Build Better-Balanced Conversations

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What does it take to have a WCS dance where both partners contribute to the fun?

As a leader, do you wish playful followers would let you lead more? Or wonder why more followers don’t play with you they way they do when they dance with other leaders?

As a follower, do you wonder how you can “be a good follower” when you have so many ideas of your own during a song? Or wish you your leader would give you more opportunities to play?

Let's solve these and more. It’s all about balancing role and self-expression.

In order to learn to play with this unique feature of West Coast Swing, we need to get a little abstract so you can understand the culture, the agreements, and the rules of the game. But I promise by the end of this article you'll have some concrete objectives you can use in your social dancing.

How the game has evolved

While WCS has always the most liberating partner dance available, there used to be a lot more structure, with the leader still dominating almost all of the dance and the follower either inserting embellishments or hijacking. You might have learned West Coast Swing this way, which is fine, I did too. 

But over the past few decades, just as West Coast Swing has evolved, the game has changed:

  • The patterns are different, emphasizing flow and adaptability rather than rhythms and poses. 
  • The music is slower and more interpretive, with more time to think and more space to be musical with larger movements.
  • The leaders have started getting better at improvising: good leaders are not as attached to their choreographed patterns as they used to be – there are more "open-ended questions".
  • Leaders invite the followers to play (when it is convenient for them), because there is no rush to get to the next move. 
  • Followers don't need to hijack because they are offered opportunities or know how to initiate them safely.
  • There is more value placed on the creative collaboration than the precision of pattern execution.

This means that the old rules about leaders dominating and followers hijacking aren't as useful anymore. So let's find out how to upgrade and have more fun playing the game!

Keep reading to the end to find an article that provides more history on the evolution of play in WCS.

The unique conversation balance

Here's the abstract part.

While there is still structure in West Coast Swing, there exists far more of a conversation than in other dance styles. 

The very nature of improvised conversation lends itself to both partners participating – it would be pretty boring to go to a dinner party just to talk to yourself. 

In any civilized conversation, there are two roles to be played: speaker and listener. One can not function without the other. 

In most partner dances, the dancers stick to their designated roles: the leader only speaks and the follower only listens, creating a lecture. 

But in a conversation, the roles get exchanged: they transfer fluidly between the participants – when one stops speaking, the other takes over, and the original speaker yields to become the listener. In most circumstances, assuming you were raised well, this is done effortlessly and without a struggle.

WCS uses this conversation. There is an intriguing exchange of speaking that is unique to WCS compared to other dances, which has evolved to become even more balanced and popular in the past decade.

Just to be clear, "exchanging the lead" does not mean that the follower starts doing the leader's footwork and vice versa This confused me when I first learned about it too. Both partners are still using the same hands, starting with the same foot, and using the same figures as usual. 

So it might help to define what is meant by "speaking":

Speaking = proactively communicating physically by generating forces within the connection, to cause movement of the follower. This can be done by the leader (leading), or by the follower (backleading).

Listening = actively receiving or responding to the speaker's physical communication, through the connection, and allowing their forces to move you. This can be done by the follower (following) or by the leader (backfollowing).

So if both partners are maintaining their same foot, handhold, and figures, and both are supposed to be speaking and listening, how do we determine whose turn it is? And how does this play out in patterns?

Now you've earned the concrete part!

How to use turn-taking principles in the conversation of a dance

WCS has always been a dance of action-reaction. But this concept is vague, and not always well-explained.

There is a whole world of technique out there about physically speaking and listening that any dancer needs to understand in order to "operate the machinery". This is beyond what you would get in your average class when you are learning a pattern.

But the good news is, once you understand these fundamental partnership skills, you can apply them to ALL patterns and instantly improve your conversation game.

To get training on these rarely taught skills, check out swingliteracy.com

For now, let's assume you already have a baseline understanding of connection for leading and following, which are the minimum requirements for playing this game.

How to offer an opportunity to speak

As anyone would hope in a balanced conversation, at some point the speaker pauses to ask questions, hear feedback, or yield a turn: allow the listener to speak for a while, assumes the listener role, then builds off of what they said to progress the conversation forward.

