Learning the “Other” Role in Partner Dance

April 24, 2014

– posted by Maria Ford

Some dances are “mirrored” dances. That is, an instructor can stand with followers in front of him/her and leaders behind him her, and everyone can learn the footwork together. The instructor demonstrates the leader’s footwork and the followers mirror it. For the same reason, students of these dances are often encouraged to learn both roles nearly from the beginning.

In street dances like West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing, Salsa/Mambo, Hustle, etc., there are few if any mirrored patterns. (In WCS, only the Sugar Push is mirrored, so it’s not surprising that pattern is taught as “The Basic” in ballroom studios).

Thus, in West Coast Swing we typically learn one role of the dance before the other, and in some cases never learn the other role.

Benefits of Knowing Both Roles

West Coast Swing is a “Double-Axis” dance — that is, the partners do not share an axis as they do in, say, Waltz but instead each maintain their own axis. As such, each role is quite unique. Even a basic side pass is completely different for each partner. So, it’s really not possible to appreciate the other partner’s role without trying to learn it in earnest. It’s also not possible to truly understand the whole dance if you know only one role.

These are the benefits I have personally experienced by learning both roles:

  • Better overall understanding of the dance. When you understand what your partner is trying to accomplish, it becomes much more apparent how the partners affect each other’s ability to execute the dance.
  • Much improved connection. Particularly in WCS, where individual style and “play” are encouraged and even expected, understanding how that movement affects the other partner is gold.
  • Better conversation skills. The more you appreciate the role of the other partner, the better you’ll be at understanding what they are trying to communicate during a dance.

Learning vs. Dancing Both Roles

From personal experience and from talking to others who learn both roles, I can say that there is a big difference between “Learning” the other role and actually “Dancing” it.

Learning comes easier and faster — it’s not all that difficult to learn a pattern, which is what you must first do when you decide to learn the other role. Actually dancing in the opposite role comes later, and for some it may not come at all. It was a good few years between my being capable of leading WCS and my actually BEING a leader — that is, thinking like a leader (which is completely different from thinking like a follower), and ENJOYING the other role.

I began Learning the other role because I didn’t want to teach anything I couldn’t do. Now I also DANCE as a leader because I enjoy it. I don’t enjoy it as much as following and probably never will, but it’s truly a different mindset that I’m in now. I’m on a similar path in Hustle now — having committed to regularly practicing the Leader role, I’m slowly beginning to actually dance Hustle as a leader (not just “know” the other role).

The video above shows David and me dancing opposite roles in an Invitational Strictly Swing Competition that we won last year in Montreal. 

Getting Started: Role Reversal Workshop, May 31, 2014

On Saturday, May 31, I’m holding a “WCS Role Reversal” workshop (Master Class) before my Saturday-night dance party. I have designed this class to focus on truly understanding the key differences in thinking and technique of the “other” role. Everyone who takes the class will dance in his or her non-dominant role (i.e. leaders will follow and vice-versa).

Although we will learn a base of patterns to work with, my emphasis will be on aspects of mindset, connection, and movement that will TRULY help you to understand the other role in West Coast Swing — and to improve your own dance because of it. In short, I will focus on helping you understand and DANCE the other role rather than simply learning patterns as the opposite role.

My goal is to “fast-track” you into the benefits of learning the other role!

If you have already been learning the “other” role in WCS, this workshop will provide you with new insights and a great chance to dedicate your practice to the other role for 1.5 hours.

Mixed-Bag Jack & Jill Conest

During the dance party that follow, we’ll also have a fun “Mixed-Bag” Fun Jack & Jill contest, where anyone can enter in their opposite role. No entry fee and lots of fun!