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 Grace and Elegance

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Ballroom dance has taught me many things. It’s not easy, it can be graceful, but leads must be subtle.  We’ve also met many wonderful people, thus have our dance friends.

Ballroom dance is a niche, thus there is a ballroom community. Although we know only a small portion, we recognize many faces because we attend the same functions. Dancers are at all levels, yet we note differences. Many know numerous steps, but the don’t look good doing them because they’ve primarily (or only) learned from group classes – but they enjoy themselves, which is important. Others look better, but don’t know as many steps – those are the ones who take private lessons.

Their timid and stiff nature identifies the beginners, but hey – all of us were there once. A handful have danced for more than 20 years, and let’s just say that some of them are very good .. the few that stand out. Even on a large floor with two hundred people, those that are trained, experienced, and/or competed at a high level are easy to identify – after all, they probably practiced, too! Reality is that most of us are between those two extremes.

It didn’t take long for us to identify Madam M. As she danced down and around the floor with her competitive partner, her movements defined elegance and grace as her smile beamed joy. Madam M is a relatively tall, attractive woman, and her firmly anchored partner knew how to display her. While watching them dance, I would think – Someday – maybe someday – I will join her for a smooth dance – a foxtrot or a waltz. Keep in mind, this is 4-5 years ago, which was early in our dance experience.

Over time, we’ve had several encounters with Madam M, and most importantly, she’s very pleasant. Maybe a year or so ago we were talking and she suggested we dance. Although it was a west coast swing – not my best dance – of course I accepted, … but that didn’t count as that dream dance. Later, there would be times when I would step toward her direction, but only to be intercepted by another invitation.

Image from Microsoft Office

Image from Microsoft Office

At a recent small ballroom gathering, there was Madam M sitting alone at a table. The DJ played a Foxtrot, so I asked her to dance. We went to the floor where I offered my left hand as a starting position, she took her place then arched back into my right hand after I lightly placed it on her back. I straightened my frame, and in no time, long strides were gracefully gliding us around the floor (at least to me).

I kept the patterns simple because my Foxtrot timing has gone in the toilet the past few months. The dance was wonderful, and afterwards, I told her how I just accomplished one of my goals. Her laugh and words conveyed both, That’s silly and Thank you … but my soul was beaming.

A short time later, it was a waltz, thus I couldn’t resist. Again, we glided and I followed various shaping that she led with subtle precision. We were both casually dressed and in a less-than elegant venue, but it was easy for me to envision my tux with tails and her flowing gown in a grand ballroom. At the end she told me that I dance well, which I found reassuring as I checked the box on my personal bucket list … even better, I checked it twice.

Flashbacks: On Ballroom

Watching Dancing with the Stars got us into ballroom dancing. It’s been fun and challenging. Below are some past posts that you may not know about ballroom. Enjoy, visit as many as you want, and I hope you comment on the post you visited.