Ballroom Dance > Ballroom: The advantage of learning both roles.

Discussion in 'Ballroom Dance' started by Dr Dance, May 25, 2017.

  1. Dr Dance

    Dr Dance Well-Known Member

    Great article:

    "In partner dance, we have two (typically) well-defined roles: leader and follower. Each of these roles has its own set of responsibilities.

    The leader is the director, who has a vision for what happens next. They create the requests, which are then processed by the follower.

    The follower interprets requests made by the leader, and implements the request. They create the vision the leader has set out.

    But, what if we blur these lines a bit?

    The Concept of Following while Leading
    The most sought-after leads have a very special quality: the ability to understand and interpret the responses given by the follow. This means that the best leaders are not 100% the leader in the dance; there’s a certain percentage of following as well.

    Think of it like a (traditional) sandwich: the follower is the stuff in the middle. The leader is the two pieces of bread, framing the follow on either side. On one end, they’re leading the follow in the direction of their vision (the top slice). But, they are also using part of their capacity (the bottom slice) to make sure the follow is still with them.

    This creates a ‘floor’ that keeps the follower from falling out of a comfortable connection. It also tells the leader if their follower is:

    • Lagging behind the lead
    • Losing balance
    • Misinterpreting the lead
    • Uncomfortable with a specific movement
    This doesn’t mean the leader stops leading. But, it means they are maintaining an awareness of what’s going on with the follow – rather than being a slave to their own vision.

    It’s like having two tour guides for a group: one keeps the front moving, and the other makes sure no one loses the group at the rear. If the rear falls too far behind, the front stops and waits for the rear to catch up.

    Often, this ability to follow-while-leading is the difference between ‘average’ leads and ‘great’ leads. It’s how they create the feeling that the follow can ‘do no wrong’. If you’re able to readjust your lead to your follower’s mistakes, they will never feel like they ‘messed up’. Rather, you give the follower a feeling of mastery because you’re able to accommodate their vision, mistakes, and issues by ‘following’ them.

    Further, the ability to follow the follower works beautifully with advanced dancers. When you know how to follow your partner’s movements, an advanced follower can create new movements with you and add musical accents. This can lead to new and creative explorations in the dance – without those pesky, disjointed moments.

    The Concept of Leading while Following
    Leading while following is when a follower is able to successfully interpret the imperfect, and fill the gaps in the dance by being responsible for their own body and balance. It is less to do with proposing new movements, and more being responsible for what is currently happening.

    Followers who claim that they will ‘only follow’ often lack this skill. It can also be simple stubbornness – or an education that hasn’t given them the confidence to own their own dance.

    In the absence of a necessary lead, a follow who can ‘lead’ their own body can retain their balance and control. Sometimes, it can even help put a lead back on track. You can often see it with followers who subtly adjust timing for an off-time lead, or with beginners who struggle with basic footwork patterns.

    The best followers are able to do that leading without ‘taking over’ the flow of the dance. They understand what the difference is between filling the empty spaces, or derailing a space already taken up by a lead.

    Advanced leaders also use this to create play in the dance. With a follower who is unafraid to lead their body and be responsible for their own execution, leaders can get creative with new and exciting movements. Experiments can happen. But, it always requires a follower to be responsible for their own body.

    The Best Way to Learn This
    This is a dividing issue. I believe learning how to both lead and follow a dance accelerates your ability to lead and follow at the same time.

    I believe that the earlier you start, the easier it is to ‘switch brains’ between the two roles. For each dance where I ‘started’ the roles close to simultaneously, I have little trouble switching between the two. Leading and following feel fundamentally different, and inhabit a different muscle memory.

    For dancers who leave that bridge for later, learning the other role often temporarily affects their proficiency in their home role. Followers learning to lead temporarily become ‘heavy’, or tend towards backleading. Leaders sometimes lose their intention.

    But, it’s worth it (in my opinion).

    The dancers who make it through that extra effort to learn both roles tend to understand what their partner needs to feel from them. Leaders learn how to tell when their follower isn’t quite ‘with them’, versus when they’re just a bit sluggish. Followers learn where their opportunities are to ‘add’ to the dance – and where adding means interfering with the current lead.

    Of course, you can still learn this skill without learning both roles – it just tends to be a bit of a longer journey. For example, on an ambidancetrous dancer, I can show them what a movement should feel like. I can replicate on their body what the responses need to be. On a single-role dancer, I can’t do this nearly as successfully.

    In Conclusion
    Learn how to use both the skill of leading and following in each of your dances. Having the ability to access both tools will make you an infinitely better dance partner – and student. It’s a must, if you are a teacher.

