Styling for leaders and followers

Pro dancers have a phenomenal ability to work off of what their leader or follower is doing. Working off of your leader or followers styling can be a powerful tool to up your game. Many of the magic moments we see in on-the-fly choreography come from a particularly inspired way for the partners to build on each other.

4 ways to work off your leader or followers styling:

  1. Contrast your partners styling
  2. Compliment your partner’s styling
  3. Mirroring your partners styling
  4. Match your partners styling

Each of these options can create a beautiful moment, but some are easier than others. Generally, newer dancers think about trying to match their partner’s movement because all you have to do is mimic your partner.

TAKE ACTION> Download our video explaining all 3 styling options

1. Contrasting Your Leader or Followers Styling 

In this series, we are exploring how to work with your partner’s styling. Most of the time we think that working with your partner means you need to be doing similar things, but in this post we’ll learn how to do something different and make it blend together.

The basic idea behind contrast is that experiences stand out more when they are brought into sharper relief.

We see this in other genres all the time: for instance, horror movies will limit the background sounds right before a scary reveal so that the surprise “pops” even more.

Great dancers will use contrast to enhance their individual styling—if they want to draw attention to their footwork, they will simplify their footwork for a couple of counts immediately beforehand so the fast footwork appears faster.

We can apply that same idea to the image that you present as a partnership. If your partner is doing something awesome and you want to make it pop, you can do something different in order to make it stand out even more.

This method of working with your partner’s styling can be very flexible.

TAKE ACTION> Learn 5 ways to style your anchor step

Here are some ideas to get your own creative juices flowing:

  • Is your partner spinning or doing fancy footwork? Limit your motion so that their action stands out even more.
  • When your partner goes out of the slot, you can move in the opposite direction to make their motion look even larger.
  • Your partner starts doing footwork down the slot, and as part of that footwork does tap steps to the side. By matching the rhythm but taking your taps to the opposite side, the movement will look bigger.
  • If your partner does a level change during a pattern, can you do a level change in the opposite direction? Going opposite will make the height contrast even starker.

These are just some ideas—you are encouraged to come up with your own.

There are three keys to making contrast work:

  1. Be confident! If you look like you are worried about how the contrast will look, the effect will be lost.
  2. Be decisive. Contrast that is hesitant can easily look like a mistake. If you attack your motion, however, it looks intentional and it communicates that you wanted to create that look.
  3. Match the rhythm. If you are moving, you usually want to match your partner’s rhythm. Contrasting actions to the same rhythm look cool; different actions to different rhythms look like you are not on the same wavelength as your partner.

The Drill: With a partner, take turns picking actions and having the other partner create a contrasting action. Start by doing this drill facing each other, without doing WCS. Once you have some practice identifying what your partner is doing and picking a contrasting action, you can try doing this exercise while dancing basic patterns.

2. Complimenting Your Partner’s Styling

You’ve practiced paying attention to what your partner is doing. Now it’s time to do something with that awareness. In this drill, we’re going to focus on how to compliment your partner’s styling.

Complimentary styling is a great way to show that you are working with your partner to interpret the music. It also is a great choice if you are dancing with a dancer whose musicality is stronger than yours, because you can benefit from their skill in interpreting the song.

TAKE ACTION> Learn 5 ways to style your anchor step

So, how do you do complimentary styling?

You pick some element of their movement and create the same effect in your body. This isn’t mimicry—you aren’t trying to mirror their movement. Instead, you are picking a quality of their movement and using that in a way that makes sense for your body.

For the Leaders:

Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s suppose the follower is coming in for a sugar tuck, and on the tuck she hears something in the music that she wants to draw out, so she extends her free arm to the side. The leader could try to mirror that movement, but it’s easy to look awkward in that position. So let’s try a complimentary movement instead. The follower is opening up, filling the space and extending her body. As long as the leader can find a way to create that same effect in his body, it doesn’t matter how he does it. He can:

  • Raise up slightly during the tuck in order to fill a larger vertical space,
  • Extend his free arm downward to make his body look elongated, or
  • Settle onto his right foot for the tuck and extend his left leg to the side in a line.

