Meredith & Harold

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From the Ballroom, comments by various dancers

On Leading And Following

"If you don't lead me," my sister announced, "I'm not going to move." Fifty years later I still remember her words. Since that time I have considerably enhanced most of the social ballroom dancing that I first learned from her, however two things that she emphasized have held up throughout the years . . . "IF YOU DON'T LEAD ME, I'M NOT GOING TO MOVE"! and "DON'T DANCE ME INTO THE FURNITURE"!

 The leading and following that takes place between two people out on the dance floor can be analyzed down to the tiniest detail and is probably the most complex form of communication that takes place between two human beings . . . at its best and most highly developed level, it is exhilarating and immensely gratifying to the couple that achieves it, especially in improvisational/spontaneous dancing when you meet a partner who can lead (or follow). Leading and following are skills that require true intelligence and cognitive abilities, such as learning, pattern recognition, and non-verbal communication. Watching a champion Jack & Jill couple is like watching an improvised composition or a piece of art.

 There are many misconceptions about lead and follow, expounded by both men and women. Untrained dancers sometimes seem to think that the lady is just supposed to go limp and the man bends her to his will. This is grossly mistaken. While some people may be willing at a beginning social level to tolerate this, it cannot last long -- it is too exhausting for the man and too painful for the woman. A woman without good posture, correct body/foot positions, and body tone is simply not leadable. The man cannot be expected to position every part of the woman's body. A man without these same qualities is not followable because the woman cannot distinguish the signal from the noise (and may be physically prevented from doing the intended figure). Leading should not be tiring -- it is only tiring when the follower isn't following. Leading is not pushing or pulling. It is communicating an intention. Dancing is an art form, despite the fact that it requires the prowess of an athlete.

 A good lead/follow is like a good conversation -- you don't have to yell, you only need to talk. As you get better, all you really need to do is whisper. Leading is not to be misinterpreted as "pushing or pulling." Though poor followers often say, "If I have a strong leader I can follow," they would need the force of an "Arnold Schwartzenegger" (after he's properly warmed up) to move them across the floor. Equal sympathy goes to followers who encounter a leader who hasn't the foggiest notion of what he's trying to lead, and can't move rhythmically to any music, doesn't know a slow from a quick, and has no conception of what misery he is inflicting on his partner. It is not a leaders job to "haul" the follower around the floor every second, nor is it the follower's job to just hang there like a sack of potatoes and be dragged. Leading and following is a dynamic process that requires a great deal of effort on the part of both members of a partnership. It is readily possible to lead a woman through a fairly intricate step that she doesn't know without apparent force. Possible -- though it is not within the powers of most men. If you want women to vie with each other for the opportunity of dancing with you, this is what you must learn to do. It is skill, not force, you are seeking (Grasshopper)!

 Men who claim they can lead anyone to dance well are not giving their partners enough credit. Women who say they can follow anything are not giving truly good followers enough credit. Experienced dancers never say such things, because it is simply not true. John Wood would not be world champion with just any woman -- Anne Lewis contributes every bit as much to their success. To say that all any woman needs is a good leader unfairly detracts from many very talented female dancers. It also places too great a responsibility on the man -- it implies that all errors are his fault. Sometimes women say, "I just follow." This demeans following as a trivial thing, which it most certainly is not.

 Partnering skills are vital to good ballroom dancing. It is very difficult to cover the technique in classes since this is probably the most complex element to couple dancing and takes many years of coaching to perfect. It is not a matter of simple 'cueing', but an understanding of the entire body and how to make two people move as one around a common center. Competitive dancers must work extremely hard with this and it is actually tougher with couples who are 'used to each other' than with perfect strangers. For example, when I have just had a coaching session working on my technique, the slightest change (such as a minute timing delay in a weight change) will totally throw my partner. She starts fussing that I don't feel right anymore, or she will interpret the change as a lead to some other move that I used to do with her. However, I apply the same new technique to other competent dancers whom I rarely dance with and, voila!, it works beautifully. Apparently, a longtime partner can get very used to the feel of their partner, and it is tougher to practice any improvement or change. (I heard the exact same complaint from Jim Maranto -- the current US American Smooth Champion -- re: his partner/wife).

 Even competitive routines are led/followed. Any competitor taught "dance your own part and let your partner dance theirs, you don't have to lead/follow," has been taught wrong! The judges can tell the difference between a couple with a real lead/follow "connection" and a couple that is just going through their routine. One competitor writes, "Ballroom is social dancing -- it is dependent on lead and follow, even in competition. My competition (Standard - "smooth") partner and I have a few pre-choreographed "amalgamations" we use in competition, but I still always have to rely on his lead to know what we're doing, where we're going, what timing he's going to use this time, how he feels like expressing it this time . . ." Another competitor writes "there is most definitely lead and follow, even in competitive Latin where one's routines are choreographed to the hilt. My partner and I have spent countless hours, with coaches and without them, working on nothing but this one aspect of the dance. Good lead and follow is critical in Latin dancing, both for the sake of speed, control, and balance, but also simply because a step well-led and -followed is a thousand times more pleasurable to dance for both partners." In competition, there is *never* a place in the routine where lead-and-follow are not taking place. You see this aspect where good competitive couples can make the dancing appear to take no effort, and therefore appears that no lead-and-follow is happening. That is an instance of good dancing, not no lead and follow. There is lead and follow happening, even when the couples are dancing side-by-side and not touching. It is just not typical; it's often done with body placement and eyes. You can tell when it's missing: they do the same steps but since no lead/follow takes place, they will look like two individuals rather than a couple!