    My personal favourite way to unlock this ability is to learn both roles. But, in the event that this isn’t for you, spend some serious time investing in the art of listening to your partner’s body – instead of your own."

    Famous instructor Bill Davies said it best, "In ballroom, there are no leaders and followers. There are only pilots and co pilots."
    raindance and opendoor like this.
  2. snapdancer

    snapdancer Well-Known Member

    In my experience, a woman who claims "I just follow" usually doesn't.
    Rhythmdancer and IndyLady like this.
  3. IndyLady

    IndyLady Well-Known Member

    I'm sad to say I agree with this. Although I have also made this statement, usually when a lead (often a newer dancer) asks how to lead a particular figure, usually at party when we're in the middle of dancing - I often don't know how to lead it from his POV, I just know how to respond and do the follow's part.
  4. GGinrhinestones

    GGinrhinestones Well-Known Member

    I don't know if I entirely agree with this article - or disagree. I agree entirely with the concept of "leading while following" and "following while leading" - each partner should absolutely know and do their own part and be in tune with their impact on the other. Simple though it is, it's the most basic (and possibly least understood, in the beginning) definition of partner dancing. And I do agree that any follower who "just follows" really doesn't understand their role as a follow.

    That said, I'm not sure I agree at all with the idea that you have to learn both parts to grasp this concept. I say that mostly from personal experience. I am well aware that my own dance education did not include the leader's part. I couldn't begin to tell a leader how to dance his patterns or how to lead or any of the other myriad of skills a leader has to worry about that a follower essentially does not. However, after years of being a follower that I am perfectly capable of "leading my own body", or "getting a lead back on track", or knowing where I can play with the dance without screwing up the lead, all without knowing his steps or his job. And while I fully appreciate that the article above did acknowledge you can learn these skills without learning the other part, "it just takes longer", I'm not sure I agree with that either. Sure, if comes from experience just like everything else in dance. But I don't have to learn someone else's job to appreciate the job they do and fully grasp how I can either help or hurt that job.

    That said, I do see benefits from learning the other role, but not necessarily for the reasons above. Curious what everyone else thinks?
    IndyLady likes this.
  5. Mengu

    Mengu Well-Known Member

    I try to learn both parts... I've done so since I started learning to dance. I feel it's just part of dance education. Why would I not pay attention to what my instructor is saying when she's talking to my partner? Also for me, a good way to understand what a lead is supposed to feel like, is to be led. My instructor will often lead me to demonstrate what it should feel like. Of course it sometimes just feels like magic, and takes some analysis to figure it out, but is still very helpful. Unfortunately I don't have many opportunities to dance as a follower, to improve my understanding of what a good lead should feel like. As leaders, we do a good bit of following, but it's really not quite the same as role reversal. I don't know if role reversal would make me better at following as a leader, but it may allow me to understand what I need to do, to be a better leader.
  6. BrokeForBallroom

    BrokeForBallroom New Member

    I found I really enjoy knowing both roles in a dance. I like knowing how the full figure works rather than just half of the figure. I followed Latin for 2.5 years, and then lead it for 1.5, both on the collegiate competition floor. While I've danced all the other styles for just as long, I only learned the follow's part, and I am much more comfortable in my understanding of the basics in Latin than any of the other styles. So my opinion is that while learning both parts isn't necessary, it can be useful. If you are the type that doesn't pick up on things unless they are explicitly being taught, definitely learn both. Otherwise it's really good for the type of person who likes to know everything thats going on.
  7. Caroline Skipper

    Caroline Skipper New Member

    I find that learning and dancing both roles gives me a greater insight to how the movement of my body affects the partnership.
    Dr Dance likes this.
  8. GGinrhinestones

    GGinrhinestones Well-Known Member

    Totally agree with this. I don't think you need to learn both roles to truly grasp your own, but as a self (and other) proclaimed know-it-all, it bugs me when I only know half.
  9. snapdancer

    snapdancer Well-Known Member

    I think it's useful to learn what the follower is supposed to be doing, from an intellectual point of view. What I don't think is useful is to develop the following skill to the point that it becomes automatic.

    As leader, it is useful to know where the lady should be including which foot her weight should be on and also to know in the moment where she actually is. Sometimes those aren't the same place. Saving the analysis and blame-awarding for later, in the moment I can usually figure out something to do with what the lady has given me and keep dancing.

