An old friend of mine–a west coast swing leader–once told me that he noticed a friend of mine, a bachata, salsa, and zouk follower–because she was a “pure follow.” He asked her to dance–and he recommended that his friends do the same–because of this specific quality. The pure following.
I was intrigued. What’s that, I asked? And more importantly, why is it so desirable? And how do I become a pure follower too?!
What is a pure follow?
A “pure follow” is a follower who can follow whatever is thrown their way. A pure follower does not do canned steps. A pure follow does not backlead (do moves before they are led), or hijack (change what’s being led). A pure follow is not confined to the movements of a specific dance, but is rather well connected throughout their body, so that they can interpret and nail a lead no matter how unorthodox.
Now of course a pure follow can’t necessarily follow a shitty lead. A pure follow doesn’t have to perfectly respond to off-balance, jerky movements or to lack of clarity in the lead. But a pure follow does their best to do so, and will respond well to a high quality lead.
Why do you want to be a “pure follow”?
There are many reasons you might want to be a pure follow. Here are some of them:
You can follow a wide variety of leaders. You don’t need a particular style of salsa (on 1, on 2, etc) or a particular kind of lead (hard, soft). Hell, you don’t even necessarily need a particular kind of dance. For example, I once danced a great tango with an experienced tango leader, because he could use my efforts at pure following to manipulate my body, even though I know almost nothing about tango. Knowing tango would have made the dance much, much better of course, but it was an enjoyable dance for both of us. I also often go out clubbing with leaders and we just kind of do our own thing, mixing steps and moves and the like. You can do this, if you learn how to follow instead of how to do steps.
You can do more than one kind of dance.
Each partner dance has its own unique flavor and is delicious in its own right. The more of a pure follow you are, the more your skills leak over into other dances and enable you to dive into a new community head first.
Versatile leaders love you like crazy.
Just as there are follows who transcend barriers between dances, so there are leaders. Unfortunately for these leaders, however, they are confined to lead only things within the vocabularly of one particular dance on a given night….unless they end up with a pure follow who will follow unorthodox moves or stuff borrowed from other dances. “Pure leaders” consider “pure follows” a godsend.
Advanced skill set.
At advanced levels, the lines between skills required for different dances blurs. The kinds of moves getting led can vary widely. Being a pure follow keeps you right up at the top of an expanding pool of talent.
Moves change. Dances change. If you’re not a pure follow you might get stuck in old times, say, back when you took classes and learned specific turn patterns. But if you are a pure follow, when new movements come along (hello sensual bachata, hello “swouk”), you’ll be good to go. You’ll stay right on the edge of innovation, being able to follow whatever develops in the dance.
You liberate leaders…
and enable them to freely interpret the music. Many experienced leaders will tell you that there is a particular level or type of follow whom they trust implicitly–so much so that they don’t have to worry about only doing certain moves or keeping you balanced or on track. These followers enable them to truly let go, and become one with you and the music. It is much easier to be one of these followers — and for more leaders — if you are a “pure follow.” Since pure follows can do whatever is given them (within reason), leaders can let go. Knowing you can do this for some leaders is an incredible honor and gift.
Creativity. Since you are a “pure follow,” experienced dancers can get creative with you. They can test the bounds of their own leading and dance, and have fun discovering new things they can do. Creativity is a part of what makes partner dancing magical and it is greatly enhanced by pure following.
I’ll talk more in a forthcoming post on ways to develop your pure following. For now it’s probably enough to know that it by and large just has to do with listening, and an open-minded (open-bodied?) willingness to let your body go where it is compelled.
In the meantime – let me know what you think. Is pure following really all that important? Is it too obvious? What’s your experience?
This is a pretty long video – 8 minutes – for just talking about shoes. But I can’t shut up about shoes, and it’s all very important anyway.
Here’s what I cover:
Shoes for West Coast Swing and other swing dances
These dances prefer flat shoes. I show you some options: Toms, Jazz shoes, and swing “sandals.” Why? Because these are ‘grounded’ dances that want you to stay close to the floor. I explain why that’s good for these dances, and how these shoes help you do that.
Shoes for Latin dances
You can wear flat shoes for Latin dances – but a part of the reason Latin dances tend to wear heels is that these dances are “up.” The spins occur on the tips of the toes. Having heels on then means that you don’t have to go up and down and impose level changes (on yourself OR your partner) while you dance. You can put your heels down without losing three or four inches of height.
Different kinds of heels
Some heels come down under shoes at different angles – and this varies, usually, by the company. You should find one that suits you well.
There are different kinds of heels – usually flare or thin heels. Thin heels are known for being harder to stand in, and they may be, but a high quality thin heel still provides a sturdy base off of which to stand.
There are different kinds of straps. There are T bars, there are straps that wrap around the foot, straps that wrap just around the ankle, and straps that are less supportive.
When in doubt, err on smaller shoes rather than larger
When you try on a shoe, make sure that you are anchored and stand still very comfortably – otherwise, how will you be able to dance?
That’s it – please let me know if you have questions! I will also happily discuss different brands with you and help you find what works for you J
This is the third post in a series devoted to honing particular dance skills. As I explained in the first post on Kizomba, I have found that adding new dances to my repertoire always increases my abilities in the rest of the dances I do. This is because each dance has its own set of specific skills it specializes in more than the others. But each of these skills is still useful in every dance.
I have discussed kizomba and zouk previously. Today we cover bachata … first in general and then “traditional” and “sensual” where they diverge.
Body sensitivity and isolations
Bachata is an excellent dance for working on the subtlety of your following. Leads are often extremely gentle and nuanced, which calls you to a higher level of following, particularly in your torso.
Torso flexibility and fluidity / smoothness (and body rolls)
Bachata and kizomba are both great dances for working on receptivity in your torso. Bachata is particularly good for enhancing the range of motion and fluidity of torso movement. The range of motion is simply greater than in kizomba. Because of htis, additional strength is required in bachata. The combination of enhanced range of motion, flexibility, and strength results in a much more fluid and responsive torso.
