A time to lead, a time to follow

Six weeks ago, I said I was pausing my privates while I figured out my next step. A few days after that, I mulled over the possibility of learning to follow – at least, to some degree.

Sure, I’ve taken a few lessons as a follower, but those have always been geared to helping my lead, rather than actually focusing on following. But I’ve decided it’s now time to have a real go at the opposite (and, I suspect, more challenging) role …

Solo practice

I said last time that step one would be some solo exercises, aka attempting follower ochos and giros with the help of my office swivel chair.

As a leader, the more dissociation you have, the better, of course – but there’s a world of difference between the degree of dissociation needed to lead ochos and giros and the level required to follow them! So, if I go this route, then step one will be solo exercises. Hello kitchen bar(re) and chair.

I’ve been doing 15 minutes a day for a few weeks, and this has gone much better than expected. And much worse.

I was heartened by how quickly I could reach the point of doing something which looked and felt somewhat like both front and back ochos. But my consistency was very poor: sometimes everything worked, sometimes it … didn’t. I posed a question to a few follower friends:

How long does the ‘Sometimes my ochos might pass for same in a darkened room, and sometimes people put padding around their prized possessions’ phase last?

Janet answered: “Forever, Ben. Forever.”

Another friend, Bas, pointed me to this excellent technique video, by Vanessa Gauch:

The ‘compass’ method of using the V-shape and free leg as stability in particular was a huge help.

So I basically waited until I reckoned I wasn’t going to break any legs, then decided it was time for some lessons. It made made sense to me to alternate between Emma and Diego. Emma because she started as a follower before learning to lead, and Diego for the opposite reason. Between them, I think they should have all the bases covered.

Lesson 1: Mariano

I’d already booked my first lesson with Diego, but then found that Mariano was in London and Steph had booked a private with him at the flat. Since he was here anyway, it seemed silly not to book my own lesson too.

We started by working on my backward walk as a solo exercise. Mariano had some tips there, but quickly declared himself happy with this.

We started without music, and I’d suggested that as this was my first proper lesson as a follower, we should maybe just stick to steps rather than pivots. He did that for a while.

I had a great time! It went much, much better than I’d expected. Though admittedly things went downhill when we danced to music! It was soooo hard to switch off my leading brain, which knew how it wanted to respond to the music, and instead just wait for the lead.

I had difficulty distinguishing between weight-changes and small steps, and Mariano suggested paying attention to his shoulder with my left hand – not that he would lead with it, but I should be able to feel the weight changes there, which did help a lot.

We got as far as forward ochos, and what was essentially an ocho cortado without the cross, and I was amazed how much I was following. Of course, Mariano was giving a giant-sized lead, but even so!

I also had to laugh at one thing. I’ve often invited beginner followers to relax, as they felt a bit panicky, like they were afraid they’d miss something. I now understood entirely!

Mariano gave me some tips for switching to the follower mindset and technique:

  • Stay calm, and when in doubt, just relax where I am
  • Don’t feel rushed, the leader will wait for the follower to complete a movement
  • Collect my feet by default, unless I’m sure something else has been led
  • But after collecting, keep the free leg truly free
  • Don’t do any more than is led, for example, pivoting beyond the amount led
  • Feel for blocks as well as leads – signs that I shouldn’t do something
  • Keep my chest toward the leader, else signals can easily be confused
  • In open embrace, maintain contact all along my left arm/leader’s right

With forward ochos:

  • Keep my feet collected in the turn
  • Focus on the pivot, not the step
  • Push against the leader’s hand, not necessarily much, but enough for momentum*

*This is an interesting one, as some teachers want followers to do this, and others don’t. As a leader, I prefer when a follower does this, as I can then feel her energy in the pivot.

Of course, it’s impossible to take a lesson as a follower without also learning something as a leader. For me, today, this was that blocking is every bit as important as leading. Signalling to the follower what they shouldn’t do, as well as what they should.

I’d appreciated this when working on the ocho cortado with Laura, but I would have said it was like 70/30 in favour of the lead over the block. As a follower, I could really get that it’s actually 50/50. There were times when it felt natural to me to pivot a certain distance, perhaps in response to what I was hearing in the music, and I really needed a firm blocking signal to tell me when I’d gone as far as the leader wanted me to.

At end end of the lesson, we danced a song and I think there were three ‘crunches’ – points at which I wasn’t sure what was being led, or did something unled. But that was massively better than I’d expected to achieve in the course of a single lesson!

Of course, the quality of it is something else entirely. That will take a lot of work, and I already have even more respect for the skill it requires to be a good follower. But I’d expected it to be very much harder to switch off my leader head and follow, so it was really encouraging to make as much progress as we did.

Best of all, I really loved following! It’s totally different to leading, and it completely confirmed that this is the right step for me now.

I have no plans to turn up at milongas as a follower. Given the role imbalance, the last thing we need is leaders turning into followers. But what I do want to achieve, in time, is the ability to dance intercambio with dual-role dancers. Mariano reckons it will take me 4-5 months to reach that point – let’s see!

Followers, if you can remember back to when you started, and have any tips, please let me know …

4 thoughts on “A time to lead, a time to follow”

    1. Oh yes, that was hilarious. I closed my eyes, and kept thinking we were about to hit something because I thought I knew where we were in the room, and I was always wrong. 😀

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      1. Well, I prefer my followers to dance eyes open because in cases of extreme danger (is that the right way to say it?) they can always give some finger pressure to my back. At least then I know something weird is going on. 😝

        Liked by 1 person

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