For the followers:

Well, let’s say that the leader has led the follower into a side pass, and during the side pass he stands on his right leg while pulsing his free knee on the beat. The quality of movement is an accent on each beat, so the follower has lots of options to create that during her side pass. She can:

  • Syncopate her footwork by doing double rhythms,
  • Do chugs down the line, or
  • Use a shoulder isolation to accent each beat.

The Drill: With a partner, take turns being the styling partner and the complimentary partner. When the styling partner creates an effect with their dancing, the complimentary partner should find a way to match the quality of movement in their body. Again, it should not be a perfectly mirrored movement—that’s a different skill—and it’s okay to pause and try out some options as you are practicing. Switch roles and try again!

3. Mirroring Your Partner

The third option for styling as a partnership is to mirror your partner. While this is the method of “team styling” that most people think of first, it’s actually a risky choice because there’s a lot of opportunities to get out of sync. But, mirrored styling does look impressive when done well, so it’s worth learning how to do it.

The interaction between partners in general is better with better communication, but it’s really important when mirroring. The person who is mirroring the movement obviously needs to be paying attention, but the person who is initiating the movement has a big responsibility to express their intention clearly.

TAKE ACTION> Learn 5 ways to style your anchor step

The Drill: Stand in front of your partner. One of you will be the initiator and the other person will be the responder. The initiator’s job is to pick a movement and execute it as clearly as possible. The responder’s job is to mirror that movement.

Begin with simple, slow movements:

  • Taking the arm out to the side for four counts, and then bringing it back in for another four counts
  • Stepping to the side and taking four counts to transfer your weight, then coming back for four counts
  • Changing levels by relaxing the knees for four counts, and then straightening the knees for another four counts

The responder will have plenty of time to catch these movements, so the initiator should focus on making the rest of the body quiet and initiating the movement from the body, so the responder’s eye is drawn to the movement.

As you become comfortable with four count motions, you can speed up to two count motions, or you can do more complicated movements. Try matching footwork variations, rotation to the side, or body isolations.

As the movements become more complicated, it becomes increasingly important for the initiator to be consistent. Your partner has no chance of matching your footwork if you are changing every two beats, but if you repeat the same triple (e.g., side and cross), the responder has the opportunity to pick up the movement.

Responders: when movements become more complicated, focus on first matching rhythm and then matching placement. For instance, if your partner is doing footwork, try to match their rhythm (double, kick-ball change, triple, etc.) first. Then, keep doing that rhythm with the initiator while you adjust the details (are they crossing or hooking their feet? Is the arm going straight to the side or at an angle?)

4. Matching Your Leader or Follower

However, it turns out that matching is actually the most difficult styling option of the three options, and should probably be your last choice.

Why is matching so difficult?

Well, it’s easy to stumble over yourself when trying to figure out what your partner is doing. And, there’s no guarantee that you will be comfortable with the body mechanic that your partner’s movement requires.

To take a simple example, boogie walks are hard to match if you aren’t familiar with the technique behind that movement.

The Drill: For the next week, pay attention to your partner’s styling during each dance. At this point, you’re not yet doing anything with this information—you are simply building your awareness. Believe it or not, that’s actually a skill in itself! Especially when you are doing complicated movements, noticing what your partner is doing is challenging, and adjusting your movement to what your partner does is a level above that! We’ll get there, but it will be much easier if you concentrate on developing your awareness first.

TAKE ACTION> Learn 5 ways to style your anchor step

Teamwork in west coast swing

Partner dancing takes both the leader and the follower to be working together as a team. Understanding your responsibilities within your role as a leader or follower is important. We have an article to help you understand teamwork in west coast swing.



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