In WCS, this is called an “invitation lead”. The leader stops leading the follower in a pattern, offering time for the follower to dance as they please. ("Stopping leading" doesn't mean "freezing", it just means "not leading more movement"). 

Ideally, the follower will accept this invitation and contribute some musical movement, but this is not a demand, therefore it is always optional.

How can the leader get the lead back? Remember because this opportunity has been offered, there was no need for the follower to steal it, which means there should be no battle to "get the lead back". Leaders should allow the follower to finish their idea and give the lead back to the leader voluntarily. With few exceptions, interrupting the follower before they are “done” would actually make the leader guilty of hijacking.

This intention is communicated through connection and positioning, and yes there are specific techniques involved for the different type of invitation leads that require some fundamental partnership skills of WCS, which we detail in Module 3 of the Swing Literacy Dancer Development program

How to request an opportunity to speak

Sometimes the listener can prompt the speaker to pause in order to provide an opportunity to contribute. Then if the speaker yields, the listener can assume the speaker role.

In WCS, this is called a “request”, which involves the follower giving a physical signal with a change in connection or grip that indicates to the leader that they have an idea to contribute. But they must wait for agreement from their partner before speaking.

Now, requests are technically a backfollowing skill, appropriate only for dancers with more experience in invitation leads. Of course there are specific techniques to learn to make this effective, which we cover in workshops or Module 3 of the Swing Literacy Dancer Development Program.

Ok but when? Requests are welcome occasionally if it does not interrupt the flow of what the leader was leading, but if it causes an interruption in momentum that is too challenging for the leader to react and adapt to, it will be annoying. If it is a convenient moment, the leader should grant the follower's request and yield to or support their idea by pausing to listen (reciprocating the follower's connection or pausing their own movement).

Is your brain percolating with questions? Good! Keep reading to find out how to get more answers....

Partners’ responsibilities

Recently in our Swing Literacy Alumni membership called Momentum, we focused on a theme called Balanced Conversations, and took a poll asking what factors make for a great dance conversation. I'll publish the full results in another article, but here was the overwhelming consensus:

It is crucial for both partners to understand how to listen and how to speak. This does not change the primary roles, however. Part of the primary speaker’s role is to be sensitive and responsive to the primary listener. And part of the primary follower’s role is to be aware of the general game plan and detect and take advantage of convenient opportunities to direct and contribute to the conversation.

Teachers also have a responsibility to explain the nature of this unique aspect of WCS to students as they progress. Around the world, we see eager dancers eating YouTube clips for breakfast, trying to copy moves they admire without understanding the mechanics and rules involved. When these “learners” start teaching, rather than getting appropriate training they make up their own rules about how followers should express themselves, and pass these misunderstandings on to their students. I have heard reports from overseas students that a few teachers advise the followers, “If you want to play, you have to ‘surprise’ your leader so he’s thrown off guard and he has no choice”…  This isn’t martial arts.

As for getting training, yes, this is a topic that we go in depth into in the Swing Literacy Teacher Development ProgramOf course, you can’t expect to learn the technical intricacies of invitation leads or musical phrasing from reading an article! And don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can visually lead “signals” for it to work.  There is a ton of technique involved in the connection skills required for this type of conversation, which is beyond the scope of this article. Where can you get it? Well, private lessons of course (live or online), and tailored Intensives. We also have some damn good video resources at the bottom of this page.  

The rewards of playing the conversation game

Followers love leaders who listen. Even if the follower has nothing to contribute, the leader needs to pay attention to the effect their efforts are having on the follower. In other words, check to see if you (leader) are being heard. Eventually, more followers will play when you offer.

Leaders love followers who listen. It’s annoying when a follower self-leads before the leader has had a chance to lead it. In other words, just because you (follower) can predict what the leader will say, doesn’t mean you should say it simultaneously.  Stay behind and responsive, not proactive.

Today, abrupt hijacking is considered as rude as interrupting in a conversation. The leaders should be trained to offer opportunities for play and listen for requests to play from the follower regularly during any social dance.

If the followers are offered sufficient opportunities to express themselves, they don’t feel the need to “steal” them. Followers should be trained to detect invitation leads and make requests when they are ready, and be armed with an arsenal of dance movements they can choose from to contribute in the moment.