I think romance is a legit skill that can be learned and practiced. Bachata is often a very romantic dance – and while doing it you have the opportunity to explore different ways to express yourself romantically with your body.
You can play with your hand on your leaders shoulders, neck, and head, can trace your hand along the line of your leader’s back or arms, can work on different hand holds, and can experiment with the way that different ways of touching heads (on the side, titled, head on) feels. There is a lot of variety here and bachata can make you a pro at it.
Bachata, “traditional” or “Dominican”
“Dominican bachata” is well-known as a dance for footwork.
This is true – it’s a great dance for experimenting with your feet and the varying instruments and beats in the music. Dominican bachata has a lot of distinct musical riffs that are rich, fertile ground for play.
These songs are usually quite long… so knock yourself out.
Frame connectivity and footwork following
Dominican bachata, more so than perhaps any of the latin social dances, requires good frame connectivity.
This dance is often danced in open position. But it is still a led dance. For that reason, your frame needs to be well connected from your hands up through your lats, pecs and shoulders, and down into your torso. From there you send the signal to your feet, and you can (though you don’t necessarily have to) mirror or complement the footwork that your partner is doing. You will be pulled, pushed, and rotated in often complex patterns.
Dominican bachata is an excellent dance – perhaps the best of all the social latin dances – to work on sutbleties in the connection in your hands and frame.
There are a lot of kinds of movements relatively unique to sensual bachata. A lot of sensual bachata does come from zouk, as many will be quick to point out, but I also think it comes a lot from people just playing around with different body parts within the bachata rhythm (and sexually so). Bachata has traditionally been a relatively simple dance, so it is ripe for jazzing up with fancy moves.
Sensual bachata is all about foot sweeps these days. What’s a foot sweep? It’s when the leader kicks the followers foot with their own foot to move it to a new position on the floor.
Great foot sweeps come from always being centered over a foot and having excellent balance on that single foot. A great frame and connection with your leader can always support you while the sweep is happening.
rib cage isolations; head isolations; shoulder isolations; ISOLATIONS
Sensual bachata isolates just about every body part that can be isolated.
Shoulders are grabbed and moved independently, arms are flung out to the side and expected to be handled gracefully; heads are rolled standing in place; rib movements are isolated; hips can be grabbed and moved with just one hand.
A part of what all of these isolations mean is that the rest of the body needs to be still. Sensual bachata is great for this.
Unorthodox body positions
Sensual bachata has some moves in it these days that you can’t really find in any other dance. For example, a leader will often press a follower down to the floor, so that her butt touches her heels. The follower could be spun out of this, leapt out of this, or popped to standing, then body rolled out of this.
Sensual bachata is the only dance in which my torso has been bent over to be parallel with the floor, my arms pulled behind my back, and then whipped around spinning into a standing position. I was super suprised the first time I was led in this, and even more surprised that I managed to make it work.
So this makes sensual bachata really great for expanding the range of your body and kinds of leads you’ll follow.
I find ladies styling in sensual bachata to be a bit narcissistic, which I find obnoxious. But if you want to learn how to flaunt your own body and moves, sensual bachata has plenty of material for you to work with.
So that’s it for my list of bachata specific skills. Obviously there are lots of other great things you can learn from bachata – but these are the ones least commonly found in other dances.
Today’s video builds upon what we covered in video 001: frame basics.
First I recap what we learned from that video, then I discuss what it means to have complete physical connection. Whatever points of connection your leader gives you, you should meet as well as possible, whether it’s between your hands, over your leaders arms and shoulders, or anywhere else.
Second, I discuss “no leaks” connection. This means having a frame that is completely connected from the point of your leaders body to your center, to your entire body. This should run from the leaders body, to your fingers, through your forearm, under your triceps, into your lats, and then into your back and torso. This enables your upper body to be connected to your whole body, so you can move properly when and how your leader wants you to leave. You have to figure out how this works in different movements while you are dancing.
Third, I discuss specifically keeping your shoulders down and keeping your lats engaged to make sure you are well connected and have no leaks.
Fourth, I discuss the concepts of compression and extension. These ideas come from the American swing dances, where there is a lot of elasticity in the connection, and the leader and follower are always counter-balancing off of each other. In the Latin dance we do not have that. What we have is neutrality. Our hands are physically connected but not acting on each other, in this neutral state. We activate when the leader initiates a movement .Then compression or extension happens – then your leader will push on you or will pull on you.
Fifth, I explain this concept in terms of very simple math. When your leader pulls you, for example, with the strength of, say, 10. If you pull back with 12 you will over power your lead and you will both go backwards. That is bad. If you pull back with a 10 you stay still. If you pull back with an 8 you will follow your leader but will be super heavy. If you pull back just the tiniest amount, enough to hang on to your frame, so a 1 or perhaps a 2, your leader will be able to move you and you will be able to maintain the integrity of your frame. The same works for compression.
Sixth, I explain how this works for leading and following spins.
Seventh, I explain that high level leaders really enjoy that if they change the amount of pressure or tension or activation that they give you, that you change your response to be properly calibrated to theirs. Give and receive and spin such that you don’t overpower your leader but rather meet them with the exact level of strength that they are asking for.
That concludes the list for advanced tips and theory! Please let me know in the comments here or on youtube if you have any questions!!
This is the second post in the series “honing different dance skills.” The first was kizomba. In it, I described several skills required of followers in kizomba that are useful in every dance, but which are most prominent in kizomba.
This means that if you want to develop your following in such and such a particular way–such as by enhancing the subtlety of your torso connection–then kizomba might be a great dance to add to your repertoire.
Today we move on to another dance – this time, Zouk.
What is zouk?
