Lead and follow
In some types of partner dance, lead and follow are designations for the two dancers comprising a dance couple. In the case of mixed-sex couples, the male is traditionally the Lead and the female is the Follow. The Lead is responsible for guiding the couple and initiating transitions to different dance steps and, in improvised dances, for choosing the dance steps to perform. The Lead communicates choices to the Follow and directs the Follow by means of subtle physical and visual signals, thereby allowing the couple to be smoothly coordinated.
The amount of direction given by the Lead depends on several factors, including dance style, social context of the dance, and experience and personalities of the dancers.
Traditionally, the male dance partner is the Lead and the female dance partner is the Follow, though this is not always the case, such as in Schottische danced in the Madrid style where women lead and men follow. Many social dance forms have a long history of same-sex and role-crossing partnerships, and there have been some changes to the strict gendering of partner dances in some competition or performance contexts. An example is a "Jack and Jack" dance contest.
Partner dancing requires awareness and clear communication; this is essential both for safety and for the overall success of the dance. If following in the dance, it helps to maintain a centered readiness to the Lead. This helps the Follow be ready for cues both visually and physically. The Lead in the dance will best support the Follow by giving clear direction.
For the Lead and Follow to interact with each other, communication needs to occur between the dance couple. Because it's not practical to discuss moves verbally, physical contact is the most effective means. More advanced dancers will take many cues from each other through this connection, with the Follow using it to communicate feedback to the Lead just as the Lead uses it to suggest moves to the Follow. The most accomplished dancers use connection as a line of communication which allows the Lead to incorporate the Follow's ideas, abilities, and creative suggestions into their own styling and selection of moves.
In many partner dances, the Lead's steps differ from the Follow's. In face-to-face positions, the Follow generally "mirrors" the Lead's footwork. For example, if the Lead begins on their left foot, the Follow will begin on their right foot. In choreographed pieces and other situations where the Follow is in a tandem position or shadow position, the Lead and Follow will use the same footwork. Usually both partners move together as a unit, but in some dances the partners move in opposite directions - together and apart again.
In partner dancing, dancers seek to work together to create synchronized or complementary movements. The Lead is largely responsible for initiating movement, whereas the Follow's role is to maintain this movement (though they may choose not to). This process can be described as involving the initiation of momentum or 'energy' (by the Lead) and then the subsequent maintenance, exaggeration, decreasing or dissolving of this momentum by both partners. This momentum or energy may be manifested as movement (in its most obvious form), or in a range of more complex interactions between partners:
- Compression (where each partner 'compress' the energy by bending joints and moving towards or 'into' their partner, to varying degrees);
- Leverage (where one partner - usually the Lead - exploits the development of compression or connection to shift their Follow's weight or to 'ground' (develop 'compression' downwards, with the contact their feet make with the floor) themselves more thoroughly before initiating movement);
- Tension (is the opposite of compression - partners moving away from each other but still in contact)
It is also helpful for dancers to regard their partners in terms of their points of balance to help the Lead initiate movements for their Follow partners. These points of balance include the front-facing side of the shoulders, the front facing side of the hips, and the Follow's center (the abdomen). If the Lead wants to bring the Follow close, the Lead is to apply tension and draw the hand in and down toward the Lead's own hip; to send the Follow away, the Lead would guide the hand toward the Follow and add compression, signaling the move away.
A general rule is that both Lead and Follow watch each other's back in a dance hall situation. Collision avoidance is one of the cases when the Follow is required to "backlead" or at least to communicate about the danger to the Lead. In travelling dances, such as Waltz, common Follow signals of danger are an unusual resistance to the Lead, or a slight tap by the shoulder. In open-position dances, such as Swing or Latin dances, maintaining eye contact with the partner is an important safety communication link.
For partner dancers, using weight transfers is a way for a Lead to communicate a 'lead' for a dance step to a Follow.
In another example, for a Lead to have their Follow walk forwards while connected, the Lead begins by taking his or her center back, indicating a backward walking move. As the partners' arms/points of contact move away from each other, they develop tension, which the Follow may either break by dropping their arms or breaking the hold, or 'follow' by moving.
A more experienced Lead may realize (if only on an unconscious level) that the most effective execution of even this "simple" step is achieved by preparing for movement before the step begins.
The Lead-Follow connection facilitates this. The principles of leading and following are explored in contact improvisation of modern dance, though they are as ancient a process as a parent carrying a child.
Advanced swing dancers do this to enhance their dance connection and to add more fun into the dance. Another way of "breaking the routine" of the dance is syncopation (making more steps than required by the standard description of the dance pattern). Syncopations are easier for the Lead to cope with, since the Lead does not have to change the intended dance figure, although experienced dancers try and match the fancy footwork of the partner, at least in rhythm. So, in a sense, syncopation may be perceived as mild hijacking. This is not as difficult as it might seem, since good dancers match their footwork to musical accents.
Recovery from miscommunication
Sometimes a miscommunication will occur between the Lead and Follow. Techniques of the recovery of connection and synchronization vary from dance to dance, but below are a few common examples.
- In dances without obligatory body contact (Latin, swing, hustle, American Smooth), free spin recovers from anything.
