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?
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 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.
What is a frame? How do you use it? Why is it important for dancing?
In today’s video I talk all about the basics of how to have a frame, how to use it well, and therefore, how to be able to follow whatever moves the leader gives you.
Here is a quick summary:
1. What is a frame?
Your frame is the way that you hold your body, specifically your upper body, so that you can receive the signals your leader communicates to you. It comprises mostly your hands, arms, shoulders, and lats, so the signals can get from your hands to your body.
2. How do you make a frame?
Hold your arms out in front of you, like you might put your arms around a beach ball (but when dancing you will lower your hands). Now, go put your hands up against the wall. Lean into them, but do NOT let your arms move at all. Stay still. Notice how you have to activate some muscles in order to do so.
Grab hold of a (closed) doorknob. Lean back. Don’t change the shape of your arms. Notice that you need to engage muscles to do this, too.
When you do both of these exercises, try to lessen the amount of muscle tension you need to hold your arms in place. This is what you want to do with your partner (in my opinion) – lessen the amount of “tension” in your arms as much as possible.
3. How do you use a frame?
Now that you have a frame and know that you need to keep it in place, you can receive leads. You can be pulled, pushed, or rotated. In all cases you keep your frame right where it is, which enables you to walk forward, back, or rotate and keep your whole body in one straight line. And with these three different kinds of manipulations – your leader will be able to lead just about anything!
And that’s it!
But its definitely not all. For more on your frame, the concepts of compression and extension, how to deal with unique arm positions, and frame MATH, check out the video 004: Advanced Frame Theory and tips.
Have any questions? Post ’em in the comments here or on youtube. 🙂