The genre of dance I love best involves leading and following. It is a partner dance called the lindy hop, which can be roughly described as an intense form of swing dancing. Despite the terms, leading and following do not denote dictation of the dance by one person and compliance by the other. A good leader generates power and direction. He may provide acceleration or deceleration while suggesting trajectory. A good follower stays true to these parameters, which may shift unpredictably.
Artists understand that diligent study of technique sublimates the tools necessary to create powerful expression. However, disproportionate focus on mechanics can obscure or cancel the overall effectiveness of a piece. Ideally, a command of technique simultaneously removes it from view and facilitates the experience of seamless and shining truth.
Mainstream culture tends to emphasize a dichotomy, particularly in dance, between practice and abandon. “You can’t think too much. You just have to let it flow,” runs the conventional wisdom, particularly in regard to following in partner dancing (usually the woman’s part). This idea covers half of the story at best. My study of and devotion to dancing has taught me that greater skill enables greater passion and fulfillment. Although I am a professional, I know many hobbyists who have experienced the joyful moments of expression and connection for which we all pine; for which we all live, as a direct result of studying dance technique.
On the social floor, dancing may appear as a specific sequence of rehearsed moves. Most likely, the dancers have not practiced the sequence together but rather the mode of communication - leading or following or both - with other partners whom they encountered in the social dance scene. Leading and following may be compared to conversation. Most of us don’t rehearse dialogues or speeches before we go out to meet with friends. At the same time, we know that the more we practice language, the richer our conversations become. After lindy-hopping with an almost perfect stranger in a bar somewhere not my hometown, I usually hear someone ask, “How long have you two been dancing together? You just flow so well.”
The word flow is used consistently to describe even the most ordinary of social dances. Fancy tricks and footwork have no impact unless under girded by solid partnering. People talk excitedly about the flips or the kicks they saw, but they might not have enjoyed watching these moves without the snap, crackle and shape shifting energy of lead/follow.
The following excerpts from my memoir, Dance Is Love, illustrate different ways in which leading and following heighten the experience of life. The book is about my passion for and compulsion to dance. Partner dance can highlight sensuality and sexuality. Other joyful and even transcendent emotions - those that pave the way for personal growth, learning, and understanding - can be felt as well.
Lead/ follow in lindy hop can be…
…a crucial component of art:
Kendall and I have worked considerably on the entrance into tandem Charleston - that favorite lindy hop move in which the leader dances behind the follower, both of them doing the Charleston. At the snap and direction he provides, I back into him. His hands connect to mine and our arms become springs through which his body can incite the next variation.
When we do this entrance correctly, he can lead turns or jumps at the same instant that his hands catch mine. All the while I must actively integrate the connections within my own body, and between my feet and the floor, so as not to lose a drop of that precious, exciting, thrilling momentum. Ideally we are like a machine in which no energy is lost to entropy. He is the dreamer and I am the dream; he is the driver and I the perfectly tuned sports car on the mountain road.
We need each other to make the ephemeral, spontaneous art that has claimed our lives. Even during previously determined, arduously rehearsed choreography, I must still follow his lead. Otherwise power is lost, little mistakes become deadly, and worst of all, the feeling is all wrong.
…a transcendent experience:
Jake led me in the most melting, slow, perfectly timed dance of my whole life. Literally and figuratively, he cradled me, supported me through every single little ball-change, pirouette, or twist I felt like doing, added his own brilliant lock steps and drops, dragged me around, dipped me, bumped me into the air and braked my landing. My dewy eyes tracked over a green line painted on the floor as I focused on following, and I felt something I never had before. I felt truly full. Hungry, overtired, but absolutely full.
The ever-present internal void was gone. This is the void I face when attempting to surmount even small obstacles in the artistic process. It threatens to engulf me in emptiness, in feelings of worthlessness and despair; it drives me to fill my life with distractions. I am so used to it being always there that its absence gave way to a completely foreign joy I will never forget. In a few minutes this experience was over: the fate of all dances.
Kendall started with an in connection, coaxing my chest onto his chest. The first time he had taught me that way to connect, we were preparing to teach a blues class that had been requested by some of my students.
“First we show them how to breathe together,” he’d explained. This had taken place in my studio at home; Peter had been at basketball practice.
“Okay,” I’d said.
“You come in. I put you here. We shouldn’t have to use our arms.” He let go of my back as I leaned into his chest. “Now you try following my breathing.”
“Meaning I inhale and exhale at the same time as you?”
You’re kidding, I’d thought. The top of my head met the lower side of his jaw and I could feel and hear his gum-chewing. The breathing did help me to follow, though. Even our students didn’t mind tuning in to each other this way, the next evening in class. I chalked up their gameness to the ice-breaking activities I had planned and executed beforehand: playground interactions like pushing on each other’s hands, then one partner moving side to side, trying to prevent the other partner from passing.