First we need to address the question of which kind of zouk I am talking about. The zouk that we most commonly see out social dancing is Brazilian zouk, from the Brazilian dance called “lambada.” This lambada dance collided with Carribean zouk music in the mid 1990s, and the combination of the two was, apparently, super appealing. The Brazilian lambada dance has since become associated with Carribean zouk music, and then expanded to include a whole genre of it’s own, largely inspired by hip hop, pop, R&B, and the like.
So you may occasionally run into social dancers who are keen to preserve the differences between Brazilian zouk and Carribean zouk, but more often than not, these days, at least in the states and in Europe, at zouk socials you will solely encounter the hair-whipping, thumping beats of Brazilian zouk.
(If you want to read more about the dance’s history – go here!)
Single foot balance
One of the most important skills a follower can develop is the ability to hold their own weight, and especially while standing on one foot.
In fact, in most dances, for most of the time, your weight should only ever be concentrated on one foot anyway. To stand with your weight planted on both feet is called “splitting weight” and it makes it relatively more difficult for your leader to direct your next steps. This is especially true of west coast swing. You should probably always clearly be on one foot, unless the move calls for otherwise (and to be clear, sometimes they do).
Zouk is an excellent dance for working on single foot balance because its becoming increasingly popular in the dance for leaders to lead single foot moves.
In zouk it is reasonably common to be led spinning, on one foot in place, while the leader holds your frame and walks around you in a circle, creating the spin. It is also common for leaders to stop your motion and suspend movement for the sake of musicality, leaving you in place on one foot.
You can identify when a “single foot” spin, moment, or pause is coming based on the leader lifting you up from your frame in place. This upward motion is intended to block any sort of lateral motion, such that you stay just in one place. It also helps keep you balanced, as it elongates the length of the line you have over your foot.
If your leader is good, they will also provide steady support where you need it, in order to you to balance well.
That being said, the better you get at these moves, the less you will need to lean on your partner.
Flexibility and manipulability in upper back / neck
Zouk moreso than any other dance requires flexibility in the upper back and the neck. The dance is said to “hinge” at three axes — at the shoulder blades, at the shoulders/neck, and at the neck/head.
This dance absolutely requires fluid rotational movement around those three axes.
At the shoulder blades, you can create a concave shape, closing your rib cage in towards itself, arching forward. Keep your neck and head in line with the arch so that you are looking at the floor. Then rotate around so that you are leaning off to one side, hinging from your upper back / shoulder blades. Continue rotating, pulling the shoulder that was the highest while leaning to the side now back and around, such that now you are arching back from your upper back, looking at the ceiling. This should have a more ‘convex’ feel to it as while you arch back your rib cage also opens. A good leader will not just help facilitate this movement but also the convex and concave feelings.
Zouk also requires what I call horizontal movement in the rib cage. You can think of this as creating a convex shape with your ribs out to the front (keeping your shoulders in place), transitioning around to the side, creating a concave shape with your torso in the back (so that if you look down at this point you should see the plane of your stomach) and then rounding it out to the other side, and back to the front. All the while keeping your shoulders in place.
See a video on zouk body movement basics here:
You can work on this flexibility alone but will inevitably work on it while dancing with a partner as it is crucial to just about every zouk dance anyone ever does. Being able to move like this is as basic to zouk as the basic step is.
Mastering the curved movement of zouk, and particularly through turns, enables you to throw lots of cool curves into your turns in other dances. You can spin with your head and your torso off to the side as much as your heart desires.
Bachata and west coast swing are particularly friendly to this kind of “shaping” these days – salsa less so.
It is important not to over-style turns, however: if you are bent half way to the side and whipping your hair around coming out of a turn, that’s all well and good, but it does prevent your leader from being able to lead you at this moment. This is important for west coast and bachata but most especially for salsa, as the vast, vast majority of salsa moves a lead will give you before, during, and after a turn rely on having a properly straight posture.
Pure following in body, especially the upper body; shutting off brain
Zouk more than any other of the social latin dances requires–in my opinion–pure following.
Of course, when you start out in zouk, you learn steps.
But as you progress in zouk, leads melt into other leads, and you cannot keep track of the “moves” you were taught being led any more.
And much of zouk has you off axis.You do get to just stand straight up throughout dances, for sure. But you will often have your face looking down at the ground, or up at the ceiling, or at some position in between, and maybe your eyes are closed. And your leader pulls on your shoulder or taps you on a place on your back and you don’t just rotate your torso and keep your eyes moving all about, but also spin in one place.
For me, zouk is an excellent dance for learning how to shut everything off and simply try to do what my lead is communicating to me to do. I can’t look at the lead and interpret from body cues (often in complex following situations they are standing behind you); I can’t remember moves from class; I can’t even guess which way I will be looking next.
That being said – because you are looking this way and that, and because you are often off axis, zouk requires an enormous deal of trust in your leader.
Zouk also has potential to be the most “dangerous” of the dances, for a lot of reasons: it manipulates the spine more than other dances; it has more large and often “violent” motions (but they don’t have to be done that way!); it tends to draw in leads who like doing flashy moves (though not exclusively of course); and the dancefloors are always full of so much movement that a careless leader quickly becomes a hazard.
So zouk requires a lot of trust in your leader. And it requires honesty with yourself and communication. If you enter into a dance with someone and feel unsafe for any reason, you can (must) communicate this to your leader in some way, reject the leads that you are being given that make you feel unsafe, or extract yourself from the dance if you must.
In cases in which you do not feel unsafe, however, zouk is a great time to practice trust.
People will probably disagree with me on this point, but I stand by it: in zouk, I get to do the least amount of styling of any dance, save, of course, for kizomba.
In salsa there are shines; in bachata there is a lot of open position in which styling can be reasonably easily inserted; in west coast swing there are anchors and sugar pushes and turns… and pretty much everything is styled all of the time (even not styling is a stylistic choice, westies will be quick to point out, since all movement on the westie floor should be intentional.)