In order to have a good time social dancing today, WCS dancers need to respect their responsibilities as good communicators. No one likes an argument, and everyone likes to be listened to. 

Oh, there's so much more...

This article is just scratching the surface!
Got more questions about this topic? Such as:

  • What is backleading? Is it bad?
  • How long should I play for?
  • How long should I wait for the follower to start playing?
  • How can I tell when the follower is done?
  • What should I do while my follower is playing?
  • What if the leader doesn't respond to my request?
  • What if the leader never gives me any invitations?
  • What moves can I do when given an invitation?
  • How can I build off of the follower's idea?
  • ...and more!

We address all these and more in this virtual workshop:

Register to get the recording.

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As a leader, do you wish playful followers would let you lead more? Or wonder why more followers don’t play with you they way they do when they dance with other leaders?

As a follower, do you wonder how you can “be a good follower” when you have so many ideas of your own during a song? Or wish you had more playful repertoire? It’s all about balancing role and self-expression.

West Coast Swing attracts both men and women because of the music and the easy cool factor of the movement. But it attracts the women a bit more for a different reason: the freedom.

  Disclaimer:

This article describes historical events and their influence on modern-day West Coast Swing, and therefore refers to the traditional roles of male leaders and female followers. It is not a commentary on the evolution of gender neutrality in leader/follower roles. Binary terms are used for simplicity, but we assume that any gender can dance either role.

 

The unique conversation balance

WCS is the most liberating partner dance available. While there is structure, there exists far more of a conversation in WCS than in other dance styles. The very nature of improvisation lends itself to both partners participating – it would be pretty boring to go to a dinner party just to talk to yourself. 

In any civilized conversation, there are two roles to be played: speaker and listener. One can not function without the other. In most partner dances, the dancers stick to their designated roles: the (traditionally male) leader only speaks and the (traditionally female) follower only listens, creating a lecture.  But in a conversation, the roles get exchanged: they transfer fluidly between the participants – when one stops speaking, the other takes over, and the original speaker yields to become the listener. In most circumstances, assuming you were raised well, this is done effortlessly and without a struggle. WCS is this conversation. There is an intriguing exchange of speaking that is unique to WCS. 

 

The women’s chance to speak

Clearly not a “lady of the evening”, but gotta love this sailor’s pose

Historically, there is a version that tells of “ladies of the evening” trying their best to dance flirtatiously with the drunken sailors on shore leave who couldn’t quite manage to lead them. The women have kept this self-expression through the decades, and the leaders have enjoyed the entertainment even when sober. Let’s face it – it’s a relief to let someone else drive for a spell.

But sober leaders had ideas. They valued patterns and spins – the more the better. There was hardly any room for play. A good follower was determined by her ability to keep up with the most amount of crazy s**t leaders could throw at her. This kept her so busy there was no time for self-expression unless the leader showed rare mercy on her and granted her a few beats at the end of a pattern to fill time, or “throwing her the scraps”. Dancers from this era became masters of fast spins and pre-set, rhythmic patterns.

 

The pendulum swings

The conversation had become such a dictatorship that the followers were rebelling, insisting on expressing themselves. When I first started WCS in 2000, it was at the height of a trend called “hijacking”. This trend influence many, but not all – enough to see common behaviour patterns emerge:

chickeninterrupt

The experienced followers of this era became extremely adept at stealing the lead, but they did so with no regard for the flow of the dance, regardless of the leader’s intentions or positioning. Phrasing was often sacrificed, because neither dancer was in control of the team hitting the break. This turned the conversation into a battle of interruption.

It got so brutal that it was disempowering the men. It was common to see leaders sullenly abandoning their footwork and resorting to just acting as the jungle gym as the follower had their way with the slot. The musicality belonged to the follower. The leader was just there to provide the framework, which the follower might decide to change anyway. Over time the leaders became so complacent, their progress as dancers suffered.

