A few months ago, someone on Yehoodi asked a question that I really liked, and trying to think of an answer inspired me to write a more in-depth response than what I actually posted. The question, from a user going by David D, was this: What do you do when dancing with beginners to make sure that the beginner is having a good dance? The question was asked in the context of the leader being the more experienced dancer, and all of the responses were from a leader’s perspective. I would be very interested in an experienced follower’s perspective on the opposite situation, but since I’m a leader I’m focusing on more-experienced leaders dancing with less-experienced followers.
I find that difficulty dancing with newer followers is mostly an issue for intermediate dancers. [Note: I know and assume nothing about the original poster or his level of technical knowledge. This is just from my own observations] Newer leaders don’t have this issue because they are just as fresh and at least as terrified as their following counterparts. Advanced dancers—a group in which I include myself—don’t usually have this issue either. My theory is that the main reason is that we have different criteria for success in a dance, and different ways of pursuing it, than intermediate dancers. I’ll try to make this clearer later in the blog.
So, you want to have a fun dance with a beginner follower! Before we go into my ideas about how to make this easier, it’s important to give some thought to what your goals are when dancing with beginners.
Responsibility Part 1: To Your Partner
Lindy hop (and any other swing dance) is all about personal expression within a limiting structure. Because of this, dancers are encouraged to find their own voice, their own way of doing things, their own ideas about what the dance should be. This same personal choice is no less important when it comes to your responsibility to your dance partner. Each leader must decide for him or herself what role they will assume when dancing with newer followers. Nobody has a God-given duty to teach, comfort, cajole, or otherwise take responsibility for a newer dancer’s progress. Of course, you shouldn’t hurt your follower or be needlessly rude, but basically you don’t have to be a teacher if you don’t want to. If you have no interest in helping newer dancers, and find that you don’t enjoy dancing with them, feel free to never dance with a newer dancer ever again. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you choose the role of guide or teacher or just helpful person, then read on. If you choose not to take responsibility for your partner, you should still read on, because some of my tips may help you have a good time in your dance, too.
Responsibility Part 2: To Yourself
Whether you chose the role of Teacher, Mysterious But Compelling Stranger, or Good-Natured Villain, there’s a limit to how much responsibility you can take for your follower’s dancing. It doesn’t matter how generous you are or how invested in helping someone get better, your ultimate responsibility should be to yourself. What does this mean? Well, for one thing, don’t let anybody hurt you. If someone is doing something that hurts, protect yourself. If you want to use it as a moment to teach, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. Another thing it means is that you should never, ever dance down. Don’t get so caught up in dancing with a beginner follower that you start dancing like a beginner dancer. Dance the way you want to dance. Express the things you want to express. You may have to change what you lead, but you shouldn’t change how you lead it. The same goes for rhythm. You shouldn’t sacrifice your rhythm for a follower who has trouble with rhythm, just like a follower with good rhythm shouldn’t sacrifice theirs for you if you don’t. Each person in the partnership is responsible for their own dancing. The rest is just leading and following.
On to the tips! (Just for a second)
Disclaimer: These are just things that I do when dancing with newer followers. I almost always have fun doing it, and it almost always seems like they do too. I’ve put these tips in a “Do’s and Don’ts” kind of format for the fun of it. There are more Do’s than there are Don’ts. I think that’s the way it should be.
Be a Jerk—This one is first because it seems obvious, but you never know. Don’t make a snotty little face when your follower doesn’t do what you expect. Don’t laugh derisively at your follower. Don’t sigh in the middle of a dance because you can’t do your sweet surprise swingout you’ve been working on. Don’t shove your follower around. Don’t be a jerk.
Fixate on Moves—I think this is one of the most important Don’ts, because it’s one of the most common issues with intermediate leaders. It may be helpful to try to change the way you think about a good dance. Maybe a good dance isn’t one where you did a bunch of cool moves; maybe it’s one where you kept your bounce going the whole time, or one where you changed your bounce to reflect changes in the music. Maybe a good dance is one where you surprised your follower or your follower surprised you. When you judge a dance by things that aren’t dependent on the lead-follow relationship, dances get better. If you find that you tend to fixate on number or complexity of moves during any given dance, then you may find that changing your definition of a “good” dance not only makes dancing with beginners more fun, but also begins your transformation into a more advanced dancer.