But in zouk, the strides of the basic are larger than in other dances, the basic often rotates the whole body, and it is often done quite quickly. When you are not doing the basic, you are often caught up in movement that is so complex that styling simply cannot be done, or should not be done, so that leads cannot be missed.
This isn’t to say that styling is impossible, not at all. But I find that I spend much more time in zouk doing exactly what I am told to do than in salsa and bachata, in which I have more freedom in the shape of the music and the shape of the dances to move as I choose. I am certainly biased in this perspective, as I am not the world’s most accomplished zouk dancer, but I still think that, relative to other dances, there is less styling in zouk.
Now you might be wondering: why is it a good thing that there isn’t as much styling in zouk?
Because I really think followers need to be followers first and foremost, and stylers secondarily. (The same goes for leaders, though is less commonly an issue for them.) It’s pretty common for people to get caught up in the way that they look and they way that they personally want to interpret the music, rather than their leaders.
It is a very hard thing, to learn how to listen to your leader first, before the music.
But it’s so important.
And zouk is great for that.
And… that’s it for my zouk list!
Please tell me what you think! And share your own thoughts! Next up is bachata.
This video is all about the basics of zouk body movement. I made it when I realized that every time I talked about zouk it would simply be better to show you.
Here it is:
There are two primary ways in which you need to be able to manipulate your torso in order to follow zouk. One is what I call horizontal movement, and the other is off-axis. In this video I demonstrate what each looks like and explain how it works.
Horizontal movement is more common to see in other dances, as it occurs while standing completely upright. It isolates the rib cage and moves it forward, side, back, and side, often in a circular motion, though not exclusively. It is important to note moreover that when forward, the ribcage should feel someone “open” and “convex,” and when back, the rib cage is “closed” or “collapsed” and “concave.” This enables smooth circular motion.
Off axis movement is that which characterizes zouk in particular. In this movement, the right cage does not move laterally, but instead hinges down to the front, to the side, up and to the back, and to the other side. When this hinge occurs, the line of the spine follows the movement. You could imagine a flower, for example, where the stem arcs in one directly smoothly from a certain point.
When you hinge forward, your rib cage is in a ‘collapsed’ position, and your head is in line with your spine. As you rotate to the side the ribs open up to the planar, and the head follows the spine such that it is tilted to the side. Then you arch back, and your ribs should feel ‘open’ with your shoulders pressed back to a degree. Then you come around to the other side, leveling the shoulders, and again down and collapsing the ribcage to the front.
High quality off-axis movement is the key to keeping your hair out of your face while dancing zouk, since if you keep your head in line with your spine and the arc of your motion, hair will naturally fall up and over off the face.
You can practice these motions on your own, which will give you more flexibility, range of motion, and ease of being led. You will also, of course, get plenty of practice on the dancefloor.
When I first began salsa dancing, I scoured the internet for resources on how to follow well. I can’t tell you how many times I googled “how do I follow salsa?”
I didn’t find anything. This is why this blog exists.
Most dance schools teach patterns. They teach moves. Often I hear instructors give leaders painstaking details on how to do a move, and then say, “and the follower will just know what to do.”
Um, no, the follower won’t.
This blogpost is the 101 stuff. It’s the beginning. It’s also the core of intermediate, advanced, and professional dancing. It’s (my opinion on) the principles of following well. It is how to get started on the road to being super badass.
I’ve got in in video form for you with a text summary below.
1. Don’t do anything you’re not led to do.
Rule number 1 of following: Follow!
Now I don’t mean to follow blindly, or to follow without consent and excitement. (Or even to not play with hijacking your lead on rare occasion.) Not that. If you are uncomfortable with what’s being led for any reason, go ahead and change it or duck out. Seriously. Get out of dances that cross lines you’re not comfortable with.
But, broadly speaking for the sake of technique of the dance, you do not make a single movement that isn’t led.
Forget steps. Forget patterns. Forget what the teacher says the next move is.
To be a follower leaders like to dance with, you have to agree to let you and your body be their instrument. It’s not passive, to be clear. It’s an active yes. Technically, hold and manipualte your body such that the leader can make it go where they want.
2. Focus on the quality of connection; not how you look
Nothing, and I mean nothing, riles me more when watching followers dance than when they focus on styling more so than on their leader. This happens in all of the dances I do, except perhaps kizomba.
This is a surefire way to get on a leader’s blacklist, perhaps permanently. No one likes a follower that doesn’t pay attention to them.
Of course, styling can be fun. It can even be important. It can be a great way to participate in a non-verbal conversation with your partner. But that is exactly what it should be – a part of your conversation. A part of connecting with your partner. And secondary to what’s being given you by your leader.
Following is hard enough on its own. You get visual cues, cues in your hands, cues in your frame, cues everywhere. When I started out on my quest to be a good follower I threw styling out the window. Doing so enabled me to really dial in to what was happening with my leaders. And they certainly didn’t care–what does it matter to them if my hand is balled in a fist or not? They were glad that I was focused on them.
Nowadays I understand leading, following and each of the dances I do well enough to be able to style without interrupting the lead, and to use it as a part of my connection with my leader. But even now I can recognize a situation in which its important to really focus on the lead and let my styling slide. And I always, always make the choice to let the connection, and my leader, rule.
3. Wait, wait, and wait
Waiting is perhaps the hardest part of being a follower.
Waiting is hard because we are terrified about being able to follow what comes next; because our bodies inherently want to carry themselves where they’re going; because we’re used to interpreting music based on our own preferences alone; because we’ve learned steps that occur in certain patterns and we’re pretty sure they’re what’s coming up next.
But often, they aren’t.
To wait means to sit in a moment. It means to suspend your movement. It means to wait for the lead to come get you, to animate you, to take you somewhere.
It means to trust your partner enough that they will indeed take you somewhere.
In the latin social dances, you do not move unless you’re lead. You might do the basic in place if you’re dancing salsa–and really, you should–but that’s about it. In bachata, kizomba, and zouk, even your basic sits and waits for the leader to make it happen.
