Kizomba Styling: Freedom for Followers?

for logo designRecently, some people looking at the preview video for my series on styling in kizomba began debating on Facebook just how much freedom a follower actually has for expression. This is a topic that is close to my heart, and I’m glad that people in the community are thinking about this critically.

I’d like to start out by saying that I absolutely agree that connection is paramount. No one likes dancing with someone who’s not listening, and in kizomba that melding is particularly important. In fact, the primary reason I first fell in love with kizomba was the way the close-body connection feels, and how it is maintained throughout nearly the entire dance. I often repeat to my students that I am happy to dance four straight songs with someone who knows only three or four steps, so long as they are led with beautiful connection in a musical way. (Feel free to test that with me!)

In my preview video I state that “knowing styling makes it a lot easier to follow” certain leads, and I repeat “listen to your partner.” In the full series I provide a lot more information about how to have personal expression without losing that top concern of connecting with your partner and following any explicit leads. I also provide some tips for leaders, as to how they can successfully guide their partner into certain styles of movement.

My videos were made with the intent of teaching movement more than my dance philosophy, though. So, allow me to present my ideas on this topic in an organized way.

nelson demo kielLeader Determination
The leader does indeed decide what steps will be made throughout the dance. Depending on his expertise and creativity, he may also lead a certain amount of body movement and ask for certain styles of movement. Some leaders are fairly comprehensive in their vision for a dance, and determine each movement their partner should make. If that is the case, fantastic! Followers need to know how to execute these movements well. Other leaders may choose to leave more space for the follower to be expressive according to her own style, or they may be too new to the dance to be thinking about what all a follower might possibly do.

Pure Following?
Some followers like to do only movement that is being explicitly led, regardless of how detailed the lead is. For me, while I prioritize following and connection, I very much enjoy making use of space and freedom that is left for me in a dance. Don’t get me wrong, when a leader is masterful enough to lead every tiny detail, I enjoy the challenge of bringing his vision to life. However, much of the time there is room to vary or add movement in accordance with my style and what I hear in the music. I find that when I make use of that, my leader often enjoys that as well. After all, we are both listening to the same music. It’s interesting to see how our partner will express through body movement what he or she hears.

Essential Styling or Body Movement
kfbd stuart looks behindKizomba has a certain aesthetic. We don’t just walk and step here and there. There are ways of moving that truly match the organic feel of the dance (yes, ways-styles vary by region and subgenre of music), and for many people these styles of movement don’t come naturally. Undulations, hip rolls, isolations, and even gradual weight changes or contra-body movement are things that most people need to practice in isolation before they can have a beautiful kizomba dance. Even pure followers with previous dance background can benefit from studying the body movement that is characteristic of kizomba. Plus, some leads take some prior knowledge to understand – the first several times I had Angolan and Portuguese guys try to lead me to do quadradinha I was at a complete loss! It wasn’t until I was in a ladies’ styling class the next week I suddenly went “OH! That’s what that was!”
Leaders will find more creative possibilities when they study styling, not to mention learning how to smoothly guide their partner into a certain body movement. Furthermore, engaging in exercises that increase range of movement and control are beneficial even to those of us who already have a well-developed style. These are all things I cover in my video series.

Fitting Within the Framework
I always tell my following students to act within the framework determined by the leader. We might imagine the frame something like this –
First element: follow the weight change and its speed or timing.
Second element: follow the direction.
Third element: follow the size of the movement.
Fourth element: follow the shape of the movement.
Probably we could think of other things as well, but those are the main ones that come to my mind. Now, sometimes a leader is very specific about all four of these things. Sometimes a leader may specify a little about each, but leave it flexible. And sometimes one or more of these ‘elements’ will be left completely undecided.

Followers’ Freedom
I couldn’t resist the alliteration here, although perhaps a better term would be “followers’ agency.” When we follow, we are able to make all sorts of decisions. The nature and extent of those decisions must of course depend on the degree to which we are given space by our leader. Any element that isn’t given is one that a follower can choose, and even when they are dictated there is very often room for subtle self-expression.
Lindy Focus Rachel 124
Of course, the corollary to this is that followers should not be adding on to a dance in a way that breaks connection or ignores the leader. I’ve known my fair share of what I call “dance hijackers” – someone who insists on doing every saida like she’s about to fall onto her partner, or stops on every break in the music, or undulates to the point her partner has to step back. That is certainly not the sort of behavior I’m advocating.

I’d like to offer some examples of ways and places followers can make decisions, or offer their own style.

a) The leader leads a saida into 120-degree shuffle to the left. The follower is being given all four elements. She can’t add a weight change or pivot or upper body movement or do a huge sweeping leg a la Sara. However, she may decide to make each step with a bent leg, or she may alternate bent and straight. She may keep her feet very much underneath her for step “4” of the saida or arc out a little bit. She may arrive on 4 with an immediate weight change or ease into it, so long as she arrives before the next step is led. She may be able to turn her head or want to adjust her hold on the leaders’ back.

b) The leader is a beginner. He leads two side steps back and forth (aka basic 1 or “pas de deux”). He is giving only elements 1 and 2 – weight change and direction. The follower can choose to match his beginner body movement exactly, or use undulations, or add hip rolls, or even push the press step into a syncopation.

c) The leader guides the follower into an open hold, parallel to the leader’s body, blocking on either side so movement forward and back is not possible. Elements 1, 2, and 3 are given. Without changing weight, and in the literal space left open, the follower may do various isolations or undulations, or even just stand perfectly still, according to what the music is doing or what attitude he/she wants to convey.

d) The leader guides the follower into an open hold, parallel to the leader’s body, blocking only behind. Essentially only element 2 is being given. Now the follower may choose to advance forward evenly or in syncopation or with pauses, or with pointed taps in any direction left open to her, in addition to choosing isolations or body movement style. The follower just has to be ready for when at last a weight change is led and the leader moves into the next step.

I could obviously list countless more scenarios. Let me just close with a few simple takeaways:

Lindy Focus Rachel 044
Every dance should start with the follower adjusting to this leader’s hold and style of connection. Once they have a comfortable rapport, the follower can begin layering her style in appropriately.

Generally any situation in the dance that involve a lot of steps offers less freedom, while moves that involve a pause or repetitive steps give followers more agency. Any time the follower senses the leader is bothered or confused by what is being added to the leading, the follower should return her focus to being guided.

We dance kizomba to connect, create an intimate space, listen to the music, and make something beautiful together.