Sunday, April 27, 2008

Leadable Moves: Not Always

It all sounds so simple. I lead, she’ll follow and life will be sweet. If I lead well enough, we’ll look like an amazing team. Many people call “leadable moves” the glue that holds social dancing together.

What are those moves? It seems like the definition of “leadable moves” is all over the place.

I’ve heard the following statements:

  • "If you stick to leadable moves, you can dance with anybody.”
  • “If leaders lead, follows will follow.”
  • “The strong leads can put a follow though almost any move.”
  • “If the follower’s part to a sequence needs to be taught, isn’t it by definition then ‘not leadable’ and unlikely to be used on the floor?”
  • “These are all leadable moves…” (from the introduction of a DVD I own).

It still returns to the original question:
What are leadable moves and how do you define them?

Here’s my definitive definition: “The basic set of moves known to most follows in your area. This assumes dancers who have at least six to nine months’ experience, plus or minus around six to nine months.” (My definition of definitive might differ from yours.)

This set of moves is often simple but can be jazzed up with styling if desired. It usually includes single and double turns, cross-body leads (CBLs) with or without a single turn, hammer-locks, open breaks, plus some variations and combinations of these moves. Names for the same move will vary in different areas, and there are other moves in this category.

Don’t get too hung up on the strict definition or the list of moves above; it simply means 'learn the moves you see most people doing in your area, and/or are taught by the most popular instructors, then branch out and develop additional material around that core.' You want as many moves as possible that work across a large set of dancers.

I’ve always considered salsa dancing similar to a discussion with a common language. Two people can have a great dance or discussion without previous interactions, as long as they have enough shared vocabulary. Leadable moves fall into this common language area.

When I started in salsa, I thought an experienced lead could make any follower look great. It appeared that if you learned to lead well enough, then ladies would automatically follow your moves, even if they were totally new to them.

With a little seasoning, I’ve figured out exposure to a move or variations of similar moves is required before a follow responds as planned. No previous exposure and your results will vary.

More mature follows may get it, or will the second or third time around, but again, it depends on their existing experience and vocabulary.

A larger common vocabulary of moves is required for the more nuanced or complicated patterns, although an experienced lead can do amazing things with less experienced follows, because they learn how to give additional hints for follows, providing clearer directions. Again, the concept of leadable moves is more elastic than I initially thought.

With beginning follows, it’s easy to see the results of having little common vocabulary. No matter how clear my lead, sometimes a new follow will struggle with basic. Most of the time they take my hint with subtle arm pushes and pulls, along with consistent footwork, but that doesn’t always work. Most follows feel it in my lead, some look at my feet and get the mirror concept, some need words to clarify the footwork, and a few are clueless due to lack of exposure.

In other words, even something as simple as basic isn’t “leadable” in some cases without minor teaching or previous experience with the dance. A ballet or jazz dancer with years of experience will catch on quickly, but if she has never partner danced or seen salsa, she is unlikely to know the salsa language the first day, no matter how mature her overall dancing.

Once the lead starts turning his partner, you see the same dependency. It’s common for new follows to turn the "wrong" direction when you prep a simple right-hand turn (AKA under-arm turn). Some follows interpret the preparation arm signal as "start turning now" rather than wait a count or two until the lead actually starts turning her.

It’s not the follow’s fault directly; she simply doesn't know the signals, but most learn quickly. A mature lead can use his other hand on her shoulder to help her “do the right thing,” but if the lead is babysitting every simple move, you could argue even a simple turn is not leadable, although I could also play attorney on that one and argue it the other way.

Once you get outside a regionally specific set of moves (which can provide an enjoyable dance), then 'leadable' depends more and more on the common language shared by the two partners, along with moves the lead executes well, but are similar to existing moves within the follower’s experience.

If you want a set of quality moves that can be led with minimum experience (and they scale nicely for more advanced situations), check out the Salsa Syllabus DVDs from Edie The Salsa Freak. That set is gold for leadable moves that work across a wide range of people, although they still are dramatically more fun when both partners know these foundational moves. Again, a decent lead can amp these moves up with additional styling and multiple spins when dancing with more advanced follows.

There is a set of foundational, base level moves that many feel are leadable, but over time, you’ll see the definition of leadable changes as a function of the shared dance vocabulary between the partners. Over the years, a common set of moves has become “standard” in each scene, so seek those out in your area, knowing most, but not all, will apply in other locales.

The term leadable changes as your dancing matures, so don’t get too caught up in the definitions. Simply find moves that work with the majority of dancers in your area, and master them before focusing on materials that are more complex. The more both partners know, the more leadable the moves become.

My grandmother was a very tough women. She buried three husbands.
Two of them were just napping.
--Rita Rudner

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this sort of thing when trying moves learned from videos. In one case, it was clear the first time I tried it that the follower knew the move, and so I was pleasantly surprised that it went smoothly. And this has been the case for almost all the non-beginner followers I've tried it with, so it must be one that's common in my area, but which I just haven't been lucky enough to have been taught.

    Then there's another move, which nobody seems to get the first time. But a few of my usual partners liked it, and now we can perform it together. But clearly, it's not one that's common in my scene (even though it's not particularly complicated).


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero