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Leading and Following

Phil Folwell & Marcia Butcher

In the Summer 2001 edition of the ROUNDALAB Journal, Frank Valenta raised the subject of leading and following and asked the question, “Should we be using it in our Round Dancing? ” Before we can answer that question we need to have an understanding of what leading and following are.

There are many misconceptions about leading and following. Untrained dancers will sometimes hold the view that the lady just goes limp and that the man will create her dancing for her. This is, of course, quite incorrect. A lady without good posture and correct body and foot position is simply not able to be lead. The same criteria apply to the man: without posture and position, he is not able to be followed. It is not possible for the man to position every part of the lady’s body. Leading should not be tiring. It only becomes tiring when the follower is not following. Leading is not pushing or pulling the lady, but “inviting ” her to dance her own steps.

How do we learn to do this? Leading and following are skills built up over a period of time. When we learn a figure we should be learning how to lead it, and equally important, how to follow. If we use a basic waltz pattern that we would teach a learner’s group, we would teach two Left Turns, a Closed Change, Maneuver, one Right Turn to DLC and a Closed Change starting with the man’s right foot. Then repeat the sequence ad lib around the room. Now, let’s add a Hesitation Change after the Maneuver and say to the man, “When you feel like it, use this instead of the Right Turn and Closed Change.” We could then add a Spin Turn and Box Finish. Now, when they get to the Maneuver, the lady must wait for the man to decide what is to be danced and for him to lead her.

Leading, fundamentally, is just plain good technique. Using the Standard rhythms, when we come to a closed dance position we establish a light body contact at the diaphragm. It is this point of contact that creates the leading and following link. From here, the lady can feel the rise and fall, sway and contra-body movement, all of which occur slightly before the foot move. This tells the lady which foot and direction a step is going to take and whether it is going to be a slow or a quick step. If the man simply steps back and pulls the lady forward her natural reaction is to stab a foot forward to “catch ” herself. It’s a natural reaction to a sudden push or pull. If, on the other hand, the man lowers slightly and moves his body weight backwards prior to taking the step, he will “invite” the lady to lake a step forward. This is the difference between trying to drag the lady into the step and leading her to dance her own step. The lead is from the body, not the hands and arms. If we lose the body contact, we lose the lead.

The Latin dances have quite a different lead and follow technique. We no longer have the body contact, so most of our leading is done by indication using one or both hands and arms and by body shaping. It is important to remember that the lady still dances her own figures. The man indicates to her what it is that he requires her to do and she does it on her own. If, for example, we lead an Open Hip Twist in the rumba, the man simply braces his arm as he leads the lady forward. The lady will recognize the lead and dance the figure herself. She does not need a shove in the back to dance the fan part of the figure. Nor does she need to be “cranked up” to dance figures like spirals and underarm turns. The lead for most figures is so subtle that a casual observer would not notice it. Exaggerated leads not only look silly but also are simply bad dancing that does nothing to help the lady. As the leader, we should be “inviting ” the lady to dance her part.

Good dancing is about leading and following. To lead well, the man needs to know the lady’s part of every figure. When dancing in a closed dance position, he needs to be a good dancer as well as a good leader. If the lady has some concept of what following is all about and the man has a good lead, correct footwork and positioning will happen. It is a product of good dancing. His movements are going to be transmitted to his partner who will follow whatever he dances, including his mistakes. In the Latin dances, however, the man’s dancing mistakes do not automatically lead the lady to dance incorrectly. Following is a quite different but equally difficult skill.

Recognizing figures in a noisy and moving environment is a complicated task. The man has to consider his own dancing, the lady’s dancing, musicality, choreography, and floorcraft. The lady, on the other hand, must concentrate on NOT thinking about any of these things. She needs to be thinking only of following the man’s lead.

Will leading and following improve our Round Dancing? Yes, without a doubt. It is something that good dancers do. It is as much a part of dancing technique as rise and fall, sway, footwork, and contra-body movement. It is not something that will be learned overnight and will probably require couples to learn “freestyle ” dance, where the man will make up the choreography and lead it to his partner. It will also require a closer attention to correct technique. In other words, we need to be more aware of our dancing rather than just learning dances. If the man dances the basic figures correctly, the lady’s part should also be correct. However, we have to accept that in our activity some of our variations are simply not able to be lead well and will require the lady to know her part.

Good leading and following will make for better dancing, but the time and effort required may not be for everyone. Our activity caters to a wide range of skills and needs. Many are quite content to learn dances and steps and socialize in a dancing environment. It is a personal choice, but dancing together as a couple, one leading and the other following, is pure magic when we get it right.

From ROUNDALAB Journal, spring 2002. Reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May 2012.  Phil & Marcia taught and danced for many years in Auckland, New Zealand, and Phil still runs the West City Round Dance Club, now into its 32nd year -- P.O. Box 82-396 Highland Park, Auckland.


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