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The art of lead and follow in ballroom dancing….. or how to have a conversation without actually speaking!

Truthfully leading and following are both an art and a science. The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice” and science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”. Leading and following are not only acquired through practice but there is a set of principles that help us put it together.  For me it’s a lot like learning a language – languages have their grammar and syntax (science) but we use language in different ways when communicating with different people, we use it to stir feelings and it is at its most beautiful when at its most creative (art).

Cheek2Cheek Dance Xmas Ball 2016

The first thing about leading and following is probably each parties Attitude towards it. A great leader will dance their own moves clearly and with confidence, and by doing so will help make their intentions clear to their follower rather than force them into moves. A great follower will pay attention to what their leader is saying and respond accordingly, rather than anticipate what they think they might be asked to do. And then, a really great leader will adapt to however the follower has responded to their lead – remember it’s a conversation and not a shouting match!

So, if your attitude is right, then the next thing you need to have is a good Connection to your partner. Points of connection are places where you touch your partner and lead/follow through them; it should be a connection which is toned, flexible, responsive and mutual, after all this is a partnership. There is a lot that can be written on how to improve that physical connection so here I’ll focus on the crucial things. In Ballroom, we use a body lead with the arms and hands as an extension of that body – our dance hold or frame is relatively fixed. In Latin American, where the hold is often changing, we also use a body lead which we communicate through our hands/arms, but we also use a hand/arm lead when the arm moves independently of the body or it moves in the opposite direction to the body. The important thing is whether it’s the body, the hands or the arms, there should be a feeling of tone in leaders and followers alike – neither party should feel soft like wet spaghetti or rigid like a plank of wood.

Having worked on attitude and connection, leaders and followers have to work on Signals, i.e. what is being asked, and the Timing of Signals.  On a social floor, there are really only a limited number of things that a leader indicates at any one time, although it may not always feel like that:

  • Direction – forwards/backwards/sideways/stepping outside/closing feet
  • Rise and Fall
  • Turning or not turning
  • Distance – short step or long step (alhough really the person stepping forward controls the stride)
  • Balance (weight distribution over the feet)
  • Timing

Leaders need to be aware of what they are asking their follower to do, how does their body, arm and foot position affect what their follower does. For example, in the Ballroom dances, turning is initiated by Contrary Body Movement (CBM) on the first step of the turn – if the leader does not use CBM as they start to turn then the follower will not necessarily start the turning action on that first step and subsequently make it much harder to make that turn.  Leaders need to be aware of the timing of signals too – some signals are given as the move is made e.g. in closed hold but moves can also be signalled before they happen, e.g. follower’s underarm turn in Rumba/Cha Cha Cha.

Leading and following are both very active roles in my view (I don’t happen to think followers are just along for the ride) but they have different Responsibilities and Skill Sets on a social dance floor.  The leader’s primary objective on a social floor should be to keep both parties safe so, for a leader, floorcraft or the avoidance of obstacles (moving or stationary) is important. That doesn’t mean a follower isn’t keeping an eye out – particularly when the leader is moving backwards in closed hold or the follower is being sent away from their partner. The leader needs a reasonable amount of spatial awareness, particularly on the progressive dances – too often I’ve seen leaders try and crush in a sequence of steps as they approach a corner much to their partner’s chagrin. The leader is initiating movement and does need to know what figure/step/move they are leading but the follower has a huge rolodex of patterns to recognise and respond to accordingly. It’s both parties responsibility however to make sure that you both have a great dance – attitude and connection are crucial to that – and express the music together.

Good leading and following is a dynamic interactive process which requires the skill of both partners to make it work. When it’s working it adds to the pleasure of both dancers, and when it’s not it feels like you are battling your way around the dance floor! Suffice to say it takes a lot of Practice. One of the best ways to do that at the beginning is for followers to try and follow what is led or do nothing, not to follow what they think it should be – that way the leader learns what signal elicits what response. Dancing with multiple partners is also really helpful, from beginners to advanced dancers – it can help diminish bad habits and make you appreciate your regular partner more (sometimes!). Above all, it’s about Connection and there will be another long blog just talking about that, hopefully quite soon……

by Alison at Cheek2Cheek Dance

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