Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
The most difficult thing to master in ballroom dance, salsa, tango, swing, Latin—or any other kind of partner dancing—is not the steps. It's the interaction with your partner!
"Lead and follow" is the secret to getting two partners dancing smoothly together. It's simply impossible for two people, dancing in close contact, to move seamlessly if each person making their own decisions, choosing their own timing and doing their steps independently. They must coordinate their moves perfectly—and the only way to achieve that is for one person to direct the moves and the other person to follow.
If you were wondering why the Antonio Banderas ballroom movie was called "Take the Lead"—now you know!
If you're a ballet or contemporary dancer, I can hear you protesting already - there's no such thing as Lead and Follow in your world, yet you dance with a partner all the time! But there is an important difference.
Dances like tango, salsa, swing and ballroom are, first and foremost, social dances. On stage, you both learn a choreography: you and your partner know exactly what steps to dance, so you can practice together until you're perfectly in sync. In social dancing, there is no set routine. The dancers improvise their steps according to the music being played. Obviously if both partners tried to do that, it would be a recipe for chaos - so it makes sense to appoint one person to decide what the steps will be, and the other person follows. That's the concept of "lead and follow".
Who leads? In a partner dance, one partner is facing forward while the other has their back to the direction of travel. Obviously, the person who should lead is the person who can see where they're going - and that is, in fact, the rule. Politically incorrect though it may be, usually that's the man.
How to Follow
As a dancer used to dancing solo for most of my life, learning to follow was especially tough for me - but it's not easy for any woman!
What's confusing is that you go to class and learn a routine -- so when it come to practising them with a partner, why not dance the steps exactly as you've learned them?
The reason is that as you progress, you'll learn that partner dancing isn't about set routines: routines are just a way to teach you the individual steps, and get you used to how they combine in different ways. When you go social dancing, you'll be dancing with partners who haven't learned the same routines as you, and may put the steps together in a completely different order.
That's why it's important to get used to following right from the start, even when you know the routine -- because learning to allow your partner to lead isn't easy. If you don't practice it constantly, you won't be able to switch it on suddenly when you need it.
If you're following correctly, you won't take a step until your partner tells you to. He may do that by pressure with his hand, by shifting his weight or even by making a hand signal - but whatever the signal is, you must follow it instantly. Practice and you'll be able to respond in a split second, so fast that your audience won't even notice any delay.
Following means . . .
if he doesn't give the signal, you do nothing. If he gives the wrong signal, you forget what you were expecting to do, and follow the new signal instead. No exceptions.
It's hard, especially in this day and age, to surrender so much power to a guy. Especially if you're in a beginners' class and the man isn't giving you clear signals. Which brings us to...
The Importance of Leading
The Lead - usually the man - has a much tougher job than the Follower. Sure, it takes skill for the Follower to read the signals given by the lead and react to them with split-second precision, and she often has more complicated steps to execute.
But it's up to the Lead to remember the choreography, if there is any - or worse, to make up the whole dance on the fly, from his repertoire of moves, to whatever music is being played - and then transmit his instructions to the Follower clearly without saying a word!
That's why the female stars on Dancing with the Stars have an advantage - because their professional male partner is responsible for dictating the steps. They don't have to remember the choreography - they just have to respond to his direction. Whereas the male stars will lose points if it's obvious that the female professional is Leading them.
Male beginners are often timid about taking control, especially if they're not 100% sure of the steps themselves. Unfortunately, that means female beginners give up trying to follow and start dancing their own steps, so the men aren't forced to learn to lead - and it becomes a vicious circle.
Lead and follow - Salsa
Leading means . . .
using just enough pressure to give a signal, but not so much that you're pushing your partner around. If you're using force to move your partner, you're doing it wrong.
Lead / Follow - West Coast Swing
Mastering lead and follow well takes time and effort. It's easier if you have a regular partner, because you can learn the right give and take together. It can be very frustrating to learn how to follow, then go to a salsa class and find yourself dancing with men who won't give you a lead! Equally, it's annoying to learn how to lead, then go to ballroom class and find your female partners resisting your direction.
