Free: Leading and Following Florence

Free: Leading and Following Florence

Free: Leading and Following Florence 1920 1280 Sharna Fabiano

I love Florence + The Machine, and listening to their most recent album, Dance Fever, created during the pandemic period, has been especially cathartic for me this year. Last Saturday, I went to see them play live at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

It’s an extraordinary venue, no matter who’s playing, and so I was already happy to be there, both to enjoy the beauty of the music and the beauty of the place. But then, incredibly, the concert experience itself transcended both of these beauties through a series of carefully choreographed interactions between artist and audience, leader and followers.

The feeling comes so fast and I cannot control it
I’m on fire, but I’m trying not to show it

I am a choreographer by training, but I’m also a fan, and I’m delighted to report that the magic worked on me even as I was observing its structure. All leaders choreograph, in a sense, whether they are musical artists or regional field managers. They coordinate space, time, and energy into performances, dinner parties, meetings, projects, or whole organizations. Followers live and work within them, although they do so in ways of their own choosing. That night under the stars, surrounded by strangers wearing flower crowns, I found profound lessons in leadership and followership for any circumstance.

Florence is a masterful concert choreographer because she’s not only directing members of her band and staff, but the audience as well. The audience, in fact, is not a passive but rather an active participant in the performance. Florence gives direct instruction to us for nearly every song.  We clap her iconic rhythms, dance on cue, crouch low, jump up and down in our narrow seat rows, hug each other, put our phones away, and take them out again to wave around as digital lights.

Is this how it is? Is this how it’s always been?
To exist in the face of suffering and death
And somehow still keep singing?

I lose all sense of time in this ongoing flow. The instructions are simple and specific, timed with precision at certain moments. She doesn’t squander our attention and energy but rather calls on it sparingly with purpose and precision. In between, we sway, eat popcorn, and hold hands while receiving the gift of her song. If you’re me, you cry during the sad songs.

Perhaps because our followership role is so clear, and because the instructions are matched with such obvious generosity of intent on the part of the leader, thousands of us participate with joy and enthusiasm. I’m generally rather reserved and self-conscious, even in crowds, yet at this show I easily surrender to the collective followership role she creates for us all.

But I hear the music, I feel the beat
And for a moment, when I’m dancing, I am free

At one moment Florence pauses the concert and says to the audience, “I really want to perform for you in the way that I want to and I’m being told that I can’t so I’m just going to find out why.” This radical act of transparency both expresses respect to the relevant security authorities and also states her clear intention to us, her followers, along with context and an up-to-the-minute status report. The lights go out. There’s a light drizzle. We eat some more popcorn. A moment later, she returns, thanks us for our patience and gives the answer: the weather.

Despite the rain, though, she does run out into the audience about 15 minutes later in a dazzling act of rebellion that communicates a deeply emotional message: “You are more important to me than this rule, and I’m willing to use my authority to take on a little extra risk to make sure we have a magical experience here, which is our ultimate shared goal.” A security guard in black chases after her, presumably to prevent injury should she slip on the concrete platform. She’s glorious; the crowd is ecstatic.

But there is nothing else that I know how to do
But to open up my arms and give it all to you

Clearly there is a foundational, pre-existing relationship framing this night, because many in the audience have been to a Florence + The Machine concert before. Watching it unfold for the first time, I intuit a bit about how that relationship has grown over time. Aside from the music itself and our appreciation for it, the way Florence leads from the stage also inspires an engaged and passionate kind of followership in the audience, one that is perhaps self-selected. I suspect if you asked Florence, she would also acknowledge that her audience has–at least in part–influenced the crafting of her crowd choreography and enabled her to become the powerful artist that she is.

*lyrics from “Free,” Florence + The Machine