Follow the Leader

Being in charge of one’s destiny is an intoxicating feeling. Which way shall you go? Which way shall you take? Will the team, the partner, the family, the club– whoever is caught in the wake of your energy and authority– feel your certainty, giving them the confidence to follow your lead?

Doors to the Executive Suite opened or were smashed open for women not all that long ago. The phrase “stay-at-home mom” was coined pretty recently… ’cause for eons that was ridiculously redundant. What else could a mom choose to do? Ah, choice. Once tasted, never forgotten. That’s probably why the second most common self-disqualification I hear from people about learning ballroom dance comes from some beautiful, strong, competent women: “I cannot follow a man.” These women are leaders in the rest of their passionate lives, earth movers, world shakers. Once you hand over the reins, after all, who would ever willingly give them back? And, there’s the danger of precedent, perhaps. He gets control here; he might assume control there, too. Why rock a relationship boat that seems to be moving along pretty well on its current course by introducing a different way of relating?

Some modern males also feel conflict about “pushing the woman around.” On the dance floor, however, it’s not a simple decision about Who’s The Boss. And, just so you know, my neophyte darlings, there is no pushing in partner dancing. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It takes many forms. More about that later.

At first glance, especially without the window of personal experience, lead-follow roles in ballroom appear to be very traditionally male-female. Some folks like that. Good for them. It ain’t necessarily so for the majority of dancers. I recently read a blog by a male dance teacher who basically said, yeah, most people like the look of a dominant, alpha male in control of his elegant, receptive woman. Uh, I must reply: Not my circus; not my adjectives. His prescription for people who do not appreciate that concept of dominance and receptivity? Relax and enjoy it. Ahem… I did not gag but I did squint really, really hard at his portrayal. As a ballroom instructor and competitive dancer, I know we can do better than that! (Unless you want your dance partnership to resemble “50 Shades of Grey.” Your call, of course.)

I find it helps to pull back a bit from political, sociological interpretations of partner dancing and consider practicalities. Some are historical, some seem eternal. Checking results is critical. How does it work? How does it make you feel? How does it translate into partnerships off the dance floor?

*Height and clothing: The average male is about three inches taller than the average female. He can see over her if she’s moving backwards. Not as easy for her to see over him. When the earliest ballroom dances were invented, women had voluminous skirts and underskirts to maneuver. The men could move much more freely in trousers. Women today might be also in trousers but if they’re wearing spindly heels, their mobility might not be quite as quick and grounded as a man in his flat shoes with their wide heels.

*Driver’s seat: Someone has to lead! You cannot pile into the car and refuse to take the wheel or, worse, both grab for it and pull in the direction you think the vehicle should proceed. To stick with the metaphor just a moment longer: The driver directs the car; the driver is not the car’s boss or god. Driver turns ignition and engine does not turn over? You go Nowhere. OK, out of the vehicle and onto the dance floor. When a man initiates a lead to a pattern, if the woman does not respond quickly and appropriately, the couple goes nowhere. Or, they get a serious bobble that may end with smashed toes, belly collisions, bruised egos, blooming embarrassment and hiccoughs of irritation. The good-natured may also opt to laugh but few could bear a dance that was all mistakes and miscommunications. This is not dancing. It is suffering.

A very experienced leader may compensate or smoothly move through a follower’s misunderstanding or poor timing, but he does not push her through patterns. He assists her movement with his own timing and balance. No stomping the accelerator, jerking the wheel or grinding the gears.

*Passenger seat: There are NO daydreaming or snoozing passengers in partner dancing. Even if you’re not leading, you are not passive. The follower must know how to move her own weight, support her own arms, keep her own balance, hold her own posture, find the music’s timing and remember at least basic patterns. No one else is in charge of these essentials. Without them, there can be no dance partnership. Indeed, there can be precious little movement. Because there is often a 10-1 ratio of women to men at social dances, courteous men dance with a wide variety of women, with a wide variety of skills and lack thereof. A follower’s lack of strength and balance literally weighs heavily on the leader. If he supports her through these weaknesses, it can take a serious toll on his shoulder joints and his back muscles. It’s better to have some upper body muscle bulk if you’re going to lead.

*Illusion of control: Women at social dances may also find themselves in the arms of an inexperienced or low-skill leader. They are more likely to suffer injury here and the most experienced women will try to adjust the situation by “back-leading.” Subtly or not-so subtly, a follower can adjust her movement in ways that move or redirect or stop the official leader. The trick is that the habit of back-leading can be hard to turn off. Then the follower loses the pleasure of responding to a good lead and the freedom of expression it gives her.

*Leaders follow, too: Does a CEO only tell others what to do and never listen to anybody else? Not many effective, successful ones. When dancers start doing more intermediate moves, the leader can be the one moving backwards. Not seeing where you are going means you must trust your partner who is moving forward. More than once, I have used my weight and altered pressure in my hands to signal my backwards-moving leader that he would run into someone if he kept moving. Partnership, right? Also, in rotary motions, the leader can be “inside of turn,” meaning the follower has to power around him.

*Frame, meet picture: It’s a classic metaphor in ballroom. The man is the frame and the woman is the picture. Many of his movements are intended to show off the woman’s grace and flexibility. In this way, although the leader initiates patterns and changes of direction, he is in a supporting role. When was the last time you offered your boss a Best Supporting award?

*SOMEONE has to do it: Now that marriage equality is the law of the land (thanks, SCOTUS!), I fully expect to see more same-sex couples signing up to develop a special dance for their weddings. Somebody has to lead. Somebody has to follow. Not a gendered assignment in this case. Is it always the taller one who leads? Not necessarily. Opposite-sex and same-sex couples sometimes have a shorter leader. (The taller follower usually adapts by having more flex in the knees so that the hold is comfortable and the leader can see over the follower’s shoulder.)

In a same-sex couple, who leads can be a case of aptitude and attitude. The leader needs to be able to deliver a wide variety of signals to the follower. And, on the social floor and in competition, the leader needs to navigate the couple through a crowd, also known as floor craft. While a quite good follower can learn several dances and develop in a matter of a few months, it can and often does take much longer, even years, for a leader to attain excellence in the role. Which partner chooses to be dedicated to that long process? Which partner has some natural ability that way? The joy of moving as one, in sync with beautiful music, is so alluring. Playing nice and being a team, with a captain, makes it all possible. A division of labor is as practical on the dance floor as it is in the home or office. No one can do everything. Should anyone feel compelled to do everything?

*R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Lack of respect, on either side, severely limits a partnership. As you dance more and more, you feel with your body any lack of respect. Not as an abstract concept. Not as a philosophical or political system of beliefs. Whether leading or following, you feel it in the approach, the eye contact, the weight and pressure of the hands, the rate of breathing, the suppleness of response, the clarity and consistency of direction.

High touch: In these uber-high-tech days, the high-touch process of partner dancing is an anomaly. You cannot text, “Change step. Plz go!” You cannot email about the value of following well or the difficulty of leading well. Yes, you can read a blog post about it, but that’s just a thought provoker. Reading may open the mind to different ways of looking at things, but dance is movement, touch, connection. If you both know your patterns, you can get around the floor with almost anyone. You don’t have to wait for an alert for a tweet from a partner whose very breath conveys “I am so much better than you, I don’t know why I even bother.” You feel it. And, you should walk away. You do not have to wait for an Instagram of your smiling faces with #joy to know that things are working very well indeed. If you desire to taste the joys of partnership, it takes two. Two equals with differing roles and responsibilities, sometimes trading off leadership, each expressing their emotional truth, living completely in the moment. On or off the dance floor. Ballroom can take you there.

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