How-to: Beginner lead/advanced follow

A message to all guys wanting to become great dance partners!

I have about 10 years of partner dancing experience. Recently I danced with a beginner leader. The song was fast and for some reason he launched one of the hardest (but to be fair, fundamental) figures of the dancing, counting every step, starring on the floor bestween us while constantly apologizing for his dancing. I REALLY tried my best to make him feel comfortable, smiling and following also the “odd steps”. But the dance was a bit of a struggle, for both of us.

He made me think. This happens a little too often when I dance with beginners. Is it me? Is it the difference between our dancelevels? Is it simply a nature law that a beginner lead has a hard time relaxing with a more experienced partner? – Or has a beginner lead just per definition a hard time relaxing with any dance partner in general?

Then a few days later I danced with another beginner lead. It was amazing! We did’nt do much actually, but he was so relaxed and seemed to enjoy the dance and the music just as much as me. There were eyecontact, smiles and fun was had. More thoughts:  Is it true that some people are just naturals, when it comes to dancing, while other have to learn the hard way? What if there is a shortcut for anybody who feels impatient about getting those great dance endorfines running – and fast ?

What makes a great dance?

I would claim that with some mental work, anyone can be at a beginners level and already be a great partner from the first steps!  I think that the key is were to focus. What makes a dance great is, in my opinion, first of all a human connection, more than specific dance patterns (however, that can be true later on in ones dance “evolution”, when these patterns are working really well) Sadly, but somewhat understandably, most beginners dedicate all their attention to trying to make the dance work technically. Which is totally suitable in a class situation, but maybe not so much for the social dancefloor.

My humble suggestion to (beginner) leads who would like yummie dances with (advanced) followers therefore goes:

Simple stuff is GREAT!!! If you worry about her being bored of your simple dancing, give her some space and see what happens. It gives the follower the opportunity to sneak in fx. a footwork variation here and there, if she wants more action (she often doesn’t, you’ll see).As a beginner – please don’t get me wrong – you are not likely to impress me with your dancefigure repetoire anyway (yet!), but I promise you this : you can thrill me with your pressence and attention. Forget what your teachers told you! As mentioned, social dancing is not a class and you are almost always better of dancing without thinking too much about what you are doing. Have a beer instead and do simple stuff as bouncing to the rythm or just walking together. And here’s a good one: respond the music!  If you hear a trumpet go “tooot”, show it with a movement – it works everytime, because she hears it too!

I believe that if this aproach is prioritised, it will build confidence and with great confidence it is easier and faster to learn and develop on other aspects of dancing too. Like great technique and a huge movement repetoire. But why wait for blissfull dancing experiences till you have danced for years?

Disclaimer: I realise that my motive on the dancefloor could be different from yours. Maybe you are not interested in dancing with ME, maybe you are just there to dance with SOMEBODY or as MANY as posible so that you can develop your dance? (I mean to provoke here, if you didn’t get that) So your turn leads: Please write your thoughts in a comment (top left corner). What could an advanced follow do to make you feel GREAT  (and what should she avoid doing) ? What’s your recipe for an advanced follow getting great dances with a beginner lead? Other dance roles are welcome to contribute too, follows & leads on any level and from any dance style!

PS. I really do NOT intend to freak beginner leads out by writing this and I hope I don’t sacrifise too many dance invitations from you guys!  If you worry, try me out once anyway…I am the smiling follow, remember?

7 responses to “How-to: Beginner lead/advanced follow

  1. Being the insecure beginner guy, I recently had a mirror experience. As I sadly was too focused on the technicalities, I don’t remember her name, so it might have been you – which kinda proves your point :-)

    Although I don’t discount the idea of there being “naturals” and “hard learners”, I really think that as a ‘beginner’, you can be unskilled in a lot of areas, technique being only one of them. I have no real experience with social dancing as a concept (even ‘random’ dancing at parties), and is somewhat intimidated dancing with strange (and of course beautiful) women. As such I have a tendency to focus on what I have just learned in class, and forget about enjoying myself and entertaining my dance partner.

    Conversely other beginners may be dancing casually with strange women all the time, and are only beginners in the technique-department, which would probably make it less hard for them to focus on the social aspect of the dance.

    Luckily for me, social dancing is growing on me, and my ability to think beyond the higher level of my partner is improving. But as in all things confidence-related, there are going to be ups and downs, and I also feel that experienced followers dancing with beginners should be prepared for this.

    This piece was great reading, and doesn’t scare me away at all. I just hope that MY response doesn’t scare away all the experienced followers out there :-)

  2. It is very challenging to dance with a follower which is even slightly more experienced than you (me). You always feel you might be doing something bad, and probably you (I) will do it wrong, but making it fun and sometimes unexpected (without steeping on the girls shoes) will make it fine.

    Eye contact, smile, relax and don’t excuse yourself every 10 sec.. which you should, and as a beginner you can make the dance decent.