 Men, to truly lead well you must know the lady's part to every figure you do. Leading and following are very different skills, and following well is every bit as difficult as leading well. Recognizing figures in a noisy, moving environment is a complicated task that is certainly equal to figure transmission. Of course there is one thing the leader does that the follower has no analog for - floor craft. The leader has primary responsibility for obstacle avoidance, and this can be a difficult task, especially on a crowded floor with couples moving at widely differing speeds. The leader truly has to do everything at once; he's got to listen to the music, decide what to do and how to do it, think not only about his own movements but about his partner's and those of all the other couples, etc., etc. And to make matters worse, when beginning his dancing career the man has to learn how to do everything at once, at once. Yes, the follower has to be able to perform a lot of actions, but the leader has to be able to perform and initiate them. In addition, there are many variations that differ only in detail -- matters of raising an arm or not, or something subtle like that, and the leader has to be aware of the differences, and has to indicate clearly where the movement is going. Of course as a pro, he'll manage to hold a conversation in a foreign language while leading a gold-level sequence!

 Following skills are equally as important as leading skills. A dance is much more enjoyable when the leader need only give firm, not forceful, leads to his partner to indicate what is wanted, and when a partner senses body movements that serve as leads. For this to work, the lady must become sensitive and responsive to the feel (and sometimes sight) of leads, and not expect that her partner will (literally) carry her through the dance. The skill of following is greatly underestimated. Whenever I am trying to teach beginners about leading and following, I always have a hard time conveying the idea that dancing is a partner sport -- each person has to carry his/her load, or the whole thing fails.

 Leading/following implies a one way connection (man to lady) but in really good dancing both partners are putting various different energies into the dancing at different times, and even though the leader is (usually) in control of things like floor direction, timing, and choreography, his awareness of the actions of his partner (how far did she go . . . is she finished with her line yet . . . is her weight over the foot I'm about to turn her on, etc.) are vital. Women follow, but men must lead and follow; i.e., men must watch to see what the women are doing and compensate.

 The leader, who is in creative control, needs pattern-based thinking, with frames of reference that can include the whole dance floor, the space occupied by the couple, the spatial relationships between the two dancers, and the patterns of connection between the two. It seems that followers are mainly concerned with the last frame of reference, i.e., they react to the patterns of connection. Following is more fun than leading, because you (a) have much less responsibility for navigating and (b) don't know what's going to be lead next, so each dance is something of a "magical mystery tour." I think the best part about being a follower is being led in patterns or syncopations that I don't know! When led well, good followers execute moves that are totally unexpected or unpredictable but incredibly fun. Some leaders complain about how boring it gets only to do the same repertoire over and over all night long. They say followers have more fun because they're doing different dances all night. But another leader writes: "A good leader never dances the same way with every person. The way you do the same dance changes from one partner to the next. Were you to see me dancing with a beginner, it would be difficult for you to tell that I'm other than a good beginner. Were you to see me dancing with one of the Champions (with whom I'm comfortable) you would see something quite different. Were you to see me dancing with someone I know well and with whom I've been dancing for years, you'd see something different again."

On How Followers Can Help Beginning Leaders

Beginning men need a lot of help. And the best way their partners can help is to follow their lead, even if it's wrong, rather than "compensating" for a bad lead. This gives the leaders proper feedback. By feedback, I don't mean verbal criticism, but direct feedback in the sense of "I wonder what happens if I push this button?" If the leader doesn't lead or leads something other than what he's supposed to lead, the follower should not compensate and do the right thing despite his lead; she should do nothing, or whatever he did lead. This way he can clearly see which cause has which effect. If the follower compensates, she deprives the leader of this cause/effect feedback, and he'll never learn to lead properly. It's very dangerous to try to teach or offer unsolicited criticism. Unless you are the teacher, of course, in which case you know what's appropriate. If you simply follow whatever is led, you are not criticizing. The fundamental question here is how can dancers be most helpful to their partners? I believe the general consensus is by dancing impeccably, to the best of their ability, and for followers, that means following to the best of your ability. One of the most difficult problems with beginning followers, from Tango to Lindy Hop, is that they don't follow. They don't dance with their partners, but rather observe the instructors and others, while holding on to, but otherwise ignoring their partners. It's very difficult to lead someone whose body is all twisted while she tries to watch other people. Or her feet. Sometimes I've been asked for verbal cues by a beginning dancer. If she instead tried to follow exactly what I led to the best of her ability, I wouldn't have to compensate for errors that she might make and I could concentrate more on my own dancing.

On The Importance Of Dancing With Beginners

While there is no question that dancing with a better partner will make you look good, and that with such a partner you can concentrate more on styling details and so on because the lead and follow doesn't need so much attention, it is not the best way to practice lead/follow skills. If learning leaders only dance with accomplished followers and vice-versa, they won't develop great leading/following skills, because they won't need to. Now let's suppose that YOU are a great leader or follower. What happens if you dance only with other great dancers? Your lead and follow skills will gradually deteriorate -- because you're not working them very hard. After some months without exposure to beginners, you may be surprised to find that you can't dance with them very well, even though they seem to do okay with other beginners.

 You learn how to dance better by dancing with more experienced partners. But you learn how to lead/follow better by dancing with less experienced partners. Your skills are put much more to the test, dancing with a beginner than with an experienced dancer. It is easy to lead/follow a great dancer. All your weaknesses as a leader/follower show up with beginners. Dance with them and ask yourself why each incorrectly led/followed figure didn't work, and when you figure it out, work on incorporating the fixes into all your dancing!

 You cannot become a good dancer by dancing only with the same person. Dancing only with each other, you will become good at dancing with each other, with all the mistakes and bad habits that become "correct" for you. 

There is a certain type of character (leader) that one encounters again and again if one has been dancing for any length of time: the guy who only wants to dance with the best followers because he believes they are the only partners who can match his high skill level. Often what is REALLY going on is that only the best followers can compensate for his mistakes or idiosyncrasies. They make him look good. But the guy continues to think he's the tops because he insulates himself from feedback. Dancing with poor to average followers is a good reality check. If none but the best can follow your leads, I respectfully suggest your leads could use some work. Also, that kind of thinking ultimately harms your dancing. I've seen guys overestimate their ability and abandon the study of technique FAR too soon. Consequently it will take them a lot longer to reach the next level of skill.

