Learning with Beginner Leaders

I received an e-mail a few days ago from a Kizomba Community subscriber, asking for some advice. Normally I answer e-mails like that privately, but I’ve heard this question so many times I thought it deserved its own post.

I’ve learned the basics very easily but am frustrated with my progress as the male partners in class, at least most of them, have no rhythm. How can I really learn when the lead is struggling? We were told that the lead has control, so if he/she has trouble with rhythm, etc. for us to just go with it and follow him anyway.

How does one overcome a clumsy lead without rhythm? How can I learn and utilize the steps in this situation?

I empathize with the frustration this subscriber expresses. It’s hard enough when we’re trying to do something difficult, like learn a new dance, without someone making it even more complicated for us.

It’s also true that it’s much harder to follow leaders that are struggling with their steps. If you are listening to the music and feel moved by the beat, it’s hard to move with the leader against it.

Advice for Beginner Followers

I’d like to invite you to try on a change in perspective, though. Your goal isn’t to learn the steps. You don’t need to know how to utilize them. That’s what the leaders need to learn from class.

Your aim in class is to learn to follow. When you start advancing and when you dance with more experienced leaders, they will lead lots of other steps, including ones you haven’t learned.

The heart of kizomba is simple: it’s taking steps as one with your partner. The basics are a good practice ground for learning the difference between stepping on the spot, to the side, or forward and back; stepping slowly or on the beat – or even off it!

If you set your mind to moving exactly with your leader, regardless of whether they are doing something that makes any kind of musical sense, it will build your following skills immensely.

I also invite beginner followers to have compassion for beginner leaders. Truly, they have a lot to deal with. Especially if they’ve been told they control followers – that makes them solely responsible for the success of the dance! I don’t agree with this idea, but it is widely held.

Leaving that aside, leaders do need to do several things simultaneously: listen to the music, find the beat, stay connected with the follower, decide which direction to take a step, set the speed of the step, respond to changes in the music, keep the balance with the follower… The list goes on. Think about each of those things as a ball they are juggling, trying to keep it up in the air. It may be that they are trying so hard to focus on doing the steps right and staying connected that they lose the beat.

So what’s a beginner follower to do? First, you can try doing what the teacher says: follow exactly what the leaders ask. Train to be an amazing follower by moving with the leader even when it doesn’t make sense.

I used to do this in salsa. Sometimes we danced on 1, sometimes on 2, sometimes as the dance went on it was even on 3 or 4. But my goal was to take the steps with my leader. When I started learning kizomba, I actually made a point of dancing with the leaders who had the most trouble with rhythm. That was partly because I felt bad for them and wanted them to get practice so they would get better, but also partly because I knew I was honing my skills as a follower.

Another advantage of “following honestly,” as we sometimes call it, is that the leader gets instantaneous feedback. They know when they have clearly communicated a step or correctly completed the move – and they know when it was messy or confusing. The sooner they get some of these things running automatically, the sooner they can turn their attention to improving musicality.

One other option is to offer a little help. Now, let’s be clear: while I don’t agree that the leader has control of the follower, I do think that the leader is responsible for things like direction and tempo of steps. So it’s not okay for followers to “back-lead,” or initiate steps as you see fit. You’ll never learn the difference between following a step on the beat, a slow step, and a syncopation if you’re always deciding to step on the beat.

That said, I think particularly with a rhythm problem it might be suitable to help the leader with the beat. One way is to take a direct approach. I think this is the most polite and honest thing to do, but I know it will feel uncomfortable for many followers. Simply say something like “I know you have a lot of things to think about right now. I noticed you are having a little trouble with the timing. Would it help if I tapped out the beat on your shoulder?”

We don’t want to do something so obnoxious as counting in their ear, but lightly moving a finger with the beat can really help. Even just giving a little squeeze of the shoulder on every first beat of the phrase could help. Of course, if they say “No, thanks,” then you should respect that.

If they are only a little bit off the beat, you can try to suggest the correct timing with your body. For example, if they are rushing out of a slow step, be a little bit slower to follow them. If instead they are slow to go back to the other side on a side step, move your upper body at the right time, and maybe they’ll catch the cue to move their feet (and thus, yours).

Advice for Teachers

I think it’s incredibly beneficial to teach beginners specifically about listening to the music and finding the beat. Of course we feel pressure from our students to “get to the good part” and have them learning the moves they will take to the dance floor. But it doesn’t take long. Play a few different kinds of songs. Ask people to clap on every beat, only on the strong beats, and only at the beginning of the phrase. Explain how to “get back on beat” after losing it.

If space and studio policy allows, I also very much encourage you to invite higher level students to participate in beginner classes for free. Everyone always needs more work on fundamentals! I saw a huge improvement in my dancing when I was teaching multiple beginner classes a week teaching so many beginner classes. More important to this discussion, it’s a big help to the beginners in class. When intermediate dancers are in the rotation, the beginners will get a chance to feel a good frame, clear leading or responsive following, and also make connections with people they’ll see at the socials.

There is one caveat: your invited students must lead just the material from class and they must follow honestly. We don’t want to shake up the beginner followers because the intermediate leaders decide to show off. Where on the social floor followers often “fix” things, the class should be a learning environment where trial and error can happen for beginner leaders.

If you can’t bring in other students, I advise you at the very least to rotate into your weekly classes yourself so you can give your students a chance to feel what they’re doing without confusion. It’s also the best opportunity to give individual feedback

Final Thoughts

Credit: taken from addicted2salsa.com who took it from Eddie on salsaweb.com

Followers, be patient. It’s well-known that followers learn faster for a while…but then the leaders who invest in their learning suddenly shoot ahead. You can help them reach that point. And they’ll remember who treated them kindly rather than with exasperation!

Ultimately, dancing with beginners is a great way of improving our leading and following. For leaders, we get feedback on whether we are leading clearly or if we’re relying on being helped along by followers who know what we want. For followers, I offer you this challenge: follow beginner leaders, even those who are quite unpredictable. It’ll improve your ability to follow even the most complicated steps. Plus beginners tend to leave extra space for our own creativity, since usually beginners haven’t got to the point of trying to copy fancy moves that limit our options.

Be patient, have compassion, and invest in each other’s learning.