The following was written by Marisa Wright,an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years’ experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and belly-dance.
The most difficult thing to master in ballroom dance, salsa, tango, swing, latin – or any other kind of partner dancing – is not the steps. It’s the interaction with your partner!
“Lead and follow” is the secret to getting two partners dancing smoothly together. It’s simply impossible for two people, dancing in close contact, to move seamlessly if each person making their own decisions, choosing their own timing and doing their steps independently. They must coordinate their moves perfectly – and the only way to achieve that is for one person to direct the moves and the other person to follow.
If you were wondering why the Antonia Banderas ballroom movie was called “Take the Lead”, now you know!
If you’re a ballet or contemporary dancer, I can hear you protesting already – there’s no such thing as Lead and Follow in your world, yet you dance with a partner all the time! But there is an important difference.
Dances like tango, salsa, swing and ballroom are, first and foremost, social dances. On stage, you both learn a choreography: you and your partner know exactly what steps to dance, so you can practice together until you’re perfectly in sync. In social dancing, there is no set routine. The dancers improvise their steps according to the music being played. Obviously if both partners tried to do that, it would be a recipe for chaos – so it makes sense to appoint one person to decide what the steps will be, and the other person follows. That’s the concept of “lead and follow”.
Who leads? In a partner dance, one partner is facing forward while the other has their back to the direction of travel. Obviously, the person who should lead is the person who can see where they’re going – and that is, in fact, the rule. Politically incorrect though it may be, usually that’s the man.
Lead and Follow – Tango
As a dancer used to dancing solo for most of my life, learning to follow was especially tough for me – but it’s not easy for any woman!
What’s confusing is that you go to class and learn a routine — so when it come to practising them with a partner, why not dance the steps exactly as you’ve learned them?
The reason is that as you progress, you’ll learn that partner dancing isn’t about set routines: routines are just a way to teach you the individual steps, and get you used to how they combine in different ways. When you go social dancing, you’ll be dancing with partners who haven’t learned the same routines as you, and may put the steps together in a completely different order.
That’s why it’s important to get used to following right from the start, even when you know the routine — because learning to allow your partner to lead isn’t easy. If you don’t practice it constantly, you won’t be able to switch it on suddenly when you need it.
If you’re following correctly, you won’t take a step until your partner tells you to. He may do that by pressure with his hand, by shifting his weight or even by making a hand signal – but whatever the signal is, you must follow it instantly. Practice and you’ll be able to respond in a split second, so fast that your audience won’t even notice any delay.
It’s hard, especially in this day and age, to surrender so much power to a guy. Especially if you’re in a beginners’ class and the man isn’t giving you clear signals. Which brings us to…
The Importance of Leading
The Lead – usually the man – has a much tougher job than the Follower. Sure, it takes skill for the Follower to read the signals given by the lead and react to them with split-second precision, and she often has more complicated steps to execute.
But it’s up to the Lead to remember the choreography, if there is any – or worse, to make up the whole dance on the fly, from his repertoire of moves, to whatever music is being played – and then transmit his instructions to the Follower clearly without saying a word!
That’s why the female stars on Dancing with the Stars have an advantage – because their professional male partner is responsible for dictating the steps. They don’t have to remember the choreography – they just have to respond to his direction. Whereas the male stars will lose points if it’s obvious that the female professional is Leading them.
Male beginners are often timid about taking control, especially if they’re not 100% sure of the steps themselves. Unfortunately, that means female beginners give up trying to follow and start dancing their own steps, so the men aren’t forced to learn to lead – and it becomes a vicious circle.
Lead and follow – Salsa
Leading means using just enough pressure to give a signal, but not so much that you’re pushing your partner around. If you’re using force to move your partner, you’re doing it wrong.
Lead / Follow – West Coast Swing
Mastering lead and follow well takes time and effort. It’s easier if you have a regular partner, because you can learn the right give and take together. It can be very frustrating to learn how to follow, then go to a salsa class and find yourself dancing with men who won’t give you a lead! Equally, it’s annoying to learn how to lead, then go to ballroom class and find your female partners resisting your direction.
In both situations, we tend to grin and bear it out of politeness – but in your own interest, it’s worth plucking up the nerve to say something to your recalcitrant partner.
After all, you’re not only helping yourself – you’re helping your partner, and all the other people he or she is going to dance with in future!