Leading

Google defines dancing as “moving rhythmically to music.” This is a definition we all intuitively accept. Dancing – it seems obvious – is moving.

But I believe in our rush to move, we leave something important behind.

We forget a crucial fact: in order to move, and in order to dance, we must do so out of the spaces between movement. We must start with stillness.

We might liken a dance to a night sky. As there would be no stars without the space between them, so there would be no movements without the stillness between them.

This is an important idea for dancing in general, though I would argue that in partner dancing it has a particular importance that should not ever be ignored.

Here is what we do, when we partner dance: we default to moving. We are constantly thinking about how we should be moving, and what movements should come next.

For followers, in salsa, for example, we say: always do the basic. Always mark time. I once heard a famous couple criticized because the follower wasn’t always moving her feet. Followers should always be stepping, preparing themselves for the next possible movement.

We also, as followers, if we see a moment of pause or suspension from our leaders, tend to snatch the opportunity quickly. We have seen a moment and we will take it! We get, I would argue, selfish and disconnected from our  partners. We think, “aha! Now I get to do something fancy! Now I get to do what I want.”

The sin for leaders regarding stillness is to ignore it. Many leaders think they need to constantly be in motion, constantly providing moves for their follower to do, or else the follower will get bored. When two people are emotionally connected however I would argue that being bored is impossible, and stillness properly integrated into a dance does not just help facilitate that kind of connection, but also provides leaders with an opportunity to listen to what their follower has to say with their body.

This mentality of constant, perhaps even frenetic, movement, I believe, is problematic because it is antithetical to four things I love dearly: presence, connection, listening and intention.

Instead of defaulting to movement, I suggest, perhaps we should default to stillness.

When we are still, we are present with one another. We do not have to worry about our technique or our creativity or doing the right thing – we simply are one another.

When we are still, the noise drops out, and we can connect with each other more deeply on an emotional level.

When we are still, we have the time and energy with which to listen to one another.

And when we are still, we start from a baseline out of which we can use our bodies intentionally to communicate with one another.

Now to be clear, the type of stillness I am talking about varies immensely. And one does not of course have to be completely still, and most certainly not all of the time. One simply has to choose to move out of a base of stillness. Stillness takes form such as a 6 second long hug at a beginning of a dance; it may be the simple suspending breaths on counts 4 and 8; it could be a break in the music where you simply stand and look at one another; it could be counterbalance in an extended movement, when your eyes meet for a split second across the distance of your extended arms.

As a leader, to initiate stillness shows followers that you are present with your follower. It shows that you are eager to communicate on a level that goes beyond simple steps. It shows them that you care about your connection. It shows that all of the movements you will initiate come out of partnership and intention. (For more on which, see this recent post on leader qualities.)

As followers, this enables you to be truly, incredibly in tune with your partners.  Sometimes in classes followers are told to “have patience” or to “wait.” “Don’t anticipate!” instructors admonish. But I argue that in doing so these instructors do not quite get at the heart of the matter. Instead, I would insist: Be still. Listen.

When a leader stops moving, I know, I know, you might really want to keep moving. You might want to keep doing a basic or to take this moment to do something cool with your hips or your hands and shine. But if you also go still, and you wait, then you and your partner share a beautiful moment of tension and suspension, in which you are both ready to hear the slightest signal from one another’s bodies. You could then choose to move – but in this case it would be a moment of intentional communicating, not for the arbitrary sake of constant motion.

For both leaders and followers, out of stillness comes a platform for truly communicating. Instead of moving willy nilly just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, movement becomes intentional. Every move conveys an emotion, an idea, that your partner can interpret, and volley back to you.

Consider an exercise of standing in closed position with a partner with your eyes closed. Stand still. Don’t move. As a leader, transfer your weight slightly back and forth between your feet, ever so slightly. Your follower should be able to feel this and move with you. Go back to standing still. You can breathe together, literally. With stillness, this is possible, as you slow down and feel each other. In a state of stillness you can do other intentionally feeling things such as slightly tap your fingers, tilt your head, pop your rib cage, shake your shoulders gently, wait for a second or two then do a subtle roll of your abdomen. Each of these movements is a communication for your partner and your partner alone. An audience could maybe see this if they’re looking for it (and personally am watching for it like a hawk), but they don’t know what it feels like.

So I do not mean to say that when you dance you should never be moving. You should. And I don’t mean to say that followers should never move when their leaders give them stillness. Because out of stillness comes opportunities to connect, and to communicate with your body.

