren't perfect and are always trying to improve on this ourselves, but these are the major points I see as critical in giving the follows an equal education.

1) Stop seeing the follow as the less important member of the team. To teach follows effectively, both the leads and the follows must respect how important their role is in partner dancing. If both teachers model this behavior and outlook, the students will hopefully feel the same way.
Something as simple as the leader-instructor introducing the follows' styling, and showing genuine enthusiasm for spending time on the topic in class, will help balance the roles.

2) Spend enough time preparing - together. The follow-instructor must be clear on the class material in order to participate in actually teaching, not just dancing. I suspect that when the follow-instructor isn't contributing to teaching, it's usually because she doesn't know what the leader-instructor is going to demonstrate next. She's trying to figure it out along with the class.

3) While planning, pay attention to whether the moves are lead-centric or follow-centric. Try to balance the material with different moves or additional styling.

4) Teach the Skills needed when following. This might include where to hold your arms, position your weight, or different footwork that makes a move easier. This is especially important to remember when teaching Advanced classes - teaching the nuances of Following Skills changes an Advanced class from "a bunch of choreography I can never use after I leave class" to "now I'm a better follow!".

5) Sometimes a class will be at a completely different level than the material planned. So go with it! Even though you're teaching off the top of your head, still try to address the reasons why you make certain choices as a follow, not just the mechanics of how to execute the move.

What other techniques do you find helpful for effective teaching of both roles in partner dances? As a student, what do you find helpful, or dislike?


  1. I have a fairly deep set of philosophies when it comes to leading and following.

    My belief in general is that at a fundamental level the skills that follows should be learning from day one is the sense of their body in space (like Newton's Laws crossed with basic body awareness) and their receptivity/sensitivity to their partners. Leads also need to learn those, but they have the additional responsibilities which seem to take priority. They've got to learn to "drive the carriage" so to speak.

    I discourage dancers from learning specific footwork, especially follows because those patterns can interfere with the actions of "being caught" and such. If I do present a footwork pattern, I usually note that it's one example and that there are a myriad of other examples which might work in one case or another.

    As I approach my classes from angle of technique, I break some of the basic tenets down to digestible chunks including momentum, balance (solo and partner), body awareness, contact awareness, etc.

    I also like to build a dialogue between members of the class. I encourage students to say things like "I like it like xxxx" or "that makes my shoulder hurt" and in the case of the negative to offer a suggestion of alternative. In the case that the student "doesn't know" what they like, I might give differing examples and ask them to compare.

    There are clearly so many more concepts that I fear going on too long. Thanks for posing the question.

  2. I remembered this morning another important notion that I like to plant in the minds of my students, which is uncertainty. For follows (and eventually for leads, but they've got other issues) it's important to let go of judgment about their movement, especially in the way that they try to predict what's coming next. This is why I generally eschew teaching established footwork patterns, but there's a whole bunch of other stuff related to this.

    Some follows think this means I'd prefer them to be brain dead, which is the opposite of true. It's just that I'd rather have them accessing their nervous system from the body first.

  3. I'm a female teacher. I lead the class. I don't have a different philosophy for leads vs follows--I teach leads and follows the same skills, since dancing is dancing. I also really focus on mutual attentiveness and responsiveness to each other. It's very egalitarian. I think my students find it less confusing if they're all learning and practicing the same skills, just in different roles with different footwork.

    A lot of people think leading and following are very different. They're not, really. (Source: I've done both since very early on in my dancing.)

    1. I'm glad to hear that you teach to the follows as well as the leads in your class. I've seen so many classes where the follows are basically ignored until they ask questions, but I know that isn't the case everywhere.

      I don't think that leading and following are VERY different, but they aren't the same either. So there are different skills to work on, like how and when to generate energy and movement - these are different, depending on which role one is in. But whatever one's philosophy is, the most important thing is to address ALL the students in the room!

    2. Spot on! All deserve equal attention. It's one of those things I really appreciate in Bobby & Kate's classes. They really think beyond "oh and here's a variation for follower".

      I can't stand the advice for follows: "don't think". meh!
      Exciting stuff Beth, I like the technique angle.

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