Being A Good Partner

West Coast Swing Online Connection

As part of the #DontBeADanny campaign, this week’s post is going to talk about how you can be a good partner during your dance. Leaders, this post is especially valuable for you because we leads tend to think about what we can contribute to the dance as patterns, tricks, or other moves. While it’s an understandable belief—don’t leaders learn moves to lead, after all?—the bag-of-moves philosophy sets up the frustrations from people like Danny because a follower not going through with a move is a vote of no confidence in what the lead can brought to the table.

If you’re not familiar with the #DontBeADanny campaign, it started with a great article by Laura Riva on The Dancing Grapevine about a leader who started the dance too rough, causing her to abort several moves, but then listened when she spoke up, reset, and created a great dance for both of them. In the comments, “Danny” decided that the problem in that story was the follower who decided to abort a move because she didn’t feel safe. The #DontBeADanny campaign, coined by Stephen White, is an attempt to correct that attitude by emphasizing good dance etiquette: learning the technique for moves, listening to your partner, creating safety within the dance, and otherwise being a positive contribution to the dance partnership.

Since I mostly dance as a leader, I’m going to illustrate this article with examples of how leaders in particular can apply these lessons. My hope is that leaders can shift their perspective from, “How many moves can I lead with her?” to “How can I use my understanding of the dance to make my follower feel amazing?” Followers, most of these concepts apply to your side of the dance as well. I’ll include some examples of how high-level followers have brought up the level of my dancing by making the partnership their focus.

Mindset Shift #1: From “How Can I Make Her X?” to “How Can I Compliment What She Does?”

It’s easy for a leader to think in terms of the outcome: I want to create this move, which requires the follower to do X, so how can I make her do that? Leads learn patterns that are a series of outcomes (the follower is here on count 4, her hand is there on count 17, etc). Leads visualize leading a move with a specific exit. Leads choreograph their moves based on the previous pattern taking so many beats. It’s all about the outcome.

The problem is that this is a very one-sided view of the dance. West coast swing especially is a conversation. Just like a real conversation, there needs to be the opportunity for the discussion to go off in a different direction that what you had planned. If your mentality is, “How can I make her get to the next checkpoint on my agenda,” the follower has nothing to contribute, and all that can happen is that she can “screw up” (i.e., not dance the way that you want).

I remember a dance with a follower that I had never met. A couple of patterns into the dance, I realized that something was amiss: she was really heavy and was very slow through the middle of patterns. I led a couple more basics and quickly realized that this follower was taking eight beats for every pattern. Wondering if I was doing something odd with my lead, I tried to correct by continuing the lead through the middle of the next side pass. It didn’t speed her up; she just got even heavier so she could do her eight count footwork.

Ask any west coast pro, and they’ll tell you that a basic side pass should take six beats. So, by any standard of right or wrong, I was right and she was wrong. But this wasn’t a class and so there was no instructor to appeal to. We were social dancing and still had three minutes of song left. I had a couple of options for how to handle the situation:

  • I could pull harder. Maybe she really didn’t know that I wanted her to travel down the slot faster. Or maybe I could teach her how to do her footwork correctly by leading so she didn’t have a choice. Yeah, right. Choosing this option would actually mean risking injury for my follower (and myself) by giving way too much force to the move. And, it might pull the follower off balance, causing her to slip. It would definitely make the dance into a struggle, which wouldn’t be fun or comfortable for either of us. Bad option.
  • I could resent her. I could mutter in my head about the “stupid beginner” who didn’t know how to follow a basic side pass and as a result was screwing up my musicality. While this option wouldn’t hurt my follower physically, it would leave a negative impression on me. And, if I let that attitude show, it might hurt her emotionally. If she was in fact a beginner, and had only attended one class where they taught eight count footwork, I could be leaving a new member of the community with the feeling that WCS is an awful dance filled with snobs that won’t make time for beginners. Bad option.
  • I could change my mindset. What this follower has brought to the table is that she is going to be solid with her eight count timing. Can I use that? Sure! For the rest of this dance, my goal is to express the music by finding the accents in the middle of patterns. I may not be able to phrase so that my patterns added up to hitting a specific count at a specific time, but I could know exactly where the one was going to fall and find a way to dance that with her. By changing my mindset to work with the follower, instead of dictating an outcome, I created a better dance for both of us.

This philosophy applies no matter what your partner is doing. If she comes forward on her anchor, can you use that? Sure—now your dance is going to float a lot and you have the opportunity to travel your body during the anchor. If she turns the wrong way during tucks, can you turn tucks into free spins so the hand doesn’t matter?

Followers, you can do this too. You’ve probably danced with the leader who leads you out of an anchor early. Can you do something with that? Maybe you can settle your anchor early and be ready for that early lead. Or maybe you can stay in longer and post later. If he’s leading you out early, he’s bringing to the table a solid lead backwards. Can you use that by dressing up your forward walk? Be creative!

My first dance with an A-list pro, just a few months after I started dancing, was with Kellese Key. I still remember that dance because she figured out what I could and couldn’t do early in the song. I couldn’t do much besides get out of the way on side passes, so she owned that. She created such amazing body flight down the slot during side passes that it still stands out in my mind as one of the most dynamic dances I’ve ever experienced. She didn’t try to make me extend patterns or bend the slot, which would have thrown me for a loop. She just took the one element of my basics that was halfway decent and used her skill to turn it up to 11.

Takeaway Lesson: Stop thinking about the specific outcome you want to achieve. Start focusing on what your partner brings to the table. Build the dance from that.

Mindset Shift #2: From “How Can I Lead This Move” to “What Can My Follower Do?”

