An exploration and comparison of lead and follow in Tango, Lindy, and West Coast Swing.


Alphen (2014) approaches the lead and follow partnership interaction of Tango from an ‘enactivist’ approach, which looks at the dance as an ‘embodied practice,’ meaning a ‘way of doing’ that stems from the multidimensional context in which it is enacted. She uses the term ‘embodied non-verbal communication’ and notes the strong connection that is required between the partners’ bodies to allow for this improvised ‘conversation’ to occur. The ‘rule’ of leading or following the partner and the ‘boundary’ of the Tango embrace are taught to beginners. Neither leading nor following should involve push or pull, but, rather, the practice of ‘perceiving’ the other’s body is key. Alphen points out that a great deal of subtlety can be used, where the lead’s movement of his own body communicates his intentions to the follower, without explicit prompting. Since the goal is ‘sensing together’ or ‘tuning into each other,’ stiffness held in the body or cerebral thinking (whether about the self or the partner) can disrupt the connection between the pair.

Alphen explains that improvisation comes from adjustments in weight, timing, intensity, emotions, embraces, and steps, which allow for ‘endless possibilities.’ At the same time, the necessary constraints of the Tango hold, the music, other couples on the floor, as well as the interactional relationship with the partner as a separate individual are all important for improvisation within the dance, in that they create a framework within which improvisation may take place. In this sense, Alphen proposes that the dancers are actually interacting with the Tango dance itself as a ‘third volume in the dialogue’ that is taking place between the partners. The acute perception of the partner within this experience can lead to a sense of feeling ‘expanded’ or ‘open-ended.’ In this act of ‘unidirectional incorporation,’ the partner may actually become an instrument through which ‘individual sense-making’ occurs.

Lindy Hop

Wade (2011) also gives a detailed breakdown of lead and follow dynamics in Lindy Hop, though in this case from the specific perspective of how they relate to expressions of egalitarianism in the typically gendered roles of leaders and followers. Like Alphen, she differentiates the lead/follow experience between varying levels of dancers, explaining that in the early stages, leading and following is introduced to beginners as ‘to act or be acted upon.’ Basic requirements of connection such as leaders holding the follower’s ‘upper back and shoulder blades’ rather than the lower back, maintaining a ‘frame,’ or toned connection between the ‘hands, arms, and upper back’ of both partners, as well as ‘counterbalance,’ the act of shifting weight away from the partner to create a ‘shared center-of-balance’ must be established. These techniques are based in physics to allow the partnership to generate more speed and momentum than would be possible for an individual to achieve alone. In this beginning stage, both leader and follower roles are clearly defined and the focus is on leaders learning how to communicate their intentions to followers nonverbally, and for followers to learn to be receptive to the lead’s prompts.

Wade notes that even beginner dancers are introduced to the idea that this lead/follow dynamic will eventually be disrupted, but it is in the intermediate phase that they learn how to do this through ‘disconnection.’ Wade associates disconnection with a ‘negotiation’ of control between the partners. At this level, dancers are taught that a lead is more like a ‘suggestion’ that followers may respond to in different ways of their own choosing. Leaders from Wade’s study expressed an appreciation for the follower’s contributions, since it makes the dance ‘more interesting.’ In this stage, the lead/follow dynamic becomes more like the conversation described by Alphen, with give and take on both sides.

However, in the most advanced stage, Wade describes a transition to the use of ‘connection,’ as opposed to ‘disconnection.’ Similar to Alphen’s description of feeling ‘expanded’ through the lead/follow connection in Tango, in this method, the Lindy Hop dancers’ bodies are so in sync that they become a ‘cooperative dancing machine’ in which the very act of acting affects the trajectories of both partners at once. Terms like ‘leading’ and ‘following’ are replaced with the words ‘initiating’ and ‘following through,’ which are not designated roles for either partner. Elite dancers who experience this level of connection often speak of the music as the ‘true’ or ‘real’ leader, since both partners are hearing and responding to the music as they feel it in their own and their partner’s bodies. As Wade states, “Both leaders and followers want to feel what the other hears…. leaders happily trade control for spontaneity and unpredictability” (2011:243). This means that the music acts as a binding force or structure within which the partners may interact and express their own interpretations.

West Coast Swing

It would seem that research has yet to be conducted on the global community or the lead/follow dynamics of West Coast Swing, specifically. However, Callahan’s (2005) study of West Coast Swing learning communities has unearthed some initial key points. First, Callahan expresses the strong responsibility of followers in West Coast Swing to contribute their own interpretations of the music through individual and joint improvisation with their partner. Callahan found this to result in an increased ‘self-concept’ and greater ‘self-awareness.’ As with both Tango (Alphen 2014) and Lindy Hop (Wade 2011), many of Callahan’s (2005) respondents stress the importance of listening and communication in West Coast Swing, and add that these skills which are learned through the lead/follow dynamic of the dance translate into many other realms of their daily lives. Callahan also notes that leading West Coast Swing involves the use of ‘spatial-temporal skills,’ in that the leader must envision where he wants to move the follower, as well as how and when he will communicate this to her, before he can carry out the action request. Clearly, this is just a preliminary snapshot, and further study is needed to flesh out the intricate lead and follow dynamics of West Coast Swing.

This is a portion of a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology senior thesis completed by Stacia Wilson at the University of La Verne. Portions of this senior thesis (as well as possible additional content) will be posted every other Thursday as part of the ongoing ‘Academic Perspectives’ series. Subscribe to stay up to date on upcoming posts!

References Cited

Alphen, Floor
2014 Tango and Enactivism: First Steps in Exploring the Dynamics and Experience of Interaction. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science 48(3):322-331.

Callahan, Jamie L.
2005 ‘Speaking a Secret Language’: West Coast Swing as a Community of Practice of Informal and Incidental Learners. Research in Dance Education 6(1):3-23.

Wade, Lisa
2011 The Emancipatory Promise of the Habitus: Lindy Hop, the Body, and Social Change. Ethnography 12(2):224-246.

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