Following. Who knew?
Last week I attended my first ever partner dance class. The class was West Coast Swing and I took it because a friend, who is a fabulous dancer, inspired and encouraged me.She asked, “Can you follow?”
I was befuddled. I had no idea. I’ve never really considered being the follower - in anything. I felt myself brace against the idea. After all, isn’t being the leader always the best? “The class already started and is full of leaders. But they need more followers,” my friend stated.
I decided I would try because I wanted to learn.
Partner dancing is new for me. I was really putting myself out there. And as the day got closer I was having second thoughts, then my friend texted me to ask if I was still attending. I said something about being super busy, kind of tired, a bit overwhelmed and a lot unsure. She sent me the best reply. The kind I would likely send.
“Then breathe again”
“Breathe once more”
I decided to go.
When I walked into the hall where classes are held, the previous class was still in session. Dancers were gliding, moving and swinging with ease. Laughter, smiles and grace surrounded me.
When it was time for my class, I went to the beginner level room and there were about 19 people, all partnered up in two long lines. The rest of the class started two weeks earlier, but my dancing friend assured me I’d be fine. She attempted to catch me up before she went to her “advanced on steroids” class in the next room but my instructor, whose name I’m sure is Miss Sparkles or something, wasn’t having it. “I prefer no one teach over me”. My security blanket left for her class.
I fell into the follower line (or the ladies) facing the leader line (also known as the men –even though several were women). We began the review from the first two weeks. Miss Sparkles gave elaborate instructions to the leaders. I began anxiously trying to follow the details and hold the steps in my head. Working hard to be the best. Then she’d say, “Ladies…your job is to have your hand gently just resting, not grabbing, the leaders hand…and follow”.
HUH? So essentially I had to retain nothing?
We’d practice a few steps. The leaders would rotate to the right. Every 5 minutes, I’d be following a new leader. At one point, when she was giving complex leader directions and I was feeling totally overwhelmed and anxious trying to remember each detail, I realized… I was the follower! Being the follower meant I didn’t have to listen. I didn’t have to retain. I could listen if I chose in order to have a context for what was going to happen, but in my absolute beginner state, that information frankly was too much and didn’t make sense. The awareness came into my head that if I did not surrender to following completely, I would obstruct the flow of energy and the beauty of the dance. I would sabotage both my partner's experience and mine.
As the purest of beginners, my best course of action was to put my trust 100 percent in the cueing and energy of the leader in front of me. To give my focus to the nuances of body language and facial expression, to follow with soft eyes and feel into the shifts. All without question. Suddenly the class became exquisitely freeing and fun. As each new leader stepped in front of me, instead of worrying about where he or she would lead me and how I’d “do the right thing”, I asked their name. I smiled. We shared a laugh. And then on cue, they’d lead me through the next few steps. Down the slot, right side pass, left side pass, turn. Sometimes I noticed that everyone else was side passing on the right and I on the left. It mattered not to me. My leader cued me there. I fell in love with the freedom in the space of knowing that it was not my job to be watchful, or compare and correct, but simply to show up as my best wherever my leader led.
I heard myself exclaim, “Being the follower is amazing! Who knew?” and Miss Sparkles stopped her instruction, looked at me and said, “Right? Most people don’t want to follow, but following is actually awesome.”
I came to love the nuances with which people led - gentle pressure to the hand, a bend of an elbow, pointing with eyes, a nod of the chin, a tip of the head. The nonverbal, energetic communication that says great job or thank you without so much as a word.
My greatest challenge came when my leader got totally confused. When the music started he could not find the first step. He simply stood, frozen while the other couples whirled and twirled and sugar pushed. I simply followed his lead. And for the entire 4 minutes, we stood still. I could see his angst, but the world didn’t end. When it was time to rotate, I smiled and thanked him as I did every other leader. I was so proud of myself for not jumping in and for staying in my space. I could tell he appreciated it as well. I don’t think I’m being over dramatic when I say that the last time I felt this level of rest for my brain was when I was in the rain forest of Borneo with no internet or phone connection to the outside world. There was nothing to do but be in the moment. And connect with the energy naturally created.
Most of you reading this are leaders somewhere in your lives. In fact we all are. Today I encourage you to look for the spaces where you can truly follow. Practice in small spurts. Perhaps it’s a project where you can hand over the reins. Or allow your toddler to lead you around the yard, choosing where they want to go and what they want to do. Completely be the follower in a conversation with a friend. Let them take the conversation wherever they want to go with you simply attentively listening and affirming. Changing topic or direction only when they cue it. Not thinking ahead of what to say next.
Notice if you fully let go or if you are still hawkeyed, watching, waiting for where you have to jump in and make a correction. Rest that side of your brain. Soften your eyes. Check your body for tension that is trying to lead or correct, ready to spring into action. Notice the space that gets created in the letting go. Drop into the freedom of allowing someone else to take the lead. Observe the empowerment and confidence that fills the leader when you truly follow. And reward that by showing up as your best possible follower. Notice if you feel a sense of ease and grace.
In my recent Navigating Challenging Dialogue™ workshop, a gentleman who previously owned a company and was now working for someone else commented on how much tension, pressure and stress he feels when he observes others not working in the way he believes they should. But he is not in a supervisor role and it makes him nuts. I heard myself recommending he take a partner dancing class in the role of the follower. “It will change everything for you!”
I can’t wait for my second class. I’m not suggesting my technique is good or my steps are pretty. But my following is stellar and oh so rewarding. I certainly won’t stop being a leader, but I absolutely will look for the spaces where I can rest, recharge and play as the follower.
Take a follower break…it is amazing!