On The Way Dancing Is (mis)Taught

Most teachers teach dances rather than dancing, because it's easier. But the focus on steps in dance teaching may be the biggest single obstacle to the learning of dancing well. This is best summed up in the following quote: "Bad teachers taught me steps, great teachers taught me dancing." Learning the pattern of the week is not the key to success. Being able to lead that move in a club is much more important. For the lady, being able to follow a weak leader is the mark of a good dancer. A lot of people miss this very important basic concept in any partner dance: We need to teach women to follow their partner, NOT the exact foot placement instructions that this or that instructor says is the "right" way to do it. Teaching dancers lead/follow allows them to adapt to different styles easily. The dancer taught exact foot placement rather than following will end up being an elitist dance snob and be unable to dance with anyone who has learned in the different styles which DO exist and are taught in various parts of the country by very reputable instructors.

What some people like to marginalize as "styling" -- posture, balance, weight change, appropriate force, basic timing and footwork, dancing with the music and with your partner . . . these are the essentials of dancing. The rest is just so many patterns. If you wanted to learn a language, the infrastructure of culture and grammar would be essential. Any dictionary can supply any number of words. Anyone who thinks they can learn a foreign language by translating word for word with a dictionary would be as foolish as someone who wants to learn to dance by concentrating on step sequences.

 Many teachers don't teach connection, instead they teach step sequences, which make beginners feel that dancers just happen to be holding on to each other as they trace out memorized step sequences with their feet. Lead/follow exercises are an essential foundation to provide students with, possibly, the most important thing dance instructors do. The most essential things -- posture, balance, appropriate force (tiny), small steps, appropriate contact (incl. eye contact), rhythm recognition, leading/following, etiquette, floorcraft -- these are hard to teach, and most teachers would rather have taught 20 moves than have developed 10 essential concepts. The trick is to overtly teach dances while covertly teaching dancing. Surreptitiously. Rather than lecturing, you want to drop little messages from time to time, such as:

  • You are responsible for your own balance -- don't rely on your partner to keep you from falling over.
  • Think tall.
  • When I tug at her hand, I don't just want her hand, I want all of her.

 One danger with fancy steps is that it's tempting to think that if we can do the steps in the sequence, that we have accomplished something. So we keep doing the sequence, but we neglect the underlying basics. And practice makes permanent. It's like talking with all sorts of big words, but not having mastered natural pronunciation, or basic grammar. Another danger is that the very process of teaching fancy step sequences to beginners conflicts with their learning to dance -- their attention is focused on the teacher, their own feet, their thought processes and memories, instead of being focused on their partner, the music, and being conscious of their surrounding environment.

Teaching that you're in this position on 1, here on 2, like this on 3 . . . is only a crutch to get you to do the pattern. When you quit trying to be EXACTLY in those places on EXACTLY those beats, and start viewing those instructions as static snapshots of the real goal: CONTINUOUS MOVEMENT, your dancing will remarkably improve.

Connection

Leading and following is all done through that elusive thing called "connection." Professionals talk about making the three connections: with your partner, with the music, and with the floor. Connection is a magic that happens through the physical contact between two dancers and their common interpretation of the music that makes the two individuals dance as one unit. Eventually the leads get so subtle that it seems that just a thought carries the couple through a dance, in directions neither had thought of before. Magic? No, just something that we wish we could do on every dance. Being mortal we struggle with "centering" and "flashlights" and "anchoring" and "finger-tip leads" and "body leads" and all those things that we hear help to capture that magic that happens a once or twice each time we go dancing.

Have you ever been fortunate enough to dance with a real dancer?

  • a woman with such wonderful connection that, without ever saying a word, you can have an entire conversation with her through your fingertips ?
  • a woman who will bring a huge smile to your face almost immediately upon taking dance position, open or closed, because you can "feel" that she's there and moving with you; not moving on her own or wrestling with you ?
  •  a woman with whom, using only one hand . . . Oh heck, with two fingers as your entire connection, you can lead nearly ANYTHING and have it appear in her body as if she was reading your mind ?

Those magic moments and feelings of connection are a big part of why I dance. (Of course when I dance with women who are that good, I tend to focus on all my faults, which suddenly become very evident to me :-)

The trick to keeping a good connection has two parts. One is feeling that your hips/groins are pushing into the balls of your feet as you step. The other is feeling your lower shoulders/ribs connect with a) your arms and hands and b) your partners' spine.

I thought Robert Royston's WCS workshop was very good because: He used consistent terminology; "leverage" to mean a tension or pull connection, and "compression" to mean a push connection. He said that leverage should have a bungee-cord-like feeling -- elastic and springy; NOT like a rope (alternately taut or slack).

Develop resistance by falling against solid objects, breaking the fall with both hands being careful to not let the elbows go beyond the centerline of your body, and push yourself back to balance. You will quickly find the feel you like and that a Leader or Follower will appreciate.

On Arm Tone

Arm tension is possibly the most important aspect to good dancing. Trying to find the ideal balance between "tone" and "relaxation." It is NOT an easy concept to integrate, even after one is consciously aware. Something I think is helpful to get the proper feel in your arms is to face a wall from a distance an inch or so farther than your extended arms' fingertips. Fall toward the refrigerator and PUSH yourself back to erect. If you don't catch yourself soon enough or with enough tone, your nose will let you know. If you push too hard, your feet will let you know. If your arms are too stiff, your shoulders and/or neck will let you know.
 
Another general rule of thumb: When dancing, try to maintain the same level of communication between your hands and your partners hands. That is, whenever possible, maintain an equal amount of pressure against (with) each other. This makes both dancers extremely sensitive to one another, since any slight deviation in pressure is a clear indication of what lead is being given. There is a marvelous subtlety in leading and following that can be experienced if both dancers eliminate dead space in the communication that exists between the hands and body.
 
Don't let the movement of your lower body interfere with the non-movement of the upper body. That is, do not create noise in your arms when you move your hips or kick with your feet. Maintain proper arm tension . . . Don't be a "busy body" -- a quiet body allows the woman to distinguish leads, and looks much better.
 
Your arms are an extension of your body, not a separate entity. Thus, your body should be responsive to anything that is done to your arms. If you have spaghetti-like arms, you will not be responsive since you will miss indications from the leader. You will miss these indications because they will be absorbed by your arms instead of sensed by your arms. If you press your finger into Jell-O, it will just get absorbed, but if you press your finger against a rock, the rock will move.
 
