Pinball Lead: a lead who does not let the follow finish a movement before launching into the next one.

I have come across many Pinball Leads in my time. They can be a newer or older dancer, outgoing or shy, kind or snobby, and many other things. The unifying factor: they usually think that they’re doing the movement really well while they are pinballing me around.

In order to be a Pinball Lead, a dancer has to have a reasonable number of movements at their fingertips. They need to have enough knowledge to think about the next move that they want and execute it. I’ve also noticed a lot of them pride themselves on ‘dancing to the music’ – even if they’re just hauling around their poor follow at their pace.

A Pinball Lead does not refer to the new lead who is just not sure where things have to go and therefore has jerky movements. These are beginners, and I have infinite patience for them. They’re also usually petrified that they’re doing it wrong in the first place – which means they’re lacking that essential element of ‘I think I’m doing it right’ that is present in pinball leads.

Signs you may be a ‘Pinball Lead’

There are several signs that could give away your status as a ‘Pinball Lead’. These include:

  • Prizing music over your partner
  • Frequently feeling like your follows (regardless of level) just ‘aren’t getting your cool moves’
  • Seeing looks of fear on your follow’s face quite often
  • Feeling the follow hold on to you tightly
  • Feeling your follow become as stiff as a board
  • Seeing your follow’s shoulders raise up to the level of their ears
  • Regularly feeling your follows (regardless of level) trip, start on the wrong foot, or lose balance.

Some leads are a Pinball Lead occasionally, while being perfectly normal dancers most of the time. For example, a favourite song might excite a lead to the point that they forget that they need to take care of their follow. Or, they may have learned a cool new pattern that they want to execute – regardless of their connection with the partner.

Causes of ‘Pinball Leading’

Pinball Leading comes from not respecting the connection you need with your partner. Basically, it is a sign that the lead is either paying more attention to themselves or the music than to the other human being they are dancing with.

The issue is, after all, not about the complexity of the pattern – but the precision, speed, and appropriateness of the pattern. In general:

  • The slower you go, the less precise the pattern can be
  • The faster you go, the more precise the pattern must be
  • All patterns should always be appropriate to your partner’s abilities.

Pinball leading happens most frequently when movements are fast, imprecise, inappropriate AND consist of multiple movements or patterns in a row. Usually, one movement that is a little fast or imprecise and a bit above a follow’s skill level isn’t a huge problem. But, add 5 of those moves in a row? Now you’ve got Pinball.

Pinball Leading is curable!

All that it takes to fix pinball leading is re-evaluating how the leader approaches the dance. It simply takes reformatting your focus from being ‘the music’ or ‘the move’ to ‘is my partner feeling good about what I’m doing?’

Now, I do not think every mistake in a dance is the lead’s fault. Not by a long shot. BUT! It is often better (for both leads and follows) to assume that any mistake is error on both sides. Maybe not entirely – maybe not even mostly. But partially. At the very least, it was a hiccup in your compensation for your partner.

The best antidote for Pinball Leading is conscious consideration of your follow. Look at their face: do they look uncomfortable, or thrilled? Some follows thrive at fast speeds – even if the connection is a touch shaky. They enjoy the ‘thrill’. Many do not.

Personally, I love being thrilled with new things – but I will only consent to being thrilled if I feel my lead is still prioritizing my well-being over the move that is ‘thrilling’ me. If I think that the ‘thrill’ is not fully considering my body, I won’t do it.

I am not saying ‘Don’t do complex patterns’

Rather, I’m saying only do complex patterns – especially one after the other – if you

  1. Have a follow who can execute them
  2. Have the skills to execute them
  3. Go at a speed that the music – and your skills –  allow
  4. Make sure that you give the follow safe ‘outs’ from the movement

I do complex patterns when I’m leading all the time, but I adjust based on my partner. If I start feeling resistance and seeing telltale signs of discomfort, I either slow down or stop the movement. I don’t try to ‘make’ it happen.

Physically, the stronger you are, the harder it can be to avoid ‘forcing’ a movement. If you have the physical capability to force something to happen, it can be tempting to use your muscles to make it happen. Please – don’t. If it’s not happening, let it not happen. There is a difference between pushing the limits in a way that your follow feels safe, and using your strength to force a submission to a movement.

If you only take away one thing from the article: it’s a lot more fun to PLAY pinball than to BE the pinball.

Overall, Pinball Leading is a sign that you are not taking care of your partner. Dance is less about what you are doing, it is more about who you are doing it with. More than the music or steps, you are dancing with another person. Your actions during a dance directly impact that person. Make your dance about both of you. Be the lead that makes follows feel safe and free, and you will never have a shortage of follows to dance with.

Fun non-dance fact: Did you know that pinball was illegal in New York City for over 30 years? From sometime in the 1940-1970’s, pinball was illegal on the grounds that it was a way to get children into gambling and was part of mafia-run gambling rings. There was even a special police task-force devoted to confiscating pinball machines! It took a top pinball player calling his shots in front of City Hall decision-makers to finally get pinball legalized again!