Be Afraid to Push Your Follower—By this I don’t mean shove him or her around. I covered that one in the first Don’t. What I mean is that you shouldn’t be afraid to do things your follower doesn’t know yet. As long as you are gentle and patient and you approach the whole thing with a certain amount of good humor, you can have a great deal of fun introducing your follower to things he or she has never done before.
Be Afraid to Push Yourself—Just because your follower doesn’t have the technical knowledge to follow complicated moves doesn’t mean that they aren’t already a good dancer. If you discover that your partner already feels comfortable dancing to the music, or at least is even-keeled enough not to be thrown off by your dancing, then feel free to experiment and work on your own stuff. A word of caution, though: Be careful experimenting with things that involve leading and following. If you have a sweet idea and you know that failure won’t equal pain or injury to either of you, go for it. Otherwise, stick to working on stuff that has nothing to do with your partner, like footwork and rhythm.
Be Confident—Yes, you can do this without being a jerk. A user who goes by Toon Town Dave brought this up in the Yehoodi thread, and I think it’s a great one. If you’re going to lead something, lead the motherfucker. Being hesitant so you can check on your follower’s progress every half second, making sure he or she is on the right foot, or bouncing correctly, or whatever, is going to make it a lot less fun for you and a lot harder to follow for your follower. Also, if you’ve chosen to care about stuff like this, it can encourage your follower to develop bad habits. Move the way you like to move when you’re dancing. Don’t give up on your movement just because your follower doesn’t react the way you hope.
Silly Things That Aren’t Taught in Classes—This is one of the big ones, and it doesn’t just go for dances with beginners; it goes for every dance always. Stop leading shapes for a second and just walk around with your partner. Stop moving across the floor and just jam for a bit if you’re really digging something in the music. Maybe get in open position and do the dance from Thriller. Or the Kitty Cat video. Whatever. Be silly and let your follower be silly back at you. Do some call and response stuff if they’re up for it. It’s extremely good for putting your partner at their ease, but it also relaxes you. This is one of my main criteria for a good dance. Did I do some weird shit because it felt right, and did it make both me and my partner happy? Yes? Good dance.
New Moves Based on Basic Ones—If you and your partner can accomplish six-count patterns and a swingout, you have the building blocks for all manner of new things. Try not to confuse unfamiliar with complicated. One of the things David D mentioned was that he often saw advanced leaders do complicated things with newer followers. My instinct here is that they are most likely not doing anything more complicated than a swingout; it’s just unfamiliar. Feel free to put those building blocks in different places, different directions. You can come up with some pretty nifty—and easy to follow—patterns just by using stuff you and your partner already know. They might just not know they know it. You know?
SMILE—If you feel at all responsible for your follower’s experience, then smile. If you don’t, smile anyway. Smile because you’re happy. Smile to trick yourself into being happy. Smile because it’s scary when someone does something as fun as swing dancing without smiling, and you want to reassure your partner that you’re not a serial killer, which hopefully is true. Don’t plaster on a fake smile and leave it there until the dance is over. But smile when something funny happens, or when your partner smiles at you, or when the music does something cool. Smile, dammit! And don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself when you mess up or do something silly. Just make sure your follower knows you’re not laughing at their expense!
Play to Your Follower’s Strengths—If your follower is really good at keeping the footwork, try some unfamiliar patterns and watch their confidence grow. If your follower is good at talking while dancing, feel free to have a chat and make a new friend. If your follower is good at picking up a pattern after a few repetitions, then go ahead and provide those repetitions. Part of this is being aware of your follower’s weaknesses, too. If your follower isn’t so strong on rhythm, then it’s even more important to keep your own. If they have trouble with footwork, don’t bombard them with move after move. Do something, give them a chance to reset their footwork, and then do something else. If they have a lot of trouble following, maybe use open position more than closed. That way it doesn’t really matter where they go, and you have the option of following them if you need to.
Steal From Frankie—Frankie danced with a lot of beginners. Actually, practically everybody was a beginner compared to Frankie. Don’t be afraid to steal things from him. Maybe do some butt wiggles. Send your follower somewhere unexpected. Shimmy at your partner. Ham it up. Have some fun. It’s what he would have wanted.
As long as this blog is, it by no means represents a comprehensive list of ways to have a fun dance with a newer follower. These are just the things I’ve discovered that help me. Do you have any questions? Any tips that aren’t mentioned here? Are you an experienced follower who has great ideas for dancing with newer leads? Leave a comment! Actually, if you’re the last thing, write a blog post and let me know!