The Creative Dynamic of Lead and Follow

As many of you are familiar, my tango history has been greatly influenced by my practice of both roles, and recently, I’ve been reflecting on the leader and follower personas as members of a creative team. If this is true in social dance, can it also be true in the abstract? In other words, are the tasks of leading and following things we can do in our lives as individuals? Can this dynamic serve as our own internal creative engine?

One crucial principle I have learned from my coaching work is that paradoxes produce possibilities. When we feel frustrated or stuck, often it’s because we’ve slipped into black and white thinking: "Either I pursue my dream job or I earn a stable income. Either I lead or I follow. I can’t do both." This kind of thinking tends to polarize a situation and limit its possible outcomes.

Actually, I can do both, but I need to allow the two things that appear contradictory to first sit together on a bench in my mind for a while. With some compassionate encouragement, they may acknowledge one another and perhaps even begin to chat.

After Hours (2014)

After Hours (2014)

Returning to the tango metaphor, I’m curious to ask, "Can I both lead and follow at the same time?" This impossible question, in fact, was the premise of one of my choreographic projects a few years ago, and resulted in a quirky solo that I performed in the character of a brooding, mischievous waitress. Now, however, I’m exploring these roles as orientations to life and work, rather than as physical directives on a stage.

In social dance, we tend to assume that the leader makes decisions and that the follower responds to those decisions. This is true, but the opposite is also true. Followers also make decisions, in certain ways, and leaders also respond. If we look deeply into this paradox, we begin to see greater complexity, and our dancing becomes more rich and varied.

Just like in a tango partnership, these and many other complementary pairs exist within us, as individuals. What does it mean to engage opposing energies within yourself in order to catalyze creativity? Who is my leader self, and who my follower self? What kind of relationship do they have with one another and how can I enhance their communication in order to maximize creative flow?

My life in California has been full of unexpected opportunities and surprising dead ends. I have channeled my choreographer’s mind into my teaching, and I have asked my yoga body to apply itself to a new visual art practice. I currently have multiple professional identities, and I most often work in cities other than the one I call home. Living this way often feels confusing and disorienting, but it nevertheless pushes me to continually renew my own understanding of what it means to be an artist and a creator.

In fact, I maintain that we are all artists, or rather, we all have innate creativity that we may activate at any time. In the same way that I believe in social dance, I believe in social art. In other words, art is for everyone. For me, being an artist is like being a yogi – it's a life path that meanders and climbs and sometimes drops out from under you, but always teaches you about yourself and gives you a way to process your perceptions and connect with others in the ongoing negotiation of living.

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Leaving aside, for a moment, the format of partnership, dancers feel a desire to move. For some this desire is inspired by music, and for others, by a partner, a feeling, or any number of other things. But there’s another part of us that must then take up the challenge of coordinating our limbs and spine, and of managing the ego-trampling process of learning to do this with others. The dynamic of both acknowledging the desire and also acting upon it is an example of what I'm calling lead-and-follow creativity. Whether applied to dance, painting, engineering, or closet organization, for me it’s the degree of exchange between these two aspects of self, and the level of care and attention they extend to one another, that facilitates (or blocks) creative flow.

I propose that we can activate this creative exchange in any aspect of life, inviting intuition to converse with intellect, recognizing that neither great desires nor great skills, on their own, make us creative. We need them to coalesce. When this happens for me, my sense is that I've allowed something to move through me into material reality by activating my body, paintbrush, camera, or voice. It’s a simultaneous act of receiving and doing, or of leading and following.

I believe that habitual creators have found ways to place their being and doing selves in continuous dialogue, that they navigate their projects and their lives in a dance of deep listening and deliberate action. By cultivating empty space and then marking it with bold strokes, they create line by line, step by step.

My experience of creativity also has cycles, and conceptualizing my flow on a spectrum helps me to be patient and to trust myself more. I am sometimes busy, spending time in the “doing” work of learning and synthesizing and producing. But I am sometimes resting, too, in the “being” work of observing, receiving, and allowing. When doing and being collapse into creative flow, my hand flies across the page, or my body tumbles through the room, and my sense of “I” disappears. I feel my "self" as a vast collective intelligence extending itself in some inevitable way into the world.

I have felt similar things, fleetingly, in social dance, on the stage, while writing, while painting, in meditation, and in conversation. It is the primary reason I feel that my spiritual practice and my creative practice are so closely linked. They are like two paths spiraling around one another like a strand of DNA. The more familiar I become with my own rhythm, and the better I get at nudging myself from one end of the spectrum to another, the less concern I have about judging what I do as good or bad and the more often I find myself in that elusive creative flow.

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Looking at life as a creative project has provided a sense of possibility and personal power that, to a great extent, counteracts the assault of consumer culture, whose primary message seems to be to one of weakness and insufficiency. When I remember that I am in charge, that I am creating my life, I feel less vulnerable to sensationalist news, excessive spending, and superficial entertainment. From this perspective, I know that on some level, all is well and nothing is really missing. I feel more curious about change, less fearful of making mistakes, and more likely to see each new day or year as I would a blank sheet of paper or an empty rehearsal room: as yet another creative field.

How do you connect with your creativity? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.