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Following is Not Easy

Part One: Perception

By Paul Stachour

I have been learning the follow’s role in partner dancing for more than five years. I expected to be reasonably proficient by now; however, that is not the case.

Lack of practice is a factor in my progress. There are usually more followers at a dance and I feel pressured to fill the leader role. I'm lucky if I get to be a follower 2-3 times at a dance. There are also a limited number of proficient female leaders. Many female leaders are new to the leader role and therefore do not have the skills to provide a strong lead with variations which challenge me in the role of a follow.

So, why do newer dancers seem to think that following is easy? I think that it is because following is easy, especially at the start, and especially if one is partnering with a new leader. The teacher gives only a few simple patterns to attempt. As a follower, one needs to perceive which of the (say three) patterns is being requested (and that is often fully known, as the teacher provides the order) and to perform that pattern, no matter if it is led or not! Doing a pattern that is not led is not the proper action for a follower, but they do not know that yet.

Given my statement above that following seems easy, why do I say that it is not easy? And what do I think is difficult about it? I can summarize my struggles in three words: Perception, Connection, and Rotation.

One of my dance teachers often says that leading is 90% thinking and 10% perceiving, while following is 90% perceiving and 10% thinking. When a leader only knows 3 patterns, it is not too difficult for a follower to perceive which of those is being led. When the leader knows 20 patterns, the problem becomes more difficult. This is especially so if the lead is somewhat ambiguous and perhaps off-time, happening either too soon or too late (as my lead unfortunately can sometimes be). If I as a follower cannot perceive what the leader is suggesting, then I will not be able to interpret the lead and do something reasonable. I will admit that when following I do not always give my full attention to what the leader is requesting. When it is easy to do what is being requested, my mind tends to wander (yes, call it mental laziness). Then the leader leads something just a little harder, and I mess up since I stopped using the needed perception skill. Hopefully they are not too upset with me, especially if I say “Oops, I missed that. May we try it again?”

Allow me to provide a perception example from the Cha-Cha cross-over pattern. In measure two, the leader and follower are both facing the same direction, as they both rock forward on beat two; then back on beat three. Next they cha-cha-cha across while facing each other, and they perform a similar action facing the opposite direction from the first. As the follower, I need to perceive the leader’s changes of direction, and rotate myself accordingly. What do I need to perceive as the first instance of crossover at the end of beat two? It is what I perceive that indicates what I am to do on beat three and the following beats. As one example, the leader might choose to hold their left hand out fully extended, continue to move ahead rather than finishing the rock-step, and rotate to their left (expecting the follower to then rotate to the follower’s right). As a second example, they might step four-one instead four-and-one (two steps instead of three) as the leader returns to a crossover in the original direction, rather than a crossover in the opposite direction. As a third example, they might step two-and-three-and instead of two-three (four steps instead of two) during the crossover. A follower whose perception skills have not yet reached the ability to perceive these differences will not be able to perform any of those options.