There’s been some talk about the whole “lead” versus “follow” and whether or not these things even really should exist in someone’s Platonic ideal of contra, and the sociological implications of that which at least somewhat go beyond the purview of this blog. However, I’ve found some dancers who have interesting things to say about the mindset and the sensibilities that go with dancing the “other” role.
Eileen continues, “For the kind of switch dancing I prefer, with the lead and follow blurring together, flexibility and being in the moment is key: Occasionally my partner and I will interrupt one another and not be ready to follow the other's lead instead, but ideally we will be ready to give up the impulse we had to lead in that moment in time in favor of something that the other leads a fraction of a second earlier. Being ready to collaborate is key, too. I love collaborating in many parts of my life, because I find that the end result is typically richer than any one of us would have come up with on our own. In my experiences this is true on the dance floor, too, especially waltzing: One of us will work in one thread, the other will introduce something else, we'll lose our hand grips and start goofing off as though it were intentional, and then we'll play off of the themes that we brought up earlier.”
Aimee Steussy, of the Glen Echo dance community, agrees: “In my opinion, dancing switch is one of the things you should learn to do as a dancer. It’s a different muscle -- I mean, my left arm takes a lot more when I’m leading. But I do feel that it’s necessary to practice. Actually, there’s a dancer who used to dance at Glen Echo, this little girl, and she made me learn to switch after every other [time through the dance]. And, oh my God, does that train you, really fast.”
Sam Kleinman of New York, NY adds, “You have to be confident if you expect that people will read you wrong, and that requires dudes-dancing-as-ladies to be rather assertive, but at least in the places I dance (North East Festivals, CDNY, Philly/Glenside, Greenfield, Glen Echo). Male/Male couples of straight dudes happen fairly regularly, and that's the point where I think gender is basically a non-issue in contra.”
Aimee somewhat disagrees with Sam’s assessment: “Ironically, it seems that when two women dance, no one questions who’s supposed to follow, but if you have a guy following, everyone wants to ‘fix’ it. And so if you get a guy who just wants to practice being a follow, it can get difficult. And a lot of people give them grief, and you have to actually say, ‘no, this is intentional, we’re trying this.’ Because I think people become better leaders once they follow because they understand, it’s this much pull, it’s this much of a scoop movement. Or you realize that you add a second scoopy thing, you become lots of fun. I think all of our bodies are trying to have fun out there. I mean, of course we have to be safe -- injuries are bad, they stop us dancing. I like the fact that there’s lots of energy, and you can try and experiment -- I mean, what happens if I lead this arm out, oh, they twirl that way. Guys don’t tend to know that.”
Aimee further adds a particular example: “If you notice when you try and turn a guy, they turn in, instead of out; when they turn in their usual roles, they turn one way, and when the girls turn in their usual roles, they turn the other way. So there’s a motion they don’t feel in the hand there. There’s a centrifugal force that they usually feel the other way....Switching is actually huge, and the most I learned, was the first couple years when I was doing that.”
Contra Syncretist’s own Steven Roth, also of the Glen Echo, MD dance community, adds: “I find that I tend to enjoy dancing follow more when I am dancing with someone who typically dances follow themselves. I guess once you’ve been on the receiving end of a bunch of different types of leads, you start to learn that the clarity of the communication you are giving your follow is much more important than using brute strength to shove your follow into doing what you want them to do. Any guy can twirl me around a bunch of times when I pass him on the way up the line, but it takes a special touch to challenge me and make me really think about how to follow the leads I’m being given.”
For me, I find that there’s a bit of a switch in mindset that I need to have; I’m thinking about a whole different set of placements. For instance, I need to make sure that my partner ends up on the right side, not me. I notice that I’m paying more attention to where everyone else in the set is, because I don’t want to spin my partner out into someone. I notice that my level of “acceptable” flourish-leading varies greatly with how crowded the room is, since I dance follow a lot more than I dance lead and I can’t trust myself yet to be on-the-dime precise in where I finish off a move, so I need to leave wiggle room.
For some others, this is complete anathema: when I asked Brian Hamshar of the Charlottesville, VA dance community, he replied, “What different mindset? It just takes experience and a sense of playfulness, right? In turn, doing stuff like this makes you an even more experienced/versatile dancer.”
Characteristics of good switch dancers, then, seem to be as follows (pun unintentional):
- A willing partner. Springing this particular game on someone accidentally can be really disorienting and confusing. For instance, when I first met a contra dancer friend of mine, he asked me to dance and then while we were waiting for hands four, he asked me, “Lead, follow, or switch?” (If I recall, my answer might have just been, “Yes.” That dance was fun.)
- Per Eileen, “General characteristics of good dancers: Being well balanced on your feet and in your body, having a plenty of control, giving just the right amount of weight, having a solid grasp of the set (or the rest of the dance floor for partner dances), being in the moment and flexible, being ready to be silly.”
- Per Aimee, “You have to hold your weight. My left arm can only hold, like, half a pound, and if you give me much more weight than that you’re going to tire my arm out. But it’s a skill that you don’t especially learn dancing straight, because you learn to lean back, and it’s not really leaning back, it’s more of a crouch down and give me a little bit of pull -- your torso’s straight, and your core is straight, and you get the lean-back, but it’s a centrifugal lean-back.”
- Per Sam, confidence. This relates somewhat back to the Friday Flourish video we posted several months ago where Steve instructed guys meeting guys for a swing, if all else fails, "confidently, dominantly, and aggressively, seize the follow.” This also goes for follows dancing lead as well -- if you confidently go where the lead partner is expected to go, the other couple will pick up on the fact that you and your partner are dancing in what might be considered unexpected dance roles. And this doesn’t just apply to dances where you’re “officially” dancing switch: as Eileen notes, and I think several usually-follows will concur, “I back lead a lot in the contra set. I find that many men are (a) surprised, (b) pleased, and (c) better followers than they think they are.”
- The right dance. Some dances are a lot harder to dance switch in than others -- complicated dances, I find, are more difficult since it’s a whole different pattern to memorize and the difference between the roles can be more defined. I have yet to dance switch in ECD (though I have led many times), for instance, because of the difference in the foot patterns. The idea is not to mess up someone else’s fun by confusing them utterly (and confusion seems to happen less when #2 above happens).
How about you dancers out there? Do you have any particular thoughts about what makes a good switch dancer? Is there some reason that you particularly like or loathe the practice? Is there a particular reason you will happily dance switch with one partner, but not another?
Coming up, we’ll have “Contra Shenanigans, Part II: Thoughts on Chaos/Shenanigans/Wild/Fill-in-term-of-choice-here Sets!” Stay tuned! Special thanks go out to all those who let me pick their brains on this.
Update, 7:06 A.M.: Updated Eileen Thorsos's affiliation, per her request.