Dance Partnering: Great Partnering

Knowing many dance steps and figures is fun, but the true art of social dancing, and its greatest pleasures, lie in great partnering. As the swing tune goes, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." The nonverbal lead-follow connection betwe

Date added to ADN: Monday, Dec 03 2012
Originally Published: Monday, Dec 03 2012
By Richard Powers


Knowing many dance steps and figures is fun, but the true art of social dancing, and its greatest pleasures, lie in great partnering. As the swing tune goes, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." The nonverbal lead-follow connection between partners is the essence of social dancing.

I believe that the best dance partnering is not only a matter of skill, but also of attitude. But first I'd like to clarify that...

I'm not especially fond of the term "following."

Yes, I often use that term, but it's a bit problematic for two reasons. The less important reason is that for many people, the term "following" still carries a negative connotation left over from the early 20th century.

After centuries of emphasis on dancing for the pleasure of one's partner, (see more) the 1920s through 1950s saw the emergence of a particularly disagreeable phase of ballroom dance, when the term lead meant "command" and follow meant "obey".

L. Ray of Chicago wrote in 1930, "Never should the so-called gentler sex be quite so gentle and acquiescent as when dancing. No matter what her views on suffrage and feminism may be, it is a woman's duty to let the man lead on the ballroom floor. His is the guiding spirit; hers, the following. He is the pace-maker; she is his shadow."

Suffrage and feminism?! Yes, this new ballroom dance attitude developed soon after American women won the right to vote.

This attitude quickly spread to England. Courtenay Castle of London wrote, "Now, men, in these days of sex equality you can take heart from the fact that, on the dance floor at any rate, the man is still the boss. It is he that decides when and where any particular step is danced. He designs the pattern of the dance. The man will do most of the work while his partner just makes a pretty picture." And he continued with, "Now for the ladies. You don't have much to say in the matter at all, although I imagine you will make some pointed comment should your partner seize you in a vice-like grip with the seeming intention of breaking your back." (Yes, those were his actual words.)

The British ballroom champion Alex Moore wrote, "The lady's part is to follow, whether the man is dancing a figure correctly or not. She must not have a mind of her own. She must just follow whatever the man does and not attempt to correct him."

Victor Sylvester, another British ballroom champion, gave simpler advice to women in 1927: "Submit yourself entirely to your partner."

Arthur Murray wrote, "The dance floor is the one place where the weaker sex prefers to remain submissive."

If you'd like to see further quotations on this, they are here. Warning: some are brutal, because the original wording has not been changed.

That was back then — the Dark Ages of ballroom dance. Fortunately we've become much more enlightened since then (except for sketchy guys ).

It's not accurate.

The main reason I don't care for the term following is that it doesn't accurately describe the role. The woman's role does not "follow." They interpret signals they're given, with a keen responsiveness that is not passive.

As with a language interpreter at the United Nations, a dancer's ability to interpret signals benefits from intelligence and experience. Leads, if you want to make a good impression on your partner, show her that you respect this intelligence and experience. How? If she does something that you didn't intend, recognize that she still made a valid alternate interpretation of the signals you gave her. She didn't make a "mistake".

No, don't just recognize it. Show her that you know she didn't make a mistake, by flowing along with her during her valid alternate interpretation. She's dancing — try to keep up with her.

But unlike language translating, interpreting a dance lead can also include the woman leaving her own stamp of individuality, adding flourishes and flair which her partner admires. In swing, salsa and tango Argentino she may also invent her own footwork variations which fit within her partner's footwork.

Friendly but clear

Leads, I probably don't have to state the obvious, but you must give her a clear lead to interpret. Just as a language interpreter can't translate mumbling, she can't interpret a mumbled lead. And forceful leading is no more helpful than is the shouting of unintelligible mumbling. Israel Heaton of Brigham Young University wrote, "When a girl does not react readily to her partner's lead, he should hold her firmer and give a stronger lead." But I disagree. Clear leading is the physical equivalent of quiet perfect diction, not shouting.

And better yet, great Leads have learned to "speak" in a friendly warm tone with their partnering. Guys, be clear and precise, but also warm and friendly with your leads. And instantly flexible when she comes up with an alternate interpretation of your signals.

Flow state

The Follow role is mentally and physically active, like the flow state in sports.

We admire the football player who zigzags brilliantly through the field, completely aware of his surroundings and responding instantly to each moment, rather than the one who uses brute force to steamroller straight into the opponents, or the one who slavishly follows a game plan which is no longer working. The nimble, intelligent player is in the flow state of relaxed responsiveness, paying highly active attention to possibilities. The Follow role in social dancing does the same — paying highly active attention to possibilities.

But don't you still use the term follow?

Yes, I don't wish to change the dance world's use of the terms Lead and Follow, and some dancers take the opposite role, so saying men and women doesn't always apply. So I use the terms, but I want to clarify what I mean by following.

And leading?

That has also changed since the dark ages of ballroom dance. The best dancers now know that a part of great leading is following. I prefer the term tracking — he leads a move, then tracks her movement and stays with her. He is perceptive and responsive to her situation, as he watches where his partner is going, where her feet are, where her momentum is heading, which steps flow smoothly from her current step. He knows and he cares what is comfortable for her, what is pleasurable or fun. He dances for his partner's ability and comfort.

A good lead clearly suggests an option, which is different from controlling her. He proposes, not prescribes, a certain way of moving. If his partner does not go with his proposal (does not 'follow'), he refrains from exerting more power to press her to accept the proposal.

And as with the Follow's role, and sports, the aware Lead dancer also enjoys the flow state of relaxed responsiveness. Both Follow and Lead roles benefit by paying highly active attention to possibilities. Both remain flexible, constantly adapting to their partner.

The flow state in sports has often been described as ecstatic. Social dancers have often described their flow state in the same way.

As we dance, we constantly discover new opportunities (see more) , which open doors to possibilities, as opposed to rules and restrictions that close doors. We generously adjust our own dancing to be compatible with our various dance partners, rather than insisting that they conform to us. We enjoy the individuality of our dance partners, and we continually modify our dancing to maximize their comfort and pleasure. Doing so then doubles our own enjoyment of social dancing.

Then once we discover the benefits of this awareness on the dance floor, we find that it applies to our other activities and relationships as well.

About the Author:

Full-time instructor in contemporary social dancing and dance history, Stanford University Dance Division, Department of Theater and Performance Studies. Principal focus since 1975 has been social dance forms from the Renaissance to today. Specializations include currently evolving vernacular dance forms, 19th century American and European social dance, dances of the Ragtime Era and Jazz Age.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the AccessDance Network. Be aware that imagery is copyrighted and often licensed for use on AccessDance only. Copying of images is strictly prohibited.

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