My perfect lead

I have been asked several times if I could write more posts about leading. I am currently working to bring someone on board to talk about leading technique (as mine is sub-par). For the time being, however, I thought it might be nice to at least talk about my preferences.

What traits do I look for in leaders?

Now, to be clear – there are many followers who look for very  different things in their leaders than I do. For example, some followers really like to be showy (this is fine by me, just not my preference). Some like big moves (also fine, I like them too). Some like to be thrown around like a rag doll (I used to). Some like leaders who stick very closely to the parameters of the one kind of dance they do (like a salsero who is classically salsa), or leaders who aren’t surprising (this is common). Some I know even seek out leaders who are more forceful with their leading, because it gives them more energy into which they can lean for balance.

But I do have clear preferences. My preferences come out of a deeply held belief that dance is about presence and communication. The qualities  I appreciate most in a leader are those which enhance them.

So here we are – the ~11 traits that characterize my ideal leader.

1) Timing 

It should go without saying that being on time is crucially important for being an ideal leader.

But I will elaborate another timing point:

I don’t like it when leaders are in a hurry. What do I mean, “in a hurry?” Interestingly, I can spot this “hurry” in a heartbeat. It means always thinking about what’s next, and rushing ahead into it. It means blowing through a beat, instead of relaxing into it. It feels like impatience.

The majority of what I would call “advanced” or “experienced” leaders move confidently through the music without running. They relax into the beat, and are present with every count. Some even suspend over certain counts, particularly 4 and 8 in bachata and salsa, and wait until the last moment before moving onto the next step. This adds a beautiful sort of breath to a dance.

2) Emotional Connection

A good leader for me must be present with me. A good leader is attentive, takes care of me (as I take care of them), and focuses much more on what the dance feels like than how it looks. With a good leader a dance is an intensely good nonverbal conversation. This means eye contact, of course, but also so much more, such as being playful, communicating with our bodies, and communicating with various facial expressions depending on what the dance calls for.

I often default to some variety of “flirty” for my facial expressions and  for this to all of my leaders I expressly apologize.

Emotional connection means listening to the music together.  If in salsa, it means paying attention to each other while shining. In bachata, it means tuning into each other’s footwork. In west coast, it means communicating the hell out of your connection. In all dances, it means sharing 4 minutes of vulnerability, emotions, and – in my opinion – love, for one another.

2a) Romance

I have heard many people say that one dance is four minutes love – and I personally ascribe to this idea. There is something perfectly romantic and so, tenderly sweet about the structure of a dance. It’s vulnerable, it’s close, it’s paying attention, it’s taking care, it’s appreciating one another’s strengths and weaknesses, taking four minutes of your existence to give yourself over to each other.

My perfect leader is romantic. This leader touches me kindly; they hold me sweetly. This involves things like soft hands on my back, an intentional hold on my wrist; a loving touch of the foreheads when the timing is right.

This isn’t to say that this leader imposes an intimacy on me that I do not indicate I want. Romance does not equate to skeeziness. Romance is kind; romance is sweet; romance is respectful. And romance does not have to be sexual. It simply is romantic in the classic sense of the word: choosing to connect with, illuminating the best of, and deeply appreciate one another.

3) Feels deeply

Similarly, my ideal leader feels things deeply. I personally really enjoy feeling and expressing emotions when I dance, though it’s really emotionally challenging and indeed feels a bit off when I try to do this in a dance and my leader isn’t there with me.

Whether its a soft and slow bachata, a jazzy mambo, or a slanky cha cha, the more my leader feels and expresses, the more liberated I am to feel myself. We can take each other to really amazing expressive heights, if only we meet one another with the courage to do so.

3a) Is expressive

Perhaps it goes without  saying, but my ideal leader takes those deep feelings and turns them into a powerfully emotive (and therefore emotionally vulnerable) dance.

4) Control 

My ideal leader of course has superb technique. I like to think of technique as the combination of two things: knowledge of a dance, and control over one’s body. With these two things, anyone can dance stunningly, and both appear to be and actually be supremely confident. When you have complete control over your body, you do exactly what you intend to do. Your dancing happens because you choose it to, not because your body is forcing you to take steps or throw your arms out for balance. With good leading technique, this level of control also means that your follower feels the movements you are prompting them with extremely comfortable accuracy.

An important part of control is balance. The more firm a leader is in their own positioning, the more effortless and joyful a dance can be for a follower. And then, if you both have amazing balance, you can stop on a dime together or hang suspended in space, and look each other in the eyes and have one of those moments that is one of my absolute favorite about dancing, that says, we are so in tune; we are also very badass.

(For control for followers check out this post.)

5) Good posture

Good posture goes along with control, but I wanted to put it on this list separately because it is the first thing I look for when scanning the room for potential people to ask.

Good posture goes like this:

Stand up straight. Don’t hunch your shoulders forward, especially when in closed position (this is literally the worst). Stand up straight literally 100% of the time, unless it’s a stylistic choice for the sake of a shine or etc. Shoulders should be down and slightly back but not egregiously so. When you lead, do not let your elbows go behind you, and do not overextend your shoulders when leading moves to break your posture. Do not overextend your shoulders – it’s so important I said it twice. I avoid people who do. Trust me on these points, they’re incredibly important for dancing with everybody, not just me.