In both situations, we tend to grin and bear it out of politeness - but in your own interest, it's worth plucking up the nerve to say something to your recalcitrant partner.
After all, you're not only helping yourself - you're helping your partner, and all the other people he or she is going to dance with in future!
Lead and follow - Swing/Chicago Step
© 2010 Kate Swanson
1050peter on July 09, 2018:
I'm a guy and I've read this stream carefully. I've been studying International Style ballroom for about 4 years and I'm still figuring out how to lead. I've learned a lot about what it means and what it doesn't mean. First, it's a form of communication and that's 2-way. As soon as I go into dance hold, I can read my partner - particularly my normal ballroom partner. And the woman can and does signal in general terms how she's feeling and what she wants from the dance. So 'leading' isn't all up to the guy, but I get the final decision. Second, both the man and the woman have to know their steps. Best example - Viennese waltz, where the man and woman alternate the drive. If the woman doesn't do her part, it turns into a mess quickly. So, following is far from passive. Third, it's a give and take thing. I need to understand what my partner needs from me for frame, where to be, etc. but she needs to articulate that, and this may be non-verbal or plain hard work to sort it out. And definitely no back-leading! Done right, it's like a nut and bolt fitting perfectly - you just know. Finally, it's a very interesting form of being a guy - you have to be relaxed but firm and confident at the same time. Fear/stiffness or indecision make a woman feel unsafe, and part of my job is to make the woman feel safe and look (and feel) great.
I'm finding that it's harder for both sides on more difficult steps. My lead set-up and timing has to be perfect and the woman has to execute things perfectly in the window she has. One other point - as much as possible, I try to study my partner's steps so I know what she needs from me. I don't think of it in political terms of male/female. Sometimes it would be nice to switch roles but I'll stick to the learning curve on how to lead, and leave the learning curve on following to my partner. But it's a team effort. Maybe more - we're one unit with no boundaries when it's right.
SNC on March 14, 2018:
I mean, I'm a lindy follow and a Salsa lead, and although I think the curve is steeper for beginner leads when you are following at a higher level, leading becomes far easier, and then following is the challenge. I'm far more stressed when i'm following lindy than when i'm leading Salsa
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on December 15, 2017:
What great comments, thank you. You're making me feel I need to revise my article, because we agree. Leading is not about pushing your partner around, it's far more subtle than that!
secret asian man on December 15, 2017:
i dance ballroom, salsa, west coast swing, blues & argentine tango. i'm known in my circles as having a very smooth and light lead. my musical background has lent itself to my building a reputation for being a very lyrical dancer as well.
as valuable as that is, frankly, that and technique are only a small part of being a good leader. i was fortunate to understand this early on; i was in a class where the room was not large enough and every time we changed partners, the first i did was tell my new partner that if there wasn't enough room to lead the move without bumping into another couple, i wasn't going to lead the move. i hadn't developed much technique yet, but after that class, follows began asking me to dance. this told me that many if not all follows place a high value on partners who look out for their safety. and that works on many different levels. 'safe' choices also factor in the partner's technical ability to perform the move. i dance a lot to live music and there isn't always a dance floor - you should not be trying to lead double spins on concrete, etc. which a lot of salseros do, unfortunately. and of course, for those who do dances that travel around the floor, developing floorcraft is important as well.
the reputation i have built for being a trustworthy partner allows me to lead lead-able moves partners may not know because they understand that i've chosen to lead a figure i'm pretty sure that my partner can follow smoothly. and if a leader has a rep for disregarding his partner's safety, he should not be surprised or offended when followers avoid dancing with him. ultimately, for *me* leadership is about making *good* choices that prioritize the well being of my partner. this encompasses lyricism and using clear yet not forceful signals to communicate my intent to help make it as pleasant experience as possible. but throughout all this, i also understand that everything i communicate is an invitation, not a command, and that boundaries such as personal comfort apply. there *is* one subset of this i'll bring up: what is sometimes referred to hi-jacking, most often seen in dances such as west coast swing, where the follow may at her own discretion, choose not to follow the intended move and choose another move instead - because her choice can be understood by her partner as being in some way aesthetically superior *and* she's sure that doing so will not fluster her partner. otherwise, the act communicates a huge lack of respect for her partner's ability to lead. i interpret it that way, anyway.