But I believe that the default when we dance should be stillness. The default should be presence. The default should be listening. And then, from that platform, movements can all be intentional, emotional, interesting, connected. Instead of rushing ahead with movement, we wait and move in synchrony.  This is because our movements are not given but intentional acts of communication, ones that convey affects such as love, joy, sensuality, passion, tenderness, fire, playfulness, or whatever you’d like.

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I have been asked several times if I could write more posts about leading. I am currently working to bring someone on board to talk about leading technique (as mine is sub-par). For the time being, however, I thought it might be nice to at least talk about my preferences.

What traits do I look for in leaders?

Now, to be clear – there are many followers who look for very  different things in their leaders than I do. For example, some followers really like to be showy (this is fine by me, just not my preference). Some like big moves (also fine, I like them too). Some like to be thrown around like a rag doll (I used to). Some like leaders who stick very closely to the parameters of the one kind of dance they do (like a salsero who is classically salsa), or leaders who aren’t surprising (this is common). Some I know even seek out leaders who are more forceful with their leading, because it gives them more energy into which they can lean for balance.

But I do have clear preferences. My preferences come out of a deeply held belief that dance is about presence and communication. The qualities  I appreciate most in a leader are those which enhance them.

So here we are – the ~11 traits that characterize my ideal leader.

1) Timing 

It should go without saying that being on time is crucially important for being an ideal leader.

But I will elaborate another timing point:

I don’t like it when leaders are in a hurry. What do I mean, “in a hurry?” Interestingly, I can spot this “hurry” in a heartbeat. It means always thinking about what’s next, and rushing ahead into it. It means blowing through a beat, instead of relaxing into it. It feels like impatience.

The majority of what I would call “advanced” or “experienced” leaders move confidently through the music without running. They relax into the beat, and are present with every count. Some even suspend over certain counts, particularly 4 and 8 in bachata and salsa, and wait until the last moment before moving onto the next step. This adds a beautiful sort of breath to a dance.

2) Emotional Connection

A good leader for me must be present with me. A good leader is attentive, takes care of me (as I take care of them), and focuses much more on what the dance feels like than how it looks. With a good leader a dance is an intensely good nonverbal conversation. This means eye contact, of course, but also so much more, such as being playful, communicating with our bodies, and communicating with various facial expressions depending on what the dance calls for.

I often default to some variety of “flirty” for my facial expressions and  for this to all of my leaders I expressly apologize.

Emotional connection means listening to the music together.  If in salsa, it means paying attention to each other while shining. In bachata, it means tuning into each other’s footwork. In west coast, it means communicating the hell out of your connection. In all dances, it means sharing 4 minutes of vulnerability, emotions, and – in my opinion – love, for one another.

2a) Romance

I have heard many people say that one dance is four minutes love – and I personally ascribe to this idea. There is something perfectly romantic and so, tenderly sweet about the structure of a dance. It’s vulnerable, it’s close, it’s paying attention, it’s taking care, it’s appreciating one another’s strengths and weaknesses, taking four minutes of your existence to give yourself over to each other.

My perfect leader is romantic. This leader touches me kindly; they hold me sweetly. This involves things like soft hands on my back, an intentional hold on my wrist; a loving touch of the foreheads when the timing is right.

This isn’t to say that this leader imposes an intimacy on me that I do not indicate I want. Romance does not equate to skeeziness. Romance is kind; romance is sweet; romance is respectful. And romance does not have to be sexual. It simply is romantic in the classic sense of the word: choosing to connect with, illuminating the best of, and deeply appreciate one another.

3) Feels deeply

Similarly, my ideal leader feels things deeply. I personally really enjoy feeling and expressing emotions when I dance, though it’s really emotionally challenging and indeed feels a bit off when I try to do this in a dance and my leader isn’t there with me.

Whether its a soft and slow bachata, a jazzy mambo, or a slanky cha cha, the more my leader feels and expresses, the more liberated I am to feel myself. We can take each other to really amazing expressive heights, if only we meet one another with the courage to do so.

3a) Is expressive

Perhaps it goes without  saying, but my ideal leader takes those deep feelings and turns them into a powerfully emotive (and therefore emotionally vulnerable) dance.

4) Control 

My ideal leader of course has superb technique. I like to think of technique as the combination of two things: knowledge of a dance, and control over one’s body. With these two things, anyone can dance stunningly, and both appear to be and actually be supremely confident. When you have complete control over your body, you do exactly what you intend to do. Your dancing happens because you choose it to, not because your body is forcing you to take steps or throw your arms out for balance. With good leading technique, this level of control also means that your follower feels the movements you are prompting them with extremely comfortable accuracy.