Let’s be clear: hijacking is bad news, just as hijacking a bus or a plane. Nobody joins dancing for the battle. In the traditional roles of partner dancing, the men might like the idea that they get to be the boss for 3 minutes and the ladies are supposed to follow them. The followers might like the idea of letting the man sweep her off her feet and take her for a ride. There was no battle – it was an agreement both could benefit from. I’m not saying WCS doesn’t still deliver in that department, but the priorities are different. 

Also, to be clear: self-leading is also bad news. Initiating a movement before the leader has a chance to lead it sabotages the partnership much like hijacking does. Backleading, on the other hand, is an advanced skill that is productive and cooperative: the follower notices that the mechanics required for the move to function are not happening, so she produces them herself without changing roles or the original intention of the movement. This requires an advanced skillset and involves a keen awareness of both roles.  

 

The pendulum swings back

The hijacking trend passed (or evolved) as leaders started stepping up and being more proactive. They started leading more musically – adapting and tailoring their patterns to suit the slower, more interpretive music. The followers were so entertained and occupied by the variable patterns they couldn’t predict, they were not able to hijack as much. They found the leaders had more interesting things to say that were worth listening to. So they started listening again.

For some, listening is already in their comfort zone, so they don’t bother speaking up. Which is fine because it’s their choice. But for others who found and fell in love with this dance because of the self-expression opportunities, it’s the conversation; the banter; the game that they’re after. 

When the leaders weren’t being hijacked incessantly, they became more willing to offer opportunities for the follower to play – after all, it’s a relief to let someone else drive for a while, remember? But now the game has changed. The patterns are different, the music is slower and more interpretive. The leaders have started getting better at improvising: good leaders are not as attached to their choreographed patterns as they used to be – there are more open-ended questions. They invite the followers to play (when it is convenient for them), because there is no rush to get to the next move. When the leaders invite the followers to speak for a while, they themselves assume the listener role. 

 

How to use turn-taking principles in the conversation of a dance

turntaking

WCS has always been a dance of action-reaction. But this concept is vague, and not always well-explained. There is the obvious biomechanics application of Newtonian laws. But in terms of the conversation, there is a easy, effortless, respectful, back-and-forth agreement between partners. They exchange roles agreeably and fluidly: the primary leader guiding most of the structure of the dance, the follower decorating it whenever possible.

But as anyone would hope in a balanced conversation, at some point the speaker pauses to ask questions, hear feedback, or yield a turn: allow the listener to speak for a while, then builds off of what they said to progress the conversation forward.

In WCS, this is called an “invitation lead”. If a leader invites the follower to play, he should allow her to finish her idea and give the lead back to him. With few exceptions, interrupting her before she’s “done” would make him guilty of hijacking.

Sometimes the listener can prompt the speaker to pause so that she may have an opportunity to contribute. In WCS, this is called a “request”, which involves the follower giving a physical signal with a change in connection or grip that indicates to the leader that she has an idea to contribute. This is welcome occasionally if it does not interrupt the flow of what the leader was leading, but if it causes an interruption in momentum that is too challenging for the leader to react and adapt to, it will be annoying. If it is a convenient moment, the leader should grant her request and yield to or support her idea by pausing to listen (reciprocating her connection or pausing his movement).

If the speaker does not respond, this might be because he is unaware, he does not have these advanced conversation skills yet, or he is not in a good position to stop and attend to her. In this case, the follower must make her following role take priority and save her idea for a later opportunity – prepared to abandon her idea in a split second to salvage the flow of the dance. Just as in a conversation, if the follower insists, it would be considered interrupting/hijacking, and might sacrifice both partners’ safety. You may have heard the advice, “Follow first, play second”. Now you have the details you needed to really understand that phrase.

 

Both partners’ responsibilities

It is crucial for both partners to understand how to listen and how to speak. This does not change the primary roles, however. Part of the primary speaker’s role is to be sensitive and responsive to the primary listener. And part of the primary follower’s role is to be aware of the general game plan and detect and take advantage of convenient opportunities to direct and contribute to the conversation.

This is particularly evident these days as dancers are struggling to recapture the neglected art of phrasing. This element of our dance was second nature to dancers 20 years ago in the era when pre-set rhythmic patterns were the commodity. But with so much interpretive shaping and conversation-ing going on over the last 10 years or so, many dancers have come up through the ranks not understanding how to count phrases and dance appropriately to music math. The degeneration of this dominant aspect of musicality is not only calling the leaders to task, but also the followers in their responsibility to be aware of the phrasing game and their role in it.