Close your eyes sometimes when dancing to really try to understand that much of this dance is done with communication in the body and arms. Dance an entire song with your eyes closed, and just try to listen to one another through your arms and body.
 
Typically, the word "tone" is used since the arms should not be tense, i.e., where extending and retracting muscles are both "on". Instead, the arm should act like a spring with a matching opposing force either pushing or pulling. Sometimes you have to react to a lead by simply moving, other times (boogie walk or jive walk in east coast swing) giving the exact amount of counter resistance. This "connection" is a harder thing to quantify than textbook technique.
 
In my experience, the stiffness or heaviness in a follower's arm is often an unconscious protective response to leads that are too strong and/or dangerous (or leads that are perceived as such). For example I really dislike being led in a barrel roll on a crowded dance floor, because I fear crashing into my partner or being sent crashing into other dancers. To paraphrase something Maxwell Ho once said: You have to train your followers to trust you.
 
Bev Donahue, a former International champion who now coaches pros and judges comps like the Ohio Star Ball, and other pro teachers, stress the use of "short arms" in swing (and jive). "Short arms" means never extend fully, always keep them bent. The angle varies as you dance. "Short arms" look better and give you and your partner better control for leading and following. The idea is not to be rigid; you want to convey strength AND flexibility -- a certain springiness. There is body weight involved, and a good, simple exercise is: partners face each other, elbows bent about 90 degrees, hands more or less at waist level, and connect with a pistol grip: lady's hands are palms down, wrists lowered, fingers hooked over guy's; guy's palms face each other, fingers bent inwards so lady can hook hers over the top. No grabbing! The hands are loosely hooked, that's all. Now lean into each other, then away from each other, feeling each other's body weight. The trick is to match each other's use of body weight to maintain your balance as a couple. That's the kind of connection you want to feel in swing. When you get used to it, it feels VERY good, and you and your partner can be most responsive to each other using this technique. It applies to most if not all Rhythm and Latin dancing as well and can be used with other types of connections such as "patty-cake" and "sugar-push" hand-holds. This advice applies to both partners. If leaders can use their posture, dance frame, and body weight effectively, they'll never have to "strong-arm" a woman to get her to follow. The quickest way to learn this is to practice it with a pro and get corrective feedback.
 
Watch out for "chipmunk arms" - elbows down, paws up in front of the chest, as well for as "chicken wings" -- elbows bent and sticking out far behind your back.
 

The lady should generally match the leader's arm extension. When you shake hands with someone, where do you put your hand? In their face or chest? No, you extend it midway between you both. Same for dancing. In WCS, the angle between the man's upper arm and forearm changes from 90 through 135 degrees. For the woman, this is 90 to almost 180 (straight) -- never lock elbows (or knees) when dancing. One of the reasons is that you cannot maintain connection if you lock your elbow.

On Dance Frame

When taking a closed position hold you need to have balance and a stable frame. A good hold must allow each partner to stay balanced and not interfere with movement down the floor -- Leaders, don't hold the lady like you are a vise -- a good hold must have some toned flex/give to allow adjustment inside the hold. Especially in turns is it necessary for both partners to stay on their left side and not to interfere with their partner's movement. In a good hold every partner has his/her own territory. If you enter your partners territory you risk war (or at least crushed toes)!

Most dancers have gone through a spaghetti phase, followed by a stiff-as-a-board phase before realizing what the proper toned frame feels like. The dance frame is the foundation of your dancing -- "If the foundation is weak, the house will collapse" "Don't be a "busy body" -- a quiet body allows woman to distinguish leads and looks much better. A stable frame is important because it maximizes the couple's signal-to-noise ratio -- maximizes the amount of useful information that can be transmitted between their bodies. When the man leads, he prefaces all his steps with his momentum; for example, if he plans to step left on count 1, he puts his body weight a tiny bit leftward, a tiny fraction of a second before count 1. In this way, he tells the woman where to step next, so that she can step as much with him as possible. But if either of the partners has a soft, spaghetti-like frame, the man's momentum can't be transmitted to the woman because there's no conduit, no solid connection between their bodies, for the information to travel along. In other words, the connection between them is so noisy that the signal gets lost. Try this exercise: dancing either rumba or mambo, randomly switch between basics and cucarachas. Just before you switch, put your weight in the direction you're about to travel, almost enough to fall over. (No, in real dancing you don't put so much weight into it; this is just an illustration.) Can you see how your partner would feel that? That's what I'm talking about, only subtler. On the other hand, it's also bad to have *too* firm a frame because then you either can't lead properly or can't react properly and you will always be throwing yourself and your partner off balance because there is no give to it, and you'll look like a mechanical robot. For example, if your firm frame extends all the way down your torso, you'll have a very difficult time stepping outside partner, because you're trying to keep not only your shoulders but also your navels parallel. Kathryn Schaffer defines frame as "the minimum tone required to achieve position and maintain it."

How are you to lead or read a lead without a good frame? When a leader moves my hand, he isn't just moving my hand, but he is moving all of me. If we don't maintain a good frame, body leads won't work either.
 
In Beth Emerson's class on Lady's Styling, the point she kept emphasizing was that what we usually think of as good "styling" is really a matter of good "technique". That if we follow a few simple technique rules, we will automatically look like we have good styling. The number one rule, for both leaders and followers being: Never break your frame!! That is, never let any part of your arm get behind your shoulder, whether you are in closed or open position. For example, say you are progressing down the line of dance and want to extend your free arm back from the line of dance as a styling gesture at some break point. We are usually taught in beginning classes to progress facing down the line of dance. So what most people end up doing is keeping their body facing forward down the line of dance and extending their hand back behind them. This however breaks the frame and doesn't look good. However, if while your feet are facing forward, you turn your upper body to the side, then you can hit the same arm pose by just extending your arm to the side. In this case your frame is not broken, it looks good, and you are facing the audience which also makes for good presentation. Beth mentioned that a good way to keep from breaking your frame was for the leader to always keep his belt buckle facing the follower and to do whatever it took in foot work to accomplish this. (Although in their WCS class, Beth and Dan showed a technique in a duck move where it was easier to do if the leader turns his side to the follower for a moment. This appears to break the belt buckle rule.)