LivingTheDance on December 15, 2017:
Sorry to bother you, but "Lead & Follow" is not The Secret to Dance Partnering. It's seen as this mostly by people who have a very restricted view on what partner dancing is. The true communication between dance partners does not require role separation.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on November 21, 2017:
Kat, the problem is that if you give up and just dance your steps anyway, the instructor can't see he's not leading. So that useless lead just goes on being useless.
If you can't bring yourself to say something to that useless lead, then just do what he tells you and no more - THEN the instructor will notice the two of you dancing badly, and will come over and fix things up.
Kat on November 21, 2017:
As a follow who has under a year of experience, I get annoyed when a fellow beginner corrects me on the dance floor. I don't want to be corrected by a student. In group class, we are all learning and I leave it up to my instructor to help me fix my issues. My concern is that they may not actually be right. One lead I can't stand dancing with has a very weak, wobbly frame and I never can sort out what he wants me to do. Yet somehow it's my fault. So I don't recommend saying anything to a fellow student, to me that's up to the instructor.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 26, 2017:
Good point, Prof!
ProfMontgomery on September 25, 2017:
To Yves: You'd think that, but while I was looking for articles on "how to follow in dance," I had to wade through a lot of conservative propaganda about dating and marriage is "just like dancing--the man has to lead!" It's as if because the man leads on the dance floor, the man should also lead the "dance" of real life.
People may need to lighten up, but unfortunately, it's important in this case to note that this is just about dancing and not a metaphor for how women should let men be in control in everyday life... because that's *exactly* how it's being used in some circles.
Yves on May 09, 2017:
Isn't it funny that we have to preface the whole "political correctness thing" even when writing about "lead and follow" in dancing? It's as if people are afraid that if he leads on the dance floor, we are somehow giving a man permission to boss a woman around in real life. People need to lighten up. As you clearly stated, lead and follow is truly the only way to keep dancing partners from messing up and stepping all over themselves. In fact, I have found that a strong lead can even make a weak dancer, such as myself, look pretty darn good on the dance floor. Great article, Marisa.
Obscure_Treasures from USA on April 19, 2011:
I love ballroom dancing. Thanks for the tips.
Dance San Diego on September 13, 2010:
Politically incorrect it may be, but the convention is for the male to be in charge (the Lead) and the woman to follow.
- In my personal opinion is 50- 50 between lead and fallow. It is like good conversation question and answer not like monologue.
MM Del Rosario from NSW, Australia on April 11, 2010:
When i was in high school, we have to learn how to do the swing and I can remember my partner saying to me you don't know how to follow, I get upset to him but I guess he is right.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on April 11, 2010:
Oh good, Paula, thank you so much. I'm a ballroom dancer, not a teacher, so I appreciate your opinion.
Pauladance.co.uk from Bournemouth Dorset U.K. on April 11, 2010:
So glad you wrote this, so useful and so needed! I try to promote partner dancing for health and enjoyment, and you have turned out something which will help and encourage so much.
I really enjoyed reading it, it's all so right!
shazwellyn on April 10, 2010:
Just popping by for a read and a bit of 60 dc loooove sharing. Have rated up! United we stand, divided we fall!:)
And again... keep up the good work!:)
prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on April 09, 2010:
I found the secret of partnering dance here. This dance is getting popular in my country. Usually between husband and wife or the partner at the dancing course. I hope this hub useful for us who want to learn about dance partnering. Good information. Thank you very much!