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Listening and Leading

Posted by on June 7, 2012

Last night we had our weekly practice session. Because this weekend is CUBE, the Chicago Underground Blues Experience (an annual social dance event focused around the Chicago Blues Festival), the dancers in our practice session decided they wanted to focus on dancing that makes you go “oooh yeah!” Three hundred dancers from around Chicago, around the country and even from across the pond are going to descend on us this weekend, and we really wanted to focus on what makes for good social dancing.

One major topic we decided to focus on is conversationality. For me personally, this is one of the most challenging aspects of dancing as a lead. When I take my follow hat off and put my lead hat on, I’m very focused on creating the dance— being the choreographer, which is my job as the lead. But, all the advice I give to leads goes out the window: “Don’t try to impress your partner with fancy moves! Just pay attention to the music!” “Give your partner space and time to complete their movement before you continue!”

As a follow, I have no problem speaking up in a partnership, but as a lead, I have a hard time not dominating the conversation. So we tried a little exercise that involved trading off every phrase of music. Although I’ve taught this topic many times and believe in the power of trading, practicing it last night really opened my eyes to the joy of letting go when you lead.

I started out leading and when my partner took the lead from me in the first transition, I was relieved, because I was just beginning to run out of ideas. After he moved us around the floor for a phrase, I became inspired by what he was doing and when the next phrase began, I took his traveling pattern and built on it. This continued each time we changed roles. He would zigzag us across the floor and when it was my turn, I’d zig zag us back. We laughed. When the group finished the round, everyone laughed and you could hear how joyful the dancing had been.

I think it’s been said a million times in the context of Blues Dance, that follows have a lot to say and that leads need to let go and draw inspiration from follows. But more than that, it’s a nice change of pace to stop driving the dance from time to time and experience your partner’s interpretation of the song. The whole reason I took to social dancing in the first place was because I wanted an activity where I wasn’t in control the entire time. As someone who has lived and worked independently most of my life, I’m almost always driving my own path. Spending a few hours having someone pilot me around a dance floor was an incredible release for my mind and body. Although I’ve returned to leading in a dance context, it’s nice to let go again and again. For those of you leads who have exclusively led for most of your social dance life… experiment with learning to follow. You might find that it gives you the balance you need.

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