On Lead and Follow

A search for quotes about “lead and follow” provides many references to leadership friendship, and other relationships. Although they are very applicable, Lead and Follow is also about ballroom dance.

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When starting to learn ballroom dance, the focus is on hold and basic feet movements. At that stage, Lead and Follow is more like memorizing: Lead does this, then the follower does that. More steps means more memorizing. However, in time, Lead and Follow becomes very important – and it’s not easy. So what is Lead and Follow?

Lead and Follow is the essence of social ballroom dance, which is not choreographed. Lead and Follow is an interaction between two people that allows them to synchronize motions to compliment each other and the music. Lead and Follow is about dancing together and enjoying each other with the Lead being responsible for initiating steps and patterns while navigating the floor and planning ahead while the Follower interprets and executes the signals from the Lead.

Given a variety of skill levels present in a social ballroom dance setting, it is paramount the Lead recognizes their partner’s ability level and leads within that level. I frequently see the following at social dance: A lead is given, but the follower didn’t respond with the expected step. The Lead then goes into instructional mode of “When I do this, you do that.” That is not Lead and Follow! Yes, some of their problems may be due to skill level differences, but most is due to the lack of connection between the dancers; therefore poor directions delivers poor results.

I still recall one particular lesson we had with an instructor who wasn’t our regular one. (It probably was within the first or second year of our lessons). Her points were simple: Leads should be subtle, but clear; Followers needs to tune in to detect the subtle signal, and then respond accordingly. Both leading and following are difficult skills, but can come with experience.

Image from Microsoft Office

Lead and Follow requires a connection between the partners because that connection is the communication line transmitting signals through a strong frame. With the goal of moving together as one, signals travel through any of the following (or combination of): whole body, core, shoulders, hips, back, elbows, arms, hands, legs, and feet, plus extensions and compressions.

For me, my dance frame has been strong for much of my dance journey. Therefore, I notice when my partner’s frame is weak – which makes communication difficult. No wonder dancers struggle when both frames are weak because the communication line is (at best) on life support. I also know why ladies with good frames who struggle when they dance with men with poor frames.

Developing clear and subtle leads is a never-ending journey – and I admit that I haven’t always been subtle. Even though my frame, connection, and subtlety have improved with time, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Yet, I now know that Lead and Follow is more like a series of act-and-react actions. After all, what if my partner does something different from I anticipated? It could mean my lead wasn’t clear – but it also means I have to react by keeping the time and adjusting my next movement while disbanding my anticipated plan – and then my partner must react to my adjusted signal – and then it’s back to me. This act-react cycle is ongoing throughout the entire dance until the music stops.

When things get out of whack, I admit to enjoying the maddening flurry of steps with a skilled partner to get us back in sync. Fortunately, I possess an ability to do that much of the time – although I may never duplicate the series again because I don’t know what I did. On the other hand, I also enjoy leading a less-experienced dancer to do steps they didn’t know.

There are numerous analogies for Lead and Follow. Lead is speaking while Follow is listening. Lead is communication while Follow is translating. Lead is the driver while Follow is the passenger. Lead is the offense while Follow is the patient defense. I’m sure there are more, but hopefully these analogies make sense.

No matter the ability, Lead and Follow is about the connection between the partners on two levels: with each other and with the music. My favorite dance partners are the ones with good frames that serve as the foundation of a good connection and they know how to follow.

On the other hand, two people who have never danced together can have a magical first dance – a dance that is socially flawless – well, as long as they have a strong connection with each other.

Recently, I have had some remarkable dancing with people I’ve never danced with before. The reasons are simple – a strong connection between two people, the ability to read each other, and comparable skills levels. For me, those times are euphoric – and at the end of the dance, two people can smile, look into each others eyes with amazement and appreciation, and thank each other for a wonderful dance.

Enjoy this video. Although this couple practiced this routine, the majority of the steps/patterns in their routine can be done with Lead and Follow in a social ballroom dance setting – well, assuming the dancers know the dance – in this case, Bolero.

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On Benefits from the Ballroom

My wife and I started ballroom dance lessons about four years ago, so it is a good time to reflect at the experience. Since dance studios proclaim the benefits as part of their marketing, this post is a personal evaluation of those. The bold is the proclaimed statement, thus my thoughts follow.

#1: Improves Posture
Check. No question that my walking movements are different today than when we started – although I need to work on being more upright.

#2: Sharpens the Mind
Check. Ballroom dance is more difficult that one thinks in terms of brain activity alone. Besides the obvious learning, dancers (especially the lead) have to plan, react, and adjust. Ballroom is a challenge requiring mental discipline. The female must also increase her awareness in order to react to subtle and/or unexpected signals. Since most ballroom is lead and follow (as opposed to choreograph), the bottom line is that dance involves a lot of brain activity.

#3: Improves Self-Confidence
Check. Of course that is assuming that one is achieving what they want to achieve from the experience.

#4: Exercises the Body
Check. The aerobic extent of ballroom dancing correlates to the type of dance. Obviously, a faster song is more aerobic than a slower dance. There is no doubt that this activity also improves muscle tone and endurance while lowering blood pressure, exercising the heart, and improving breathing.

#5: Relieves Stress
Check. Although ballroom dance tests our patience, we have grown to become more patient. Besides, the enjoyment of dance takes one away from the rat-race nature of today’s world.

#6: Fosters New Friendships
Check. Since we have been at the same studio during our time, we have met many people and have become very good friends with some, thus have been to each other’s home for dinner and socializing. Since we dance outside of our studio, our circle of friends expands even more.

#7: Improves Relationships
Check. Ballroom dance is something we do together. Sure, times can be testy, but it takes two people working together to be successful.

#8: It is Fun
Check. For me, the combination of music, friends, and spouse adds up to fun. Through the music of the past and present, dance allows everyone the opportunity to rediscover a child-like spirit within us.

A Few Cautions

  • Quality ballroom dance lessons are not cheap because a studio is a business, not a recreation center.
  • Like anything else, some instructors are more professional and knowledgeable than others.
  • Having a musical background is helpful, but not required.
  • Practice is important.
  • Some participate in ballroom dance to compete, yet others do it be social dancers.

Bottom line is that we enjoy the activity and have experienced its proclaimed benefits.

Meanwhile, enjoy this Bolero – a slow, Latin dance that is one of our favorites.

Opening Image from Fred Astaire Dance Studios

On a Classy Start to the Week

Monday morning is a drag to some – or as fellow blogger The Beeze calls his weekly posts as Monday Moanin’. Although I’m not one who sees Monday as a downer, I recognize that others need something to jump start their week – thus the purpose of this Category of posts.

Instead of something lively or funny, this post is about talent, but unique talent – plus a shout-out to my favorite Oberlin College student who discovered it for me. Props to Stringfever and their idea for 4 playing the same cello at the same time. The song …. Bolero … hey guys … remember Bo Derek?