Most dancers have heard of the dreaded Backleader: the follow who doesn’t listen to their partner. But, until now we didn’t have a similar concept for leaders who don’t lead.  Therefore, I’d like to introduce the concept of backfollowing: when leaders ask the follower to take over the job of leading.

What is a ‘Weak’ Leader?

A weak leader is someone who lacks the skills to lead properly. There are two main types of weak leaders: the non-existent or ambiguous, and the rough, conflicting lead. The concept of backfollowing is closely linked to the non-existent or ambiguous lead, whereas the rough, conflicting leaders are typically overleaders.

Rough, Conflicting Leaders

Rough or conflicting leaders are leaders who use too much force and not enough precision. Or, different parts of their body may be giving conflicting directions. For example, their arms may pull forward even though their hand is raised for a turn.

These weak leaders are typically not backfollowers. Rather, they’re an overleader: using much more energy, force, and movement than is necessary in a given situation. They’re what most ambiguous or non-existent leaders are afraid of becoming.

Ambiguous, Non-Existing Leaders

An ambiguous or non-existent leader is someone a follower can’t read. Their leads may be virtually non-existent, or just ambiguous. For example, instead of turning the follow by drawing a circle with the hand, a lead may just lift it straight up. Without creating a reason for a follow to turn, the follow is left with the ambiguity and is forced to guess at the blank space.

Many ‘weak’ leads are also very afraid of being “too strong” (translation: “too rough”). So, they start backfollowing.

What is Backfollowing?

Backfollowing is when a lead starts deferring to the follow to make decisions on leading. It is different from giving space to the follow to contribute to the dance, or giving an ‘out’ if the follower elects not to do a movement. Rather, it’s asking the follow to take over the role of ‘leader’ in the dance.

Imagine talking to someone in your car who is supposed to be giving you directions to the grocery store. Instead, they say this:

“Well, you can go left. Or straight, if you don’t want to go. Or we can turn right three times. It’s your choice.”

All the driver wanted was for the navigator to say “turn left to go to the grocery store.” Leaving the directions up to the driver defeats the entire purpose of having a navigator in the car.

Comparing Rough and Non-Existent Leaders

In the situation above, the navigator is probably not trying to make the driver’s life difficult. They are probably trying really hard not to be overbearing. But, their fear and tentativeness is ruining their ability to be an effective navigator.

By contrast, the rough navigator may give clear directions – but yell them. Or, the driver may express a desire to not drive a specific route, but be overrun by a navigator that demands that they follow that path.

Clearly, there’s a happy middle ground there. A strong navigator will recognize if a driver misses a turn, and re-route. But, they will also give clear directions to the driver about how to get to the grocery store.

How Non-Existent Leads Affect Followers

If followers need to be focusing on interpreting non-existent signals or guessing what move is in the leader’s mind, we are forced to stop following. 

In these situations, we must focus all our energy on helping the leader lead the dance. We can do this one of two ways:

  • We can start guessing what the leader wants (backleading); or
  • We must only follow, and not overwhelm the (very faint) leads given

When I say only follow, I mean we have to stop actively contributing style and interpretation for the dance. We must stop self-expressing, because it overwhelms the remnants of whatever leads might be barely discernible.

If a given lead is a barely-intelligible whisper, we must speak quietly and briefly in response. We must be tentative, to make sure we understood what was said in the first place. If we start speaking loud or for longer, we may miss the next thing the lead says.

But, when a leader is clear and decisive, we are able to answer confidently because we don’t have to spend our energy making sure we don’t miss the next thing the lead says. We are confident that they will speak loud enough for us to hear, and clearly enough for us to respond properly.

Finding Strength

When you’re learning to dance, it is important to learn how to read your partner. For leaders, this means recognizing when a follow requires more (or less) direction.

If a follow frequently seems unable to ‘keep up’ with you or is losing balance, you might be too rough. But, if you have followers who spend a lot of time waiting or ‘just standing there’, you may be a little bit on the non-existent side.

Dances with non-existent leads are frequently smooth (translation: without incident) – but often lack the ‘flow’ or ‘groove’ of the dance. They lack dynamics like contrast, especially sharp or staccato movements. And, more often than not, a good follow will be too slow for the music because they’re waiting to be led.

Beware of associating all lack of styling or expression as a sign that you are too light. While it is true that personal expression disappears with non-existent leads, it also disappears with rough, conflicting leads. It’s always the first thing to go if a follower doesn’t feel comfortable.

Fighting the Fear

If you are afraid of becoming ‘too rough’, talk to follows in your life. If they use a word like ‘light’ to describe you, ask a bit further. Would they like it if you were more assertive in your lead? Do they sometimes get a bit lost trying to figure out what you are asking for?

And, most importantly, ask “do you think that I am a rough lead?”

If you are a non-existent lead, most follows I know will answer the last question with “oh, NO! Not at all! If anything, you could lead me more!” But, if the followers say “Oh, you’re already plenty strong… sometimes a bit much” – don’t follow my next bit of advice. If anything, you’re probably on the rough end of the spectrum.

At this point, the hurdle is figuring out how much energy to add to your leading. Start with a little bit. See if it causes follows to be less or more sure of what you’re asking for. Does it pull out their personal expression?

If it doesn’t seem to be changing anything, add a bit more until you start to see a positive change. But, if you suddenly have follows who are behind your lead, falling, or have a collapsing frame – STOP. Talk to a teacher or a practice partner. Something is probably off in your precision (how you are leading the movement) as opposed to how heavy your lead is.

The Holy Grail: Body Language

The key to adjusting your lead effectively is to be able to read your partner’s body language. The better you become at assessing where something is going wrong, the better able you will be to fix yourself.

Some leaders are decent at this naturally. They have a gift for assessing how much heaviness a particular follow likes in their lead, or telling the difference between a movement that is too difficult vs. simply missed.

If it’s not natural for you, err on the side of gentleness. But, conquer the fear of becoming ‘too rough’.

In the time I have been teaching, I have rarely seen a non-existent leader with too much confidence in what they are doing. Usually, they are on the overcautious side, and assume that most things that go wrong are ‘their fault’. They’re also often frustrated that they can’t seem to get anyone to do anything. 

On the contrasting side, rough leaders are typically very confident in their lead. They tend to assume that it is a follower missing a lead that is causing something to fail. It’s not that they want to hurt their follower or to be rough, but they’re typically much more prone to feeling they’ve ‘got it’.

While there are exceptions to every rule, keep this in mind when you are finding your way.

I’m sure all the followers agree with me that we are thrilled that non-existent leaders are so concerned about our well-being and safety. But, we’d really love to pass the role of ‘leader’ back to you – so that we can get back to that lovely, floating feeling of following.