I was taught (and this may depend on the style of dance and the particular move being done) that the thing to do is always to keep the navels of the leader and the follower pointing to each other where possible. In a WCS under arm pass, the leader should turn his body as the follower passes by so that his body is always facing hers.

On Force Level

The best dancers, regardless of style, teach LIGHTER leads! Simon Selmon and Steven Mitchell teach that the leads for Lindy are incredibly light; it's an illusion that the dancers are flinging each other around! (Mitchell would repeatedly yell out "Don't Pull!") To quote Robert Cordoba's maxim which he made us repeat several times: "Maximum results with minimum effort."

Many dancers have delicate/sensitive shoulders. They are perfectly capable of following most leads on their own, but dancing with a brute will cause them to ache for several days afterward (or, in the worst case, actually dislocate someone's shoulder -- this HAS happened). Guys, if you wonder what women talk about in the ladies room and other all-females environments, they frequently grouse about leads that are unnecessarily strong. Women consider a roomful of brutish leaders to be sheer hell.

Do not yank and crank, just INDICATE when leading. Minimum force is needed to indicate to a follower which direction to go or which figure to execute. This makes dancing MUCH more pleasurable, and also if a follower does not respond to a figure, picking another one is simple because the follower is not forced into an irreversible position. The follower is your partner in a mutually enjoyable activity, not a rag doll being tossed around. Also the follower can be active and do whatever syncopations/variations she feels like doing without being constrained by an aggressive leader who does not compensate and will not let the follower do her thing. Be forgiving leaders . . . if the follower is not responsive to the lead for a particular figure, just do a different figure, and show her the figure she missed after the dance. Do not force the follower into the figure. A poor leader will force her through the figure. A good leader will compensate.

It is very irritating to watch a couple dance where it looks like the man is pushing the lady around like a piece of furniture. Men, stop trying so hard! If the lady doesn't do what you want her to do she probably doesn't know how. Pushing her through it makes her feel uncomfortable and awkward and will end up giving you a case of bursitis. Remember men, if you were pushed what would your response be. Let me guess . . . PUSH BACK, right? Just think about that when your leading a lady next time. You don't look bad on the dance floor if you have a good lead and your partner doesn't follow -- you do look bad if you're throwing her around the dance floor in an attempt to "get her to do her part". Guide them there by using your body/frame and not your arms, and they generally will respond much better.

It is surprising, with ALL the man has to do in couple dancing (lead, think of the next steps, avoid collisions, adjust to different partners, do his own steps, keep his frame, etc.) that he so often wants to do the lady's part for her as well by pushing her through it! Men, let the lady do her own dancing. Your job is to "open the door" for her and have fun. Some men, in response to this, say, "Yeah, but what if she's not doing her part?" These men need to ask themselves "Is she going to learn her part if you do it for her?"

On The Ballroom Look In WCS

When swing dancers talk about the "ballroom look" as something negative, (Buddy Schwimmer has a mannerism he uses to express some of his feelings about the latter aspect: extending an arm in the air, perhaps striking a body line, and say-singing "B Y U!") these are the kinds of things they mean:

Experienced WCS dancers keep the upper body straight, but the legs of the partners will form a "V" because they are leveraged. It's what some people call the "water skiing" look. On the anchor-step, experienced swing dancers will turn their torsos away from each other slightly, rather than squaring up to one another. Ballroom dancers without much swing experience tend to stand upright, so there is hardly any leverage between the partners.

Experienced swing dancers make their whips look sharp and linear (up and down the slot) whereas the typical ballroom dancer tends to have a more "rounded" look on whips (circling on a pivot point). This is most obvious on the continuous whip (aka "shuttle"). It's supposed to look like a series of whips, with a clean "freeze" at the end of each two counts, and with the man and woman moving toward and away from each other as well as around. Altogether too many folks slur this to the point where it just looks like two people walking around each other holding hands.

Experienced swing dancers tend to keep the elbows bent. The extended, long arms of ballroom-style Latin & international "jive" don't work for "street" swing & Latin. Dancing with ballroom trained WCS dancers can feel rather stilted since they keep emphasizing long, graceful lines rather than the "down and dirty" WCS style.

As done in the Swing community the end of patterns typically use an "anchor step" and not a "coaster step." The follower is discouraged from moving forward under her own power at the end of the pattern. Instead, she hangs out until the guy remembers to lead.

Yet another distinction between the communities is in leverage and being grounded; the typical ballroom West Coast dancers are more "up", tending to stay too high, while in the swing community they dance low; more "into the floor." Similarly, in the ballroom circles there is little leverage while in the swing circles many dancers strive for leverage and connection that appears to be more "heavy."

Ballroom dancers tend to dance through the breaks in the music. Their syncopations tend to be just fancy steps, not interpretations of the music. They sometimes don't appear to notice swing rhythms and dance all their steps with straight eighths, regardless of what the music is doing.

On Balance And Your Head Position

The human head has significant mass, as well as being at the very top of the body and very easy to throw around. If you're trying to control your balance to within a centimeter or less, as top dancers do, then throwing a heavy weight (head) around, out of sync with what you're trying to do with the entire step is quite detrimental.

Most of the head's mass is in front of the axis of the neck. If you leave your head looking straight forward, then most of the head's weight will be forward of your body's center of gravity. That leads to counter balancing the head weight by sticking out one's butt or leaning on one's partner, neither of which is considered good dance form. If you put your head slightly to one side, then the head weight will be more over on foot and therefore less likely to require body or frame distortions to counter-balance the head weight.