- In dances danced in body contact (Waltz, Tango) it is very important to recover the feet match. To recover, Leads may initiate a well-known (i.e. basic) step with slightly exaggerated sideways shift of weight to force the Follow to free the required foot. For example, in Waltz or Foxtrot one might end a measure in the open promenade position, as there would then be no doubt as to the direction of the movement and which foot to use at the beginning of the next measure.
Methods to lead
- Body Lead
- Arm Lead
Body lead vs. arm lead
A body lead occurs where the Lead initiates a lead by moving their body, which moves their arm(s), and thus transmits a lead to the Follow. 'Body lead' means much the same as 'weight transfer'. An arm lead occurs where the Lead moves their arm(s) without moving their body, or moves their body in a different direction to their arm. While an 'arm lead' without the transfer of weight (or movement of the body) on the part of the Lead is often a marker of an inexperienced or poorly taught dancer, the process of leading and following, particularly at an advanced level, often involves the contra- and contrasting uses of weight transfers and 'arm moves'. As an example, a Lead may lead a Follow back onto their right foot through the Lead's own weight transfer forwards onto their left foot; yet at the same time turn the Follow's torso to the left from above the hips.
Techniques of leading
The Lead has to communicate the direction of the movement to the Follow. Traditionally, the Lead's right hand is on the follow's back, near the lowest part of the shoulder-blade. This is the strongest part of the back and the Lead can easily pull the Follow's body inwards. To enable the Lead to communicate a step forward (backward for the Follow) the Follow has to constantly put a little weight against the Lead's right hand. When the Lead goes forward, the Follow will naturally go backwards.
An important leading mechanism is the Lead's left hand, which usually holds the Follow's right hand. At no point should it be necessary for any partner to firmly grab the other's hand. It is sufficient to press the hand or even only finger tips slightly against each other, the Follow's hand following the Lead's hand.
Another important leading mechanism is hip contact. Though not possible in traditional Latin dances like Rumba, Cha-cha, Tango Argentino because of partner separation, hip contact is a harmonious and sensual way of communicating movement to the partner, used primarily in Standard or Ballroom Dances (English / slow Waltz, European Tango, Quickstep etc.) and Caribbean dances.
Types of follow
- Active Follow
- Passive Follow
'Backleading' is when a Follow is executing steps without waiting for, or contrary to the Lead's lead. Both are considered bad dancing habits because it makes the Follow difficult to lead and dance with.
Backleading can be a teaching tool that is often used intentionally by an instructor when dancing with a student Lead, in order to help them learn the desired technique.
Backleading sounds similar to "hijacking", and indeed it is often used in place of "hijacking". However the two terms have significant differences, stemming from intentions. The first, superficial, difference: hijacking is usually an occasional "outburst" of the Follow, which otherwise diligently follows the Lead, while a "backlead" may do this almost on every other step. The second, a more significant one: hijacking is an actual Lead, i.e., a hijacker does their stuff and watches for the 'Lead' to 'Follow' (reversed roles!), while backleading is taking care only about one's own dancing.
Sometimes the Follow steals the lead and the couple reverses roles for some time. This is called hijacking (also known as lead stealing). Hijacking requires experience and good connection, since without proper timing it may look like sloppy dancing. A signal for hijacking is typically an unusually changed (mostly, increased) stress in the connection from the Follow's side. "Unusually" meaning more than typically required for the execution of the current step (by these partners). For a Follow to hijack, they must be sure that the Lead will understand or at least guess the Follow's intentions.
Additional Dance Terms
Closed Position: The basic dance position has the Lead and Follow facing one another, usually with the Lead's right hand on the Follow's back and the left hand holding the Follow's right hand. The height at which the Lead holds their left hand varies depending on the style of dance.
Open Position: An open position will have the Lead and Follow facing one another, holding with one or both hands. Partners have slightly more distance between them than in closed position.
Apart Position: No hands held or contact made.
Promenade Position: A closed position that forms a V-shape. The Lead will turn approximately 1/8 of a turn to the left and the Follow 1/8 of a turn to the right, with heads following in respective directions. These degrees of turn vary, depending on the style of dance.
Counter-Promenade Position: Similar V-position as above, with partners walking in same direction yet with toes facing opposite directions (towards one another).
Outside Partner Position: A closed position where both of the Lead's feet step on the outside track of the Follow's feet; right leg will be against right leg.
Alignment: Indicate the directions the feet face in relationship to the room. Utilizes the Line Of Dance, which creates orientation positions in the room where the dance is taking place.
Turn: Direction of the turn indicates which shoulder will move backward as one turns. In a Left turn, the left shoulder will move backward. In the Right turn, the right shoulder will move backward.
Sway: Sway indicates body movement in the opposite direction of the moving foot. Sway Left stretches away from the moving right foot, while Sway Right stretches away from the moving left foot. Straight indicates no sway, holding an upright position.
Counter-Sway: Body moves in the same direction of the moving foot.
Rise and Fall: Refers to the body movement ascending and descending to create dynamic levels in the dance.
Contra Body Movement (CBM): Describes the body movement when the opposite shoulder moves in the same direction as the opposite or moving leg.
Contra Body Movement Position (CBMP): Describes the foot position when the moving foot is in the same line of position as the opposite foot (as in being on a tightrope).
Fall Away: Both dancers walk backwards.