So, last night, at the Monday night dance, Kendall began with an in connection, walking forward. He moved my legs with his. I love you, I thought blissfully. Oh, the thrill of blues: elongated, melting, yet tolerable: space for strength and surrender, anchored and floating at once, time for crisp direction changes and slowly-unfolding trajectories, for extra spins and for be here on this foot now.
Kendall led ochos - in which I swish each leg in turn to cross in front of the other, a difficult move from Argentine tango that all the lindy hoppers try but few accomplish.
“Those felt really good,” he remarked, although to me they were just as good as always when he leads them, and I kept going; he lifted me so that my legs swung in a slow 180-degree arc before placing me on my left foot. We’d worked on that one.
…a study in finding happiness:
When good following is this important, we girls have quite a conundrum. Trying is not quite the right thing to do. We have to be: ourselves, the moment, the music, the boy’s dream - all in order to fulfill our own. We must detach from the thing we so dearly desire: in this case, the most sublime dance possible. Be now, I ordered myself, willfully shutting out past and future. It became a mantra.
photo by Jaclyn Gavino
“Pardon me,” the singer crooned, “but I’ve gotta run/ The fact’s uncomfortably clear/ Gotta find that old number one/ And why my angel eyes ain’t here.”
One of my best relationships was undone by this song, when, from the back of the Student Center in the fall of 1993, I heard my favorite musician sound check that melodic line on his tenor saxophone.
Now, at Blues Cafe, I let Jake do what he wanted. I tried not to try to hard. His low slung West-Coast boogaloo entertained and inspired me, asked much but demanded little. I floated and released into dips. I corralled my center into pirouettes aided by his well-timed hand. After a sweeping dip, I let momentum carry my left leg around his hip and back under me. Then he swung me out and slapped his knees and then the floor as I jumped and snapped my fingers in the air. We laughed. From the corner near stage right, girls watched.
…a bad experience
I began chatting with Jonathan about Indigo Swing and how I loved Willie’s piano playing. Jonathan seemed to get what I was saying but didn’t hear the two-against-three polyrhythm I pointed out late in the second solo. I became even more animated when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an awkward smiling tense suburban guy hopping up and down with one hand stretched toward me. I was hoping he’d notice me absorbed in conversation and give up, but he stepped closer and asked me to dance with him. Well, at least he used his words.
“I love leading basics and just watching you do your thing!” he cried. His “basics” consisted of rounded shoulders, tense arms and long uncontrolled steps. I tried to lose myself in the song, singing “I’m just a baby in this business of love,” thinking how true that was, but the yanking and pulling made me wince more than once.
I stopped short of advancing completely into the double-handed connection during our class at the Dance Complex last Saturday, because I was demonstrating to the class what not to do. Kendall began to sputter, and even as I explained the purpose of deliberately stopping the momentum, he removed his Red Sox cap and threw it on the light-colored hardwood floor. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror as I laughed.
“He was about to yell at me,” I explained to the students. “‘Follow, dammit!’ Welcome to practice with Liz and Kendall.”
Then we demo’d again and of course I came all the way in. I know the importance of that by now. If I don’t give everything I get, nothing works.
…a fulfillment of childhood fantasy:
Michael showed up to the last event I ran in Boston. I forgot his name three times in conversation before promising to remember it during our first blues dance, at about midnight.
I felt grateful for my training as a follower, for he was good. Tricky, in a lovely way. He stretched me, gave me turns down the slot and catapulted me in another direction when I least expected it. He gave me pop turns from his left side, not only his right; and as I whirled away from him with the acceleration he’d initiated, he connected his forearm to my tricep and gave me another turn; some boys call that a crank turn.
Despite the refined timing these sequences required, there was no sense of hurry. We were dancing slowly, merely emphasizing intense sections of the music. He also led turns and drags in closed position, and a bump that sent my feet into the air. There were elaborate dips, too: expertly led outside turns that somehow slid slyly into a connection between the back of his hand and the back of my neck. The way he was positioned underneath me left no doubt as to how much of my weight I could give him. I could feel it; to look and assess would have broken the flow. Dancing with Michael made me feel like a princess.
I teach people to dance so that they will also experience these blissful states, moments of self expression and synchrony.
Here in Madrid, I regularly coach a dance team. I train the girls to track true, to maintain and return momentum; I help the guys lead with their bodies, allowing their arms to act as springs. Although these concepts seem simple, for most of us they require considerable repetition to be absorbed into the body, to become tools used to serve the greater purpose of creating ephemeral art with another person.
“Why do we study leading and following?” I quizzed them, the other day. We were rehearsing, as usual, in the park. In Madrid it hardly ever rains in summer. The rain, in Spain stays …
“For communication?” said one member.
“Yes,” I answered, “and because good leading and following feels fantastic. The more we study, the better we feel.” The better we feel, the more alive we become.