Try the following exercise with your partner: You and your partner must each take closed dance position, bodies against each other, with the arms out and somewhat forward to maintain a convex back (keeping the spine as the most posterior portion of the anatomy). Then try to lead her. By holding the arms out and slightly forward and up but not touching each other, it is possible to practice movement w/o relying on the arms AND maintain proper frame. It should work for a waltz, if you are *really* good, you can lead a Viennese waltz. You'll immediately feel how important the balance of the couple is. Yes, you will feel, when your partner moves her head! (Note: For proper movement and frame, you must maintain a 'forward poise'.)

Some Specific Types of Turns

PIVOT

Take a step, heel-flat-ball, and once all your weight is on that foot, rotate on it. Feet never close. Keep other foot in extended 5th position - CBMP - throughout with knees and thighs together, hips under, shoulders down.

Traveling pivots are 1/2 turns on each step. Travel on one line. On backward half of pivot, don't drop onto heel -- stay on the ball of the foot. Practice traveling pivots in 5th position, CBMP. On the last pivot, land in 3rd position with back knee bent.

In the ballroom world a "pivot" is defined as being made on one foot -- the man's BACK foot -- with the other foot held in CBMP. It is a stronger turn than the normal natural and reverse turns. Stronger CBM is used and the stronger rotation results in the pivot being made with less progression and without rise. The Waltz "natural spin turn" consists of steps 1-3 of a natural turn, a pivot for the man on step 4 (lady has a pivoting action) and a spin on steps 5 and 6.

Pivoting around a "pivot point:" a pivot point is a foot that could be nailed to the floor and you could still complete that turn. For example, consider a spot turn to your right in (say, int'l) rumba. On count 4-1, you place your right foot to your right side. Now, drive a railroad spike through your foot (ouch!), but not so deeply that you can't lift the foot a little bit up and down. Notice that you can *still* complete the turn, despite the screaming (8-). The foot you nailed to the floor is the pivot foot, that is, you pivot around that foot.

SPIN

First wind up and swing inside arm without letting the elbow go behind you, then swing outside arm and leg together. For 1 foot spins, draw free foot in, point toe, come out in 3rd position.

In the ballroom world a "spin" is made on the man's forward foot. The spin is made on the ball of one foot while the other foot is kept sideways until weight is placed on it. You turn about your own axis with no sway. A spin turn is a two step turn.

It is a stronger turn than the normal natural and reverse turns. Stronger CBM is used and the stronger rotation results in the pivot being made with less progression and without rise. The Waltz "natural spin turn" consists of steps 1-3 of a natural turn, a pivot for the man on step 4 (lady has a pivoting action) and a spin on steps 5 and 6.

CHAINE TURN

(sheh-NAY) -- A spin done on 2 feet, 2 steps -- close ankles tightly. Traveling chaine's are: step onto your left foot, do a full turn with your weight remaining on your left foot, then step onto your right foot. The entire turn is done on one foot. forward, together, forward, together. (Feet close on the "together.")

Both Chaines and Pivots will give 1 full turn in two steps. The pivot will visually be very smooth. The chaine turns will have a snappy look.

SPIRAL

SPIRAL - end up with legs crossed, supporting leg behind. Used by women for a 2nd turn on the S S in Country 2-step.

SWIVEL

A turn executed on the ball of the supporting foot, executed on one foot, in one spot.

PADDLE TURN

In a paddle turn to the Left, your R foot "paddles" -- pushes or rotates you around your supporting (Left) leg. A paddle turn to the left would be three steps LRL. Pushing off the R foot, turn 180 degrees on the spot as you step on the L. You should stand straight, and keep your nose, shoulders, hips, and L toe all pointing the same direction (i.e. don't twist or lean). Do not rise up on the ball of your L foot. In fact, you can bend the knees slightly to get better balance. Next, bring the R foot around and close it to the L. Then repeat the 180 turn, pushing off the R and stepping onto the L.

It is good to practice as 3 separate steps, stopping in-between to make sure you have the right amount of turn, alignment, and balance. Then gradually blend the three steps together into a continuous 5&6 or QQQ, turning slowly at first, then turning faster. If you start to wobble, slow down and/or try again later. Don't let your feet get too far apart during the paddle turn. Whether you start with the paddle turn or try spins early on, keep those feet close together! At first, you can step on a flat foot, i.e., toe and heel, then move to the ball of your foot to make the turning easier. Eventually, you'll be able to increase the turn per step and double spin on a 5&6& count.

HOOK TURN

You can hook one foot behind the other and spin. You can either leave both feet in place or bring the foot you hooked behind with around to do another on the next two beats. These are the ones James Brown does and it's easy to stay in place with these. Spinning on one foot usually makes it easier to stay in one place too. To do a hook turn to the R from weight on the L foot, first, place your R foot hooked behind and to the side of your L, and put half your weight on the R. Next, untwist your feet, turning 180 degrees to the R, keeping your L aligned with your hips, shoulders, and nose (i.e. don't twist or lean). You should end up with all weight on your L. You can then continue turning with a RLR paddle turn, or 1/2 paddle turn RL.

On Pre-leads And Prep-leads

A pre-lead is a small lead in the direction you want her to turn. The follower's momentum is going in the same direction in both the pre lead and during the turn. This gives a smooth look and feel. A two-step example is the Lady's Outside Turn from standard closed position where the follower is turned slightly in the counter clockwise direction on the 2nd slow before doing the clockwise turn on quick-quick. The lead is initiated by the leader going into a contra-body position and is similar to the lead for going into promenade. This type of lead is used a lot in ballroom and is the one taught by Tony & Yvonne Gutsch in two-step.

A prep-lead is a small lead in the opposite direction of the turn that you will lead. They involve a wind-up immediately prior to a figure, turn, or pattern. A prep is a "tuck" type feeling that keeps the frame closed and uses the compression of the tuck to signal the turn. It's got a snappy look. It starts the follower's momentum going in one direction, stops it, and then starts it in the other direction. A two-step example is the Lady's Outside Turn from standard closed position where the follower is turned slightly in the clockwise direction on the 2nd slow before doing the clockwise turn on quick-quick.

