Recently, there was a question on Facebook that caught my interest.

Loosely, it asked if a follow should compensate when the leader does something wrong, or ONLY follow what was led. This is a reasonable enough question, but some of the surrounding conversation made me think hard on how we as a dance community conceptualize leading and following.

One of the main thoughts that seemed to come up in conversation was that it is “always the leader’s fault” when something in a dance does not work. What was explained to me about this reasoning is that it is a method to humble beginner male egos when they are not leading correctly. Fair enough. However, what I disagree with in this idea is twofold.

Would I, as a beginning lead, like to feel the pressure of the ENTIRE dance resting on my lead?

Hell no.

I’m already learning new steps, timing, and trying to find some semblance of partner connection, and now you want me to take responsibility for the ENTIRE outcome of the dance? If my female partner can’t remember the steps to a cross body, a right side pass, or a lateral, it’s my fault for not being a strong enough leader? This seems a little unfair to me. It also sets up a mentality for later…

“Now I (think) I can lead. Therefore, my skill level is obviously higher than that of any equitable-level follow out there. After all, all the responsibility is on the leader and ALL she has to do is follow. How hard is that?”

Well, for any lead who has attempted to follow, you realize quite quickly… pretty hard. Yes, if my lead is only leading a few basic patterns, cool, it’s easy peasy for an experienced dancer. Add in musicality, unpredictability, styling, multiple spins, and partner connection?  I don’t see how it’s not as difficult as leading.

“But you don’t know what it’s like to lead! It’s so hard!”

Actually… I do. Every single dance that I follow I also lead, most of them comparably to my following level (with the exception of WCS). I know *exactly* how hard it is to learn to lead, how hard it is to switch between multiple dances, leading/following in the same night, and all else. Heck, I’ve performed as both a lead and a follow in the SAME routine on different occasions, in addition to social dancing both roles.

Sometimes, I feel like this statement comes from the pressure that’s placed by assuming every mistake is a lead’s fault, and the subsequent mentality that following is somehow easier than leading. It’s not fair to either gender. As a follow, I can’t learn to follow until after the guy has mastered his technique; I can only learn the pattern. But, once he has learned what he has to do, I can learn what the lead and the connection feels like for that… I can hone my responsiveness. Then, and only then, can I begin to compensate for a leader who is in the process of learning that same pattern. I can understand the intention better, and therefore aid in the learning process. This does not mean my skill set is less challenging; it means in the chronology of learning a dance, it is more difficult to learn how to follow before your lead has learned what they need to do.

“But compensating for a bad lead is not following, that’s backleading!” you say?

I prefer not to think of it as backleading if I’m maintaining my connection. A very wise dance teacher once described it to me as active following. The more in tune I am with my partner, the less important the quality of his connection is in order for me to follow. Using a combination of his level, his own body language and posture (however developed) and occasionally (with really unclear leads) an educated guess, I can follow what his intention is most of the time. Sometimes, he’s not leading on time. This is fine. I follow his off-time, because I don’t feel the need to prove I can dance to the beat. I already know that I’m off… why make it a more excruciating dance by not working with him (or her)?

If you disagree with me, think of the times where relatively novice leads have danced with a well-known superb follow. Suddenly, they look like they can dance at a much higher level. It’s not because their skill suddenly improved; it’s because the follow is so tuned in to what the body is subconsciously telling her that she can pick out the intention of even the most obscure leads. As such, an advanced follow can make a novice lead look just as good as an advanced lead can make a novice follow look.

I hope one day the dance community can break free of the imbalance of respect between leading and following. I hope, one day, group classes will be geared just as much towards following technique as leading technique, and that I will not have to suffer another guy belittling my dance skills as “just a follow”. I’m luckier than many girls; my social leading skills have gained the respect of a lot of men in the dance scene. But, it shouldn’t have to be that way to have respect as a female dancer.

This, to me, is different than saying that it is harder for men to start social dancing. This I agree with. Needing to lead requires at least basic knowledge of workable patterns and timing… the first few times someone follows they do not necessarily need this information. However, beyond those first few months, and particularly in anything above beginner level dancing, I think it is very unfair to claim leading is more difficult than following in social dancing.

Photo: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios