Lead and Follow

This book concentrates on social Lindy Hop, where lead and follow is a central part of the dance. Social dancing is improvisational: the leader decides on the moves that the dancers should perform, and communicates that to the follower using their connection. As the dancers become more experienced, this wordless communication becomes more subconscious, eventually achieving an almost-magical connection between the dancers.

However, the leader does not directly control every movement that the follower makes. The dancers share a common vocabulary of moves, and the leader need to lead only enough for the follower to recognize which element of the vocabulary is intended. Moreover, the lead only controls the larger aspects of the dance (where the dancers are standing, which direction they are moving in), leaving the follower with freedom to decide on her own styling or footwork variations.

It's important to emphasize that the granularity of this common vocabulary of movements is finer than the list of moves in this book. Many of the moves listed have identical beginnings; the differences between the moves are indicated by a lead some way through the sequence. This means that the follower can't "switch off"; just because a move starts like a Lindy Turn doesn't mean that it will end that way—the leader keeps leading all the way through the move.

Leads are indicated using the point of connection between the dancers. In open position, this connection point is one of the possible hand holds that join the dancers. In closed positions, the leader's right arm holds around the follower's body, allowing for a more direct lead—he can indicate which foot the follower's weight should be on by lifting either side of her body.

For the connection between the dancers' hands, the key factor in the lead is the tension of the dancers' arms. This will vary between different dancers, but should always involve a springy tension that still allows a full range of movements.

Using this tension, there is a range of movements that the leader can indicate.

  • The leader gets the follower to move in particular directions—forwards, backwards, sideways—by pulling or pushing the follower's hand at waist height. This requires tension in the follower's arm; if the leader pulls her hand, the follower should move her body rather than just straightening her arm.
  • The leader gets the follower to turn clockwise by raising the follower's right hand to just above her right shoulder, then pushing away on it. Because the shoulder joint doesn't allow the hand to move back behind it, this lead works even with complete beginners.
  • The leader indicates an anticlockwise turn by raising the follower's hand up in front of her face. This lead is less obvious for complete beginners—they often belatedly realize that something is intended, but then turn in the wrong direction. However, this convention quickly becomes second nature.
  • The leader can get the follower to spin by drawing her hand across horizontally in one direction at waist height, then flicking it back in the other direction, letting go. This requires tension in the follower's arm; without it, the flick just moves her arm, not her body.
  • The leader can also lead a spin by drawing her hand smoothly across horizontally at waist height, then letting go to allow her to continue to travel in that direction.
  • In closed position, the leader can control which foot the follower's weight is on by using his right arm to lift the relevant side of her body; if he lifts her right side, she is forced to keep her weight on her left foot. This can also be indicated in open position by lifting the follower's left or right hand, but this is easy to miss as it is a much more subtle lead.

The majority of these leads involve a connection between the dancer's hands—which means that the follower needs to take hold of the leader's hands whenever he offers them to her.

Sometimes particular moves are known sequences that don't use the lead connection, but instead have an agreed-upon signal: the leader performs some action and relies on the follower recognizing it and doing the whole connected sequence. For example, the Mini Dip is indicated by the leader drawing the follower's hand down towards the floor. Sometimes this signal is as unsubtle as the leader telling the follower the name of the move he wants to perform. Moves that are indicated by signals are inherently less transferable than moves that are led—they rely on the follower having been in the same dance class—but they do allow more complicated variations to be performed.

In practical terms, a useful exercise is for leaders and followers to swap roles. This allows the leader to understand the follower's expectations of the lead, and allows the follower to experience first-hand the arm tensions that are needed to lead successfully.