An important part of control is balance. The more firm a leader is in their own positioning, the more effortless and joyful a dance can be for a follower. And then, if you both have amazing balance, you can stop on a dime together or hang suspended in space, and look each other in the eyes and have one of those moments that is one of my absolute favorite about dancing, that says, we are so in tune; we are also very badass.

(For control for followers check out this post.)

5) Good posture

Good posture goes along with control, but I wanted to put it on this list separately because it is the first thing I look for when scanning the room for potential people to ask.

Good posture goes like this:

Stand up straight. Don’t hunch your shoulders forward, especially when in closed position (this is literally the worst). Stand up straight literally 100% of the time, unless it’s a stylistic choice for the sake of a shine or etc. Shoulders should be down and slightly back but not egregiously so. When you lead, do not let your elbows go behind you, and do not overextend your shoulders when leading moves to break your posture. Do not overextend your shoulders – it’s so important I said it twice. I avoid people who do. Trust me on these points, they’re incredibly important for dancing with everybody, not just me.

6) Precision

Very few things in the world are sexier to me than precision on the dance floor.

Precision is the art of knowing exactly how far to extend your lead, in what direction, and with the exact right amount of force at the exact right time. I am tempted to say it takes time to learn precision, but I know some leaders who were very precise off of the bat, because they were methodical and intentional about the mechanics of dance from the start.

7) Follower input

My ideal leader enjoys listening to me, and getting input from me.

This can happen in a number of different ways. For one, I really enjoy when a leader pays attention to my body and what it can do, and what I like to do. First dances can be the best dances if a leader discerns my skill set and gives me what I want. Sometimes if my knees are hurting I’ll resist (pointedly) moves where I have to bend down really far, and a good really will realize that’s a no-go and stop leading those moves. That’s great. A good leader will also pay attention to the green light signals I give. I can’t tell you how much I love it when a leader in our first dance ever starts to spin me and then realizes that spinning is kind of my wheelhouse, then gives me eight more right into a dip. Shows both a mastery of the dance and attentiveness to me. Love it.

Another ways follower input happens is when a leader gives ample space for me to contribute. This might mean slowing down a turn so I can spend some time doing whatever TF, or integrating more pauses into the dance so as to facilitate communication.

It’s nice when, on the rare occasion I decide to “hijack,” a leader is on board. But I will say this: I do not like it when a leader tells me my input is good, but I can only have it if I hijack (as has happened). These are partner dances in which the lead and follow rules are pretty much agreed upon–patriarchy is literally built into the fabric of the dance. I am also a human being who likes to walk gently among the people around me. If you expect me to interrupt you for the sake of our conversation, I will never do it. Soliciting input by providing space to your partner is an excellent way to show them you are listening. And I notice, and will love you for it.

(For more on follower input, check out this post on partnerwork technicians versus co-creators.)

8) Creativity

My ideal leader is creative.

If a leader gives me a lot of standard “moves” that I’ve danced a thousand times, if they are executed really well, I will have a great time.

But if a leader takes their knowledge of dance and how bodies can communicate, then leverages it to do stuff I’ve never seen before – whether they make it up beforehand or, perhaps better, can do it on the spot while listening to and communicating with me – then I’ll have a shit eating grin on my face the entire time.

Some people debate whether creativity can be leveraged at the beginning of learning to dance, or if one needs to “master the rules before they can break them.” I think starting at the beginning is great so long as you don’t neglect technique, too. The more rules and move you learn, and the more technique you have, the more precise, followable, and enjoyable your creativity will become over time. But it never hurts to think outside of the box, even from day one.

I will say also that doing multiple dances helps leaders in this regard a lot. In fact I’ll go ahead and say…

9) Multiple Dances

To be clear, there are amazing leaders who do just one kind of dance.

But since we’re talking about ideals, I love it when leaders dance multiple dances, because I do, too, and it opens up a huge field of creativity and communication to us.

One of my absolute favorite things to do is simply follow (in a communicative way), whether that means sliding from the language of one dance into another or just free wheeling doing all sorts of things. Tons of music in pretty much every genre is danceable if you listen well enough. Ask me out for a night of partner dancing at a jazz club or house lounge or top 40 pop party and I will be nearly incapable of saying no.

