Learning to Lead

I did something different in this past week’s ballroom lesson: I learned to lead! Traditionally, men lead and women follow in the ballroom dances. However, it’s very common outside of the U.S. to see female couples competing in ballroom, especially in younger or more beginner levels, simply because there aren’t enough boys to act as partners. You see my soul sister Fran leading in group classes and on the competition floor in the classic movie Strictly Ballroom.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Why learn to lead?

First of all, it’s a fun challenge to reverse roles as a ballroom dancer! I’ve always had an interest in learning the leader role of ballroom dances because only learning the follower role meant I was only really learning half of the dance. Learning what your partner needs to do and what they need you to do creates a better understanding of the partnership as a whole, which can only lead to a better connection and more enjoyable dancing together. Understanding how to cue a lead can also help you recognize when someone else is trying to cue you as a follower.

On a more practical level, learning how to lead basics in social dances meant I could dance more dances at studio parties or events, either as a traditional follower or as a leader when traditional leaders (men) were in short supply. Plus, partnering with another woman here in Maine means one of us needs to lead! It’s an advantage for amateur couples like us to have at least one person know both the roles, so when you’re practicing and get stuck, you don’t need your coach there to bail you out. Pro-am students are lucky to have their pro partners there whenever they’re practicing as a couple.

Reversing roles

Having led basic ballroom steps in the past, I expected that leading the Waltz routine we’ve been working on would consist mostly of simply reversing my steps. Instead of stepping back with my right foot, I would step forward with my left. It was more complicated than that! I found it fascinating to learn that not only is the leader’s footwork not always a mirror to the follower’s, it’s also not always the same timing. The first wall of our Waltz has a syncopated right turn for the follower, timed 1-and-2-3. In order to lead it properly, the leader’s footwork is timed 1-2-and-3. I don’t know why, but this little difference really stood out to me.

Another fascinating moment for me came when I learned how to lead the runaround turn into an impetus. This move is relatively simple for the follower because all the follower does is forward steps as the leader takes them around in a circle and then out into the final promenade position. But as the leader, I have to rotate my upper body only for first 1-and, then take two forward steps, and then take a back step into a heel pull. It’s so slick how much is going on in the leader’s steps that you don’t realize as a follower in order to get their partner to simply move in a circle around them and then come out of it.

Challenges

I encountered several unexpected challenges while learning the lead half of our Waltz routine. First is the waiting. The leader does a lot more waiting than the follower, which makes sense because the leader initiates the movement and then needs to wait for the follower to respond. This wait might only be a second or two, but when you’re used to reacting instead of initiating, it feels weird to wait. It requires a different kind of control in the body because obviously, you can’t just stop in the middle of your dance like you’re waiting for a bus. You have to keep dancing, and maintain energy through the body in order to maintain a connection with your partner. I quickly learned that the worst thing you can do is rush to the next step, especially if your follower is still completing the previous step. I’ve definitely felt the disastrous consequences of that as a follower!

The second challenge I noticed is maintaining the proper spacing between myself and my partner. We move into shadow position on our second wall and as I was trying to lead the turn into shadow, I kept moving too far away from my partner. My instinct was to provide space for the turn so I naturally backed away. I needed to keep them closer in order for them to land in a good position and for us to maintain a good connection so we could begin moving in shadow as soon as their turn was complete.

Where I held my body weight turned out to be a challenge as well. The weight is typically slightly backweighted in Smooth for both the leader and the follower, but if you mistakenly put your weight forward as the leader (and I’ve experienced this as a follower), you end up feeling like you’re on top of your partner. It feels pretty second nature to me in a follower’s role, but when I switched to the leader role, I found myself constantly having to check myself to shift my weight back slightly. This slight backweight helps to provide counterbalance to your partner, especially in moves when the follower is purposefully off-balance, like in a developpe, which our Waltz routine includes. The counterbalance also allows you to create bigger and more dynamic shapes in your movement, which is just more fun!

Leader vs. Follower

Ballroom dancers like to debate which role is more challenging – the leader or the follower, but the wiser ones have realized that the partnership is much more equal than the names of the roles would have you believe. Each role has its unique responsibilities, which come with unique challenges, but neither role can be successful without the other. A strong partnership is balanced between the leader and follower roles, and each understands that there is also an ebb and flow to who carries the bulk of the responsibility in the movement. Sometimes it’s the leader and sometimes it’s the follower. The magic happens when the dancers fully embrace their roles and their partners do the same.

The partnership aspect is the main reason that the ballroom dances remain my favorite dance style. Two people working together to create something greater than themselves individually, one unified movement to music. It’s beautiful!

I’m curious to hear who else has learned both the leader and follower roles! Which role did you start with and what was it like to learn the other half?


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6 thoughts on “Learning to Lead

  1. EvelynKrieger says:

    As the old saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Any kind of switching up challenges our brain, muscles, and assumptions. Your analysis of being the leader, and the comparison to following, is quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ally says:

    I feel like everyone needs to experience both leading and following. It certainly gives you an appreciation for what your partner is doing. I’ve done a little bit of leading, as there are generally more ladies in our group classes. It’s definitely a mental workout haha.

    Liked by 1 person

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