I read a lot of articles online that opine on how great light followers are. They talk, for example, about how easy it is to dance with a light follow. They also talk about how instantaneous and effortless the connection is. I very often hear people praise light followers for feeling like feathers, like clouds, or like marshmallows.
Of course, to prefer a light follow over a more heavy follow is a matter of preference. But it is a preference I hear leaders state reasonably frequently. This means that being a lighter follow is something that many people aspire to.
Unfortunately, as often as we hear that light follows are the best ever, it’s far less common to find quality advice on how to go about achieving that.
To start, then, I’ll do my best here to define what a light follow is (more or less – everyone has a slightly different understanding, I think, and mine is not perfect). I’ll then go into techniques I use to increase my lightness. I do not intent for them to come across as a definitive list or the best techniques – I mean only to share what I have learned so far.
Importantly, I do not write here to suggest that I am the most light follow or that I have the best understanding of how to make that happen. But I do try very hard, and think about it a lot. Given some of the feedback that I receive I appear to be at least on the way. My advice may not be the best but I don’t think it’s a terrible place to start thinking about it. And, as ever, I would be grateful for your feedback and input.
What it means to be a “light” follow
A light follow is, in my best understanding, typically characterized by two things: self-propulsion and responsiveness.
Self-propulsion is perhaps self-explanatory: you move your own body. You don’t make your leader do it for you. Now, that does not mean that you backlead. It does not mean that you anticipate, or that you “hijack”. But it means that you go where your leader intends without them having to push you.
This is how it happens: 1) Your leader gives you a signal, 2) you leverage the brilliance of your properly calibrated frame (for an instructional video on frame see this blog), to feel exactly where your leader wants you to go, and 3) you go there, using almost entirely your own energy, and not your leader’s.
Responsiveness comes from being a good enough listener that you can read even the slightest signal, whether it’s a tap on the shoulder or a fingertip moving along your spine. Now when you get that signal it doesn’t mean you run away with it and do whatever you want. You respond with the least amount of energy possible. I could talk for several thousand words about how to calibrate that amount of energy. (In fact, I do so in this also very long and technical post.) But it stands well enough now to know that responsive followers listen to and attune themselves to their leaders in a potent way that leads to a supremely well-communicated dance.
Combining self-propulsion and responsiveness leads to this marshmallowy cloud quality, while still retaining the necessary structure for high quality communicating in the lead follow dynamic. It leads to lightness. When you interpret signals from your lead quickly and delicately and then go where you need to go, leaders can give you practically anything to do without breaking a sweat. You aren’t burdening your leader with the weight of your inertia; your leader makes a suggestion, and then you, should you choose to, follow through.
The article I linked to above, at the grapevine, here, has a few paragraphs describing what it’s like to dance with a light follow, if you’d like to read more.
How lead/follow happens
Leads initiate movement, and follows complete it. In a way, you can think of this pattern as activation. Usually in salsa I am quite loose – as loose as I can be – in as many places as I can be. But when I am activated by my leader with force or tension, I give what I consider to be an appropriate amount of force or tension back. This is how I can be a follow who will follow one feather fingertip, but also a follower who can do five spins in three counts after a classic J lead. In each case my leader gives me a movement, and I response with what we normally think of as a “resisting” or “opposing” force.
Leads activate, and followers respond to activation.
Clarifying the difference between “light” and “absent”
I would like to be very clear about one thing before moving on. I have been told many times (by leaders who are connoisseurs of light follows – and to be clear, not all are) that followers tend to occupy opposing ends of a spectrum of heaviness, leaving out the most important section. It looks like this:
“Too light” is the area in which followers don’t hold their frames, or, in other words, don’t respond with any “tension” to a lead at all. Leads end up feeling frustrated because their lines of communication aren’t clear; if you don’t have some resistance, if even the smallest amount, in your response to your leader’s leads then they will have a hard time leading you. T
he trick to being a light follow is to hold your frame well, and to respond with resisting or what I consider complementary energy, but always with as little as necessary to get the job done.
Say for example your leader gives you a lead with an impetus of 10. Say the lead is a pulling motion. You hold your frame and pull back or resist at, say, a level of 1 0r 2. If you were to initiate a stalemate in which no one moves, you’d pull at a 10. If you were to be heavy, you’d pull at a 8 or 9. To be light, you always do “resist,” but you do so minimally. You can read more about how to do that in this post on maximizing the purity of your connection. I know I’ve linked to that post a lot already but it’s quite important for what we’re doing here.
