Two guys were chatting after Zumba class about the blues dancing scene at a local bar. One was an experienced social dancer and the other unsure about where to even put his hands on a potential dance partner. The experienced one asked if I would help him demonstrate the basics of partnering. We stepped back and forth in frame and he led me into a couple of turns, showing the second guy how to lead an outside turn versus an inside turn. His last piece of advice was to look for the ladies who knew what they were doing and ask them to dance. I had to respectfully disagree.
When I first started out in ballroom dancing, social dancing was the only outlet I knew about and I did as much of it as I could. I went to almost all of the group classes at my studio and attended every practice party. I made it a point to say yes (at least the first time) to everyone who asked me to dance. My willingness to dance with anyone, and not just the “good” dancers, helped me develop follow skills that people praised later on my dance journey and saved me on the competition floor more than once.
When you go social dancing, it’s a roll of the dice as to what kind of partners you’ll get unless of course, you only dance with people you already know. The lead-follow skills range across the entire spectrum and do not always correlate with a person’s dance knowledge. Some people know a lot of routines learned from group classes, but they don’t know how to lead someone who hasn’t learned the same routines. Others know only a couple basic steps but are very clear and conscientious in their leads.
The same inconsistencies happen on the follow side. I’ve watched couples who were in the same group class dance the routine during the social and the lady get frustrated when the man tried to mix things up because she wasn’t following his lead. She was simply dancing the routine she learned. It takes a lot of practice as a follow to walk the thin line between anticipation and reaction. You need to have some level of anticipation so you can react quickly enough when you receive the lead, but you can’t anticipate too much or you’ll end up dancing a step before it was led. Often, you end up dancing the wrong step.
That thin line is what I was learning during my early days of social dancing with everyone. The great leads would correct me when I missed or misunderstood their cue, helping me learn what the different leads were supposed to indicate. The poor leads forced me to “listen” even more closely to pick up their message through all of the static, which helped me fine tune my follow skills. As I became a better follower, I continued to dance with the spectrum of poor to great leads. Poor leads and follows usually aren’t bad dancers; they’re just at the beginning of their dance journeys and still learning the basics of moving in sync with another human being. The great leads and follows had beginnings too, and became great through practice, practice and more practice. As I improved my skills with the help of those more advanced than me, it only felt right to pay it forward to those just starting out.
Of course, there are those with whom I danced and I said never again. Some leads are lousy because their ego can’t imagine that they need to adjust what they’re doing; it’s obviously the follow’s fault. Some follows turn a dance into a wrestling match because they can’t give up any control and refuse to let their partner do the leading. Occasionally, you get the people who are just assholes or have other things on their mind than dancing. Yes, I will dance with anyone who asks me the first time, but they have to earn that second dance.
Ballroom and other partner dances give us the chance to connect with another human being on a level more intimate than any of our typical daily interactions. There are no phones or other electronics to distract, just two beings moving together to music. Then the song ends and the spell is over. We smile, thank each other for the dance, and move on. What I find inspiring is the spell isn’t something that takes over the dancers; it’s something that the dancers create themselves when they come together with mutual respect and kindness for one another. The dance doesn’t need to be complicated or wow the audience for the magic to appear. The magic of the social dance is a result of two people truly listening to each other and the music without any preconceived notions or prejudices. The whole becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.
If you want to see ultimate lead-follow magic, search for Jack & Jill dance competitions on YouTube. At these events, dancers register individually and then are paired on the spot during the competition. So you don’t know who you’re going to dance with or what song you’ll be dancing to until it’s actually time to dance. It takes an incredible amount of trust in your partner, but the potential for magic couldn’t be higher.
Here are a couple fun ones that I found after a quick search to give you an idea:
This couple got to dance two songs in a row. Notice the differences between the two dances as they get used to each other!
While my dance journey took me away from social dancing and into other adventures, I still value and appreciate the time I’ve spent on the social dance floor and all of the partners I’ve met there.
Happy dancing, and happy Mother’s Day to all of the human and fur mamas out there!
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