One of the most common beliefs in the Afro-Latin dance scenes is that mistakes are always the leader’s fault.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the dance floor, experienced some sort of miscommunication with my leader, and said “my bad” only to have the leader positively insist that it is always the leader’s job to make the dance go well. They always say, “no, no, no, it’s my bad, it’s always the leader’s fault.”
I think this statement could not be more wrong. I always fight back. I roll my eyes; I shout over the music; I say, “I’m allowed to fuck up, too.”
The whole idea of it is just blatantly incorrect. It’s plain wrong. I know that everyone wants leaders to be chivalrous, and in charge, but that completely misses the point. Sure, a leader can assess a follower’s skill and attempt to adjust for it. I know that. Some of them are experts at it. But I know extremely talented leaders who still sometimes get smacked in the face by an errant arm. There is no way they can anticipate every move a follower makes.
One time I hit a guy in the head with my own head… while we were shining. How could that have possibly been his fault at all? It most certainly was not.
There are infinite ways in which followers can make mistakes. I could step forward on 1 instead of back. I could be off time. I could throw my weight into a dip unexpectedly. I could lose my balance on a spin. I could collapse my frame and let my elbows go behind my body. I could backlead. I could let go of my leader’s grip. Leaders can sometimes anticipate these things, especially in the case of advanced leaders dancing with novice followers, but not always.
Sometimes – often – it is simply the case that mistakes are the follower’s fault.
What’s more, I find the whole idea to be rather insulting. Saying that everything is the leader’s fault denies that followers bring any sort of agency or skill to a dance at all. It says that the quality of the dance doesn’t depend upon what the follower has to contribute, but instead upon how well the leader maniuplate’s the follower’s body.
If we are going to continue to do these dances but do so in a way that honors equality, we need to acknowledge that followers have agency and skills that make a difference.
In the examples of followers making mistakes that I listed above, in every case, the leader can surely compensate for them. For example, a leader could lead dips that are less deep. A leader could more carefully guide a follower’s timing. A leader lead turn patterns equal to the follower’s level. But there is still a very big skill set that a follower can bring to meet the leader half way. A follower can learn how to do a better dip, can fix their frame, can learn timing. Leaders pick the moves but these moves are selected and executed in part based on what the follower contributes to the dance.
Let me be accountable for my own mistakes, leaders, and we can make a better dance together.
If you do so, perhaps most importantly of all, then we can all become better dancers.
If we constantly tell followers that mistakes are not their fault — and if followers then get in the habit of blaming mistakes on leaders — then followers literally have zero impetus to become better dancers.
One major component of quickly becoming a badass social dancer is constantly evaluating and correcting oneself on the dance floor. I am constantly in a state of self-correction on the floor. Every time a hiccup or mistake occurs, I immediately think “what could I have done to have avoided it?” There are always many different answers. Maybe I could have better balanced myself. Maybe I could have better connected with my leader’s frame. Maybe I could have stepped more evenly in the line of dance.
If I thought “oh he could have led that better” every time there was a mistake in a dance, like our culture apparently wants me to do, I’d never learn what mistakes I was making. I’d never improve. It is 100% because I consider myself culpable and responsible for the quality of a dance that I have managed to become a better dancer at all.
People often say that leaders should be able to read followers and craft a dance that matches their skills… but followers can also read leaders, and tailor their skill set to fit within the context of that particular dance. This is an important quality of being a good follower, perhaps the most important. None of us will ever get good at it if we expect the burden of communication and execution to lie on the leader’s shoulders alone.
Ultimately, my greatest fear here is that teaching dancers that it’s a leader’s job to fix things prevents followers from reaching their true potential.
So the answer to my initial question of whether mistakes are always a leader’s fault is no. It is not always the leader’s fault. Dances are not composed of robot leaders and robot followers — masters and puppets — but rather human beings who communicate. This mean that a complex set of both leading and following skills are necessary for a good dance, and that everybody is accountable for the talent that they bring to a dance.
I have a feeling you disagree. Go ahead, let me have it. 🙂