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Lead & Follow in Contra Dance and Other Styles

The article refers to "contra", but the concepts apply equally to all country, ECD, square, ceilidh, traditional, etc. styles.

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Summary

For the actual dance there is only one Leader: that is the caller.

All the dancers are Followers, following the callerís Lead.

Any suggestion that one role has a leading responsibility is misleading and does disservice to all the dancers in the other role.

Historically this was different. The Men led the Ladies down the set. The Men swung the Ladies. We try to avoid terminology like that these days. I donít think we should go backwards.

However, within the dance, when a flourish or embellishment takes place, then Lead/Follow happens briefly and dynamically just for that couple for that embellishment.

My beliefs, understandings, opinions - some points:

  1. Contra is not intrinsically a lead/follow dance style; calling the roles "leader" & "follower" is incorrect, misleading and generally a bad idea.
  2. Within contra there are opportunities to do some lead and follow, but either role can be the leader.
  3. There is a difference between leads, signals and connections, though connections are often used to lead beginners.
  4. Lead & Follow works better if both dancers have good lead/follow technique, and some of the flourishes also benefit from good technique.
  5. Leads can be with fingertips, body angles, eyes, and anything else that works
  6. The end of a swing is not symmetrical and it is often much easier to let the "man" control the end of the swing; that's not sexist, it is physics!
  7. Most dancers would benefit from good teaching on this subject, but sadly there is very little teaching provided.
The details are all below. Read on if you are interested...

Lead & Follow in Contra Dance and Other Styles - The Details

First, I should perhaps explain my background. I have been dancing for over fifty years and teaching dance for over forty-five years. As well as contra, square, ECD, ceilidh, Morris, clog, etc. I also dance many partner dances such as West Coast Swing, Lindy/Swing, Contra Waltz and Modern Jive/LeRoc/Ceroc.

Modern Jive is an English, simplified form of Swing which has no fixed footwork and very few close-hold moves. It is led primarily by the man's fingertips and has a very wide range of moves. I specialise in Double Trouble: one man leading two ladies.

The video in the link is a cabaret performance so we are doing some choreographed moves, but most of it is being led by me and the ladies don't know what I am going to do next. When I go to new venues I dance with lots of ladies to see how well they follow, then I dance Double Trouble with two of the good followers and I can lead them into a wide range of interesting moves. Leading two strangers simultaneously only works if they are following well, and because I have spent a lot of time studying lead and follow and developing my leading skills so that I can do this. Leading three ladies is even harder; here is a cabaret video where we had practiced briefly, but I have led three strangers successfully.

So, back to contra:
  1. Contra is not intrinsically a lead/follow dance style; calling the roles "leader" & "follower" is incorrect, misleading and generally a bad idea.

    The caller teaches the dance. The dancers dance it to the music. Everyone knows (at least in theory!) what is coming next, so there can be no lead or follow. The whole point of lead and follow is that the leader chooses the next move and has to let the follower know what it is through the lead; the follower then has to react to that lead in whatever way they choose.

    If the dance is a contra medley or a hash square then only the caller knows what is coming next, so the caller is the leader, using verbal prompts to lead you through the dance.


  2. Within contra there are opportunities to do some lead and follow, but either role can be the leader.

    When you execute the dance as the caller called it then there is no lead or follow. If you add some flourishes then they MAY involve some lead and follow, but which role leads depends on the actual move.

    A nice flourish at the end of "Up the Hall in Lines of Four; Bend the Line" is for a middle person to raise their hand and turn their end person into the circle. This is not part of the dance; the end person may not be expecting it and has to react to it; this is lead & follow. The genders/roles of the participants are completely irrelevant.

    Note: this can also be performed by the twirlee as an independent flourish - as long as the dancer whose hand you are holding allows it! Many dancers are so rigid that I can't raise their arm to twirl under it! (If only everyone would relax the muscles that they don't need to be using, and let their hands be moved!)


  3. There is a difference between leads, signals and connections, though connections are often used to lead beginners.

    When you help each other to redirect your momentum that is not really lead & follow. Examples are "Circle Left; Neighbour Dosido" or "Long Lines Go Forward & Back with the Ladies Rolling the Men Away from Right to Left; Ladies' Chain". Keeping connected and using the elastic in your arms to redirect the momentum and change direction makes these really satisfying moves. But no-one is leading or following; you are both just using good technique to help each other execute pre-defined moves. Of course if one dancer is experienced and the other is new to contra, this type of connection can be used to help the new dancer to move in the correct direction. Connection, gestures and eyes are all great for helping everyone achieve the dance.

