General Leading & Following
Lead is communicated from the leader to the follower through their connection. In closed position, the connection is the frame; in open positions, there are more variations:
- Double hand hold;
- Single hand hold;
- Leader's hand on follower's shoulder/waist, or follower's hand on leader's shoulder/waist.
Each partner is responsible for maintaining their part of the connection. In most connections, both partners need to maintain tone, or light tension, in the arms. While the leader usually has more control over partner spacing than the follower does, both partners influence the resulting spacing between themselves. Both partners should generally have their weight slightly forward when dancing.
In closed position, the leader generally indicates where he wants the follower to be relative to himself with his hands. This allows the leader to offset the follower to the side as is commonly desired in various dances. The follower should comfortably connect RH to leader's LH matching the leader's arm style, and then make contact with her back against the leader's RH. The follower should move into the leader's RH until there is light tension between the partners. The leader creates this tension by maintaining the position of his RH as the follower is moving into it.
Whenever the follower is going from open to closed position, or when performing figures such as turns from closed position and ending in closed position again, the follower must move back until she contacts the leader's RH with her back and receives light pressure from leader's RH.
Each partner is responsible for protecting their space when in closed position. This generally means maintaining tone in the arms and keeping upper body some distance away from the hands which are usually in contact with the leader's body somewhere.
In open positions, there are more options for the connection and the connection is generally not as strong is it is in closed position. The key to connection in open positions is maintaining tone in the arms, for both leader and follower. This video explains how connection works in open positions:
The hand/waist and hand/shoulder connections are usually very brief, and happen in the middle of a figure as one or both partners are turning or otherwise moving.
A figure in which the partners have no connection is called a free figure. For example, a free spin is a spin with no connection between partners.
Establishment and severing of the connection is generally the leader's task. This means, for example, the leader will generally grab either or both of the follower's hands and hold on to them, and eventually release. The follower should maintain these connections for as long as the leader is maintaining them, but should release when the leader signals a release.
In order for the leader to successfully grab the follower's hand(s), the follower generally needs to have her hands in prescribed places so that the leader can find them. Swing, for example, specifies forearms aimed down and outward at roughly 45 degree angles in what is called the "ready position" for this purpose. Another rule is the follower should keep her hands where the leader leaves them, for example on the leader's waist during a waist roll/waist slide.
To permit the leader to release hand connection when needed, followers should generally never use thumbs when connecting to the leader. Unlike followers, leaders do have some legitimate uses for thumbs.
In order to lead anything, the leader must first know what they are leading. This means, in practice, the leader must plan at least one figure ahead of the current one, and in order to "be musical" as people call it the leader must either know and understand the general style of music being danced to, or have memorized the specific song, as well as plan several figures ahead.
The leader does not execute the follower's actions. Leading is informing the follower as to what needs to happen, but the follower is responsible for her own steps and movement. A leader generally should not force the follower to perform a figure.
While steps are generally clearly the responsibility of the person taking them, so that the leader is responsible for his steps and the follower is responsible for her steps, rotation and positioning is a shared responsibility and, for example, when the leader rotates the follower this is not the same thing as the leader performing (or forcing) the follower to take a step. With that said, better followers will perform their own rotation while followers who are not as good may require the leader to rotate them.
Lead for most figures can be broken down into two parts: indication to the follower that a specific figure is coming up, and signaling of the beginning of that figure. Sometimes the two are quite distinct and separate, sometimes they are different parts of the same movement on the leader's part, sometimes one or another may be omitted.
For example, in swing, a tuck turn has clearly separate prep and figure leads, whereas a non-tuck sendout can merge the two into a single long lead. A non-tuck sendout can be indicated and the figure itself not lead, or the figure can be lead smoothly without prep at all.
Lead (either prep lead or figure lead) must come before the movement which is led. This often places the lead either between the counts of music (common in smooth dances, for example) or on the preceding count (such as aforementioned tuck turn in swing).
When possible, lead should come from movement of the body, either linear or rotational, as opposed to movement of the arms. This is most clear in closed positions where, for example, the lead for the follower to move back is the leader moving their body forward. Since the lead must precede the beat as we established, the leader begins to move their body half a beat or so ahead of the step that the body movement goes with.
In rhythm, especially when in open position, sometimes there is not enough body connection to lead a movement with the body. In this case the lead can come from the arm or the wrist. For example, follower's UAT from open in salsa are often lead from the wrist.
Where the leader's responsiblity is to decide what figure to perform, plan the execution and communicate that plan to the follower, the follower's responsibility is to perceive the indication of the figure and then execute what was requested by the leader.
One difference between the leader and the follower is that the follower often times does not know the entire figure she is going to execute at the beginning of said figure, and instead she only knows the beginning. Further information comes during the figure itself, and most figures have variations.
The follower should not rely on the leader to move her, but should execute her own steps and movements. A follower who does not move on her own is perceived as being heavy by the leader, and tends to fall behind the music.
The follower should generally never be ahead of the leader in steps. Meaning, if both leader and follower are meant to step on the same beat, the follower should never step before the leader steps. If the leader is good, he will indicate that the step is coming before the beat arrives, allowing both partners to step exactly at the same time. If the leader does not indicate the movement prior to the step, the follower is generally meant to wait for the leader to take the step, though this is not a great position to be in. The follower taking a step slightly after the leader is usually not a problem.
Just like the leader should lead figures with movement of his body if possible, the follower should respond by moving her body first and filling in the steps as needed. For example, if the leader is moving forward and moving the follower backward, the follower should respond by moving the body back and then taking a step to retain balance.
Back leading is when the follower's movements cause a change in the leader's movements. This is different from the follower simply being unresponsive to a lead (intentionally or not).
A follower who is slow to react is not necessarily a major issue - as long as the lag is contained within a beat, the leader may be able to work around it by starting to lead movements sooner. If the lag is growing without bound eventually the follower falls out of sync with the music which then is a problem.
Back leading generally occurs in two cases:
- The follower is ahead of the leader. This can apply to steps, turns, or even weight changes. Being ahead of the leader changes what the leader does because partner connection, and lead, depends on the follower providing a certain amount of resistance to the leader, and if this resistance disappears because the follower took a step instead of holding in position the leader may, for example, become unbalanced if he tries to lead the step anyway. The solution to being ahead of the leader is to wait to take steps and execute movements until the follower feels the lead.
- The follower is moving her body parts when she has not received a lead to do so. This is rather common in salsa with followers moving arms/hands around when the leader would prefer to have quiet hands. Another example of this is in swing/lindy hop/hustle where the follower may lift the leader's left hand from where the leader would like to have it. As many movements are led with hands, having the follower move leader's hands makes it difficult for the leader to lead movements as either the leader must stiffen his arms/wrists/fingers to retain hand position or be left with hands not in position to lead movement. Less commonly, things like cuban style hip movement in dances where it is not appropriate, such as lindy hop, similarly confuses the leader. Solution here is for the follower to not move leader's hands and to dance in the correct style.