Ask the Dance Diva: How to Adapt to a Partner’s Lead/Follow

Dear Dance Diva,

Recently, I asked a woman if she’d like to waltz, to which she replied, “If you can lead, I can follow.” But after our first steps it was clear that she expected me to provide all the power and guide her by pushing and pulling her with my upper body. Afterward she thanked me for such a “strong” lead. I’ve been told that it’s the leader’s job to make the follower look good but I’ve also been taught that leading with the upper body distorts dance frame and shortens steps. Just as it’s the leaders responsibility to fill the space created by the follower, isn’t it the follower’s responsibility to prove her own impetus and fill the space created by the leader? Is there anything that I could have done during the dance—short of inappropriate coaching — to adjust? Or are my beliefs about lead/follow responsibilities simply wrong for social dance venues?

Leading by Example


Dear Leading,

Ah yes, the eternal conundrum of how to practice the good techniques when the circumstances—be they a less skilled partner or a crowded dance floor—are less than ideal. And let’s face it, when social dancing, the circumstances are almost never ideal. You are correct in understanding of how lead and follow should ultimately work—with each dancer remaining both mentally and physically active. But you need to put the emphasis on “ultimately”. It rarely happens socially. Yet, as you probably know from from the occasional dance of ecstasy, when it does, both partners not only look good, but feel better. The ideal follower does not blindly and passively allow herself to be pushed around like a leaden grocery cart, but rather interprets the signals she is given through the leader’s own body movement, with a relaxed yet alert responsiveness. The leader’s responsibility is to initiate the move, then track it as it is reflected in his follower. By remaining alert, attentive and active, both parties can adapt quickly and respond appropriately, extending the flow and movement as the traffic and floor space allows. However—You knew this was coming, right?—you do not have complete control over achieving this idealistic partnership, nor is it one that you’re going to find in most social situations. And in the course of a 3-minute waltz, there is no way you can force someone who does not comprehend this philosophy to understand. The best you can do is continue dancing your own role as correctly as possible, adapting as necessary to the lesser skills or awareness of your partner. This may include giving a more assertive lead than you are accustomed to or shortening your steps so as not to overpower your partner’s reluctance to travel. Even with a “good” follower, you are unlikely to achieve the perfect partnership union when you’re on a crowded dance floor. Part of the challenge of being a good leader socially is in achieving the best technique possible for you, given the differing level of your partner. That way, when you do have a responsive partner, you will not have fallen into the bad habits that can be cemented by continually curtailing or over-asserting your role in compensation for a social partner’s deficits.

©Dance Diva (aka Carrie Seidman). Previously appeared in newsletters of the Albuquerque Dance Club ( Reprints by express permission of the author only.

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