What a “pure follow” is and 7 reasons you probably want to be one

If Colors could dance

Image: If Colors Could Dance

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:

Versatility.

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.

Times change.

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?

2 Comments, RSS

  1. Charlie August 3, 2016 @ 2:30 am

    Following is universal, but some dances allow, and even require, more non-following skills. Blues, for example, is a dance that I think of as very “conversational.” Sometimes, the way to really blow my (leady) mind is to make surprises happen in a perfectly natural way.

    If we were doing waltz, with a very firm frame, and the follow wanted to make a change, they would have to push or pull me through that frame. Now, this is not strictly true. They might turn their hips, or be a little early or late, or move their hand a little on my shoulder. But the more subtle the communication, the more it relies on the other person, and in waltz there’s one way to be unsubtle and only one person can use it at a time. So waltz, not just explicitly but also implicitly, is not a very conversational dance.

    In blues, if we’re connected along one side, and our other hands are close but not touching, the follow can just reach out and rest her wrist against my wrist, if she wants. Wouldn’t that be unthinkable in waltz?

    And then there’s those subtle signals. Sometimes I dance argentine tango (not very well), and sometimes, often when things have gone nicely, I feel like dancing it is not about making choices, but about being pushed around by circumstance and by those subtle signals.

    • Stefani August 3, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

      I don’t have much to say other than that I love this beautiful comment so very much. 🙂 I think you are absolutely right to point out how different it is in different dances. I wonder a lot about if strict lead/follow etiquette will erode more in certain dances in future generations, and to which extent. I don’t have much of an answer – and especially not about ballroom – but I think at least in the afro-latin dances the answer is “somewhat.” Perhaps not as much as the swing dances but somewhat.

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