    Also, I believe wise followers (most of them :) ) remember that they were also beginners so they’ll share with you a thought and be patient :)

  3. I am looking forward to seeing a following up article on how followers can make the dance a more pleasant experience for ‘beginner’ leads.
    I think that one of the main reasons why beginner leads tend to struggle is because the dance experience is often a very unpleasant one due to an atmosphere of elitism amongst the ‘advanced’ followers in smaller dance communities. Advanced followers body language and facial expressions instantaneously change to disappointment when they find out that the lead is not as experienced as them even before thet start dancing together. Followers are not shy in making it obvious that they want to get the dance over and done with. The lead is aware that if he asks her or her friends for a dance on another occasion, they will be ‘busy’ getting a drink of water. Beginner leads can’t relax, gain valuable experience and smile knowing that these are the conditions and consequences associated with social dancing. The problem that prevents beginners to becoming better is just as much off the dance floor as it is on it.

  4. @Lars: I’m sorry if that is your experience. We have all been beginners at some point and I have had great dances with people who have danced for a shorter periode of time than I have. Anyway, I think there are solutions in both ends of the connection.
    The more experienced followers should take the dances with beginners as an opportunity to meet a new dancer and have fun with that. If that is not enough, it’s an excellent opportunity for them to work on how they can make the partnership look as good as possible. Most followers – no matter what their level is – can probably also remember a dance or two with a lead who was much better than her. If he looked cranky and distant all the way through the dance, they probably didn’t have very much fun.
    There are two fun-killers for me on the social dancefloorwhen it comes to dancing with beginners. None of them has anything to do with the moves being too simple.
    1) is actually quite the opposite: being led in complicated moves that the lead doesn’t master yet and tries to force his/her way through when they aren’t really working. Being jerked around is just not fun, neither is the feeling of being some kind of tool for practice. Again, it’s about the eye contact and the smile.
    2) The other is being asked to teach on the social dance floor. Questions like “is this too rough?” or “am I leading you clearly enough?” are fine, but if it turns into a small private lesson, it’s too much. I am there to dance and relax, not to teach.
    A few final remarks: Sometimes follows actually do need a drink of water ;o) And even though I agree that dancing is more fun if we dance with each other across the levels and are polite, no one should feel forced to dance with anyone. It’s okay to say no sometimes – even if you are a woman!

  5. Well, the ‘smile, make eye contact and enjoy the music’ part definitely goes for the followers as well, experienced or not, and I think that would go a long way towards making the dance pleasant for the beginner leaders:)

    And yes, I think Lars is right about more experienced followers sometimes forgetting that part when dancing with beginner leaders. As a semi-experienced follower, I know that for my part that does happen sometimes, but not necessarily because I’m ‘disappointed’ with the leader. Often, it is a matter of a beginner leader attempting to lead fancy stuff that he hasn’t quite got the hang of yet (e.g. swingouts at a high tempo). It can get very awkward, physically, for the follower, and she then has to concentrate a lot to not fall flat on her face or to guess at what the leader is trying to lead (we really do want to follow what you lead, you know;). That might make it tricky to remember to ‘smile, etc.’

    So I think that Signe’s advice to keep it simple and remember to have fun and be present in the dance will also give your follower a chance to do the same, experienced or not:)

  6. @lars Ill be more than happy to share my thoughts on that side of the story too. But first I’ll listen. To you and others who are interested in trying to answer the question that I threw in the air: what do beginner leads wish from advanced follows in order to make dancing together nice and fun?

  7. For the first 6 months of learning the Lindy Hop, I had one aim: I really, really wanted to make it through an entire song without ‘messing it up’.

    I was looking at the advanced dancers having a relaxed time and I wrongly thought it was a sign of technically faultless dancing. Only after the first trip to Herräng I found the holy grail: to relax, enjoy, smile, listen to the music and dance with the partner.

    Two things are particularly hard when you start out as a lead. Firstly, if you are not used to dancing, the simple fact of physical contact with a load of complete strangers can be pretty overwhelming – even embarrassing. It takes time to get used to that intimacy. The other difficulty is creativity – thinking ahead, expressing the music, leading your partner, do the right counts and most stressful of all: to improvise when things go wrong.

    Most inexperienced leads (and followers) are extremely self-critical and easily knocked out. For that reason the best way to make them feel great is encouragement rather than criticism. If a lead does something right, tell them – even if it’s small things like ‘you have great rythm’, ‘charleston was perfect for that song’ or a simple ‘yay’ when something small really works. If a move goes wrong it’s OK to smile about it; anything to make it feel like it’s no big deal. If you build up a good rapport you can even attempt a smiley: ‘during the next song you’re not allowed to apologise’. Talking casually to leads off the dance floor during breaks is also a good way to make them feel relaxed. Show you care about them as human beings, not just prey for the next dance-fix.

    I still never made it through a song without mistakes. And thank God for that.

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