Lead? Follow? How about “Consensus”!

July 01, 2015

Couple dancing can be a joy. For the leader, it’s an occasion to guide your partner around the floor however elegantly or vigorously the music and your moods may elicit. For the follower, it can be freeing to trust your partner and relinquish the controls. If the signals are read as intended, you move in beautiful harmony.

Does contra dance have a lead/follow situation just like couple dancing?

The simple answer is no–the caller is the leader, and everyone else follows what she or he says. This is true enough at a rudimentary level, but lots of small decisions are made within the framework of the figures. Since the caller and music tell us the figures and timing, and the set tells us where, what remains is how. How hard will we swing? How exactly to end the movement? Will there be a courtesy turn or twirling? What type of handhold will we use? Will we even do the figure as called or perhaps do something else that fits into the framework?

Certainly one way to make these decisions is for one person to lead and the other to follow. Many dancers fill a particular role due to their experience, personality, strength, mood, or tradition. As long as both parties are comfortable and are enjoying themselves, lead/follow is a perfectly acceptable approach. The best leaders and followers read their partners’ cues and send out clear messages about their preferences and comfort level.

There is at least one other alternative, and I invite you to explore this with me. I suggest that there are times when the “how” can be decided jointly. This can take place as an unspoken conversation. Start a contra move at a moderate level, ”listen” to the response, and adjust accordingly. Here’s how such a conversation could go, during a neighbor swing, without a word being said:

Sam: approaches, gets in position, and starts to swing moderately “Hi, Judith.”

Judith: does same “Good evening, Sam.”

Sam: gives a little more weight “We’ve got a good thing going here. Would you like to swing harder?”

Judith: smiles, and gives a little more weight “Sure, I’m feeling secure and energetic.”

Both continue to swing, harder.

Judith: not winding down the swing “This phrase going to end soon. Let’s keep swinging and then just open out.”

Sam: as the phrase ends, keeps his support available and gets oriented “I’ll be here to guide you to the correct place for the next move, if needed. I’ll also do my best to get myself to the right place on time.”

Judith: gradually moving out of the hold, getting oriented and continuing to connect/support Sam until they are both in the correct place: “Thanks a lot! That was a great swing.”

Sam: “Thank you! I agree. See you later.”

This works because the move starts at a mid-range level of intensity, and then both dancers communicate and respond to each other based on the feedback. Either extreme will not work as well. If you start a figure forcefully, it may be hard for the other person to respond--he or she may get overpowered. If you start out with very little weight, there may not be enough of a connection to get clear signals from each other. I’ve used a swing to illustrate the process; the technique can be used in any figure. In non-contact moves, the conversation can still take place, generally in a more subtle manner, largely with eye contact.

In my opinion, a few recent trends go hand-in-hand with co-leading, or “movement by consensus”. Men are partnering with each other more freely, and both men and women are partnering with their own by choice (not just when the gender balance dictates that the only other choice is sitting out). Some couples are switching roles during the course of one dance. These behaviors are particularly conducive to “movement by consensus” because the lines can become blurred regarding roles. To highlight this trend, a fair number of our dancers now wear buttons that say “What’s your preference? I dance BOTH roles.” (These were created by the San Francisco Bay Queer Contra organization, which runs gender-free contra dances.)

If you’ve not tried this “consensus” approach, it may take some adjustment to get accustomed to this different way of interacting. I offer that it may help both you and your fellow dancers feel more connected, and the result can be very satisfying dance encounters. Please let me know about your experiences, or better yet catch me at the break and we’ll experiment together.

Special thanks to the many dancers who have talked this through with me, and to the writings of Diane Silver, Erik Hoffman, Bill Pope, and San Francisco Bay Queer Contra.

See you on the dance floor, Judith Muse

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