Lead or Follow?

5th November 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way ~ George S. Patton

When you start to learn to lead, one of the things that most teachers drum into you is that you can't be "nice". You can't be hesitant with your lead, you have to be clear, confident, assured. Dominant even. If you're not 100% clear this way, your partner will sense your hesitation, and she simply won't know what you want her to do.

So you can't be gentlemanly, you can't be hesitant, and you can't be "invitational". You're the leader. So lead.

This is all true.

But as always, there are different values of "true"...

An inconvenient truth

At a couple of separate occasions on my recent Mango Adventures, teachers described how the followers can input into the dance.

For example, followers can delay or pause the pivot part of the ocho step.

Similarly, followers can provide signals to their partners, to indicate what they'd like to do at various stages, interpreting the music, suggesting movements and so on.

And it's possible - although not easy - to create a "shared lead" dance, where both partners have roughly equal input into how you dance.

So there are all these possibilities for, as the saying goes, being inspired by your partner.

Note: I'm not here talking about the standard "adjust to your partner's style" that most competent leaders do with our followers. I'm talking about actually taking elements of lead from the follower.

If done right, this can result in high-quality and exhilharating dances.

If done wrong

The problem is, "doing it right" may be incredibly difficult to achieve - basically, more trouble than it's worth.

For a start, you have to communicate this "interaction" aspect to your partner, and you have to have the right partner. Most of the partners I've tried this with have either wanted to turn the dance into a wrestling match, or we simply haven't been able to connect at that level. At best, we've generally just managed to achieve a good "tag" dance where we smoothly swapped the lead at certain points.

Sure, some or most of that is my fault - but I'm not a beginner, I have some experience. I can tell that this will, at the least, take me some time to work on - and I have so much else I could work on at the moment...

More caveats

Even if you get this to work, there's some obvious issues with it.

Firstly, will this compromise the quality of the lead? If I'm working hard to give my follower an opportunity to input into the dance, can I still keep a clear and sure lead? Or will there inevitably be some compromise?

Secondly, is this compromising the quality of the follow? If the follower's trying to "speak", will she be able to "listen" as well?

Thirdly, what about habit? I mean, clearly this technique is not for beginners, but even for mroe experienced leads / follows, I'm not sure if this is a technique that's appropriate...


Ummm.... not sure if I have one, to be honest.

I wrote this article in response to the followers class taught at tango Mango by Eric Rainer-Vehrs and Paul Vossen.

Both of these guys are highly-respected teachers, and when they say something, it's often worth listening to. If they say leaders need to listen to their followers, they may have a point.

Certainly, we need to tune in to our followers, we need to create a dance with them that we both enjoy and that allows us both to participate in. And when we dance with familiar partners, anything goes in terms of playing and interaction, as long as it doesn't frighten the horses.

But I can't help that thinking a "listen to the follower"-based approach, when starting to dance with a new partner, will simply result in the follower having nothing to say beyond "Why aren't you leading me?"

 - David Bailey, 5th November 2009

Related articles