There are many different kinds of social dancers. I like to categorize them into different groups.
One of my favorite categorizations concerns the amount of listening, freedom, and cooperation that goes into a dance.This applies primarily to leaders, but it can also apply to followers, as different followers will react to and prioritize these types of leads differently. I simplify the concept by breaking it down into two different categories, though in reality it is more of a spectrum.
The two types of leaders I want to talk about today are 1) Partnerwork Technicians (thank Toan Hoang for the term) and 2) what I’ll be calling for now Co-creators.
I have made a graph:
First are the partnerwork technicians. The partnerwork technicians are rather quite traditional. In their perspective, leaders play the traditional masculine role: they are dominant, and they are in charge of making the dance proceed apace. Follows simply follow them, and want to be given clear instructions on what to be doing at all times. These leaders have a very specific idea in mind for the moves that will be executed and how the dance will turn out. They focus on learning moves and patterns, and they tend to think that the hallmark of a good leader is figuring out precisely how to get a follower to successfully execute the moves they lead. They can be quite musical and extremely talented and beautiful dancers. The quality of their lead can also feel very nice. They can also sometimes appreciate a good “hijack,” if executed well. It just so happens that these things happen within the context of their more traditional leading style, in which they simply determine the course of the dance.
On the other hand are the co-creators. Co-creators are less traditional. These dancers prioritize turn patterns much less than the partnerwork technicians do. They use turn patterns as a part of their dance, certainly, but the patterns constitute a less significant portion of the dancing. What then takes up the rest of the time? Plenty of things, some of which are: simple movements that give the follower space to play, pauses, moments of suspension, emotionally connected shines. This kind of leading gives space to the follower to play and contribute to the shape of the dance. This doesn’t mean that the follower leads–they don’t. But it means that the follower has time to play, and the leader responds to that play. The leader integrates it into what happens next. This is why this category is called “co-creating.” They can be highly technical or they can be less so. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to be a greatly technical dancer to be a great co-creator. I’ve danced with beginners who are extremely enjoyable because they take this approach. These leaders tend to exert concerted efforts to be “musical” and to interpret the music in a way that joins with their partner, rather than controls them. There is often a lot of communication between the two partners, whether by touch or with simple eye contact.
By now it should be clear that dancers can be great experiences or they can be terrible experiences at either end of the spectrum. It ends up looking something like this:
So what’s the point? Why bother bringing this up?
First, I want to encourage us all to try to understand the other perspective as well as learn from it.
Many people are tempted – as I admittedly sometimes am – to paint the two camps with broad and unfair brush strokes. I sometimes want to call the partnerwork technicians old-fashioned, patriarchal, bad at listening, selfish. It does feel that way to me, sometimes. But as a generalization it is wrong. Often I really enjoy these kinds of dancers. Often, they are very good listeners. Often, they are very present with me on the dancefloor. Often, they have delightful musicality. People who focus on the technique of partnerwork and turn patterns have the capacity to be extraordinary dancers whom I enjoy a lot.
I have, conversely, heard many people accuse the co-creators of being “bad” dancers, messing with the lead-follow dynamic, and hurting the integrity of the dance. I understand this perspective. I can see how someone who really values the electric pace of advanced turn patterns would see co-creation as a possible devaluation of their approach to the dance, or, at the very least, a poor bastardization of it. But they’re, I believe, quite wrong. Leaders do not have to control every aspect of the dance. It’s okay for people to choose to dance differently. It doesn’t mean they’re worse than anyone else.
In fact, I think we would all be served by taking a hard look at ourselves and identifying where we fall on the spectrum. There are things we can definitely learn from the other camp. Co-creators can learn interesting moves, can learn about the physics of dance execution, and can learn technique from partnerwork technicians. Partnerwork technicians, on the other hand, may be well served by taking some moments to more seriously listen their partners and experiment with making their leading more open-ended and reactive. It never hurts to be self-critical or experiment with new styles.
I would like to go on the record and say that Co-creators are brilliant, and not nearly as abundant as they could or should be (except in west coast swing, where it’s practically a given nowadays).
I love co-creators because I value being seen. I value being heard. I value being in conversation about the music, instead of just following my partner’s interpretation of the music. I value having some space. I value being able to play. I value the ways in which my leader and I can constantly be in dialogue, the flirtation and joy and love I can express with my body. With a hard and fast partnerwork technician, and especially one who doesn’t particularly try to listen or be present with me, it’s not always easy to connect in that way. With a co-creator, it is a given, woven into the very fabric of the dance.
I think that many of us, entering the Afro-latin dance space, assume a particular dynamic: leads tell follows what to do. But if that’s not particularly appealing to you, there is another way. You can think about your leading in terms of suggestions. You can pause to get input from your partner. You can pay attention to the way your follower breathes through the music, and integrate it into the steps that you suggest.
This brings me to my quick third point:
We might give most of our money to and spend most of our youtube time ogling performers and many of the world’s famous partnerwork technicians. But the dancers I’ve placed in the upper right hand quadrant, the “less known highly sought” co-creators who focus on conversation and communication, are seriously amazing artists. At congresses, it might not be as obvious that they have fans as for the other artists, but you can tell from the way they never get to sit down that these people are extraordinary. They are certainly the ones that I always keep my eye on, and I believe they should be sought after teachers every bit as much as the often more flashy partnerwork dancers.
And this brings me to the end of the post. In sum, what I have tried to say is this:
a distinction exists, and we should pay attention to it. I really enjoy dancing with dancers on all ends of the spectrum, though the chances you’ll catch me with a shit eating grin on my face are greater with the co-creators than partnerwork technicians. Relatively speaking there aren’t that many co-creators in the world, famous or otherwise, but I hope that we develop more of an appreciation for this style of leading and following over time.
I had salsa in mind while writing the post, but it applies also pretty well to lambada and bachata. It probably applies less well to kizomba, and as I stated, west coast has already moved quite firmly in the direction of co-creation.
As ever, I welcome your thoughts, comments, concerns, and etc.