Image credit: Liz Tarnavsky
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. 🙂
Followers, what are your priorities?
Leaders, what do you wish followers prioritized?