In May at Salt City Stomp, I had the privilege of taking classes with Anthony Chen and Irina Amzashvili, a pair of talented and hardworking dancers with a penchant for relentlessly musical choreography. (Watch this.) They are also kind, thoughtful people who care about their students, and I instantly felt comfortable in their classes.
However, something happened over the weekend that I found concerning. I had the opportunity to take four different classes with them, and in every class, there was at least one moment – sometimes more – where Irina would start to say something, and then pause and look sad because the class was talking over her. “I just don’t have a very powerful voice,” she would say, as if trying to make a joke out of it – but it wasn’t funny.
Anthony doesn’t have a very “powerful voice” either. Both he and Irina are gentle and soft-spoken. But the class paid attention to Anthony when he started talking, and ignored Irina. Anthony usually noticed when this was happening and reminded the class to respect Irina and listen to her – but I wondered why he needed to do that in the first place.
Since my very first swing dance class, I have been aware of this pattern among students of swing dancing and leaders in particular. It is pervasive and habitual. When the leading teacher is talking, we tune in, and when the following teacher is talking, we tune out. Sometimes leaders will even talk to our followers while the following teacher is talking. We seem to think that we can give them more valuable feedback than the teacher can. (What?!)
As leaders, our disrespect toward the followers who work so hard to teach us is based on a faulty appraisal of what they have to offer. Many leaders do not realize that the following teacher can give us an invaluable glimpse of the follower’s perspective. Cultivating an awareness of the follower’s perspective is an important way we can develop as dancers. It enables us to offer a more clear, comfortable, and interesting dance experience to our partners on the floor.
What are other reasons why leaders might find it useful and important to listen to the following teacher in class?
- They are talking about following, which may be something you also do sometimes, and you should listen to what they are saying so you can apply it to your own following later.
- They are explaining the follower’s footwork in the pattern they are teaching. This information will help you to get out of your follower’s way and support them as they are executing a complex movement.
- They are talking about the levels of tension or stretch that the follower contributes to the connection at different points throughout a movement. You should listen carefully and make sure you are prepared to match those levels with tension or stretch of your own.
- They are talking about what they are feeling from their leader during a movement. If you tune into this, you can start learning how to offer leads and cues that are easily readable for your follower.
- They are discussing a certain lead or movement from their leader that they don’t like or that feels uncomfortable. Learn what these are, and avoid them!
- They are talking about a technical dance concept, like using core engagement to add tension to the connection. Challenge yourself to see where in your own dancing this could be useful.
- They are sharing what they like and don’t like from their leader during a particular type of movement or pattern. Use this to help build yourself into a dancer who is fun to dance with!
I asked one of my dance friends who follows primarily for additional reasons why leaders should listen up when the following teacher is talking. Here is what she said:
- There’s always something to be learned, and usually what follows are taught (keep your feet underneath you, keep the flow, listen, adapt) is also applicable to leads.
- It helps you understand what your partner is trying to do and helps you respect that it’s not easy.
- It’s polite??
- If you want to try following (which everyone should, in my opinion) you might pick up some tips!!
I particularly like my friend’s point that when we as leads listen to the following teacher, we are making an admission that requires humility: following is not easy! Following in a dance means making things work when ideas get lost in translation, filling out moments where leaders leave you hanging, and finding your creative voice in ways that contribute to the flow rather than interrupting it. Following is complicated, and it is extremely challenging to do well.
We found out towards the end of the event that Irina had actually become sick and lost her voice. If she had not had to strain herself repeatedly to be heard, that might not have happened. It’s an extreme example of an unfortunate pattern, in which leaders think it’s okay to disregard the following teacher because they are doing something different from themselves. When we listen to the following teacher, we learn never to assume that following is easy, and we gain the ability to evaluate our own dancing from the follower’s perspective. Which, considering it’s a partnered dance that we’re doing here, is really the perspective that matters the most.
I’m in Michigan this weekend for KissME in Ann Arbor and am writing from my host’s couch, recovering from an overnight plane ride. I’ll be back sometime next week with an update on all my music from the weekend – there’s going to be a lot of it!
P.S. If you start this video at 9:05, you can catch Anthony calmly doing a backflip.