The result is the prep-lead is VERY visible to observers while the pre-lead is almost invisible. There are the equivalents of preps or pre-leads in smooth dances like waltz and foxtrot. They're usually very subtle and hidden in things like "CBM" and "change of sway". In a lot of partner dances and dance pattern amalgamations, this prep or wind-up seems to be an integral of the previous step. It's a form of communication telling the lady to be set on her standing leg and snug in the man's frame for the start of a turning figure.

You seldom see ballroom dancers using a closed-frame prep in a waltz or foxtrot. This is part of the smooth character of these dances. If you watch the CW folks you see closed-frame preps all over the place in two-step and even waltz.

Rhythm dances like swing or Latin usually use two beats to execute a tuck-turn prep. The compression part of a tuck turn is an integral part of these dances. The compression stores energy that can be released for speed. (If I push real HARD, I can go real FAST :)

Most experts classify CW two-step as a 'smooth' dance. Others classify it as a traveling swing dance. (Single rhythm swing.) Preps in CW2S are OK, but they aren't necessary. I try to do without them, especially when I'm social dancing. Personally, I'd never do a prep into an outside turn in 2-step because I wouldn't lead a ladies outside turn from a basic. I would lead it from a closed turn or something else; it flows better that way. Preps are sharp and powerful for competition dancing, but too many of them make you look jerky. Since much of the change in CW dancing in the last decade came from the competitors, preps have become an standard part of CW dancing. (Not all of the changes to CW dancing are beneficial.)

In 2-step, the turns are usually never going to be faster than one turn per quick-quick. Exceptions are choreographed and not used socially by most dancers. So there is no need for a tuck to give her something to bounce off of for a double turn. Also, 2-step should generally flow and not have severe directional changes except maybe to hit accents in the music. If you start her turning, you let her turn.

After doing a few basics I think there is a tendency to start to relax and enjoy the ride only to miss the cue to start doing stuff again, especially if that cue is dependent on a very good frame. Preps in CW2S are also a way of getting the follower's attention by using compression so that the tension part of the lead will be followed. Beginners may not follow the prep and since the 'expert' always has a good frame, the prep isn't necessary. Overall, I believe that beginners and expert followers would prefer pre-leads in CW2S. They are unambiguous to the beginners and expert followers don't need preps to execute smooth turns. But many followers become trained to expect preps; and many leaders are trained to execute preps. That doesn't make it right. If you took an expert smooth-dance follower out for a CW2S and executed a closed frame tuck, the result might be comical.

In open-frame two step, I use preps to begin doubles & triples & that sort of thing, and this might not be correct but it looks and FEELS good. (It is usually a two-count prep at the BEGINNING of the last slow, that places her foot and center where I want it.)

How To Lead An American Spin In East Coast Swing

This is a tuck-style spin done on the third step of the first triple-step. You can also both spin (man to his left, lady to her right). The lead is to draw her in at the beginning of the first triple, and she should feel a slight wind-up to her left. This wind-up should place your hand near your navel. That way, you won't be torqued left or right when she pushes off of you. She should feel you brace your leading arm (I like to tuck my elbow into my side for an instant to help brace the arm. Think "brace", but understand that you don't become stiff as a board, and there is some limited followthru.) She must then take her weight change step onto her right foot. Here is the important thing -- she must commit some of her body weight forward to you. You will feel a building compression and then a releasing compression as *SHE* pushes off of *YOU* ! As a man, you are only pushing back as hard as she pushes on you. Never think of pushing her -- make her think she is pushing against a wall. Push lightly and the wall pushes back lightly; push hard and it pushes back hard. This is where the leader must really "follow" her level of connection as it changes.

The woman must commit weight to you because her push does 2 things:

  •  it creates a torque about a vertical axis which spins her.
  • it creates a torque about a horizontal axis which causes her to fall backwards.

Torque (1) is what she desires, and (2) is what she must deal with to stay balanced. By committing her weight forward before pushing off, torque (2) stands her back up straight instead of toppling her over. Of course, the better she is, the less weight is committed, the less wind-up is required, the later you can brace and still have her read the lead, etc.

It's easy for the man to get the timing wrong so the lady can't feel the prep at the critical point in her step. When not dancing we practice a push/pull exercise where we come in (compress on to the lead hand) and push out. This exercise helps get the feeling for the correct timing. The lead has to come just *before* she finishes the triple, because once she's placed the third step without anticipating the spin, it's hard for her to do a good spin. Keep your arm firm, because she needs to push off of you. If you're giving your lead down at waist level, she *can't* turn the wrong way. She can fail to turn, but if she's *able* to turn the wrong way, then your lead isn't right.

To lead an American Spin, one rotates ('tucks') her to her left during the preceding triple, then braces so she can push off of the man's leading hand with her right. Obviously, this doesn't work with ladies who don't know the step, since they won't know to push off. Beginners with one step under their belt can't be expected to follow it, and you shouldn't try. When I dance with beginners, I sort-of 'test' for the American spin reaction by leading an underarm turn and adding a bit of tuck. Beginners just follow the underarm turn and fail to compress or tuck. OK, we just stick to basic steps. Since I still have hand contact the lead doesn't falter. More advanced dancers follow the (overhand) tuck just like an American Spin. Then I know I can use Tuck style moves.

You can't just push the lady with the left hand because this will tend to push her backwards, when you really want her to stay in place and spin. However, there is a way to refine this lead so that ladies who don't know the figure can still follow it. It requires a two hand hold though.

As you tuck the lady, drop *both* hands to just below waist level. Your left hand will now be holding the lady's right hand in front of a point about two inches below your belly button, and your right hand will be on the top of the lady's left hip. You now rotate the lady to her right, into the spin, primarily by pulling with your *right* hand. Your left hand helps with the rotation, primarily by providing resistance so the lady isn't pulled into you, but also pushing gently away from you, following the lady's rotation. This method results in a much smoother action than the 'resistance only' method.

Note that the right hand must be on the hip, not the waist. Two reasons: first, the hip is farther from the lady's center of rotation, so you can provide the required torque with a gentler pull; second, the rigidity of the hip bone helps prevent your pull from having inadvertent side effects, like pulling just the lady's waist towards you.