The second mindset shift is to make the follower, rather than the move, your priority. Every one of us has limits. Whether the limits are physical or mental, a lack of training or a lack of energy, there will be things that we can’t do well that day. As a leader, you can choose to focus on your agenda for the dance, and assume that there’s a way to force the follower to perform, or you can switch your focus to what your follower can do.

My local pro is a phenomenal spinner. She can do one footed spins for hours, and I love that because I get to practice leading one footed spins a lot when we social dance. But, occasionally the bar where we dance will re-wax the floor and the floor becomes incredibly tacky for the night. If I ask myself, “How can I lead Sheli through a one-footed spin given the sticky floor?”, I’m asking the wrong question. Tonight, on that floor, one-footed spins aren’t a safe move. It doesn’t matter that normally one-footed spins are in Sheli’s wheelhouse. It doesn’t matter how much force I can put into cranking her around to “compensate” for the floor. What matter is that, right now, putting this move into our dance vocabulary is asking for trouble.

So, I’ll take my cue from Sheli. On those nights, I’ll see her playing with more body shapes and rolls. Cool. What can I do as a leader to show that off? When she comes in for a push break, we’ll hang out and shape each other for a few beats before I send her out. I’ll watch how she angles her anchor and look for opportunities to rotate the slot. If I’m paying attention, we won’t care that one-footed spins are out—we’ll have plenty of ways to dance.

Followers, you can read what your partner is capable of doing as well. If he’s not open to extending patterns for whatever reason (whether he struggles with timing, is focused on moves, or just isn’t good at listening to suggestions from you), then take what he’s giving you and dance within your pattern structure.

I’ll admit that sometimes I get stuck in my head. I remember a dance with a friend when I wasn’t paying as much attention to my partner as I should have. I was hyper focused on the connection because I was thinking about some new ideas I had just learned in a private lesson. My partner realized that I wasn’t listening to her body language, but I was able to hear her center. So, she spoke in a way that I was prepared to hear during that dance: she asked for more leverage as she extended an anchor. It was exactly what I needed to bring my attention back to the dance: I instinctively matched her leverage as I looked up to see what she was doing. Within a few seconds, we were both paying attention to each other. She used a tool that was within my hearing for that dance to catch my attention and then let the dance develop from there.

Takeaway Lesson: Work with what your partner is giving you. What they can do will change from partner to partner, day to day, and even dance to dance. Respect those limits so you can both dance in your comfort zone.

A Sidenote on Technique

To make these mindset shifts, it helps to have a broad understanding of dance technique. If all I know is moves by rote, or the One True Way of leading a whip, then I’m going to feel helpless when my partner doesn’t follow my whip in the way I expect. I’m going to feel constricted when my follower’s reluctance to go into a hammerlock takes away a chunk of my patterns.

A broad understanding of technique overcomes these limitations. If I know one way of doing a whip, my only option is to lead that method harder. If I know multiple ways of leading a whip (e.g., J vs shaping on the opening, leading down slot vs drift and catch), then I can adapt to my partner instead of forcing my partner to dance what I want. If I know an anchor variation that lasts for two beats, but I don’t understand how to extend an anchor for an additional two beats, I’m setting myself up to pull my follower off balance when she sees me doing a variation and joins in but needs an extra two beats to finish.

This whole conversation started because a leader thought it was okay to force a follower into a hammerlock. If all you know is hammerlock patterns, then a follower who doesn’t go into a hammerlock is taking away a lot of your options. It’s understandable why that could be frustrating. But, the solution isn’t to make her hammerlock. If you understand the technique of the dance, you’ll realize that a hammerlock is one of several ways to wrap the follower into a side-by-side position. You can also get there by going to a shoulder wrap to sweetheart hold, which is a lot safer. You can get there from a two-hand wrap into a cuddle position. You can lead a reverse whip and pick up the follower by the shoulders. Whatever the reason the original leader wanted a hammerlock, there’s an alternative that allows the follower to feel safe. If you understand the structure and technique of the dance, you don’t have to feel limited by what your partner can do because you’ll be able to create something out of what your partner can do.

Mindset Shift #3: From “Great Leaders Lead Great Moves” to “What You Lead Doesn’t Matter”

The final mindset shift targets the belief that great leaders are great because they can lead great moves. The simplest version of this mindset is the pattern junkie who judges his success by how many combos he can drag his follower through. But, this mindset also exists in a more refined form. Leaders look at how pro dancers can encourage followers to dance above their normal level, and they take away the idea that one sign of great leading is getting your follower to dance higher level moves.

Here’s the thing: if a follower dances with Matt Auclair or Robert Royston, yes the follower will probably successfully follow moves that she wouldn’t normally be able to. But, that following will happen naturally. Those leads are so good at what they do that they don’t have to force it on the floor. They prepare during the entire dance, observing what their follower can and can’t do at a very detailed level, and choosing only the moves that they can set up for success. As a result, you’ll never see those leaders trying a move over and over in order to finally get their follower to figure it out.

If you have listened to what your follower can do and you know how to lead the move, it will happen. If you really want to try a second time because you think your lead could have been better, fine. We all make mistakes or miss things, and as long as you’re being considerate, there’s nothing wrong with a second attempt.

Beyond that, you’ve fixated on the move and you’ve lost sight of what matters: your follower and (secondly) the music. By your third attempt, there’s no way that this move fits the music any more, so now you’re just trying to lead the move to show that you can. But your follower has communicated clearly that she can’t or won’t respond the way you expect. Regardless of the reason&bad lead, she doesn’t know the move, she physically isn’t able to do it, she doesn’t feel safe, she has an irrational hatred of tucks—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that trying this move again has made the dance about your ego and what you can force her to do, rather than figuring out a way for the both of you to shine in this dance.

Takeaway Lesson: Great leaders aren’t great because they lead great moves. They do a great job of creating opportunities for their followers to succeed.


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