Techniques for increasing the lightness of your follow
These ideas come in no particular order. Some of them have to do with your mindset about your dancing – others hopefully will give you concrete ways to practice and implement lightness.
1) Have good posture; Build a good frame
In order to be responsive – and therefore to be able to propel yourself in the proper direction and with the proper speed – you need a good frame. You can read about frames in this post or watch a quick video here. A good frame consists of lines of connection running throughout the whole body with as little tension in them as possible. It is passive (loose) when not being engaged by the leader. Once the leader gives you any force, however, then it must become active (engaged).
This quality is actually what is important for having a good frame. Normally people say, hold your arms out in front of you, or hold your arms at a right angle. Those are decent approximations of where you should put your arms, but they don’t tell you how to hold them once they’re there. You want them to be reasonably loose until they are activated, and you respond with tension, but do your best to do it with as little tension as necessary.
And have good posture, of course, because you need to have good alignment so your frame activation can be immediate.
Remember, your whole body is connected via these little lines – I think of them like fishing wire – running throughout your body.
The most important and neglected areas for these lines of wire are in your lats/armpits. Don’t put your tension in the whole of your arm; run it on the underside of your arm and reinforce the area where your arm connects with your back!
Universally connecting your body to its other parts is important for lightness because a good frame will make the signals you receive anywhere on your body – though particularly your hands – from your leader go right to your core. Then you can move your body, often your legs, of your own accord. If led properly I can follow a movement in my wrist to my hips, or feet, or etc.
This brings us to the most basic but important part of lightness: moving. Don’t expect your partner to move you or put you anywhere. Don’t think of leads as giving you impetus to move; think of leads as giving gentle suggestions to your frame on where to move yourself.
I sweat a lot more than most followers out there. While not altogether sexy in an aesthetic sense, it’s because I get the job of moving done entirely on myself. Often, leaders tell me they could dance with me for ages because they don’t have to push me through moves, something about heavy dancing that is understandably exhausting.
3) Have a strong basic
This is particularly important for salsa.
The basic steps give you the ability to move fluidly and quickly should you do them correctly. This involves rolling through your feet when you step and pushing off with a roll of your foot when you take off, putting your heels on the ground for maximum power, making sure to actually move forward and back throughout the basic and not just keep your feet in one place, and putting just the right amount of weight onto your feet when you step forward and back so that you can move well in any direction if given the signal. This is so important. I learned from watching London salseras do it for years, and I’m still not there. Don’t wait as long as I did to prioritize your basic.
4) Maintain your own balance completely
Plenty of followers depend on having a “strong leader” to maintain their balance for them. This is unfortunate for a lot of reasons. One is that its tiring for leaders. Another is that it sends unnecessary force into the channel of communication between the two of you, and therefore makes it much more difficult to communicate and lead.
How do you work on your balance?
4.1: Get good shoes that fit. Good shoes are crucial for good balance. You should feel as comfortable standing still in a new pair of heels as you do in flats. Wiggle your feet back and forth. If you feel your heel slipping or your ankles buckling, move on.
I personally only wear Alvares (seriously, trust me) because of the impeccable balance. And there are specific models I prefer for the stability.
If the problem with your balance in heels isn’t the make of the shoe but your unfamiliarity dancing at the height, make yourself wear the shoes out dancing anyway, or around your house. You need to build the muscles necessary for moving fluidly at this new height. Try not to change shoes or heights too often when you dance as your muscle memory will get confused.
4.1.a: Find a good heel height for you. I personally think that the right heel for you is more about the placement of the heel and the sturdiness of it (and therefore the company that makes them), but the height still matters. Many followers feel comfortable in flats. Some prefer 3 inches or about 7 or 8cm. I personally dance in 10cm for comfort (for some reason they feel better to me than 8cms) but I would probably balance better and have a larger range of motion in 8cms.
4.2: Practice moves on your own. Work on your basic. Do some lunges. Shine in your kitchen.
4.3: Practice following on your own. While you’re dancing about your house, push yourself off of doorjams or swing around a foundation pole to keep your balance in a new way. Another great way to do this is to stand without holding a railing on a subway.
4.4: Strength train. I can’t tell you enough how important strong muscles are for good balance. Core, glutes, and quads are probably the most important to think about.
4.5: Practice stopping on a dime. While dancing alone or with partners, practice the art of stillness. Move, and then stop suddenly. Maybe force this on yourself by having a friend or an app randomly turn off music. Or find leaders who use stops in their dancing. This will enhance the amount of control you have over your own body.
