Great Partnering
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.  The nonverbal lead-follow connection between partners is the essence of social dancing.  And the best dance partnering is not only a matter of skill, but also of attitude.

In writing about "leading" and "following," I first want to clarify that I'm not especially fond of the term "following."  Yes, I use the term, but it's a bit problematic for two reasons.

Reason #1:  The Dark Ages of Ballroom Dance

The less important reason is that for some people the term "following" still carries a negative connotation left over from the early 20th century.

The original ballroom emphasis of partnering was wonderfully generous, as reflected in these quotes from the 19th century:
Recollect that the desire of imparting pleasure to others is essential.  The truly polite person is always mindful of the comfort of those around them.   — Prof. D. L. Carpenter, Philadelphia, 1854

True, genuine politeness has its foundation deeper than in the mere conformation to certain rules, for it is the spontaneous and natural effect of an intelligent mind and kindly heart which overlooks annoyances in consideration for the happiness of others.   — Edward Ferrero, NY, 1859

Unfortunately, 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".

Soon after American women won the right to vote, many dance manuals changed their tone, proposing that the man was still the "boss" on the dance floor, while the "weaker sex" had to "submit entirely" to the man. Advice for women was that, "she must not have a mind of her own," and that "you don't have much to say in the matter at all."

You can read the rather shocking full quotations here: Partnering Before and After the Vote.

But that was a long time ago — the "dark ages" of ballroom dance.  Fortunately we've become much more enlightened since then, as friendliness and respect have returned to the dance floor.

Reason #2:  It Isn't Accurate

The main reason I don't care for the term "following" is that it doesn't accurately describe the role.

Dancers in that role do not "follow."  They interpret signals they're given, with a keen responsiveness that is highly active.

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 partners, show them that you respect this intelligence and experience.  How?  If they do something that you didn't intend, recognize that they still made a valid alternate interpretation of the signals that you gave.  They didn't make a "mistake".

No, don't just recognize it.  Show them that you know they didn't make a mistake, by flowing along with them during their valid alternate interpretation.  They are dancing — try to keep up with them.

Unlike language translating, interpreting cues includes Follows leaving their own stamp of individuality, adding flourishes, style and flair which their partners admire.  Sometimes, they can even invent their own footwork variations that harmonize with their partner's footwork.

            Friendly but clear

Leads, I probably don't need to state the obvious, but you must give your partner clear indications to interpret.  Just as a language interpreter can't translate mumbling, dance partners 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."

I disagree.  Clear leading is the physical equivalent of quiet perfect diction, not shouting.

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

            The flow state

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

In sports, we admire the players who zigzag brilliantly across the field, completely aware of their surroundings and responding instantly to each moment, rather than those who slavishly follow a game plan that 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.

Perhaps this is a minor point, but I prefer the term Follow to Follower, because Follower sounds more passive, and is thus a bit farther from describing this highly active role.  A follower is someone who trails along; Follow is this dynamic role, imho.  But using this term is just a personal preference, not an argument.

            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.  After leading a move, Leads track their partners' movement and stay with them, perceptive and responsive to their situation, watching where their partners are going, where their feet are, where their momentum is heading, which steps flow smoothly from their current step.  Leads know and care what is comfortable for their partners, what is pleasurable or fun.  Good Leads dance for their partners' ability and comfort.

Good Leads clearly suggests an option, which is different from controlling their partners.  They propose, not prescribe, a certain way of moving.  If their partners don't go with their proposal (do not 'follow'), they refrain from exerting more power to force partners to accept the proposal.

And as with the Follow role, the aware Lead also enjoys the flow state of relaxed responsiveness.  Both 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 often describe their flow state the same way.

As we dance, we constantly discover new opportunities , 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.

Partnering Part 3: Sketchy Guys

More thoughts and musings