Lead and Follow: two opposite sides of the same coin that are necessary for the perfect partner dance. Historically, these roles were called the “male” and “female” role, but luckily in the modern dance world the two roles hold greater fluidity. So, in lieu of describing the roles with a masculine and feminine narrative, how do we define them?
- The ‘Picture Frame’ of the dance
- The Director
- Control over structure, spacing, pace, and timing
- The Caretaker and Navigator
- The Team Leader
The Lead provides the ‘Picture Frame’; which is the space in which the dance happens. It is the lead’s job to plan ahead – kind of like the organizer of the dance. Without their guidance, the dance cannot progress past its base components. It is critical for the lead to clearly direct or orchestrate the dance; weak and unclear gestures will do little to power the dance forward. What comes next in the dance is (mostly) their call – but it is also equally important that the Lead maintains careful awareness that the follow is right there with them.
A good lead also balances the follow’s comfort and level with where they want the dance to go. In terms of connection, a good lead will provide support for the follow and always ensure that the follow is not placed into a dangerous position. They are the primary navigators – ensuring that their dance space is respected and that they do not veer into other couples. They are the Directors of their dance, with a vision and a plan to get there, which they impart to the Follow in hopes that their partner will accompany them. Much of their role is bringing out the best in their follow – and allowing the picture to shine.
A bad lead will not take care of their partner. They move unseeing around the floor, or without a plan. They may navigate their follow into other couples, or try to dance outside the follow’s limits. They may attempt to use movements that do not fit into the space, or fail to create a space for the dance in the first place. Often, a poor leader will drift towards the realm of following, or fail to make a decisive choice in what they ask the follow to do. Rather, they ask the follow to take over as the Director.
- The ‘Picture’ of the dance
- The Actor
- Control over style, flare, and expression
- The Listener and Interpreter
- The Team Player
The Follow provides the image that sits within the frame of the leader. Without the Follow, the dance loses its spice or interest; it becomes flat. It is the follow’s job to respond and interpret near-instantly the signals of the lead. It is critical for a Follow to be a good listener and not disrupt the plan that the lead is trying to create – unless invited to do so. For, just like a team project with more than one leader, a partnership with two leads will diverge and fall apart. It takes equal patience and skill to give the control of the situation to another party as it does to be the team lead.
A good follow will create within borders. They excel within structure, but still manage to create new and exciting portraits within the lines. A follow has the most opportunity to shine in a partnership, as they have more chances to spin, create exceptional lines, and truly give themselves in to the flow of the music without having to worry what comes next. The Follow is a role of creating within the flow, rather than controlling the inital creation. They are the Actor, directed by the lead in a particular movement, on which they build and create an extraordinary performance. In most dances, after all, it is not the lead that a spectator will remember – it is the shining performance of the follow.
A poor follow will try to take control – becoming both Actor and Director. Rather than listening and interpreting from their partner, they seek to take over and create their own dance – independent of direction. They may not care about the level of their partner, choosing instead to dance for themselves rather than the partnership. They may become obstinate; refusing to listen to an idea or frame and choosing to sacrifice the partnership to fulfill their personal vision.
Who can dance what roles?
Anyone can dance either role. But, most people find they are particularly inclined towards one of the roles. A small subset of the population enjoys both equally – or may even prefer different roles in different dances.
In my experience, the hardest part of learning the opposite role is switching your brain to the opposite way of thinking. It can be as simple as mentally visualizing what you need to do to take on the opposite role, or as difficult as trying to re-wire your existing personality to accommodate a new way of thinking. But, it is always possible.
If learning both roles is something that is important to you, or if you are just trying to get better at your dominant, try thinking about the attributes of that role rather than trying to learn simply the technique. In many ways, ‘feeling’ the role may prove to be more invaluable than any steps or technique you may learn (but, by all means, please go learn the technique!!)
What role is more natural to you, and why? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and share on Facebook!
I learned some Lindy Hop by visiting social dance events and there I really learned what leading and improvising are. Now when I am at such an event I find myself alternating role every second song. Because after five minutes of leading I am already missing following and vice versa. Both are too much fun. That’s why I did end up going for a same-sex partner for International Ballroom dancing.