Posted on August 1st, 2008.
For those of you that don't know, one of the things I do with my free time is dancing. I've been swing dancing (Lindy Hop) for about five years, blues dancing for a year or so, and recently started learning tango. All of these dances are improvised partner dances and so rely heavily on leading and following. People do make routines but at least 95% of it is unrehearsed social dancing with partners you might have never met.
As a male I'm usually in the role of leader, though I do try to follow when I get the chance. I've learned a lot over the years so I'm going to write a few posts about leading, and this is the first. I'm going to use the traditional pronouns to make things easier to read, but everything applies to both genders in both roles.
When a guy is first taught how to swing dance (or blues, or tango; everything I'm saying applies to all three) he's usually taught that his main job is to lead. This sounds obvious, but it's a lot for a beginner to take in. He has to learn the footwork and ingrain it into his memory so it becomes automatic, which takes some time. The next step is learning individual moves: not only how to do them himself but also how to lead a follower to do them at the same time. It takes coordination and most of all practice.
Leading at this point involves clearly showing the follower where she should go and what she should do. "Placing the follower's weight" is a concept that's a bit tricky but very useful. If a leader isn't clear in his leading the follower won't be able to follow him unless she "cheats" and just does what she knows he wants her to do (because she's danced with him before and so knows what he's trying to do). This falls apart when the leader dances with a new partner. Without leading and following swing dancing just doesn't work, so leading clearly is the main role of a beginner guy.
Let me take a second to explain something I see happen very often with leaders that take classes and progress nicely in their skill. Once the leader gets the basics down pat and starts learning more moves, there seems to be a tendency to learn things that let him show off. The followers get to really shine in Lindy Hop quite a bit, so it's only natural for the guys to want to measure up and look cool themselves. Unfortunately I think this gets in the way of my next idea.
I think once a leader reaches a point where he's comfortable with the structure of the dance and has a repertoire of moves and vocabulary of movements, his role changes. His job is no longer "lead." His role becomes "lead the follower you are dancing with right now."
Every follower is different. Every single one has a different level of experience, a different style, and a different personality (as it relates to dancing). If the leader simply leads every dance the same way, those dances are not as good as they could be. An "advanced" leader leading a beginner follower in a lot of complicated movements she's not capable of following yet turns into a complete mess. He goes away from the dance feeling bored or frustrated (or worse, arrogant) and she goes away feeling confused, discouraged or angry. This is not a good thing.
Paying attention to the follow's level is critical. I'm not saying "only do moves that the follower has learned and can easily follow." Pushing the follower slightly beyond her comfortable, "automatic" level is wonderful and helps her immensely; but going totally over her head and confusing the hell out of her just so he can show off (to her or others) is obnoxious. This also works in reverse: followers, please challenge your leaders but be mindful of their skill.
Experience isn't the only difference between followers. Each follower has her own style that won't always fit perfectly with the leader's personal style. Adjusting his style to mesh better with hers makes the connection between partners so much better, which makes the dance that much more fun. This also works both ways. Followers are generally better at "listening" to their partner because it's their main job; if a lead makes an effort to really listen to the follow and change his leading to incorporate her ideas, personality, style and level it makes an enormous difference.
The point I'm trying to make is that "leading" a follower is not just leading. It's paying attention to the follower and leading her.