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.