I was speaking with a dancer a few days ago. She was learning how to lead, but was scared of being ‘too strong’. Part of the fear stemmed from the idea that good follows prefer ‘light’ leads to ‘strong’ leads.
So I asked her about a particular, very well-loved lead. She said she does enjoy dancing with him. I asked her if she would consider him a ‘strong’ lead.
Her answer: “yes.”
This is, of course, a conundrum. If a follower enjoys a lead they consider ‘strong’, but doesn’t like ‘strong’ leads, there’s something that needs to be redefined. In this first example, ‘strong’ was being contrasted with ‘light’. It is implied that the two ideas are opposites.
Strong vs. Light
The opposite of strong is weak. The opposite of light is heavy. Light and strong are not opposites, and they can co-exist. Some aluminum alloys are both light and strong. Glass can be both heavy and weak.
So, let’s rephrase the question: how many followers enjoy a weak lead?
I would guess that most followers would say that they don’t enjoy a weak lead – whether referring to skill level, the clarity of the leads, or the physical strength of the leader.
The Misunderstanding of ‘Strong’
Many times, follows refer to a ‘strong’ lead as someone who makes something happen in a dance. The word makes is important here, because it implies that an action results from the forceful input of the lead.
On the other hand, follows also use it to describe leads who are crystal-clear and well-defined in the movement they are asking for. It ‘feels’ like there is no other option because it is so clear, yet they don’t consider themselves ‘forced’ into the movement.
Operative Word: Force
When we take the first interpretation, a ‘strong’ lead becomes someone who forces a follow to do a movement in an unpleasant way. It’s an arm lead that drags you around the floor. It’s the lead who crushes you against their body, and doesn’t allow you to escape.
It can also refer to a lead who drags a follow through over-complex movements, without paying attention to whether the follow is keeping up.
When follows say they don’t like strong leads, this is what they mean. They’re talking about forceful, rough, and dangerous leads.
Operative Word: Precision
The second interpretation involves a lead who is precise and open to negotiation on a request during the dance. They are a lead who is precise enough in movement to let the follow know exactly what they want, and aware enough to give the option for an ‘out’ if the follow needs it. In this situation, ‘strong’ is a good thing.
In both of these interpretations, there is a better word than strong to describe the type of lead: precise or forceful.
I like to interpret ‘Strong’ as ‘Skilled’. It is a leader that makes followers feel both secure, and clear on what they should do. The strongest leaders are able to move a follower’s body precisely, without force, and with full confidence.
Therefore, the stronger the lead, the more enjoyable the dance will be for the follow.
We need to be careful about giving leaders the idea that being strong is a negative trait. Most of the best leaders are quite capable of using their strong skills to anchor a dance. Rather, we need to educate new leaders that they should strive to develop their skill to become strong leaders by working on connection and precision.
Or, we can get rid of the word ‘strong’ altogether within our terminology, and substitute it with ‘precise’ and ‘forceful’.
Otherwise, we will fall into the trap of educating leads to aim for a weak lead by conflating the idea of ambiguity with lightness. This creates leaders who backfollow – which I will explore more in the next article.
Maybe a new word needs to be found? I love dancing with a lead with good connection who makes me feel safe and I seem to do moves I never thought I could. I also have a beautiful friend I love dancing with whom I never know how many leads I miss by the end of a dance as he adapts to every way I respond but he is considered light.
Perhaps this is exactly what is needed in our dance world, easy to use definable terms when teaching and communicating! Many of the “strong” leaders were not “strong” at the beginning and thus had a long journey to become that “strong” leader after dancing with many follows. Redefining and then educating new leads will help in the long run in improving communication and general wellness of the scene. At the same time a similar argument can be made on the follows side as well to help new ones become great follows. At the end of the day, it is a symbiotic relationship where established follows help new leads to become “strong” and in turn help new follows become awesome and so the cycle repeats. Excellent article and must read for all!
As a leader, this makes me wonder is there a place where we can learn to be a strong lead? Or specific dance forms that emphasise the required skills more than others?
I was concerned by the title of the article, and happy for where it finished. ‘Strong’, ‘Weak’ and semantics. Somehow ‘weak’ seems to better encompass a range of meanings beyond ‘weak force’: unaccomplished, uncertain, untutored, wishy-washy. Too many, I fear, would equate ‘strong’ with forcefulness. When I am dancing I like a partner who is powerful, who can match my energy, and the music, and the moment. But a forceful partner, who seeks to force their ideas on me, annoys me. I like the mantra I’ve heard from teachers who say the lead wants to be comfortable, consistent, and clear. Whichever role I’m dancing, I never want to *strong* arm my partner, never force or be forced. I *can* appreciate ‘strong’ in the sense that when I am following I appreciate leaders who keep me well contained, creating clear spaces, making it clear where and what they invite me to do. A firm, definite lead, if you will.
