In a sense, this is also the story of the blues community (or one facet of it). Follows were told to be soft, to always wait, to let the leads move us. The perfect leader was one who left so little room for error that he could lead anyone to do exactly what he wanted, all the time. I can easily imagine a written guide to blues dance in the early 2000s including the fact that a follow's variations should not affect the lead. It wasn't meant to be repressive, it was meant to create dances that worked. It's intuitive- to move a paintbrush, you hold the paintbrush, you master how to move the paintbrush, and you create your painting.
The first Blues Muse, in 2008, did not invent the idea of follower voice. But it was the first Blues workshop that I know of whose point was explicitly to focus on the followers' side of the dance*. Topics included technique for follows and what follows really want from their leaders. Topics also included the musicality, presence, and style of the first four muses (for you whippersnappers who don't remember 2008, that was Carsie Blanton, Megan Adair, Heather Adams, and myself). All of us were interested in these topics before the first Muse happened, which is why the event happened. (*There was a similar, preexisting event for lindy called Southern Belle Swing Bash, which inspired the creation of Blues Muse)
Six Blues Muse workshops have happened. And the world is a very different place. By bringing the ideas of follower contribution and receptive leading into the limelight over and over again on a national level, Blues Muse has changed the standard. Follows no longer strive to be paintbrushes; we strive to be artists. The number one buzzword I heard from the advanced students this weekend was "collaboration." From a personal soapboxy-perspective, I could think of no better word to describe the process that creates our music, and it delights me that it now describes our dancing as well. In the same way that handing out charts with note-by-note parts written out to a blues band would be ridiculous (and monstrously wasteful), leads and follows are now expected to be equally responsible for movement, musicality, and partnership.
Now be aware, that I do not believe this means we have to be shouting over each other all the time (this is not free-jazz). Neither partner is obligated to layer distinct variations or make loud, additive statements to have a voice, and we can take on different aspects of the partnership as we dance. But where once I took your step as a follow, now I as a dancer embrace your step as my own, and we take it together; where once you would lead a step completely, now you follow me within the step that you create, so that we make it together- the product of so many tiny subtle negotiations. The point is that no matter the type of dance that two dancers are creating, it should feel good, and it should feel like teamwork. And while this is the product of the blues community at large, I think that an unduly large part of that is due to the efforts of the collective Blues Muse team over the years, and I thank them providing such a space where we are all encouraged to advance our art together.