The Conversation Game: The Evolution of Play

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.

(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.)

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 converts to the listener’s role. In most circumstances, assuming you were raised well, this is done effortlessly and without a struggle. WCS is this conversation. There is an exchange of leadership that is unique to WCS. 

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”.

WCS is known for following the trends – of music, fashion, dancing, etc. When I first started WCS, it was at the height of a trend called “hijacking”. The experienced followers wechickeninterruptre 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. The conversation had become such a dictatorship that the followers were rebelling, insisting on expressing themselves. But 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 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. 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. Maybe they always were, but they have grown more rooted over the last 20 years.

The hijacking trend passed 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.

As the music slowed down and the leaders stepped up, the followers listened. For some, listening is 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 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: they are not as attached to their choreography 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. 

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 thturntakinge listener to speak for a while, then builds off of what they said to progress the conversation forward. 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, otherwise he would be guilty of hijacking. Sometimes there is blank space in a conversation, open for either partner to fill. This is simply called “play”. And sometimes the listener prompts the speaker to pause so that she may have an opportunity to contribute. This would not technically be interrupting, but rather an indication that one would like to have a turn, if it is convenient. In WCS, this is called a “request”, which involves the follower giving a physical signal with pressure or grip that indicates to the leader that she has an idea to contribute. If the leader is not in the middle of a complicated movement, he should grant her request and yield to or support her idea by relaxing his lead or pausing his movement, offering an invitation. If the leader 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. For a detailed explanation on the standard WCS strategy of Invitation Leads, check out Myles & Tessa’s double-length instructional video, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Swing Dancers

This makes it 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 detect and take advantage of convenient opportunities to direct and contribute to the conversation. For a thoroughly taught compilation of styling movements for followers that can be practiced solo, check out Tessa’s instructional video trilogy set, “Got Play? Followers’ Liberation for WCS”

This ease of exchanging turns speaking has lent itself to many dancers’ curiosity in exploring the opposite role. The latest trend (I say “trend” because it’e enjoying a swell of popularity that will likely become mainstream, as WCS is known for adopting “trends”) is to dance and compete with partner of the same sex. 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 a few phrases at a time, assuming each partner is skilled at the opposite role. This trading is still an easy, effortless conversation: no stealing the lead.

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. 

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2 Responses to “The Conversation Game: The Evolution of Play”

  1. Matthew Rounseville June 10, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    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.

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