In partner dance, we have two (typically) well-defined roles: leader and follower. Each of these roles has its own set of responsibilities.
The leader is the director, who has a vision for what happens next. They create the requests, which are then processed by the follower.
The follower interprets requests made by the leader, and implements the request. They create the vision the leader has set out.
But, what if we blur these lines a bit?
The Concept of Following while Leading
The most sought-after leads have a very special quality: the ability to understand and interpret the responses given by the follow. This means that the best leaders are not 100% the leader in the dance; there’s a certain percentage of following as well.
Think of it like a (traditional) sandwich: the follower is the stuff in the middle. The leader is the two pieces of bread, framing the follow on either side. On one end, they’re leading the follow in the direction of their vision (the top slice). But, they are also using part of their capacity (the bottom slice) to make sure the follow is still with them.
This creates a ‘floor’ that keeps the follower from falling out of a comfortable connection. It also tells the leader if their follower is:
- Lagging behind the lead
- Losing balance
- Misinterpreting the lead
- Uncomfortable with a specific movement
This doesn’t mean the leader stops leading. But, it means they are maintaining an awareness of what’s going on with the follow – rather than being a slave to their own vision.
It’s like having two tour guides for a group: one keeps the front moving, and the other makes sure no one loses the group at the rear. If the rear falls too far behind, the front stops and waits for the rear to catch up.
Often, this ability to follow-while-leading is the difference between ‘average’ leads and ‘great’ leads. It’s how they create the feeling that the follow can ‘do no wrong’. If you’re able to readjust your lead to your follower’s mistakes, they will never feel like they ‘messed up’. Rather, you give the follower a feeling of mastery because you’re able to accommodate their vision, mistakes, and issues by ‘following’ them.
Further, the ability to follow the follower works beautifully with advanced dancers. When you know how to follow your partner’s movements, an advanced follower can create new movements with you and add musical accents. This can lead to new and creative explorations in the dance – without those pesky, disjointed moments.
The Concept of Leading while Following
Leading while following is when a follower is able to successfully interpret the imperfect, and fill the gaps in the dance by being responsible for their own body and balance. It is less to do with proposing new movements, and more being responsible for what is currently happening.
Followers who claim that they will ‘only follow’ often lack this skill. It can also be simple stubbornness – or an education that hasn’t given them the confidence to own their own dance.
In the absence of a necessary lead, a follow who can ‘lead’ their own body can retain their balance and control. Sometimes, it can even help put a lead back on track. You can often see it with followers who subtly adjust timing for an off-time lead, or with beginners who struggle with basic footwork patterns.
The best followers are able to do that leading without ‘taking over’ the flow of the dance. They understand what the difference is between filling the empty spaces, or derailing a space already taken up by a lead.
Advanced leaders also use this to create play in the dance. With a follower who is unafraid to lead their body and be responsible for their own execution, leaders can get creative with new and exciting movements. Experiments can happen. But, it always requires a follower to be responsible for their own body.
The Best Way to Learn This
This is a dividing issue. I believe learning how to both lead and follow a dance accelerates your ability to lead and follow at the same time.
I believe that the earlier you start, the easier it is to ‘switch brains’ between the two roles. For each dance where I ‘started’ the roles close to simultaneously, I have little trouble switching between the two. Leading and following feel fundamentally different, and inhabit a different muscle memory.
For dancers who leave that bridge for later, learning the other role often temporarily affects their proficiency in their home role. Followers learning to lead temporarily become ‘heavy’, or tend towards backleading. Leaders sometimes lose their intention.
But, it’s worth it (in my opinion).
The dancers who make it through that extra effort to learn both roles tend to understand what their partner needs to feel from them. Leaders learn how to tell when their follower isn’t quite ‘with them’, versus when they’re just a bit sluggish. Followers learn where their opportunities are to ‘add’ to the dance – and where adding means interfering with the current lead.
Of course, you can still learn this skill without learning both roles – it just tends to be a bit of a longer journey. For example, on an ambidancetrous dancer, I can show them what a movement should feel like. I can replicate on their body what the responses need to be. On a single-role dancer, I can’t do this nearly as successfully.
Learn how to use both the skill of leading and following in each of your dances. Having the ability to access both tools will make you an infinitely better dance partner – and student. It’s a must, if you are a teacher.
My personal favourite way to unlock this ability is to learn both roles. But, in the event that this isn’t for you, spend some serious time investing in the art of listening to your partner’s body – instead of your own.