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The Art of Following in Kizomba

This article is quoted directly from:

Sometimes I feel inclined to speak on things I’ve seen in my time as a Kizomba student and as an instructor with Kizomba Harmony. Last time, I spoke on humility and perspective in the Kizomba scene. If you haven’t read it, look in my Notes for “In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King (or Instructor)”, I think it’s worth a read. This time, I feel the need to speak on another issue plaguing the Kizomba/Semba community, both in the US and abroad: the lack of respect for follows and the art of following.

This problem manifests in many ways. Often you see male instructors running through partners like water bottles. You’ll sometimes see them travel often without their partners, or you’ll see their partners never mentioned on event flyers, FB posts, etc. In fact, sometimes you’d never know they even had a partner, if their behavior was the only indication. You also rarely see follows speaking during workshops, classes, etc. unless it’s a “lady’s styling corner” type part of the class. This is a problem.

On the promoting side, you often will see promoters inviting the male leads who have permanent partners to come teach workshops, but not their partners. Often these leads will instead use the promoter to assist if the promoter is a female follow. This is also a problem.

Lastly, you’ll find many women spend a relatively small amount of time dancing Kizomba, and get “bored” with following, feeling like it’s too easy. These women will then turn their attention to leading and stop working on their follow, or simply stop coming to classes, taking privates, etc. and simply stick to social dancing. Or you will find women who have achieved a high level of expertise in other dances, and think that since Kizomba is “easy”, they don’t need to take lessons. This is also a problem.

First I will address the male instructors. Fellas, Kizomba/Semba are partner dances. And although it is true that it takes more time, especially in the beginning, to train a lead up to a competent level than is does to train a follow up to a competent level, to become a truly elite follow takes a great amount of hard work and dedication. The way you treat your partner and what she brings to the table will be the example which others will follow. If you treat your partner like just a “warm body”, never allow her or fight for her to travel with you to teach, or when you do bring her with you, limit her ability to speak in workshops, never mention her in FB posts or event publicity, and never show appreciation for what she does, you give the impression that your partner, or follows in general, are expendable and don’t have as much to offer. This is a travesty and undermines the growth of our scene. As a male instructor who also follows (or tries to), I can attest that following is EXTREMELY difficult to master, in fact just the simple act of “letting go” and allow yourself to be lead is hard. And as very few elite level leads are also elite level follows, having a partner who actually can teach students how to follow is invaluable. Now, if all you’re teaching is a pattern class, then I get it, it can be relatively easy to just grab a decent level follow from wherever you’re traveling to and show her your choreographed moves for a class. But if you’re actually teaching students how to DANCE, then having a partner who can also teach will make the class much more rewarding for the students. So leads, if you have a partner, stand up for her when promoters try to neglect her, allow her to share her hard earned knowledge with students, respect her and appreciate her, because if you don’t, then it’s likely others won’t as well.

Next, I’ll address promoters. I understand that it’s still a tough economy, and often it’s more cost effective to bring one person down than two. I also understand that for, in particular, female promoters who also follow, that bringing a famous lead down and assisting him in class can be helpful for your own reputation and “shine”. But understand that by doing this, you create a dangerous precedent. If you want to increase the level of dance in your communities, getting instruction on both leading AND following is the most efficient way to do this. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are unforeseen issues that effect the ability of folks to bring their partners, visa issues, scheduling conflicts, etc. But to the extent that you can, bringing the lead AND follow (if it’s a partnership) will not only make the workshop better, but also will send the right message.

Last I will address the follows. Let me first say that mastering the ability to follow is EXTREMELY difficult. It is not something you can truly master in a few months. I definitely find it a challenge to follow, and I see even my partner Monica still work hard to master her following ability, and she’s already considered to be a high-level follow, so it is highly unlikely that someone who has been dancing Kizomba for less than a few years won’t benefit from more work. And although it is true that by electing to only dance with the most experienced leads you can still get some good dances even with relatively less-advanced follow ability, the truth is that lack of skill as a follow limits what even the best leads can do with you in a dance.

In some more developed dance scenes, the leads are more critical and will avoid dancing with follows they consider to be “heavy” (not in weight, but in sensitivity as a follow). While we’ve worked hard to avoid creating a scene with a highly critical nature, this, along with other developments, has created an environment in which there is far more pressure on leads to become proficient (and thereby get dances) than there is on follows to become proficient (and thereby not be “heavy”). This has encouraged many women to slack off on lessons or avoid them altogether. This has also encouraged many women who have achieved proficiency in another dance (like salsa, bachata, etc.) to think that because Kizomba is “easy”, that they can just jump in and be a great Kizomba follow. But Kizomba is a different dance than salsa/bachata/etc., and the art of following Kizomba/Semba requires a completely different way of movement and different techniques that need to be learned in order to follow at a high level. Follows, whether you’ve been dancing for a month or years, whether you’re an expert salsa or tango dancer or a complete dance newbie, you all will benefit from further investment in your follow ability.

Also, to ladies who also lead, I support your efforts, and I think it’s cool to see ladies learn to lead. In fact, in some communities, women have had to step up and learn to lead due in part to a lack of male presence in the scene. But understand, that if you haven’t already developed high level follow ability, learning to lead will take away from your efforts to learn how to follow. Leading requires a totally different skill set, and although some can effectively develop both at the same time, these souls are rare indeed. And so I implore you ladies who lead, if you follow in social dancing, please do not neglect your follow training as you learn to lead. Because as much as skilled leads are essential to any dance scene, skilled follows are just as essential.

I appreciate all who have taken the time to read my note. I hope I haven’t ruffled too many feathers, but I felt that some things needed to be said. Please comment and tell me what you think, and feel free to share if you like it! See you all on the dance floor!

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