When I was untrained as a dancer, I did more dancing on my own than with a partner, and I felt music move me. I enjoyed interpreting different instruments with body movement in general, and the freedom to explore without any boundaries or restrictions. The few times I tried partner dancing, I guess I thought I was instinctively a pretty good follower. I suppose looking back I was one of those ladies I now find somewhat obnoxious who thought they could dance 'as long as he's a strong lead' which is a commonly held misconception.
I may need several posts to truly do this topic justice, or one very long one...bear with me.
Buried in this misconception are probably a whole host of cultural and gender stereotypes, and I do not hope to unravel them all in one go. I may merely shed light on two or three in this post.
First there are the expectations leveled upon men. And second there is the unhelpful stigmas about men who dance. (At least in the majority of US culture, but not the world over.) And third the entitlement or superiority assumed by many (not all) women, which leads to an examination of the cultural expectations of women when it comes to dance.
And last, the golden thread which is my own evolution of perspectives on the lead/follow dynamic in partner dancing, both in my own dancing and as a teacher. I hope to share this portion of my journey with you most of all.
So let me begin with a short description about men, since the title is following after all. In our culture, men are expected to be assertive, to know the way, to be masculine and to generally be in charge. It is common for young boys to be pushed into sports or athletic arenas, but not so much with music or dancing (I know, such broad strokes, bear with me, I know there are many exceptions). Whereas, by and large young girls are pushed into ballet, tap, jazz or some other form of dance. This leads to an imbalance of exposure culturally, which leads to unhealthy expectations. So many women come in understanding how their body can respond to the outside stimulus of music, where men are often coordinated within themselves but not necessarily used to conforming to an external metronome (the beat)...layer on top of that the ladies are used to dancing directly with the music and now they have to wait for the man, and we have ourselves a hot mess.
So ladies have to realise at any given moment we could have up to three leaders to follow on a lesson or in a class, and on the dance floor two. Who are all these leaders you ask? Well...in a class or on a lesson there's your teacher, your partner and your music. If one of those is out of sync with the other two, she has to determine which leader is most important in that moment. I'll give you a hint ladies, the music is always last on the list, even if you hear it better than both your partner and your teacher. Which I do understand can cause cognitive dissonance, frustration or for the finely tuned it can just feel terrible. Dancing off time together is still your better option and this is why: what we are trying to achieve on the dance floor is a living breathing creature with four legs, four arms, two hearts, and one mind in charge at a time. It can, at a higher level, become a dialogue where both voices can be exchanging ideas back and forth, but if you argue in the beginning it just brings up the worst insecurities (in and out of your own relationship, on and off the dance floor) and this noise and chaos turns into a tug of war or battle of wills or turns your teacher into a referee to call who was 'right' which is all beside the point. As I said, it is my opinion that while timing is *important* it should never be placed above partnership.
This is not to say the lady's role is passive or subservient or subordinate. This was my second misconception, which I'm afraid I held for at least the first year and a half of teaching. In fact, I was so blown away (learning how to lead myself) by just how much he has on his plate. Patterns, timing, navigating, when to lead which variation so she is neither bored nor dizzy, how to jump in at the right time with the music, etc. I thought I was very compassionate, but it was my perception that he had the lion's share of responsibility. To be honest, that is probably more visibly the case until we get our social basics under our belt...after that it really equalises or tips the other way a bit, in terms of the pressure of continuity. Following can feel to a novice lady like a pass/fail test from step to step, pattern to pattern or depending on the speed of the music or any number of variables. That's the worst feeling, we hate failing on any part of any test, so when we say try it again, it's cause we want a redemption round, not because we are trying to verbally lead you. The continuity of any dance is probably fifty/fifty responsibility-wise...at least that's what one of my teachers told me, when he felt me waiting passively to be placed. He asked me to dance him back, which sounded so strange, and at first I didn't understand what he meant. Dancing him back is a way of being present...an active response back to him letting him know that I got the message, and am on balance ready to receive his next suggestion. If I merely follow, he can't tell without looking which foot I'm on or whether I executed an action...if I actively follow he is getting sensory reassurance that we're still connected, and I'm listening. In following it is possible to have too 'heavy' or 'light' of a connection (side note, never tell a partner they feel heavy, are dancing heavy, or anything...just avoid the term, it just causes issues, fights, tears, etc)
I am sure I have merely scratched the surface of my own thoughts on this topic, but that will do for a start.
Thank you for visiting!
The Double Meaning behind the blog title 'Dream Follower:'
First, for 14 years I was a ballroom & social dance instructor, and have studied both leading and following. I feel that learning to follow is full of nuance and is often misunderstood. I made it one of my personal goals to become a really excellent follow on the dance floor, and will probably talk a lot about the art of following - both in and out of the context of dance.
Second, I am a huge fan of author Michael Ende, probably best known for The Neverending Story. The book is incredible, and the first film captured some of the essence. (Please don't watch the other two films...I urge you to read the book though!) Anyway, at least twice in my life I have been caught in a storm of my own indecision, and my inner Moon Princess yelled to my inner Bastian...'Why don't you do what you dream?' I tear up even now as I write this little blurb. The tension between being practical, keeping my feet on the ground and my head out of the clouds (at the risk of compromising my inner vibrancy, true self, and who knows what else)...and reaching for my true dreams (at the risk of losing everything) is still a very real struggle. In fact, one of those struggles lead to my 14 years of teaching dance, so we can see which voice won the battle that fateful day when I was staring at the want-ad...
And so I strive to be two kinds of Dream Followers in my life. One has to do with connecting with others, and the other has to do with connecting with my inner Moon Princess and the world of possibility that opens when I do...