Teachers also have a responsibility to explain the nature of this unique aspect of WCS to students as they progress. Around the world, we see eager dancers eating YouTube clips for breakfast, trying to copy moves they admire without understanding the mechanics and rules involved. When these “learners” start teaching, rather than getting appropriate training they make up their own rules about how followers should express themselves, and pass these misunderstandings on to their students. I have heard reports from overseas students that a few teachers advise the followers, “If you want to play, you have to ‘surprise’ your leader so he’s thrown off guard and he has no choice”…  This isn’t martial arts.

As for getting training, yes, this is a topic that is included in the Swing Literacy Teacher Development Program. Of course, you can’t expect to learn the technical intricacies of invitation lead or musical phrasing from reading a article! And don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can visually lead “signals” for it to work.  There is a ton of technique involved in the connection skills required for this type of conversation, which is beyond the scope of this article. Where can you get it? Well, private lessons of course (live or online), and tailored Intensives. We also have some damn good video resources at the bottom of this page.  

 

What good listening gets you 

Followers love leaders who listen. Even if the follower has nothing to contribute, the leader needs to pay attention to the effect his efforts are having on the follower. In other words, check to see if you (leader) are being heard.

Leaders love followers who listen. It’s annoying when a follower self-leads before the leader has had a chance to do it himself. In other words, just because you (follower) can predict what the leader will say, doesn’t mean you should say it simultaneously.  Stay behind.

This ease of exchanging turns speaking has lent itself to many dancers’ curiosity in exploring the opposite role. This has nothing to do with sexuality – simply dancers looking for a challenge and enjoying learning a new “language”. Dancers are also experimenting with role-switching, which involves trading roles completely for only a few measures or phrases at a time, assuming each partner is skilled at the opposite role. This trading is still an easy, effortless conversation: the game is to create smooth transitions – to disturb the flow as little as possible. Learning the opposite role trains you to empathize and appreciate the needs of your partner. Learning to role-switch trains you to observe and analyze flow in order to manipulate it.

Today, hijacking is considered as rude as interrupting in a conversation. The leaders should be trained to offer opportunities for play to the follower regularly during any social dance. If the followers are offered sufficient opportunities to express themselves, they don’t feel the need to “steal” them. Followers should be trained to detect invitation leads and armed with an arsenal of dance movements they can choose from to contribute in the moment.

In order to have a good time social dancing today, WCS dancers need to respect their responsibilities as good communicators. No one likes an argument, and everyone likes to be listened to. 

 

Further Study

 

 

 

 

 


Looking for more technical advice like this?

Of course, this is just a quick sample, a fraction, of the type of technical detail that you deserve and we supply in the Swing Literacy Dancer Development Program. For more information about how you can get the whole program:

 

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In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about how this culture of follower's play and conversation negotiations evolved over the past two decades, check out this article:

West Coast Swing offers a unique opportunity for both partners to express themselves and co-create in amazing “dance conversations”. But it wasn’t always balanced or amiable. So how did we get here?  This article describes the journey of how the the improvised conversation of West Coast Swing social dancing has evolved dramatically over the past two

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  1. There is a synergistic effect of combining the skills and creativity of both leader and follower that is far greater than could be achieved with each dancer playing more limited roles. Watching two skilled dancers playing off of each other’s energy and creativity is intriguing and inspiring. I love it! And I love Myles and Tessa! On my bucket list is to one day take an intensive from Myles and Tessa.

  2. This is the second time I have read this article. My recent partner sent it to me after I took an elbow to the chin which rang my bells. My response then was to say: “All the world loves a listener. but everyone respects the sharp elbow now and again.” My partner did not immediately understand what I meant, so I explained it thus:
    “…leads love follows who “listen” to their lead, and follows love leads who “listen” to their requested leads, which makes up the gist of the blog post message. As for the sharp elbow, that merely reminds the lead to properly yield the slot to the follow to avoid a collision. ?

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