10) Gentleness (and variety)

I like leaders who are gentle. On the spectrum of heavy to light (see a post and graph on which in this post), I prefer them to be much closer to the light end. This is different for me than it used to be. I used to really enjoy super energetic, push and pull kinds of dances. But as time wore on I became more and more attuned to the emotional and intellectual components of a dance. Now I prioritize gentelness. Or, perhaps it’s better to say, I appreciate it when leaders play with the amount of force they use to meet the stylistic needs of the dance, defaulting to gentle typically. It feels so great to be touched gently, to be led like a feather – and then, of course – when the music calls for it, to be able to whip out hard and fast moves (with control). I do enjoy the energetic, but it has a time and a place, and should be matched by expertise on the entirety of the spectrum.

10a) Puts me in comfortable positions

Few things I find more irritating than when a leader knocks me off balance or distorts my body into uncomfortable positions. To be clear – and I think most leaders would vouch for this fact – I am an incredibly flexible human being. I used to be a contortionist. But when I am dancing with someone, I don’t want my rib cage to be isolated so far to the side that I have to struggle to maintain my balance.

An ideal leader never moves a follower more than the range of their body and balance demand. This may mean making adjustments for followers who are different sizes for you (for example, I am quite short and compact, so I need smaller steps and isolations). This could make all of the difference, however. When in doubt, erring on the side of smaller rather than larger movements I believe is always wise.

11) Subtlety

Subtlety is my favorite thing in dance.

In part, this is because of the intense presence called for by subtle movements on both the part of the leader and the follower.

In part, it is because I am bored by the obvious. I am not intellectually engaged at all by a dance that gives me standard movements that move in standard sizes and with standard forces.

In part, it is because of gentleness.

In part it is because subtle movements from my leader call me to listen with intense concentration, which I find both challenging and thrilling.

I love nothing more than to be led by one finger tip, one centimeter at a time, moving exactly at the speed and in the direction intended. This creates an intense bond composed of listening and attunement. I am tempted even to call it harmony, or some sort of cosmic oneness.  When dancing with subtlety my partner and I are absolutely present with one another, and best of all we both know it, so we catch each other’s eyes and feel the electricity of each other’s touch, nearly literally.


So this completes my list. I understand that the list may seem intimidating. Is it actually possible to be all of these things at once? Yes, it is, though the number of leaders I know who are is not huge. And I of course do not require that everybody meet every aspect of the list. Just one of them and I might be in heaven dancing with someone.

I just think it’s worthwhile to have conversations about qualities that we value, so that we can get at what the things are that we truly love about dance, and direct our energies toward them.

I would love to hear if anyone disagrees on certain points or has different preferences. I am always delighted to learn about different approaches people have to our dances. 🙂

 

 

* the cover photo represents my behavior when my favorite leaders are around and is a reference to this facebook meme:

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salsa leaders

This blog is by and large about following.

But following doesn’t exist without leading… every good follow needs a good lead to make it happen. And, boy, do I have opinions on what a good leader is, or what.

I spend a lot of time ruminating on what leaders and followers need to do to enjoy their time together. Here is a list of what I think are the 8 most egregious wrongs a leader can make on the dancefloor:

1. Squeeze my hands

Seriously, leaders. Don’t do it. You can lead a follower by simply touching your fingertips to theirs if you want to. There is absolutely zero, and I mean zero, reason to squeeze a follower’s hands.

It is uncomfortable. It is painful. It hinders the dance. It hurts your partner. Don’t do it. A simple light grasp is all we need.

2. Be forceful

I understand that some leaders like to be “stronger” than others. They put more force behind their leads. Of course this varies from leader to leader – it is only natural.

There is a difference, however, between a lead with more energy and a lead who is forceful. My favorite leads — my absolute favorites — are extremely gentle. This does not mean they are not clear. Some leads seem to think that in order to be more clear they have to be forceful. But  that could not be more wrong. You can be extremely gentle (given that your follower is receptive to the gentleness) and still be very clear.

There is an important technique that can help with this problem. The brilliant west coast swing champion Bill Cameron calls this “power steering.”

What Bill means is this: whenever you apply force in one direction, you should also be bracing your muscles, exhibiting a degree of force, back in the opposing direction. This provides a feeling of cushioning to your leads, which is extraordinarily comfy for followers. If you don’t power steer when you lead, now is an excellent time to start.

3. Dance too big

This one goes out to all the beginning leaders.

One egregious mistake beginner dancers make is dancing too big. They take too big of steps, they extemd their frames too much/break the lines of their frames, and they throw their arms out in a broad circle to lead spins.

The thing is, the bigger your lead, the more you throw your follower off balance.

