This is part 1 of a 3-part series on equal-opportunity connection.

hands connecting by  Josep Ma. Rosell flickrThere’s a common problem I’ve noticed in lindy hop, and I’m sure this happens elsewhere: A teacher tells you one thing, and then does something different. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Simplification. It’s hard to explain everything perfectly, so they stick to whatever they consider the basics. Perhaps they demonstrate something consistently in class, but social dance quite differently.
  2. Lack of awareness. If they demonstrate something differently in class without acknowledging it, chances are they don’t know they are doing it. They way they dance socially may be even further from what they demonstrate in class.

The second one is more frustrating. As a student, you are receiving conflicting information from the same person.

The first one, while necessary, can be quite limiting if your teacher over-simplifies and leaves out important information.

In my experience, most lindy hop teachers characterize connection and partnering incorrectly, leaving out incredibly important information about how it works. This may happen in the name of “simplification.” Or it may happen due to lack of awareness of how connection works. (They can do it, but they don’t know that they are doing it.)

Today’s article (Part 1) explains the traditional approach to connection/partnering and establishes 10 huge problems with this approach.

Traditional Lead-Follow Roles

What’s the traditional understanding of connection? We teach that connection is one concept with two distinct roles, lead and follow. Traditionally, lead and follow have strictly divided expectations:

The lead leads, and the follow follows. The lead initiates, and the follow responds. The lead tells the follow what to do, and the follow does it.

Traditionally, the lead is in charge of the entire structure of the dance. The lead must give the follow clear instructions. Traditionally, the follow has limited choices, and all choices must mesh with the lead’s instructions.

The Many Problems With Our Traditional Lead-Follow Roles

First, the traditional definition is literally inaccurate. Of course you can dance that way. But the best dancers do not. The best dance partnerships work as a team, both people contributing creative ideas on the fly, each responding to the other’s movements, adapting the direction of the dance based on their partner’s input.

Limitations Abound

Second, it creates an imbalance of who contributes creative ideas. The lead is expected to contribute more, the follow less. This limits creativity for both lead and follow, especially in the early years of learning lindy hop. The lead’s burden is too high, while the follow is not developing her creative juices much at all.

Third, in later stages of learning, as the lead’s creativity is finally blossoming, the follow’s creativity is often stagnating. Since she’s conditioned to “follow first,” she’s plagued by self-blame if a move fails when she tries to do something creative.

Fourth, classes are consistently lead-focused, since in their traditional role, they have a more complicated job. Leads are expected to direct the dance, do their steps, and work on connection, while follows are expected to connect and do the moves without thinking about them too much. Follows often leave class feeling like they didn’t learn as much. Apparently we need to organize entire events and create femaleonly dance troupes and switch roles to work on our dancing and have a forum to fully express ourselves.

Fifth, we all tend to dance the same as we get to a certain level. There is immense pressure to dance like others, since there’s only one right way to connect.

Mistakes Are the Enemy

Sixth, when there’s only one right way to connect during a move, mistakes are seen as the enemy instead of a welcome opportunity for new discoveries. If there are many right ways to connect during a move, searching for a new way is delightful instead of “wrong.”

Seventh, when there’s only one right way to connect during a move, it makes blaming your partner (or yourself) even easier. You know this common scenario: If a move fails, the lead secretly thinks, “She didn’t follow honestly,” or “She hasn’t learned to follow that yet.” The follow thinks, “He can’t lead it clearly.” In a partnership, blame is unproductive, destructive, and stifling.

It’s Sexist, and We All Know It

Why are we obsessed with acting out these stereotypes?

Why are we obsessed with acting out these stereotypes?

Eighth, it causes different performance standards for leads and follows in competitions. It’s harder for a follow to make finals if she draws mediocre partners in a Jack and Jill. Follows are expected to respond to their partners more than leads are, so they are regularly docked points if they “show off” (read: act independently) too much.

Ninth, choreography is frequently one-dimensional. Leads (usually men) play to traditional “strong and in charge” masculine stereotypes, and follows (usually women) play to traditional “demure and submissive” feminine stereotypes. Boy-meets-girl and other ways of framing sexual/romantic tension are the most overused tropes in lindy hop. They are boring and do little to push our dance to new creative heights.

Tenth, it’s an unnecessary double standard based on outdated gender roles, also known as sexism. Why should the follow’s creativity be limited only to the context the lead gives her? This expectation can make a follow edgey, angsty, and judgey, for good reason. Add this to the pile of other sexist tendencies in lindy hop: Classes being lead-centered, male teachers doing more talking than females, and men being given more status and respect.

As It Happens In Real Life

I have personal experience with all of these problems.

I’ve observed the top-level dancers being mutually responsive to each other and wondered why my partners weren’t responding to my ideas.

I’ve felt the crushing expectation that following my leader is more important than expressing my creative ideas. I’ve felt stymied by the expectation that I must follow perfectly before I’m allowed to be creative.

I’ve sat through many lead-centered classes, frustrated and sometimes angry at the lack of attention follows received, especially in creative instruction.

I’ve experienced the limitations of silently blaming my partners over and over for “not leading right” (meaning, not leading the way I was taught they are “supposed” to lead).

I didn’t feel like an equal; I didn’t know I could ask for my needs to be met. I didn’t know there was a different way. I was only trying to act out what my teachers explicitly taught me… Until I started noticing that they dance differently than they teach.

Then one day, I danced with a lead who was incredibly responsive to me while sacrificing nothing about his own dancing. And I realized things could be different—not just in my head, but in real life.

The Opportunity

Improving our understanding of how connection works gives us the incredible opportunity to raise the bar in lindy hop. At least half of our lindy hop population’s creative juices are under-utilized. If we could harness everyone’s creative input, we can lift the burden of man-as-chief-creator and woman-as-passive-executor.

We can also improve everyone’s dancing. Just because the traditional lead-follow roles are more stifling to follows doesn’t mean the leads don’t suffer as well. They do. Here are some common questions that plague leads:

How do I “leave space” for the follow?

How come my dancing works with some people, but not with others?

I’m bored with my moves. What now?

The Truth You (Probably) Haven’t Been Told

The connection requirements of leads and follows are identical.

We treat them as they are two entirely separate skills, but that is wrong. Lead and follow must learn the same connection skills, initiating and responding. The steps are different, but the connection is not.

For leads, learning to listen through the connection and respond to each follow’s unique movements is the key to unlocking the above mysteries.

For follows, they key is to give yourself permission to initiate new ideas in your dancing, and relieve yourself of the responsibility for making all moves work perfectly.

Naturally, there will be objections. I’ve been talking about this for years and have heard staunch resistance from many angles (though in Seattle I’ve encountered much greater receptivity). Many lindy hoppers are very attached to what they’ve learned and taught.

Equal Opportunity Connection tilePracticing equal-opportunity connection has the ability to help mitigate all 10 of the problems cited above. It’ll also make you a better, more fulfilled dancer.
And that’s all I care about.

To discover a more complete understanding of the lindy hop dance conversation, take my Equal-Opportunity Connection course!

Have you experienced the many problems with our traditional lead-follow roles? Leave a comment below and tell me about it!

Photo credit: Josep Ma. Rosell (hands)