Waiting is hard, but this is also probably the most delicious part of partner dancing.
It’s delicious precisely because it waits. It suspends. It builds tension. Trust me on this score. Learning to wait was the best thing that ever happened to my dancing.
4. Take care of your own balance
Leaders can balance followers. Good leaders always do. They provide firm, steady support to help keep you in place.
But in an ideal dance, your leader guides you. Your leader doesn’t keep you standing up the whole time.
The more you can stand on your own, and move where you need to be without requiring your leader to stabilize you, the better your leader can increase the complexity of steps and move the two of you about the floor with confidence and ease.
5. Have a good frame 100% of the time
The frame is the key to communicating with your partner. Without it, you won’t be able to follow what’s led.
What’s a frame? Your frame is the configuration of your upper body. When you hold it in the proper way – with your limbs in the right place and with the right muscles engaged – your body will be able to properly feel what signals the lead gives it.
This is how you do it:
hold your arms out in front of you like you’re holding a beach ball.
Then go put your arms on the wall and lean against it…
But hold the beachball shape!
You should now have a circle of space between you and the wall.
And you should feel that you have to engage a string of muscles from your fingertips up through your arms and into your traps and back in order to keep it there. Good. Keep that.
Now try to lessen the degree of tension in your arms as much as possible, but still keep them there…stay leaning up against the wall. Notice which specific muslces you engage varies based on how high up on the wall you place your hands.
Go find a sink, a doorknob (of a closed door), or anything really sturdy around rib cage height. Make a frame with your arms, then lean back enough so that you can feel some tension in your frame –while keeping it the same shape.
This is the skill you want to perfect with a partner.
Your partner will communicate to you through your frame. If you are too loose–that is, if your muscles are not engaged, then your leader has literally no way to communicate what he wants your torso and feet to do to you. There’s needs to be a secure line running from your hands to the rest of your body.
But this does not mean you want to push on your leader. That makes leading very uncomfortable and challenging.
The goal instead is to hold your frame steady with tension, but with a tension that is subtle enough to simultaneously enable communication and to be comfortable for both of you.
Follow like this–always hold your frame–and you’ll be able to go wherever your leader puts you.
6. When not being led, be neutral
This point definitely does not appy to west coast swing, but it does, by and large, apply to the social Latin dances.
In your frame, if your leader is not giving you any pressure or pulling you anywhere, don’t give any pressure or pull on him. Relax your arms.
In the latin dances, I find that the best way to follow is to engage the muscular structure of my frame only when I feel it being asked to be engaged.
For example, say in salsa that a leader and I are just doing the basic back and forth: 123, 567. I have, on a scale of 1 to 10, about a level 0.5 tension in my arms. I am relaxed. I am ready to increase that amount, but since I am being given no tension, I give none back.
When not being led, don’t lead back. Just be ready for what comes.
7. When led into compression or extension, give back in kind
One of the most important skills of following is calibrating the amount of tension you put into your frame.
When you are not being led anywhere at all, as mentioned in point six, feel free to drop your tension to almost zero.
And then, then, when your leader engages you for movement, engage back. Snap up your frame. Be ready to have your whole body pulled, or directed to move, in one direction or another.
This means, in a very subtle way, that if your leader pushes on you, you push back. You do not push back as much as he gives you, however. If he gives you a level 10 of push, you push back 2, so that he has enough leverage still to steer you. If he pulls on you with a level 1o, pull back 2, so that he can still pull you forward with an energy level of 8.
This is the physics of having a good frame – don’t get tied up in the math. Just hold your frame steady and let your leader take you where you need to go – activating your frame and calibrating the amount of tension you need to give back depending on what your leader gives you.
8. Take small steps & keep your feeet under you
Human bodies aren’t all that big. When you try to make something happen in coordination with another one, there’s not a whole lot of space available to you.
Sure, you might be capable of taking three-feet long strides, but imagine just how destabilizing that is for a connection you have with another human being.
If you take larger steps, you will be off balance and pulling your leader off balance the whole time.
This effort will be greatly helped by keeping your feet under you! In partner dancing, a lot of motion happens above the waist. You are led by your arms, for one. And when you spin, your arms even go above your head.
It may seem like a good idea, sometimes, to stick your legs out behind you to cover more ground or to get more balance.
You would be wrong; it is never a good idea. 🙂
Keep your strides small and your feet always under your torso. This enables you to be well balanced and also enables your leader to lead you much more easily.
9. Be on time; step on time
Perhaps it goes without saying, but one of the most important things all dancers need to do is be in harmony with the music. This means listening; this means being musical; this means taking your steps on time.
It also means, interestingly, that you shouldn’t ever take steps out of time. In salsa, for example, you have a regular 123, 567 pattern of dancing. To put a foot down outside of that pattern throws off the dance. If you’re on the wrong foot at the wrong time your leader cannot lead you.
So one of the most important things you can do for your dancing is be careful to be on time, and always put your foot down on the right beats.
Above all things is commandment number 10: connect. Connect with your arms, connect with your frame; connect with your torso; connect with your eyes. Wherever your leader is communicating to you–meet them there.
One often overlooked aspect of partner dancing is simple touch. I know it sounds obvious but it isn’t. Touch is communication. The more opportunities and places you have to touch your partner–say, for example, letting your whole arm lay amongst the length of your leaders arm in closed position–the more opportunities you have to receive communication about where to go… or to communicate to your leader about where you’d like to go.
So connect. Be present with your body.
Also be visibly connected. Watch your leader. Good leaders are very sneaky — they can trick you into styling or moving into a lead with a visual cue. They might not even have to touch you at all.
Visuals also help you stay connected with your leader concerning your styling, and if you break apart for shines.
Don’t forget that dancing is all about your partner. It’s about dancing for and with them, not next to them. The more you turn your dance into listening and communicating the better connected you will be… and, I promise, the more leaders will stumble over themselves fighting for the chance to dance with you.