Also, it really helps if the man moves a little so the woman has to turn less than a full 360 degrees. In fact it is the man's duty to move enough that both partners end up right after the woman turns. This is an example of one of the most basic principles of good leading: Lead her, then follow what she does.

This bears repeating. Leading is following. A good leader has to compensate for his partner. Maintaining the balance point and connection is more important than where any individual ends up, in social dancing. This means the leader provides the lead, then waits to see what the follower does to that lead. Then the leader adjusts his leading so leader and follower remain in sync. In some dances you can go one step further and compensate for the follower as she does her spin. In hustle or ECS you can just rotate or move the slot around to match wherever the follower ends up. I've helped build the confidence of a few ladies who didn't think they could do "double" spins in hustle, by moving around them so that however much they actually spun, we ended up in the right position for the next pattern and in time to the music.

Overdone preps confuse the lady and are not desirable. If she responds to the tuck by throwing herself into a spin, she was over-led, or she is over-reacting. It's most likely the former. My two-step instructor teaches a "prep lead." It's NOT supposed to be very visible, because it's not supposed to be a frame rotation. It's supposed to be a signal. When doing a tuck turn in ECS, the man stops the lady with his hand and they build pressure against each other, palm-to-palm (or thereabouts). A follower writes about how this feels when done incorrectly "When I have experienced the prep-lead, there was no build-up of pressure on the hand through a palm-to-palm type of connection, there was just another direction change. As it was, it felt like a lead for a single inside turn, the guy changing his mind then the lead for a single outside turn."

For ECS beginner followers, I can easily see where avoiding the tuck-turn could be helpful because a beginner follower is more likely not to provide enough resistance with her right arm. Of course, opening out may be difficult too, but at least it's pretty easy to recover from.

A tuck lead can be used from one hand contact or where speed is desired (double turns in a fast swing). Basically, during the previous step the man rotates (a little) in one direction and then stops. When the man stops the lady can use pressure on the man's hand to stop and reverse herself. This pressure can then be used for very fast turns and spins. Since the pressure is developed from an early stop rather than a late shove, it's much more comfortable for the lady. This only works if the lady is connected with her hand. If she's just chasing her hand around, she'll never feel the pressure and won't be able to catch up with the change of direction or rotation fast enough.

On Teaching On The Dance Floor

Do not teach on the dance floor. Men, it a breach of social dancing etiquette to presume that just because you lead, you know more. Ladies, do not presume to critique a guy's lead/style/interpretation of the music or judgment. This is social dancing, not practice. If and only if, the lady (or gentleman) requests it, an area off the floor may be used to talk the lady through the step. If you can't talk her through it, you don't understand it well enough to teach it!

If you are the type that is open to criticism, ask other dancers to help you with your dancing. Perhaps they see or feel something that you do not. It is okay to talk during a dance and you might learn something valuable at the same time other than where the person is from. There are some people who have no plans of ever taking lessons. These people depend on sensitively made suggestions, informal intermission time lessons, and experience to become better dancers.

Dance is a marvelous from of social interaction. It can make you many friends -- or it can isolate you from the very people you would like to know. Here are some rules of the dance floor:

  • Don't teach someone on the dance floor unless they ASK you to do so.. (Un-asked for advice is not only bad manners - it is unacceptable behavior.)
  • Don't criticize a partner no matter how much you would like to. (Your job is to make the dance FEEL better from YOUR side. Just like LIFE, the only person we can really change is ourselves.)
  • Don't criticize *yourself* out loud no matter how much you'd like to. It is not enjoyable to have a partner with whom I've just had a blast dancing with apologize and make comments that she needs more lessons or something like that. Sometimes this happens when they made a few mistakes, usually which a bad lead had something to do with, or I've led them successfully through things they weren't familiar with but they followed beautifully.
  • Dance to the understanding level of your partner to the best of you ability. Have FUN for a three minute relationship. Make your partner have fun. Put JOY in the dance and share the JOY with every partner.

Dancing is a social activity and therefore etiquette overrides EVERY OTHER consideration. Classes and practice sessions are one thing, dancing in public is another. We all know people who practice comp routines in public or do a samba lesson right on the dance floor while the band is playing a waltz. This is rude and offensive to other dancers in the venue. More topical is the question of being rude to our partners. I know some people who can't STOP teaching. I don't know why they do it but it is annoying to many followers (Or what about the followers who can't stop back-leading or offering suggestions?) Remember that there are many people out there who are not obsessed about dance. They just like to spend a few hours every now and then moving to music, having fun. They don't care about correct steps or proper technique or line of dance or whatever. You must first consider who you are dancing with, what their abilities and preferences are.

No matter how well or how badly I dance, my mission out on the dance floor with a lady who has consented to dance with me is to provide her with enjoyment from our brief dance encounter. That objective should be mutual. If you have any other mission out on the dance floor in a social dance situation, review your motives. You are not out there to prove how wonderful you are, how marvelous you look or how much better you are than your partner. In a social dance situation you are dancing with and for your partner. There is a time and place for learning and it is not in the middle of a social dance floor during a social dance, even if it is requested! Refrain from doing it. Consider it as being rude. Very rude. If your new partner's dancing is not suitable to you it is necessary that you prevail through to the end of the dance and say, "Thank you!" It is not your obligation to give her (him) a critique of their dancing ability from the dance you just experienced, no matter how bad you might feel it was.

Competitions training, seminars, mutual help sessions where everyone is there for the sole purpose of learning or improving are quite another case. It is understood that in those identifiable learning situations you are invited to offer gentle and constructive criticism to your partner. If you are not capable of this sort of tender, gentle, & constructive criticism, let others who are better equipped handle it.

Remember that dancing should be fun. Don't sweat it if you "Flub and mess up a pattern." Do what you can, and enjoy what you do. Agree with your partner, in advance, that you'll put fun first. Don't make an issue of each other's errors; those made at the ballroom are cues for what to practice later.

 

Extracted with permission from a dance compilation by multiple authors collected at www.eijkhout.net/lead_follow/. Copyright 1996/7/8/9 lies with the compiler, the maintainer, and the contributors of various parts.

 



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