Partner dancing happens much more easily, smoothly, and quickly if it must if it’s kept close and tight. When you spin a follower, all you gotta do is raise your hand and give a bit of a rotational motion to the back. Like, a fraction. Seriously. Don’t over lead… instead quality lead.

4. Dip without proper technique

Perhaps this goes without saying, but if I didn’t say it somebody else would.

Dipping followers without knowing the mechanics of dipping and people’s backs is a gigantic, and I mean a gigantic, no. 

Some mistakes leaders often make when dipping is snapping back at the shoulderblade level, which makes the neck snap uncomfortably, not giving enough of a circumference on a dip that rotates, which interrupts the otherwise fluid motion of the spine, or giving deep, fast dips to followers they aren’t already sure will be able to follow them without being hurt.

If you haven’t thought about these issues (and others) and are a leader, it may be time to start.

5. Dance above your follower’s level

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy is when an “advanced” leader is paired with an intermediate or beginner follower, and continually gives them moves that they cannot follow.

This frustrates the follow, makes them feel incompetent, and ruins any kind of positive connection you might have in the dance.

It’s one thing to lead one move, or a move at the beginning, and discover that the follower can’t do it.  It’s another thing to learn their level early on and then ignore it entirely. Sometimes I think leaders do this out of habit — they are simply too lazy to change their normal patterns of movement — and other times I think leaders do this out of arrogance — they are displaying disdain for their partner’s lack of technical ability.

In either case, I do not approve. A good leader leads a follower, and is present with the follower.

6. Collapse your frame / have bad posture

Almost nothing is more important to me in a dance than the quality of my leader’s frame.

The frame is where all leads come from – so it’s super important for the quality of connection and the clarity of the directions being given me.

But the frame is also where, in closed position, you rest. If a leader has bad posture, it will collapse on the follower and feel uncomfortable.

If, on the other hand, a leader has great posture, I’ll ask them to dance all. night. long. I won’t be able to keep my hands off of them. There’s something very homey and sexy feeling about a great frame — because a great frame is, after all, a great embrace.

7. Verbally tell the follower what to do or correct them

Every once in a while a leader will say something to me like “keep your hand there behind your back.” I’m like, “I was going to anyway, but thanks?”

Telling a follower what to do before it even happens is a statement of a lack of faith in their ability to follow.

Telling a follower what they should have done afterwards implies that you think they were wrong.

What partnership really is taking accountability into yourself whenever possible, and doing everything you can to support your partner.

What’s more, if you want to lead your follower in a complicated move, learn how to do it in a way that you can lead it without verbal indication. Many people say it’s “always” the leaders fault when a move goes wrong. I don’t agree, really – I personally make mistakes or could be following better all of the time. This mentality is what has enabled me to improve as a dancer. But it is still by and large a decent guideline to follow that leads should try their best to lead followers in a way appropriate to them. For more on which, see this post on feminism and latin dance.

8. Overstep bounds of intimacy

This is a problem unfortunately many leaders are guilty of.

They overstep the bounds of intimacy.

Now of course a follow is complicit in what happens in terms of physical intimacy during a dance, too. But just like we live in a society in which men take sexual actions and it’s a woman’s job to say “no” – in dance men often initiate intimacy that women are uncomfortable with.

The acclaimed leader Juan Calderon likes to talk about this issue in terms of traffic signals. Dance is usually non verbal. So how do people communicate? With their body language.

Pay attention to your follower’s body language. If you move to close the gap between you two and your follower resists, that’s a red light. If you move your head forward to connect and your follower tilts theirs away from you, that’s a red light. You should probably stop your current course of action immediately and back off until the follower signals more comfort.

If your follower lets you connect your head to theirs but doesn’t initiate any of their own movement, that’s a yellow light. This is a signal for caution, and may mean you should back up and wait for them to give you more positive signals.

If, on the other hand, your follower notices you inclining your head and moves to incline theirs to meet yours on their own, or initiates another sort of intimacy when you do so such as stroking the back of your neck, that’s a good sign that they’re into whatever you’re leading. This is a green light.

Now, partner dancing is NOT a race to get as many green lights as possible. But it is an intimate space between two people, so ways of thinking about boundaries is necessary.

Don’t overstep intimacy. If you detect any yellow lights, back up to make sure your follower is comfortable. You can still have a great and connected dance without your bodies smushed together from head to toe.

 

…And with that, I draw my list of my personal biggest leader “no”s to a close. What do you think? Dyou do any of these, leaders? Love / hate any of them, followers?

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