So this is my list of the top ten priorities of following–things we should be taught and think about consistently from day one. If you’re just starting out with dancing, I recommend taking some of the things I said here reasonably seriously. They are techniques and opinions I have arrived at after many thousands of dances. If you’re old hat and think I’m crazy, please let me know, so I can fix it. 🙂
One of the most important tools in any followers toolkit is spotting!
Spotting is like a super jedi head trick that advanced dancers use well in order to help keep them balanced, keep them getting dizzy, and knock out some kickass turns.
But you don’t have to be advanced to do it – all you need to do is know how it works, then start practicing!
Here’s what I cover in the video:
What is spotting
Spotting is keeping your head focused in one place – looking directly at your leader, for example – while spinning for as long as possible, then whipping it around to face the same direction again all in one motion. Your head stays almost entirely in one spot while spinning – except for during one moment in which you whip it around to stay forward.
How to spot
I show you how spotting works in slow time. Keep your eyes straight ahead, and start rotating your body. Keep looking in the same place, with your head facing in that direction, for as long as possible while your body rotates. When your body is facing the back wall now, whip your head around 360 degrees so that you are looking front now, but from over the other shoulder. Then continue rotating your body so that it comes under your head. And do it again.
How to practice
Practice spotting slowly, then more quickly, and often. Do it on your own, and then you can begin integrating it into your dance.
Most people I meet, especially in Europe, dance just one kind of partner dance.
They do just west coast, or just salsa, or just bachata, or just zouk, or just kizomba. This is perhaps the most common in the west coast swing scene. I see it a lot in zouk, too, and in bachata in Europe (but not the states… a discussion for another time).
So a lot of people are puzzled when I tell them I do a lot of dances. I, on the other hand, am very puzzled that they do not.
Not only do each of the dances have their own delicious flavors and kinds of connection, but they also have a unique set of skills.
For each dance that I learn, I acquire a new set of skills. Of course, each skill is useful in every dance (I mean that, every dance), but each dance has its own realm of specialization. When I begin learning this new realm of specialization, I can translate my new skills to other dances. It ends up helping me in myriads of ways, some of which I expect but most of which I do not.
The more you advance in each dance, the wider the range of potential leads you receive. So the more variety you have in your dance background, the more likely it will be that you can follow the unique leads being given to you.
What’s more, learning other dances can help get you out of the rut of being a follower that does moves, and elevates you into the category of dancers who are “pure follows.” “Pure follows” don’t do patterns but instead hold their bodies in react to certain touches in the right way to make a leader’s intentions–whatever they are–be realized. They can do anything thrown at them. Pure follows are more in tune with their bodies, more in touch with how different kinds of touches and maneuvers influence them, and more ready, in general, to effortlessly handle what is thrown at them.
Being a “pure follow” is something to which I aspire religiously.
So I have come up with a list of all of the different skills that are emphasized for follows in each of the dances I do. Of course the lists are not exhaustive. I would love your feedback on how to enhance them. As it stands this is what I have noted and most benefited from in my experience. If you are looking to brush up on different skills picking up a new dance might be the perfect remedy for you. Hopefully if so these posts can help you choose which one.
Today, first up, is kizomba/semba/tarraxinha/urban kiz / etc:
First, a quick note. I know that there are many varieties of kizomba, and that there’s a hell of a lot of debate about it these days. But by and large, for followers, the quality of movement and following is applicable across the genres. So I will address them all lumped together here.
Sensitivity and delicacy
All of the dances require sensitivity and delicacy in its higher levels of following. But kizomba is the Afro latin social dance that has sensitivity and delicacy built in from the very start (tango does as well, but I’m terrible at tango so I can’t talk about it), and whose entire dance depends on it.
Kizomba requires you to be still, to listen, and and to calibrate your following in both your torso and your lower body, to the tiny, precise leads you are being led. It teaches you to be sensitive, and to move delicately.
A big problem for followers (and leaders) is learning how to keep their dancing small. This was an enormous challenge for me personally, as I was literally used to taking up whole warehouse and ballroom-sized rooms when I danced in choreographed solo pieces.
Quick aside: when I am new to a social dance space and scanning the floor for leaders to ask or followers to watch, one of the first and most important things I look for is the ability to make small movements.
Something I am repeatedly told by leaders–especially here in the bachata scene in the UK–is that followers over-interpret leads. Bachata requires followers to be capable of both very small and very big movements. In the UK, because sensual styling is so prominent, many followers over-interpret subtle leads and turn them into big, dramatic movements. This is a gigantic no for following and is something you should be wary of doing no matter where you live.
Being cognizant of the size of your dance while dancing (any dance) can be a great way to make up for that error.
Another great way is to dance kizomba.
Following without patterns
Kizomba doesn’t have a basic that occurs in a predictable fashion. It has certain kinds of steps that are done more often than others, but it doesn’t have a basic. It doesn’t have steps and a rhythm that fit squarely within 1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8.
Sometimes in the past I have seen kizomberos wearing T shirts that say “kizomba’s not on 1, or on 2; it’s on you” or some combination therein. That is correct. There’s no set basic, no way to know what your feet will be doing next.
This is really hard for a lot of leaders and some followers to get the hang of in the beginning, but it has the added benefit of unhooking your following from learned combinations and expectations of what comes next.
Taking steps based on a frame lead: direction, length, and degree of commitment
One unsung but incredibly important skill of partner dancing is the art of taking steps based on being led by the arms or the torso.
In some ways, it is a very basic concept, and one we do naturally when we dance. When a leader pulls me to walk forward, I walk forward. When he steers me right, I go right.
But how exactly does that happen?
This is how:
You have a “frame.” Your frame is the set of your muslces and skeletal structure, usually described as residing mostly in the arms but it also extends into the back and torso. The way that you hold your frame enables you to connect to your partner and read the leads.
(A good frame, by the way, is the absolute sexiest thing about a leader when they dance. Mmmmm.)
