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by Harold & Meredith Sears

In the smooth rhythms, such as foxtrot, waltz, and tango, a good lead comes through a well-toned and stable frame, such that the intentions of one partner are communicated through many points of contact along the hands, arms, shoulders, and hips. If the leader can control all of the parts of his body so that his frame moves as one unit, controlling every individual part and changing only those parts pertaining to the necessary movements of the figure while avoiding conveying false leads with any other part of the body (wow! ), and if the follower can skillfully interpret that signal, then the couple will move as one.

Traditionally, the man leads and the woman follows, but many dancers recognize that a woman's "back" lead can work well. Some couples are even able to shift the lead from the man to the woman, in a collaborative way, depending on who knows what's going on at any given moment.

But, regardless of how you lead and follow in your dancing, there are a few pitfalls that we should be careful to avoid.

Read about the three styles of lead and follow.


If the man is trying to lead, one risk is that he will try too hard—he will lead too forcefully. He might pick her up and put her bodily wherever he wants her to be. He might twirl her through an Alemana Turn or Ropespin with great sweeping swings of the arm. Her experience is breathtaking, but not really in a good way.

Gentlemen, do not force your partner to do what you intend. Instead, invite her to dance a particular figure. Provide guidance, provide the suggestion, even open the path so she can do it, but let her dance the figure. Remember, one of your responsibilities is to make your partner and your partnership look good. To have a woman jerked, hauled, pushed, and slung about the floor does not look good.

If you are using a woman's back lead, then she could be overly forceful, too. A caveman or a cavewoman can become rough or impatient. You might ask, "but what if she (he) doesn't do what she is supposed to do?" Then you should try to adjust and dance through the error, the misunderstanding, or the miscommunication as smoothly as you can. As we have quoted before, "Lead what you want, but dance what you get." As we also hear so often, this is our recreation — smile — have fun.


If the woman is trying to follow, to respond to every lead, another risk is that she will respond too energetically. Responsiveness to the lead is good, but don't overdo. Yes, you have to get yourself over to the other side of the man (for instance), but don't do it in a rush and then have to strain to put on the brakes when you get there. Keep your movements as small and as light as you can, and still get the job done—get the figure executed. Stretch your body up; rise a bit onto your toes. Make your arm and body movements slow, smooth, and graceful. Maintain your own balance and support your own weight. If the man steps away, the woman should be able to remain standing.

(Please excuse a little biology here.) Smooth and fluid dancing results from a balanced combination of both isotonic and isometric muscle activity. Isotonic is "equal tension," and these muscle contractions give you your movements—the reaching steps, the turns, the stretching upward. Isometric is "equal length." Here, two muscles pull against each other so that neither changes in length and there is no movement. These contractions give you tone, frame, line, and control. Smooth dancing very much requires both, and Meredith and I are coming to believe that the isometric control is actually more work than the isotonic movement. Often, we seem to expend greater effort during a slow controlled waltz or foxtrot than during a faster but looser cha or jive.

So, if you are following and you feel that you might be a bit of a "loose cannon," work on the isometric side of your dancing.


A pitfall associated with a more collaborative lead could consist of just plain walking. The body is straight up and down, with no sway, no stretch, no softening of the knees, no rise and fall at all. The dancer might put his or her feet exactly where they should go and execute each figure with precision, but there is no feeling or emotion in the actions. There is no music. A walking dance could as well be done to a simple drumbeat, on a rough concrete floor, and in sneakers.

The walking style of dance reminds us a little of square dancing. We haven't square-danced for several years, but isn't it true that good square dancers simply walk deliberately and flatly through the patterns? We did begin as square dancers, back in '88, and Harold enjoyed the music, "got into" that music, and tried to dance with "feeling." Actually, he mostly came up with a sort of unsophisticated bouncing, but he was kindly told to settle down: "This is squares, not ballroom."

Well, round dancing is cued ballroom. Let's not just walk—let's dance.


In Round Dancing, we do have the option to dance with no lead at all. Singles certainly do it. A dancer will not have a partner but will enjoy a beautiful dance to beautiful music, dancing by him- or her-self. On returning to his seat, he might be congratulated "on not stepping on anyone's toes during the whole dance," or she might be complimented on how smoothly she followed — the cues, that is. For the cues can do all the leading that is necessary, even for a dancing couple. He can master his movements, and she can master hers. In dancing the figure, he could do his part, and she could do hers, each simply responding to the cue. It won't be as smooth. You won't be dancing as a couple, as a coordinated unit.

This is probably just a theoretical category, in that no matter how loose the frame or how little the contact, information would still be communicated between partners, and so some degree of leading would occur. Even with no body contact, there would be the visual lead. I suppose a couple could dance with no body contact and with their eyes closed. As I perform that little "thought experiment" here at my desk, I see clearly just how rarely it is that "no leading" occurs on the round-dance floor.


But there is a dark side even to no lead at all, and that is the clueless style of dance. You don't hear the cues, or you hear but don't understand. You don't have much of a lead. So your dancing completely falls apart. Is there any of us who has escaped this particular state? Meredith tells me that she certainly knows when I am clueless. I lose my frame. There is no lead. My arms lose all tone and might even fall to my sides. She has been washed up onto the beach, and the wave has receded, leaving her high and dry. The cues just don't mean anything, or they are coming too fast. I can't process the information and get it to my feet. I don't know where I am or where I'm going. An unfamiliar sequence of step cues is the worst. Give me a cue every four measures, or every two, or even every measure, and I might have the time to figure out what to do, but a cue every beat is just too fast.

"Diamond Turn." Ah, I can dance that. Stretch the left side; now the right. I'm ready for the next cue. "Two left turns." I've got that too. Rise and fall. "Open Telemark." I understand it. And then he cues, "thru, hover transition to shadow, fence, recover, touch, fence, recover, point. . . " Wait a minute! Who transitioned? Which way am I facing? What did you say? And there I stand, and the wave recedes from the beach.

The very best dancers are clueless at times. It's okay. One good way to deal with an attack of cluelessness is to develop three skills:

  • a simple freestyle sequence
  • a quick "change/point" adjustment
  • some sort of anti-panic response

So when you lose it, instead of stopping in confusion and allowing traffic to pile up behind you, simply continue with some simple forward waltzes or left turns, until a recognizable cue appears. If the proper foot is not free, do your adjustment, and you're back with the choreography.

No, it is not easy. The panicky confusion of cluelessness does not lend itself easily to the cool decision-making necessary to move you out of the cued choreography, through a few measures of freestyle, and then back into the cues again. Meanwhile, your partner is wondering what is going on (hopefully with a smile on her face). "Just bear with me, Hon. I'm doing the best I can." All we can say is that most of us will have plenty of opportunities to practice and to get used to this strategy. If you can do it, onlookers will never even notice that you have been clueless.

So, what pitfalls should we try to avoid in our leading and following?

  • Rough, overly enthusiastic, or overly authoritative leading,
  • Overly responsive or uncontrolled following,
  • Inexpressive walking through the routines,
  • Little communication between partners—no lead, and
  • A loss of understanding of the cues, or if that happens, a calm strategy to carry on until the cues once more connect.

Good luck!

A version was published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February 2006; portions reprinted in Footnotes In the Round, LRDTA, May 2006; Dallas Harvest Holiday, May 2009; and Texas Round Dance Teachers Association Newsletter, April 2011.


If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.

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