Some words I find useful for developing a good lead are:
Clear – the lead needs to have unmistakably clear intent, which, while it does require a solid frame and foundation, doesn’t require excessive force or rigidity. (I find that the faster the change in movement you want, however, the more rigid that frame needs to be; imagine the signal as flowing through two springs, ie, your two bodies… The softer you are, the slower the response.)
Compelling – a follow shouldn’t follow just because, and not be because she *has* to. Rather, she should follow because she *wants* to. A good lead compels a follow to go with that flow, instead of forcing the follow to do so.
Communicative – a good lead isn’t just a one way signal. It communicates the intent, the energy, and the position of each dancer. The more two way communicative it is, the more clear those signals have to be, but also the more responsive each person has to be. (Personally, I think there’s also a third “person” in the communication mix – the music – but that’s an entirely different issue!)
Thanks for writing such a great piece for the dance community to consider and learn from and grow!
Strong is not a good word to use as a synonym for skilled. That can easily be misinterpreted by leads earlier in their dancing journey.
One of the most important concepts that changed my lead was to figure out *the minimum force necessary* to successfully communicate an intention to my partner. This obligates you to do everything at the exact, precise time. When you have precision down perfectly, then you may use more force than that minimum threshold, usually, mostly, for visual effect when you want to hit a certain part of a song. NOT to communicate with the partner.
Going from using low force to higher force is much easier, than getting a lead who naturally uses more force to use less. The lower force lead just requires a sentence. The higher force lead often requires multiple instances of one-on-one instruction from someone they trust, and whom understands how to give feedback to leads. And these higher force leads are in the great majority, because they try to force patterns in a class they are not ready for, at the wrong time. Equating ‘strong’ with ‘skilled’ might also neglect to teach leads another important concept, which is to abort, or eject, whenever a move doesn’t feel smooth.
So although you hit it on the head at one point, that the goal should be precision, and hence clarity, I’d be very, very hesitant to use the word ‘strong’ to describe ‘skilled’ leading, especially to leaders early in their journey. You may be doing them, and other followers, a disservice.
I understand where you’re coming from – and I agree (to an extent). But, I’ve seen a lot of leads who are *so afraid* of strength that they avoid it completely – even after one-on-one attention and assurances that it’s not too much.
I think a lot of this has to do with the words we use to highlight what we like in a lead. I personally think that the reason ‘strong’ leading is so misunderstood is because we use it to refer to multiple parts of leading – when a differentiation early-on in a leader’s education can help lessen the confusion.
For example, we refer to easy-to-lead follows as ‘light’, and ones that require a lot of effort to move as ‘heavy’. A ‘strong’ follower is a ‘good’ follower – which follows the pattern we set in every other aspect. A ‘strong’ skier is a ‘skilled’ or ‘good’ skier. A ‘strong’ student is a ‘good’ student.
But, when it comes to leads, we use ‘light’ and ‘strong’ as opposites. Which, to many leads, confuses the difference between personal grounding and ‘strength’ with ‘strong-arming’ a follow. I think that ‘strong-arming’ is better described as a ‘heavy’ lead – they’re using too much force to move a follow.
If we switch the diction to make ‘strong’ a skill-based, positive trait, more leads will strive for it in a healthy way, rather than avoiding strength to be ‘light’. For example, you can have a ‘strong’ frame without being a ‘heavy’ lead – which is a good thing. Same thing with support: ‘strong’ leads are better able to center and support follows on things like turns and dips. But, when strength is a dirty word, so is the ability to provide that support.
I really think the issue is that we have conditioned ‘strong’ to mean several things (both positive and negative) at the same time: ‘supportive’, ‘precise’, ‘forceful’, ‘heavy’, ‘clear’. Which is why I prefer to refine it to a single meaning: skilled.
I agree with skilled and clear leads. A lead can have a variety of several metrics that qualify it as good. Just saying Strong is not much of a qualifier.
Good timing is one skill, good hand positioning is another, and flexible cupped hands are a third. Lane management is a fourth. You can add understanding your partners body axis, making it easy to do turns and good lead positioning is where you match your follows large or small steps on a cross body lead to make it look well coordinated. So the idea of all this is to communicate strongly and strongly match your movements to your partners when they are below your skill level. If you are jerking a follow around, that is not a strong lead, we are looking for something more graceful. Precision of movement also makes for a strong lead, in order to guide a partner well, he has to know where he is.
This is an interesting question. I have often been called a light lead in the past, but skilled dancers seem to be happy to dance with me.