4.6: Use your toes. While it’s ideal to never have to pull yourself off of the brink of tottering forward, sometimes toes really come in handy. Grip the ground like your life depends on it.
5) Develop core strength – or learn how to use your core when you dance
I once took a salsa course in which the instructor made us do planks. This was fine (ahem) – but I’d arue far more important for dancing than having a strong core is knowing how to use it. This means engaging or tightening your abs pretty much most of the time when moves are being executed, and especially while you spin I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH.
It will not come all that naturally at first, probably, and then becomes as effortless as breathing. This will keep your upper body frame connected to your lower body, which is crucial for just about everything.
6) Develop spinning skill
The better you are at spinning (and on your own), the less your partner will have to force you through a spin. I have a particular technique I like to use when I spin that is core focused (watch a spinning in place video here or a travelling spin here), though many people I know are more feet focused.
In general you want to have a really, really solid frame for spinning, a tight core, rotational momentum that comes from your feet and/or your legs and your core, and, often, a really sharp and accurate spotting technique. Balance will also really help you here.
If you want to chat about spinning and we’re in the same dance scene, say so. I love helping people with spinning technique while at socials or etc.
7) Practice calibrating
In the graphic above I indicated a “light sweet spot.” This post on connection is best to consult on this point. In brief, it says this:
The lead follow dynamic works through actions and reactions. In general, leaders initiate actions, and followers react. The appropriate reaction is an opposing force, but to some degree less than the leader applies. If a leader pulls, for example, a follower also “pulls” (which is rather sort of just maintaining the structure of their frame); if a leader pushes, a follower also pushes. The trick is to find the right amount of energy to pull or push back with. If a leader gives you a force at a level of 10, a heavy follow might respond with an 8; a light follow would respond with a 1 or 2 or 3 or so.
So I here encourage you to practice finding your 1, 2, or 3. Go to a social and commit yourself to being mindful of this. In each dance, try to give less energy back to your leaders than you are used to. Don’t unnecessarily push or pull. Instead, hang back and listen, and calibrate the amount of force you use to be as little as you can. Don’t forget however to not become too light so as to lose the ability to communicate. A spring with no tension is just a loose string; a spring with a tiny bit of tension will be able to function as a spring but will also be light as a feather.
8) Develop flexibility in your core
The more flexible your core is – that is, your ab and your back muscles – the more fluid your movement will be, and the easier it will be for you to be responsive in these areas of your body. Try stretching daily.
You might also want to work on body isolations on your own. The more natural body isolations are to you, the more natural they will feel to your leader.
Few people in Europe dance more than one dance and this puzzles me a lot. I can honestly say that the best thing I’ve done for my ability to follow in every dance has been to dance multiple dances.
When you become exposed to a greater range of movements that can happen, you learn much better not to anticipate moves. You also learn to be more responsive, as you train your brain and your body to listen more keenly. Instead of just going through the motions of steps you’ve learned in class, you learn to be a more active listener. This isn’t to say you can’t be an active listener if you only dance one dance, but picking up more dances certainly helps.
9.a: Cross train with dances that require subtlety
Few things made me better at following the subtlety that can be deployed in salsa than dancing with very subtle leaders in bachata and kizomba. At the higher levels these dances require extreme degrees of listening and responsiveness, especially in the core.
10) Wait and listen, with your body quiet
One of the reasons kizomba (and a good, subtle bachata) can be good for mambo and other energetic dances is that it encourages you to be quiet and listen.
One of the biggest strides I took in my journey to follow better happened one night when I was feeling sick. I didn’t have the mental or physical energy to be my normal, wild self (to be clear, I used to be a super wild dancer, a fact that surprises probably no one), and I realized that I followed much better.
Many followers in salsa, lambazouk, and other similarly active dances are very energetic. They carry lots of tension and expressive energy in their bodies. Tell yourself you’re going to dance small and quietly for a while. Don’t keep trying to speak. Just listen. Receive. See what happens.
Okay, loves. This is my list. It’s long, but incomplete. There are many other things out there, and many elaborations I could make on points. I am not an expert in any regard – but these are some ideas I’ve had and skills I’ve worked on myself. I would love your feedback, as I want this list to be as comprehensive as possible.
In the meantime, if you know anyone who might find this useful – consider sharing it perhaps. I can honestly say that these kinds of posts – the ones in which I talk about specific leading and following techniques – were the things I craved most in my early days as a dancer. This is actually why this blog exists. Hope it helps!