    A related anecdote: Last winter I danced with a young lady home on break from college. Apparently she was on the college dance team and the college had decent instruction. I asked her to dance a NC2S. She was handling the simple figures well so I gradually ramped up the difficulty. At one point she exclaimed "I don't know what foot I'm on". I replied "That's OK. Because I do." ;) She was on the correct foot, and we kept dancing.
    opendoor, j_alexandra and Dr Dance like this.
  10. Caroline Skipper

    Caroline Skipper New Member

    While I find it useful to know the figures for both roles, the greatest benefit I've received has been from dancing both roles with multiple partners. I have gained a greater recognition of what I'm feeling, why it's happening and how to replicate, adjust or correct as needed. I have been following for about six years in American Smooth and Rhythm. I competed in Country Western, and I dance a variety of street dances and swing dances. I was a casual leader in beginner class and intermediate classes for about 4 years. I found that leading improved my following from the very beginning. In the last year, I took a more deliberate approach to leading. As my leading has advanced, my following has really taken off. I am better at actively contributing to the conversation.
  11. Partner Dancer

    Partner Dancer Well-Known Member

    To me, it comes down to skill subsets. There are skills related to leading, following, and (most importantly) "proper" use of the body (in body movement, weight transfers, and timing). The third set is mostly common for leaders and followers. When a follower "just follows," it's not really the skills related to following that's the main issue, but the skills related to use of the body. These followers often think the leaders can crank them around the dance floor and have a poor appreciation of how their own bodies work. It's the same for leaders who "just lead;" most of them don't know how to move well either (and hence can't do "body leads").

    Many/most partner dancers learn to use the body as part of the leading and following process. Very few really work on things like understanding where power, balance, flight, integral and isolated movement, range of motion, etc., independent and in conjunction with the partnering. Look at it this way, if a "super" follower is able to "move anywhere (at any pace)," then leading such a follower would be a piece of cake. Similarly true for a "super" leader.

    Many skills also have gender-bias.

    I agree with you. I don't see many/any (partner) dancers that are proficient at both leading and following. In many cases, especially when they are less-than-advanced, dancers who do both parts end up pretty mediocre doing either part.

    In medicine, and many other professions, there are specialists who are damned good at what they do. The specialists gain so much experience in their foci that no generalist can ever even come close. And certainly, doctors don't need to be patients to perform healing.

    Yup. Good for satisfying curiosity factor, when one is bored with the "traditional" role one has been assigned, or when leader/follower imbalance exists at an dance.
  12. Caroline Skipper

    Caroline Skipper New Member

    I began focusing on my leading in order to become a better follower so my experience may not be the norm.
  13. cornutt

    cornutt Well-Known Member

    It's my contention that describing the roles as "lead" and "follow" is something we do mainly to make it easier for newbies to understand. In both roles, the process is highly interactive, and either partner may be "leading" or "following" at any given moment. There are a few responsibilities allocated mainly to the lead, such as setting timing, and a few allocated mainly to the follow, such as embellishing. But as to who is actually leading at a particular moment, there's a lot of back and forth.
    j_alexandra and GGinrhinestones like this.
  14. DanceMentor

    DanceMentor Administrator

    I think this is something that often happens in a natural progression as someone becomes a very high-level dancer. Almost every professional dancer knows both parts.

    For people that are more in the middle of their learning, I think it can be beneficial for them to understand certain aspects of the other part. It might be beneficial for a leader to have to follow a couple of basic figures. And it can be beneficial for a follower to lead some figures.

    And after saying that I like to say that I don't always like these words leading and following. They can be very confusing. Because someone is dancing the ladies part, that does not mean that they are passive. And because someone is dancing the man's part that does not mean they are constantly making everything happen. So having a better understanding of both parts through playing the other roll can help make this more evident.

    An interesting exercise can be to have the lady take on the more aggressive role of making the routine get down the floor while the man takes a more passive role and is more following her. Of course this is just an exercise, but it can help further the couple's ability to help each other during the dance.
  15. Caroline Skipper

    Caroline Skipper New Member

    I agree that the terms leading and following are imperfect. However, I've yet to encounter more accurate terms. It seems all the terms for the roles require explanation, especially for newer dancers. Any ideas?
  16. opendoor

    opendoor Well-Known Member

    I always say then: "that´s my job"
    j_alexandra likes this.
  17. cornutt

    cornutt Well-Known Member

    There are some posts here about using the terms "initiator" and "responder". Not sure what I think about that; I think maybe it still doesn't really capture how the process works.
  18. RiseNFall

    RiseNFall Well-Known Member

    A year or so ago after I had moved up to silver I had several, "Oh, you can lead that!" moments in terms of shaping, develpes, etc. Teacher's best response: "You don't think I would leave something that important up to you, do you?" :rofl:
    cornutt likes this.
  19. Dance Mad Helen

    Dance Mad Helen Active Member

    This past year I have been competing as a lead but also dancing follow in some lessons. It has been helpful to be able to be able to help my partner with steps and now trying to go back to following is a bit tricky

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