Have you ever been in a dance class where the follows have been told to ‘Just Follow’?
Have you ever heard someone told that follows have it so much easier because they ‘Just Follow’?
Have you ever heard a female instructor devalued because ‘She is a follow, not a lead’?

I have.

To me, these types of situations indicate the social dance scene’s tendency to devalue the level of difficulty involved with following. Somehow, leading has a reputation of being so much harder – both in the eyes of leads and follows.

What’s so hard about following?

There seems to be a prolific opinion within social dance that the follower somehow has the ‘easier’ role in the dance. While it is true that at the very beginning follows tend to have an easier time social dancing, that does not make the skill they need to learn any less difficult than that of the lead.

Following, as a skill, involves split-second interpretation of things that are almost never perfect. It involves looking good, keeping balance, maintaining connection, and being prepared for any movement at any time. We don’t get a road map. What we get is the person in the passenger seat yelling out ‘TURN LEFT’ when we are 10 meters from the intersection. If we’re lucky, the lead told us we needed to be in the left lane.

There’s also an increased pressure to look good if you are a follow – but our styling can’t interfere with our connection. It’s like doing two completely different things simultaneously – like piano. One hand does one thing, the other does something completely different. At the same time. And if one thing goes wrong, it all generally tends to fall apart unless you are *really* comfortable in what you are doing.

On top of this, follows generally spend a much larger proportion of their time spinning or otherwise in athletic situations. Before you start telling a follow how easy she has it, you try spinning 5 times and coming out perfectly centered… with no break before the next move. Or, perhaps an immediate dip. Double if you realize the lead doesn’t know how to lead it properly and you need to correct what is wrong.

So… if this is the case, why is it devalued?

Within a classroom setting, it is much more difficult to teach follows than leads. With a lead, you get to tell them exactly what to do to get a desired result – the rest is just fine tuning. With a follow, you need to somehow get them to follow what is led in class but also understand how to react to the imperfect leads on a dance floor. Instead, many times we get the ‘just follow’ approach as a result of teachers either a) not knowing how to teach to follows or b) legitimately believing this is *all* following is.

This is not to be confused with situations that get the leads comfortable with the pattern before addressing the follow on both how to follow the movement correctly and troubleshooting techniques for if it is not.

We also tend to be sympathetic to the new leads in the dance scene – who do have a much harder time in the early days getting through a single song. Since their ability to dance in the beginning depends on knowing combinations, a new lead needs time to build up his repertoire first. As a result, it is easier to fake following – but if you ask any experienced dual-role individual, it is just as difficult to dance with a new follow as it is to dance with a new lead.

What is the result of this devaluation?

There are a few results:

1. Follow solo instructors aren’t taken as seriously as male solo instructors. The assumption is that the follow (who, in 99% of cases is a single travelling female) can only teach styling and follower’s movements. By contrast, a solo lead is thought to be able to just ‘guide’ a female student through a cool new pattern or complex movement.

Of course, this is false. If someone is an instructor, they are expected to have mastery of *both*. That means that it doesn’t matter what your primary role is – a decent instructor knows both and can teach to both roles equally. But yet, the assumption is that a follow is less credited as a solo teacher than a lead. (This possibly overlaps with some sexist undertones that are still remnant in the dance scene, but that’s a different discussion.)

2. Follows get the idea that their own role is less important or finessed than a lead’s. This is perhaps the saddest result. This premium that we put on leading causes follows to believe that their skills are less important and less a result of skill than a lead of equal ability. It also causes many follows to shy away from leading (I’ve heard many follows tell me ‘Oh, I could never lead. It’s too hard. I’d rather just follow.’)

3. Teachers continue the vicious cycle of ignoring follows. If we don’t make the idea of following as a skill dominant, it is hard to encourage teachers to teach to follows and leads. If it is ‘just’ following, it means that it does not require work, skill, or training. In fact, there are many important ways to teach to follows… if we don’t just push them to the side as an ornament.

4. Leads don’t treat follows with the respect they deserve. Whether it’s writing off the opinion as ‘you’re just a follow’ to leads saying ‘I can’t learn from her. She isn’t mainly a leader’ (yes, both these have been said to me), the devaluation of following is deeply problematic from a mutual respect standpoint. How, after all, can we respect someone we feel is in a ‘lesser’ role?

How can you say these things? How do YOU know they’re equally hard?

I do both roles. Equally. And don’t anyone dare mutter ‘she’s just saying this because she’s a follow.’ Otherwise, I’ll just tell you that you’re simply not listening ‘because you’re just a lead’ 😉

Remember: it takes two to Tango. Or Salsa. Or Zouk. The roles may be different – but they are certainly equally difficult. So, the next time you find yourself in a ‘just follow’ situation, take the chance to educate others on how that may not be the most accurate statement made today.