In most partner dancers, there is a basic step. You do it all of the time. Most followers will simply keep doing the basic throughout the course of a dance.
The thing is, however, that that’s not exactly how partner dancing should be done.
The basics themselves should be led. A follower should never really take any steps — or should at least be prepared to stop or change the step — throughout the duration of a dance.
I need to reiterate that: when you do a Afro-latin social dance, theoretically, you never take a step unless the leader tells you to. Never.
Of course, this gets glossed over a bit here and there, and salsa dancers will tell you to always mark your basic–just always do it. This advice won’t lead you astray in salsa particularly. But even in salsa, any move that isn’t just a simple basic in open position requires a leader to lead it.
And the way in which you are led out of a basic or into moves is typically via your frame.
So something kizomba can be great for is teaching you when and how to step. Because kizomba does not have a basic, you have to listen just to your partner in order to know what to do with your feet.
Kizomba, also, even though many followers attach themselves to their leaders at the pelvis (seriously don’t do this, friends), is actually primarily connected in the torso and the rest of the frame.
So when you follow steps correctly in kizomba, you must read them from direction from the upper body. Kizomba requires you to keep your feet directly connected to your torso, and to precisely move them in the fashion demanded of you by your lead.
There are three components to every step that you take: direction, length of stride, and degree of commitment.
The direction of stride is determined by the lead. Keep your feet in line with your frame. When your frame rotates, this usually means that your feet will be moving in that direction. Kizomba teaches you to keep your feet moving in the direction provided to you.
The length of stride is also determined by the lead. Kizomba is great for teaching you how to calibrate the length of your stride. When moving forward, it is impossible to overstep, because if you did you’d literally be stepping on your leader’s toes. When moving in an “exit” – that is, with your feet off to the side of your partner in some way – your leader is precisely giving you the exact length of stride you should take, based on how much your frame has moved. Do not overstep what your leader gives you.
The weight, or degree of commitment of the stride, is determined by the lead. This is a hugely important aspect of following that we don’t talk about enough. Degree of commitment is an aspect of every single step you take. And what I mean by that is this:
Do you take a full, confident step forward and transfer all of your weight to one foot when led? Or you do split your weight? Do you lean into your step, such as by bouncing into the ball of your foot, and then transfer your weight back to your previous foot? Or do you simply tap your foot on the floor? When you tap it, how much weight do you put into it?
When you extend your foot to a new place on the floor, you don’t have to go all the way on it. You can be led to put any percentage of your weight into the step. Every time you take a step in a dance, that is, take an actual step, you put 100% of your weight into a step, and transfer your whole body to be centered over the foot. Yet you actually shouldn’t do that until the leader puts you over that foot. Sometimes, instead of taking a complete step you should only bounce into the ball of your foot, then go back to the other foot, or tap your foot, or simply place your toes on the ground without transfering your weight at all. This means giving 30%, 5% or 0% of your weight, approximately, respectively.
Kizomba is an excellent dance for working on properly calibrating the weight/commitment, direction, and length of your stride. It is full of moves that change direction, that change distance of pace, and that play with how much weight you and your partner transfer from one foot to another.
This skill translates amazingly to other dances because it teaches you to stay put until given direction otherwise, and then to do so with the exact specifications of distance, direction, and weight.
Difference between steady pace and accelerated steps
Here is an interesting tidbit that applies in most dances: When given a constant velocity lead, a follower should take single steps at a consant rate. I know it sounds obvious but it’s amazing how easy it is to mess this up.
When given a lead that accelerates–that is, that takes you from being still to moving or from moving to moving faster–a follower should accelerate the rate of steps taken.
So for example: at a steady pace, the counts 1 2 should have a step each on 1 and on 2, for a total of two steps.
With an accererated pace, the counts 1 2 should have a step on 1, on &, and on 2, for a total of 3 steps.
A west coast swing dancer would call this a “triple step.”
This kind of movement happens not infrequently in kizomba, as when being led back (from the followers perspective) and to the right. It’s almost like a swinging sensation. It can give you a good feel for the difference between ‘constant’ and ‘accelerated’ movement, which will translate into the other dances that require it. West coast swing uses this a lot. It is the core of the dance. Bachata, salsa, and zouk don’t use this quite so much because it requires going outside of the basic steps. Nevertheless for these dances this is an important skill to understand because, for one thing, you never know what a leader is going to throw at you, and for another, it helps calibrate the quality of your steps to the quality of your lead.
And… that’s it for my kizomba list! Sensitivity, delicacy, dancing small, following without patterns, taking steps based on frame leads, and mastering the difference between steady and accelerated velocity are all important dancing skills that are best honed by dancing kizomba.
Please tell me what you think! And share your own thoughts! Next up is zouk.
I have been dancing for longer than I have been capable of reading. Come to think of it, the same goes for walking. My mother tells me I danced my way out of the womb. Dancing is in my bones, and I have loved it since my very first plie.
But it wasn’t until much, much later in my life that I discovered partner dancing. I was an adult, living on my own. I had already experienced decades of choreography and performing. I had done and seen many different kinds of dance. Dance was old hat to me.
But then, I participated in just one evening of salsa dance, and was hooked. I realized that what I had been up to in ballet, jazz, tap, and the like for the first two decades of my life was wildly inferior to partner dancing.
This was ironic, because my whole life, I had thought partner dancing was for wussies. It looked easy. And boring. You have to do a set of basics steps–the same ones over and over again–the whole time. You couldn’t pirouette, or lunge, or leap. You were burdened with a partner.
But when I quite literally stumbled into into a salsa social at a community center in Boston in my early twenties, my world did a somersault. Up was down and left was right and all of the sudden everything in my life clicked, as though my ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ had been, if valiantly trying to do the correct thing, hanging out in the wrong places my entire life.
Being a follower wasn’t boring.
It was, in fact, heaven.
The Islamic faith is perhaps first and foremost focused on the concept of submission.
