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The Skill of Following

The Skill of Following

by Ana Gherasim

Have you checked out Latin Dance Community yet? If not, I recommend you pay them a visit. They have lots of interesting, well-researched and well-written articles about the world of Latin Dance, and they have become one of my dance blogs to watch.

In general, there’s very rarely a Latin Dance Community (LDC) article I completely disagree with… but then I came across The Different Kind of Followers, and my Someone Is Wrong on the Internet light came on. What follows is my take on this article, and on the wider topic of the role of the follower in salsa or any partner dance.

In short, the writer (Chilly Alisar) breaks down 5 types of followers: (1) heavy followers who need a very strong lead, (2) followers who anticipate leads and can’t follow moves they don’t know, (3) followers to put styling before following, (4) followers who can follow a good lead but are lost on their own, and (5) dancers who follow and style seamlessly.

My first reaction after reading this article was anger and dismay – how could a dance blog that I’d come to respect (and recommend to our students and friends) post such a shallow, uninformed and negative article? However, after some thought, I’ve come to believe that this over-simplified classification stems from one simple problem: people still think following is something that “just happens”. Sigh. Here’s the deal, people:

Following is a skill, not a personality type

Following doesn’t “just happen” any more than leading “just happens” – it’s not an innate ability, but a skill that can and should be taught. Telling a new dancer to “just follow” is like telling a first-time driver to “just drive”, or shoving your kid into the pool to teach him how to swim – yes, some will figure it out (for better or for worse), but most people will need more instruction than that.

The really sad thing is that while we have driving schools and swimming lessons where the skills of driving and swimming are broken down into detailed instructions and step-by-step exercises, the majority of salsa schools still fail to teach women the skill of following, and apply the sink-or-swim method. I’ve been in far too many dance classes where following technique is glossed over entirely – “just go where he’s taking you and do your footwork” is pretty much all the direction some of us got.

It drives me insane that most salsa schools I’ve been to devote roughly half their class time to teaching men the skill of leading, yet women are pretty much left to figure out following technique on their own – which, inevitably, produces the kinds of results bemoaned by the LDC article. That brings me to my next point.

Bad following denotes a failure in instruction

When women aren’t taught the skill of following, they tend to develop their own way of figuring out what they should be doing, based on whatever information they are given.

Some will keep a tight frame and wait to be flung around the dance floor – these are usually the women who have been told over and over to keep their frame, but never taught where that frame comes from, which muscles are involved, and how to keep that L-shape in the arm without becoming rigid or “heavy” to lead. These would be the Reactors the article talks about.

Some will try to memorize the signals and footwork for each of the moves they know, and try to guess what’s coming next – these are the women who were taught specific footwork for specific moves, but not much thought was given to their body position, or what the lead should feel like. These would be your Predictors.

Some will focus on styling, and decide that it’s important for them to stylize every move – many of them are women whose teachers emphasize style over following, and never taught them the basic lesson that styling comes second to following. They would be the Mavericks.

Where Chilly Alisar sees follower types, I see dancers whose instructors have failed to do half of their job.

So how does one teach the skill of following?

As you can probably guess, I do my best to teach following technique in our classes, and over time I’ve developed my own method and tricks to impart that skill. I’m not about to share it wholesale with the world, but here is my one basic tip: give the same attention to teaching women the skill of following as you allocate to teaching men the skill of leading. Break down the mechanics of following, the feeling of a good lead (how much tension should they feel, and when?), the connection to their partner and the positioning of their body. Teach 2-3 moves that start the same way, but end differently, to teach constant following rather than memorization. Do lead-follow exercises to solidify those skills and shorten reaction time. In short, make following as important as leading is in your classes!

I believe that only once the skill of following is acquired (and can therefore be taken out of the equation) can we talk about “types” of followers. But since LDC proposed one typology, based largely on skill, I’m proposing another one, based largely on why followers dance, and what they love about dancing.

I’m hoping this will shed some light on why we ladies do the things we do while dancing, how to make us happy on the dance floor, and maybe, just maybe, it will allow you to think of us in terms of dance partners, with likes and dislikes, rather than salsa practice dummies with various levels of ability. Here goes.

Ana’s 6 types of followers

The Dervish. She loves spins and turn patterns. She dances to be twirled and spun, loves intricate moves and a creative lead who knows how to string them together. She’s not a big fan of shines, and prefers medium to fast songs that make dancing a whirlwind of fun moves she can get lost in.

The Show-Woman. She loves shines and styling. She dances to express herself, and her partner is her audience, her co-performer and her inspiration all at once. She loves a lead who will give her space and freedom, and varied music that will let her explore different styles and movements.

The Social Butterfly. She dances to connect with her partner. She will probably prefer slower songs and simpler moves that allow her to have a bit of a chat with her partner, whether she’s meeting someone new or catching up with an old friend.

The Joyful Dancer. She throws herself into dance with her entire body and soul; it’s her therapy, her escape and her cure-all for the ills of life. She will be playful, enthusiastic and full of joy, and will be happiest with a creative partner who can keep her on her toes while also letting her do her thing.

The Serious Dancer. She sees dance as a sport, and dances striving for constant improvement. She loves to be challenged, whether it’s a new intricate pattern or a side-by-side Afro-Cuban shine, or 27 spins in a row. She will be the one at congresses looking for the world champions, to test herself with the best.

The Somewhere-in-Between. As with all archetypes, most of us fall somewhere between these categories, or maybe we feel different on different days. The way I see it, dancing isn’t about strict definitions or categorizations based on technique or style – it’s about the joy you find in it. So dance on, my friends!

  • Chilly Alisar
    April 20, 2015

    Hey Ana,
    Thanks for the brutal honesty and comment. I see why you would think I was being negative, I don’t think anyone is ‘stuck’ or born in a particular category. It was more about how a leader perceives the person they are dancing with and maybe I should have made this distinction in the article. I was actually thinking of renaming it the do’s and dont’s, but it would have taken a different angle and so I left it as is. Additionally, remember that my article is an opinion piece based on similarities I noticed when putting together another article. As a contributor I am allowed to give an opinion based on my perceptions and it in no way reflects the views of LDC. I assume you won’t love my next article on the different type of leaders also as it also written in a similar fashion. Anyway, I loved your article (apart from the shallow uninformed concept which I gaurantee you is not the case). Keep dancing, keep smiling.
    P.s. Gonna go edit and make that clarification in the article.

  • Jason
    April 20, 2015

    Hi Ana,

    Thanks for reading LDC and for recommending the site to your friends and students. We certainly value the opinions of our readers and fellow dancers, and the LDC contributors know that our opinions may (from time to time) come under heavy scrutiny by passionate dancers like yourself. I’d like to extend the friendly invitation that if you ever have an article you’d like to share with the dance community and want to post it on LDC then I’d be happy to do that. We’re always searching for dancers/writers who have a passion for dance, even if that passion is due to a difference of opinion towards something we’ve posted, and can communicate their ideas effectively. You have certainly shown those qualities in your response to Chilly. Thanks for your time! :).

  • Chilly
    April 22, 2015

    Hey Ana,
    Glad we could get the conversation going. Please tell your Ladies that none of my articles are meant to discourage them. 9 out of 10 of my articles will always be positive / up-building. Then I will post that 1 that will be a little brutal, but its the ‘unspoken’ truth; what some people think and never say. I write these pieces not to discourage, but actually to encourage critical thinking and hopefully get dancers to look at their own dancing and see if they have reached their true potential and if not, hopefully get them to step up their game. However, a bit more clarification and motivation during these articles is warranted. Thanks for speaking up.
    Till our next encounter 😉


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