Monthly Archives: September 2013

Speaking Other Languages

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Anyone who knows me in person will know that the ellipsoidal orbit of my life now has, as its two foci, architecture school and ballroom dance. The past couple of weeks, there have been more followers than leaders in ballroom club. Since I’ve been hanging around the group a lot and practicing and stuff, I ended up leading last week and this week. Last week, it was a disastrous mess. This week, I didn’t do so terribly, and I learned that I could both lead and follow! I just have to switch my brain.

A couple weeks ago, one of my friends was telling me that we had to teach me how to lead, too. I told him that he was nuts, and he informed me (quite happily) that he could follow, enjoyed it, and thought it was fun! all he had to do was switch his brain. I thought he was just being vague and kind of assuming that it “just worked that way” because it works for him but after this week I agree–I can just “switch my brain.” Some of it, I think, had something to do with the fact that I have decided to immerse myself in Spanish this month. If I switch languages while speaking, it’s easy enough to switch languages while dancing. When I speak to people who are bilingual about being bilingual, they point out that something just kind of “switches” in their brain and they stick to one or the other language after the “switch” is made. They don’t mix it up with the other one if they’re really fluent. I aspire to get there with all my languages, and I think that I’m one step closer to that achievement in Spanish. Similarly, I think I’m getting to the point where I can not-mix-up following and leading simply because they’re such different roles.

This is where the philosophical thoughts come in. The difference between leading and following is very much like speaking two languages. It’s closely tied to the roles of the leader and follower in dance–the leader’s job is to tell the follower what to do and to make her look beautiful. The follower’s job is to do whatever the leader tells her to do and to look pretty while she does it. The very language of leading is different than the language of following. Leading, done well, is a strong but gentle force, while following done well is humble submission to the leader while adding some flourish for fun. Having done both, I have more brain-space when I’m following. Leading requires concentration and focus–or at least some sort of intention and thought about what to do next. Following is just reacting appropriately to cues, so it’s easier for me to chat or think about things. (Also, I learned as a follower first, and I’m better at it.)

I went out dancing at the end of my week again (Friday night salsa is the best thing ever) and, after having learned to lead at least two dances with a bit of confidence, I think I follow better. Kind of like how students better understand English when they have to study the grammar of Spanish or French, I think I begin to follow better when I know how to lead.

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“The technological ability to build 100-story buildings on every square inch of the face of the earth–whether it be Madison Avenue, Times Square, or the plains of Kansas–is not necessarily a mandate to do so.”

Adele Chatfield-Taylor, founder/former executive director of New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation
(taken from my textbook on Historic Preservation)