    Signals are pre-defined gestures that lead to choreographed moves that both participants know. An example in contra is the twirls at the end of a Ladies' Chain. As a man, I offer my left hand high, fingers pointing down to let the lady know that I am willing to help her twirl - this is a signal; she responds with a high or low hand to let me know what she wants to happen. If she goes high then we start the twirls and I make very small circular movements directly above her head to help her twirl twice (or just once if she resists). Once I have established rapport with a dancer and realised they want to do more twirls then, on subsequent interactions, we may get up to around seven twirls - but only if both of us have good dance technique.

    Of course, a lady can lead herself into this move as well by just raising the man's hand and hoping he doesn't resist too much!

    Again this is more a signalled, playful, co-operative move than a lead and follow, since the lady knows what is going to happen and is equally involved in the decision about how many twirls are done.

    Genuine lead & follow, where the leader leads a follower into something they are not expecting, is quite rare in contra.


  4. Lead & Follow works better if both dancers have good lead/follow technique, and some of the flourishes also benefit from good technique.

    Moves like Ladies' Chain twirls works best when both dancers have good technique. The techniques for leading and following and executing good twirls are identical to those used in Modern Jive. There is an article about lead and follow and twirling technique at here - you may find some useful material there.


  5. Leads can be with fingertips, body angles, eyes, and anything else that works.

    When I dance Modern Jive with a beginner lady, I spend the first couple of minutes teaching her the techniques for following; I do this through simple moves and exercises. If she has a good sense of rhythm and good balance then, during the second track that we dance to together, I can lead her through fifty different moves - she doesnít need to know the moves; she needs to know how to follow. This is lead & follow, and is very different from what happens in a contra dance.

    The main leads are done with the fingertips, but a good leader will use anything that works to let the follower know what they are trying to achieve. The lead is an invitation. The follower can react in many ways to the invitation and the two dancers can play off each other in fun ways. Of course, always remembering that, if this is in the middle of a contra dance, you need to have both players facing the right way in the right place for beat one of the next move!


  6. The end of a swing is not symmetrical and it is often much easier to let the "man" control the end of the swing; that's not sexist, it is physics!

    A simple swing does not involve lead and follow, but someone has to control the end of the swing. The objective is to end side by side facing the correct way.

    If the lady stops when she is facing the right way then the man has already turned too far and he is facing the wrong way; he then has to turn back against his momentum. To avoid this the lady would have to stop the man, get out of his embrace, and continue turning herself while making the man stay still. This is quite hard.

    On the other hand, If the man stops the swing on around beat 6 then he just releases the lady and her momentum takes her out smoothly to face in the same direction as the man.

    This is just physics, based on the fact that we choose to swing clockwise and to finish with the man on the left.

    This is not lead and follow; this is a mutual agreement as to how many times to go around, and how fast, and then to let the man end the swing so that it ends smoothly.

    Good dancers of course make the end of the swing flow into the next move. But here I am talking about a basic swing for ordinary dancers.

    Of course if one of you wants to twirl or be twirled at the end of the swing then you start moving into lead & follow territory, and since many of the embellishments are based on moves stolen from couple dances, then most such flourishes are commonly led by the man. But that is not a rule - the lady can initiate a twirl of herself or her man, or both if she has good leading technique and he has good following technique.


  7. Most dancers would benefit from good teaching on this subject, but sadly there is very little teaching provided.

    As I have said, elements such as leading, following and twirling work well if the dancers have developed good technique. But where will they learn it in the contra world? I teach workshops on the subject, but that seems to be quite rare. I also occasionally teach flourishes at our regular weekly dances. Sometimes it only needs a caller to drop in a few good one-liners into an evening's calling to pass along a little bit of knowledge. If callers don't do it who will?

    Hmmm... I have probably rambled on for too long now. I hope some of you find some of that useful. If you want to hear me talk on the subject for nearly two hours please contact me about getting a cheap copy of my Modern Jive Toolkit DVD. :-)
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