Is it always the leader’s fault?

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.

It’s sexist.

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. 🙂

6 Comments, RSS

  1. […] Many people say it’s “always” the leaders fault when a move goes wrong. I don’t agree, really – I personally make mistakes or could be following better all of the time. This […]

  2. Sarah July 1, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    I agree and disagree. I think your points that follows should always work to keep improving and are just as responsible for creating a good dance are absolutely true. Also excellent point that the idea that following is passive (or worse yet, easy) is super sexist.

    However I do think “It’s always the lead’s fault” is a useful phrase because of the way West Coast Swing is usually taught. While pattern teaching is definitely being phased out at conventions and higher levels, I think it’s still really common at local clubs. So you get issues where followers learn not to follow, but to execute specific patterns based on certain cues. And then leads will blame follows if they don’t execute a pattern even though it’s actually because the lead didn’t lead it. And those are the types of places I think “It’s always the lead’s fault” is really useful: it tells the lead that if they didn’t execute a specific move on the social floor, there are probably things they could be improving to make it more likely they’ll succeed next time.

    I think also feeding into this is that most new follows are women and most new leads are men. And women are generally* taught a loooot more self-doubt and self-criticism than men**. I find that women are much more critical and questioning of their dance (both in leading and following). Whereas men are a little more confident (or too often overconfident) in their abilities. So because there’s still a high correlation (especially in new dancers) between follow-woman and lead-man, you have a lot more leads who are overconfident and a lot more follows who are critical of themselves. And because of that, I think having a phrase that tells leaders they aren’t as good as they think they are can be helpful in many situations.

    But since I’m working with generalities here, it’s also good to remember that it doesn’t always hold to individual situations. And I think that’s the problem: while “It’s always the leader’s fault” is useful 90% of the time, 10% of the time it’s not. And the trick is recognizing when you’re in one of those 10% situations and not ignoring it just because it’s less common.

    Which I guess is basically the point of your whole post, haha. So I kind of just came back to your side. But I guess my conclusion is that it’s still a useful phrase because it’s more often needed than not, whereas you’d prefer it be gotten rid of entirely. I guess if we could sum all this up in a different, better phrase, that would be great. But unfortunately, “Sometimes men who lead can be overly self-confident because of the patriarchal values we are raised with, but they should strive to continue to be better leads and not blame follows for their poor leading ability” doesn’t roll off the tongue 😛

    *I’m American, so this may be somewhat different in other places.
    **Also note that I am *not* saying this is remotely innate or biological or anything. It’s definitely from the culture we’re raised in.

    • Stefani July 7, 2016 @ 2:29 am

      hahahaha. thank you. this was a super insightful comment – it means a lot to me that you’d take the time (and I like all your caveats 🙂 ). I think you are right that obviously it can be the leader’s fault, and often is, but I simply want to say, it can be anybody. I don’t want us to say “It’s ALWAYS the leader’s fault” because that’s factually incorrect. It’s just not. And I don’t think it’s as altogether useful as perhaps you’re suggesting. Saying that “It’s often the leader’s fault!” might be more appropriate, or “hey guys make sure you lead stuff well.” lol. Saying “always the leader’s fault” might incite leaders to be better… but you could in fact make an argument in the other direction. I’m not sure how successful it would be, but it could be made. 😀

  3. Angela July 14, 2016 @ 1:54 am

    I would also like to hear your thoughts on it being the leader’s fault for running into people on the social dance floor. I’ve heard it mentioned in a couple of classes that leaders need to watch out for their follower so they don’t get hurt, but one of my favorite instructors makes sure to tell her beginner followers that they also need to be paying attention on the dance floor. To me, it just makes sense that everyone should be taking care not to run into people, but on occasion when I’ve mentioned to followers that they should be watching their surroundings and actively change their movement to try not to hit someone, I’ve had them reply that it is the leader’s responsibility. I wish more people (and definitely teachers during classes) would spread the message, especially to beginners, that floorcraft and respecting others on the dance floor is everyone’s responsibility.

    • Stefani July 14, 2016 @ 2:10 am

      That’s interesting. I always, always, always look out for (so behind) my leader. Even in bachata and kizomba when I often have my eyes closed I’ll still open them from time to time to check out the space, especially if its crowded. I just consider this to be a good habit of good human beings – to look out for each other. Leaders can’t see when new couples come onto the floor behind them, or when some couples dance uncharacteristically out of line, so they could be preparing to cross body lead or etc and simply not know what’s changed behind them in the last three seconds since they looked. So when I see something move in behind them, I give a warning squeeze with my hands if in open position or pressure if in closed position. In the afro latin dances this always works – they know what this means (I’ll also give them indication with my eyes if I can). In west coast swing it is more difficult because of the extension and compression – I’m still working on a good method. usually a kind of squeeze that is very uncharacteristic of me or the dance works okay, though not always. I will also often put my hand on the back of someone moving toward us to indicate to that other couple that we are there and they are entering our space.

      That being said, I obviously agree with you that followers should be on the lookout. But since we don’t get to “choose” what comes next, it is, ultimately, up to the lead to make sure that where they want to go is clear. I could be looking out behind my lead but maybe she wants to lead me off to the side or keep me where I am. Leads are constantly searching, while on a crowded floor, for a good, safe space into which to send their followers. I don’t see this ever changing – but as followers we can certainly help by being on the lookout and giving indication whenever possible.

      ? 🙂

  4. […] (I talk about these ideas at great length in the post “Is it always the leader’s fault?”) […]

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