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.
🙂 “What if we blur these lines a bit?”?
What if these lines are nothing more than a limit to our thinking?
Not even one with natural cause but purely artificial?
We don’t need to blur lines which can be left away entirely 😉
I’d argue whether the lines can be totally done away with also depends on the style of the dance 😉 Some dances lead themselves better to co-creation; others do not.
Valuable truths which cannot be said too often. In queer tango, we often take the next logical step – intercambio – swapping roles during the dance with either dancer initiating the change. It is a delight! And I take heart that it is a practice beginning to taken up in some quarters of mainstream tango.
Similar discussions are ongoing in the Forró scene from Europe. You can find it in Facebook by the group “Forró discussions”. There exist also a TED presentation about ‘liquid leading’.
I do agree, but don’t think that it is about the difference between the average and the great leaders/followers, but actually this description is more a picture of how correct lead&follow works in distinction from a wrong idea of lead&follow.
Misunderstanding often comes from inconsistent use of terminology, I think.
So even in this text here, we do have some confusion.
“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.”
– calling this “Leading while following” is misleading and not necessary, because what the text describes is simply “dancing while following” – the follower always is and always has been responsible for their own body and balance. Teaching something else is simply wrong.
“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.”
– this describes followers who were taught wrong about what following is.
“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.”
– this continues to be a description of normal behavior in a couple dance, as said above. Talking about “leading” their own body is a misleading and not necessary word for dancing/moving/using their own body.
“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.”
– this, as already said, is not a description of “best followers” in contrast to “not yet best followers” but is a description of actual followers – those, who understand what following is – in contrast to those who don’t.
“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.”
– again, normal case and this can be said the other way: You can’t dance with someone, who does not know how to dance/move/use/(why lead?) their own body.
Let’s continue on the “other” side: “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.”
– what is said here describes as “following” the awareness the leader has towards what happens in/with the follower, as it is also stated explicitly in the sentence following later on:
“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.”
– this is coined with the term “following” because it is the same awareness that the follower has towards the leader.
But, the awareness of the dancers towards each other has nothing to do with roles. It is basic communicatoin, a basic prerequisite for the dance to be able to call it a couple dance. There is no couple dance without bi-directional awareness.
So to prevent confusion, a better wording would be “to accompany” here instead of “follow”. The follower accompanies the leader and the leader accompanies the follower while they are dancing together. This is a role independent skill. This is not what makes the difference between the “leader” and “follower” role. This is each and every dancer’s basic ability required for taking part in a couple dance.
To conclude my opinion, there are two take-away messages here:
First, as the text says:
Leaders, be just as attentive towards your Followers as you expect them to be towards you (because if you aren’t, you are failing in basics of couple dancing)!
Followers, be as decisive in your actions as you expect the Leaders to be in theirs (because if you aren’t, you are failing in basics of couple dancing)!
And secondly, when we talk about actually “blurring the lines” and beginning to touch the beautiful realm of co-creation:
Leaders and Followers, agree that the Leaders will not lead 100% and leave the Followers freedom. And that the Followers recognize this freedom and fill it up with their creative contribution!
Blur the lines to the max and you may realize that there is no Leader and no Follower any more – there are two dancers shaping their dance together. Have fun co-creating! 😉
I appreciate what you’re saying. However, “average” does not necessarily mean “correct”; it means the average skill level follow.
You’re correct that all these things are the “correct” definition of following. However, the idea of being responsible for the dance is often attributed to leaders – while the idea of being responsible for listening is given to followers. The purpose here is to illustrate how aspects typically associated with leaders and followers play into the full expression of the opposite role – and how the appropriate use of such concepts is necessary to being a great follower.
I personally disagree with, in the context of most partner dances, the idea of no defined lead and follow. Co-creating can be fun as an experiment outside of genre, but I think that most dances rely on an established lead/follow relationship for expression.
Thank you! 🙂 I appreciate your honest answer, though I would have to ask what your first sentence is really aiming at, as I didn’t assume anywhere that “average” means “correct” (or “incorrect” either). Sure thing average means average skill. What I’m referring to is fundamental knowledge. While level of skill may distinguish “average” from “great” leaders/followers/dancers it is the mind set that defines whether you are an actual leader/follower/dancer – or none at all.
I’m totally relaxed about you thinking of co-creation being an fun experiment outside of genre, because I’ve been living it, dancing it, working on teaching methods for many partner dances, teaching and watching others do it for some years now. So here again, I would have to ask what do you mean with “outside of genre”? And why do you consider co-creation an “experiment” while I can be absolutely confident about saying that co-creation is actually what partner dancing is about in it’s core? I can conclude from my work that the idea of lead&follow is not the defining part of partner dancing and that no lead/follow relationship is a real partner relationship if it is violating principles of co-creation.
So yes, I’m well aware of the fact that, as you say, “the idea of being responsible for the dance is often attributed to leaders – while the idea of being responsible for listening is given to followers.” and I wish to express my full support to you trying to illustrate where these typical associations might prove basically incomplete/superficial/actually wrong and what we can do to prevent such misconceptions for future partner dancers.
I’m curious about the years to come and wish you all the best 🙂
We usually go to swapping role in Brazilian Zouk to understand the execution of the moves for both roles. If not, anyone of the role will injured because you know how to make follower do but never thought on the opposite role how to pick up the continuous motions to complete the moves.