Things I think about when dancing with less-experienced leads AKA just because they’re new doesn’t mean you are AKA if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate:
Balance: Sure, I can pose as a yoga tree with fluttering branches, but can I actually keep my center in an underarm turn without pulling on my (likewise unsteady) partner? Beginner leads are usually under the impression that successful dancing stems from arm-pulling and are more likely to drag you off your axis when you least expect it. With a seated shoulder and a strong center, I can practice moving smoothly in unexpected directions and following the energy to a graceful conclusion instead of stumbling. (Though, are there there leads who are dangerously pully? Yes. Stop them, say something.)
Intentionality: Beginning leads have a smaller vocabulary and tend to dance in predictable patterns. (If there are three swingouts, you bet the next move is a lindy circle….whoop, there it is.) So make those triple steps your BEST TRIPLES EVER. As the song goes: it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Rather than waiting for something exciting to come down the pipeline, perhaps concentrate your free faculties on your dance in the moment, stepping deliberately, with good posture, timing, and smooth weight changes. If someone took a photograph of you at any moment, would you look like you knew what you were doing? That you were choosing to dance the way that you are?
Honest Following: Speaking of which, lets talk about honest following for a bit. I once took a dance class in high school where we had some very vocal classmates of the Mean Girls variety. One of them liked to be hyper-critical of everyone in the class, pick out our shortcomings, announce them loudly, and ultimately, make us cry. And when she was asked to hold her tongue or keep her thoughts to herself, she would retort with “What? I’m just being honest.”
There is such a thing as helpful honesty.
An honest follow doesn’t anticipate, that’s true, but an honest follow doesn’t stop dancing altogether either. If a desired connection isn’t made, we don’t refuse to move until strongly compelled. I think an honest follow is not only honest to their lead about the direction, momentum, footwork, and energy which the lead is requesting, but is also honest about their own connection to the dance and the music. You don’t need to wait for your lead for good rhythm. In fact, a good rhythmic base in a follow has helped many a beginning lead find the 1, or slow down or speed up as necessary to match the tempo. And when all else fails, tapping the beat on the lead’s shoulder, humming, or counting under your breath are more obvious ways to bring their attention to it. Then take those leads and feel free to embellish on their ideas. You can follow that send-out forward AND still be ready for whatever comes while still tapping, triple-ing, shuffling, and adjusting the dynamics to hit the music where you want. Most beginning leads are grateful to see that their skill level isn’t an impediment to your fun and musicality. They are happy to take a backseat to let you shine. And ultimately, this encourages them to be even more creative and joyful in their own dance and their suggestions to you. Some of the best dances I’ve had were with beginners who wanted to play in this way.
Footwork: not just being intentional with your footwork and weight changes, but also playing with footwork variations in surprising places. No one ever invented something interesting by following all of the rules! My favorite is trying to fit in camel walks EVERYWHERE. Can you do it while still being responsive to your lead’s change of plans? Can you do it without losing balance, or losing rhythm, or losing track of the pattern?
Being a good sport: This sounds patronizing, but we’ve been told/influenced all of our lives in U.S. culture to believe that dancing happens only on the most serious of terms. The poignant longing of a ballet dancer; the aggressive posturing of a street dancer; the straight face and intensity of latin and ballroom. So it’s no wonder most of us (myself included) stare off into an unknown distance with furrowed brow when we learn to dance. We’re so intent on getting it “right” that we forget to layer good-naturedness on top of our other foundational skills of rhythm, footwork, shape, and musicality. Practice good eye-contact, practice smiling and laughing, practice telling each other “nice” or “that was cool” or “oops, sorry” while STILL CONTINUING TO DANCE. Like anything else, you’ll find that you’ll get better at this over time.
I don’t think it’s a requirement to turn your social dance into a practice room; in fact, chronic abuse is a surefire method to become bitter, unknowingly spreading an arrogant presumption about how all dances were better back in the day (ya know…back when everyone was better than you and probably felt the same way you do now). But some judicious social practice as a follow helps me feel empowered and in control of my own body and my own experience. I can clearly feel my voice from the pads of my toes to the tilt of my head. And I can sidestep the feeling of a “wasted dance” by making the most out of the dance I have with who I’m with. This is why I hate it when people teach that out-moded phrase, “It’s always the lead’s fault”, humorously or not. Give me some credit here! I have the power to make any dance feel correct and easy and pleasant for any lead…and also the ability to royally mess things up. The best dances I have play in the boundary between those two.