It is no small wonder, then, that the central tenants of Sufi mysticism revolve around love, and dance.
Rumi, the most famous of the great Sufi poets, writes
“Dance, when you’re broken open
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandages off
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.”
You might think, like I did before starting partner dancing, that submission is a prison. You might think that it traps you. You might think that it yokes you to someone else’s will.
You would not be more wrong.
Submission is freedom, if of a different sort.
It’s freedom from concern. It’s freedom from initiative. It’s freedom from planning, thought, and will.
It’s the ability to shut off your brain and just be held and sway, and let your leader protect you, guide you, and take you along with the soul of the music. It carries you along. It puts you in the psychological state of flow.
As such, it suspends time. It unites you wholly with your partner, the music, the damp air, and the vibrating bodies around you.
It is thrilling, too. There is a particular sense of wild abandonment that comes from giving yourself over to another person.
Submission is an adventure. I don’t, of course, when I follow, sacrifice my will. If something is happening and I don’t like it, I either refuse to follow it, or I change it. I change moves and dodge undesire leads and shake a looser grip onto my hands all the time. But I am also invited to submit, to give myself over.
Nothing makes me feel more fully alive than the thrill of saying yes.
This first one goes for leading as well as for following. When you partner dance, you shut off the rest of the world.
I shut off my life. I shut off my work. I shut off my taxes and my errands and my hospital bills and my drama.
I used to shut off when I danced ballet, too. But I have since found that partner dancing is lightyears more effective. This is because, when I danced alone, the only person I had to get lost in was myself. Sometimes, if I was aching or anxious, this was problematic.
While partner dancing, I get lost in someone else.
I squeeze his palm gently to let him know I’m with him. I watch the aorta beat rhythmically on the side of his neck. I feel him rise up on his toes and pause on the count of 8, waiting for the drop on 1, and I pause, too, suspended, with my breath stuck tumbling over itself in my in my lungs, waiting waiting waiting, to come down with him on 1.
I put my forehead on his forehead, and I close my eyes, and I sway.
Leaders listen when they dance, too, but not in quite the same way as followers.
One of the most important aspects of our lives–I hesitate even to call it a “skill” because it’s so pervasive and important–is listening.
I am always trying to be a better listener. I want to hear what people say. Perhaps more importantly, I want to hear what they don’t say. I want to put on their shoes. I want to walk ten miles. I want to never have to take the shoes off permanently, but instead be able to slip them back on whenever I feel inclined.
Listening is an important skill for literally everybody in the world to cultivate. It fosters respect; it erodes borders; it unites us in mutual understanding and love.
Following is the art of listening, and then saying yes. It’s the art of saying
“I am here; I am with you; yes, I will be what you need me to be.”
The better I get at following, the better I get at picking up on subtle signals and changes in my partner.
This is seriously the most fun thing of all time.
I love puzzles. I love the unkown. I love secrets. I love figuring things out.
When I dance with someone, and I read, for example, when they at the last second aborts one lead and goes for another, simply by the change of tension in their forearm that I feel echoing in my forearm, this is electrifying.
When I dance a bachata or kizomba and match the gentle rise and fall of my chest to my leader’s own breathing, and make them smile as they realize the synchrony, too, this is electrifying.
Sometimes people (particularly westies, I’ve noticed) talk about “the invisible dance.” What is going on in your dance that we can’t see? What is invisible to everyone else? What tiny changes in the way that you’re touching the floor, that she’s balanced, that tension is coming from your partner’s hands, triceps, and lats, are making the dance happen? This makes partner dancing, in some delightful, exhibitionist sense, a secret. You and your partner are in on what’s going on, and no one else.
The better you get at listening–leaders and followers alike–the more subtle, and therefore electrifying, it becomes.
Ain’t nothing in the world like being validated.
For me, the absolute best kind of validation in life comes from when my partner gives me a lead, and I execute it well.
Even better is when the leader gives something complicated, or changes their mind at the last minute, and I still nail it.
I quite honestly live for that tiny smile that steals over a leader’s face when I pull something off they hadn’t necessarily expected.
Perhaps especially delicious is when you ask a new leader to dance, and they’re obviously hesitant. They say “sure fine” and start off kind of bored, with their eyes darting around the room. But then they lead you and starts to realize that you are going to have a great dance. When the leader gives you progressively different and more complex moves, and you follow them with a subtlety they didn’t necessarily expect, and the leader starts tto smile just a little bit..
And then progressively over the course of the dance smiles more and more..
Mmm. This is the stuff of which addiction is made.
6. Being the artwork
I like to think of leaders and followers in terms of an analogy with another art:
The leader is the painter, and the follower is the paint. The dance is the painting.
Or, for the leader is the sculptor, and the follower, the block of marble. The dance is the statue.
When I dance with a leader, I give my body to them. I do. I come into the dance and agree to let the leader move me and manipulate my body in whichever way they think is best (of course, I can say ‘no’ whenever I want). Along with that body, I come equipped with a personality, and with a skill set.
With that body, that skill set, and that personality, my leader listens to the music, and makes art.
I love being the art. I love being able to come to a leader and say, this is what you have to work with. And I also maybe love saying, Can you handle it?And then, of course, do your worst.
This is, of course, not a passive process. The leader holds the brush but the follower still has agency, and still has to do work. I follow the moves; I embellish here or there; I make suggestions for where we might go next with the positioning of my body. There is a delicious back and forth–though it requires precise communication and a whole lot of deference on the followers part–throughout this process.
And with it, a work of art has come and gone. In this way, dancing is definitely not like painting or sculpting. Those arts create permanent pieces of work that can be looked at and contemplated again at any point in time. Dance does not. With dance, the art doesn’t last. It is ephemeral. It winks out of being as quickly as it comes, and all we have are our memories and our new love for our partners to remember it by.
So that’s it for me! I’m sure I missed much. Have an opinion? Please share! 🙂