Lead or Follow? Why not Both?

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Most partnered dances have a history of being split into lead/follow roles–one partner ‘leads’ the movement or initiates the direction of the dance, giving cues to the ‘follow’ who receives said direction and executes movement based on the cues given–Blues is one of these dances. Over time, the specific semantics around each role has varied, though they have remained much the same at their core. It is most common to find men leading and women following, though that trend is beginning to change. Many are beginning to switch their roles–leads learning how to follow, and follows learning how to lead. You’ll now find both on many dance floors across a plethora of styles. Blues is no different, and you’ll even find national and international instructors swapping roles for a dance, or trading back and forth with their partners. Many may ask, “Why switch roles? I’m more comfortable as a lead/follow.” That’s quite understandable–one role may come more naturally to a dancer than another. However, switching roles is a great way to push one’s understanding of a dance and how it works, and opens a new perspective by putting one’s self in their partners shoes.

In many beginner classes, there is a differentiation in how leading and following are taught. Each has a particular skill set, a particular set of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s, if you will, that provide a basic understanding of the dance, how it feels, looks, and functions. It is easier to brake up a class by role in order to solidify these baseline concepts and practice them with a respective partner. As a dancer grows, however, being aware of one’s partner, the strengths and limitations of a movement, or even just the time/space one has within a movement, becomes a critical piece of the learning curve. Switching roles is a great way to learn about what those things may look like on the other side, and how the roles are often more similar than they seem.

I’ve found a great example of this, as a follow who leads, in that I’m more aware of when/where I can add to a movement. Though a lead performs the majority of movement initiation, there are times when a follow can initiate, or even hijack a movement in a way that does not disrupt one’s partner, but changes the direction, timing, or intent of the movement. Knowing how a movement is lead–where the weight is, where the motion is originating from, how it’s initiated–allows for a more acute sense of timing in these initiations or hijacks: ie. it’s much more fluid to initiate a hijack during an inside turn while the lead’s hand is still raised, rather than when it’s coming down to end the motion or a low-tone turn in open may be a lead providing space for his follow to play, in comparison to a high-tone turn in the same position, etc. There are similar example for leads who follow as well, as following suddenly reveals how and when a lead is unclear, or how difficult it is to not anticipate when one knows the upcoming move or motion. It is a shift in perspective that reveals some of the challenges and advantages of movement from the opposite role.

Switching also encourages a more collaborative partnership style in one’s own dance. Given the higher level of understanding that comes with a knowledge of both roles, the line between lead and follow can begin to blur and both parters are allowed to ‘just dance’. For example, a follower with leading experience may choose to initiate or change a movement in a way that does not disrupt her partner, but also offers the leader a chance to follow the initiated movement (Joe DeMers and Cambell Miller are a great example of this in their dance–often times, one cannot tell who lead a particular movement). This can develop in to new, unexpected sequences or hits that neither partner could have developed on their own. It encourages creativity on both sides, and allows for collaboration in a way that solely ‘leading’ or ‘following’ may not account for. It encourages dancing, together, with your partner, regardless of your role.

Though the switching of roles can be beneficial for any dance, I feel it is doubly important for blues, given the creative, expressive nature of the dance. In classes, dance is discussed as a conversation–a conversation between the couple and the music, between each individual dancer, and each individual and the music. Learning both roles and applying that knowledge allows for a greater breadth of ‘conversation’. It opens new doors to movement, to conversing with one’s partner, and allows for a greater exploration of the blues aesthetic as a whole. Of course, this may not always be the case–sometimes you botch a move, or throw off your partner just so–but that is part of the learning curve too. Switching roles increases knowledge and creativity across the board, and encourages joint learning between both roles. That’s why I switch roles–will you?

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