The truth about leading and following

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed something: people have the wrong idea about leading and following. I see students all the time who dance with an unspoken but implicit assumption about what it means to lead and to follow, and it  causes all sorts of problems for their technique and movement. These people think that “leading” means physically moving a follower and “following” means being physically moved by the leader.

This isn’t surprising. Think about how most dance classes are taught. We teach patterns that reinforce the idea that the leader moves the follower through a predetermined set of movements. The leader is in control and is responsible for moving the follower where she needs to be. Followers can style and embellish, but the leader is in charge of moving her. In fact, most new leaders think the ultimate aim of being a great dancer is to learn more – and more complicated – patterns, and new followers are overly concerned with where to go to execute the leaders’ patterns correctly. This is something we teach people, overriding what we instinctively know about how to lead and follow correctly.

As a result, leaders focus too much on moving the follower, followers focus too much on what the leader is trying to lead, and neither focus enough on moving themselves. This mindset produces things like tight arms and arm leads, imbalance and instability, over-leading, slow or heavy followers, poor execution of turns, and an over-reliance on the partner that detracts from individual expression and connecting with the music.

So what then, is the correct definition of lead and follow? I’ve come to realize that it is this: leading is moving your own body in a way that communicates something to the follower, and following is moving yourself in response to what you feel from the leader (and vice versa, responding as a leader and communicating as a follower). For both roles, the focus should be on the self – moving your own body to communicate and respond – rather than on moving or being moved by someone else.

My own dance journey has helped me to understand the appropriate role for each partner. I started out, like many, aspiring to have the coolest moves in town. As a matter of fact, a top champion saw me in my early days, complimented my dancing, and added, “Now you just need some big moves.” And as I advanced, I worried that my repertoire wasn’t big enough or complicated enough to be a great dancer. And as a result, I was often catering to my follower, rather than claiming my own place in the dance. But of course, the best dancers are the best because of their ability to lead and follow, and it stems from knowing how to move themselves so well that they can accomplish more with a partner to the music. In the past year, as I pushed myself further in this dance, I came to see that the path forward was about mastering my own movement and expression to create something better with my partner. The focus was not on what to do with my partner, but what to do with myself – to raise my quality of movement, to improve my own musical expression, and to better define my position as a leader in the dance. In the end, the more I focused on my own movement, the more I could communicate and the more I could achieve with a partner.

Focusing on your own movement means taking responsibility for yourself, and that results in greater balance, clearer weight transfers, and thus better connection. It also means we are less dependent on our partners, freeing us to be more expressive and communicative in the dance, and to create something more dynamic yet comfortable with our partner.

So take control of your own movement. Focus on raising your own quality of movement and worry less about your partner. If we all take care of ourselves, we will be better partners in the end.

Are you dependent on your partner? Are you a leader who focuses on moving your follower through patterns? Are you a follower who worries too much about what your leader wants? Are you in tune with your own movement and expression? Teachers, is the way you teach reinforcing an unhealthy dependency between the partners? Do you help your students stay focused on their own movement while dancing with a partner?

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