6) Precision

Very few things in the world are sexier to me than precision on the dance floor.

Precision is the art of knowing exactly how far to extend your lead, in what direction, and with the exact right amount of force at the exact right time. I am tempted to say it takes time to learn precision, but I know some leaders who were very precise off of the bat, because they were methodical and intentional about the mechanics of dance from the start.

7) Follower input

My ideal leader enjoys listening to me, and getting input from me.

This can happen in a number of different ways. For one, I really enjoy when a leader pays attention to my body and what it can do, and what I like to do. First dances can be the best dances if a leader discerns my skill set and gives me what I want. Sometimes if my knees are hurting I’ll resist (pointedly) moves where I have to bend down really far, and a good really will realize that’s a no-go and stop leading those moves. That’s great. A good leader will also pay attention to the green light signals I give. I can’t tell you how much I love it when a leader in our first dance ever starts to spin me and then realizes that spinning is kind of my wheelhouse, then gives me eight more right into a dip. Shows both a mastery of the dance and attentiveness to me. Love it.

Another ways follower input happens is when a leader gives ample space for me to contribute. This might mean slowing down a turn so I can spend some time doing whatever TF, or integrating more pauses into the dance so as to facilitate communication.

It’s nice when, on the rare occasion I decide to “hijack,” a leader is on board. But I will say this: I do not like it when a leader tells me my input is good, but I can only have it if I hijack (as has happened). These are partner dances in which the lead and follow rules are pretty much agreed upon–patriarchy is literally built into the fabric of the dance. I am also a human being who likes to walk gently among the people around me. If you expect me to interrupt you for the sake of our conversation, I will never do it. Soliciting input by providing space to your partner is an excellent way to show them you are listening. And I notice, and will love you for it.

(For more on follower input, check out this post on partnerwork technicians versus co-creators.)

8) Creativity

My ideal leader is creative.

If a leader gives me a lot of standard “moves” that I’ve danced a thousand times, if they are executed really well, I will have a great time.

But if a leader takes their knowledge of dance and how bodies can communicate, then leverages it to do stuff I’ve never seen before – whether they make it up beforehand or, perhaps better, can do it on the spot while listening to and communicating with me – then I’ll have a shit eating grin on my face the entire time.

Some people debate whether creativity can be leveraged at the beginning of learning to dance, or if one needs to “master the rules before they can break them.” I think starting at the beginning is great so long as you don’t neglect technique, too. The more rules and move you learn, and the more technique you have, the more precise, followable, and enjoyable your creativity will become over time. But it never hurts to think outside of the box, even from day one.

I will say also that doing multiple dances helps leaders in this regard a lot. In fact I’ll go ahead and say…

9) Multiple Dances

To be clear, there are amazing leaders who do just one kind of dance.

But since we’re talking about ideals, I love it when leaders dance multiple dances, because I do, too, and it opens up a huge field of creativity and communication to us.

One of my absolute favorite things to do is simply follow (in a communicative way), whether that means sliding from the language of one dance into another or just free wheeling doing all sorts of things. Tons of music in pretty much every genre is danceable if you listen well enough. Ask me out for a night of partner dancing at a jazz club or house lounge or top 40 pop party and I will be nearly incapable of saying no.

10) Gentleness (and variety)

I like leaders who are gentle. On the spectrum of heavy to light (see a post and graph on which in this post), I prefer them to be much closer to the light end. This is different for me than it used to be. I used to really enjoy super energetic, push and pull kinds of dances. But as time wore on I became more and more attuned to the emotional and intellectual components of a dance. Now I prioritize gentelness. Or, perhaps it’s better to say, I appreciate it when leaders play with the amount of force they use to meet the stylistic needs of the dance, defaulting to gentle typically. It feels so great to be touched gently, to be led like a feather – and then, of course – when the music calls for it, to be able to whip out hard and fast moves (with control). I do enjoy the energetic, but it has a time and a place, and should be matched by expertise on the entirety of the spectrum.

10a) Puts me in comfortable positions

Few things I find more irritating than when a leader knocks me off balance or distorts my body into uncomfortable positions. To be clear – and I think most leaders would vouch for this fact – I am an incredibly flexible human being. I used to be a contortionist. But when I am dancing with someone, I don’t want my rib cage to be isolated so far to the side that I have to struggle to maintain my balance.

An ideal leader never moves a follower more than the range of their body and balance demand. This may mean making adjustments for followers who are different sizes for you (for example, I am quite short and compact, so I need smaller steps and isolations). This could make all of the difference, however. When in doubt, erring on the side of smaller rather than larger movements I believe is always wise.

11) Subtlety

Subtlety is my favorite thing in dance.

In part, this is because of the intense presence called for by subtle movements on both the part of the leader and the follower.

In part, it is because I am bored by the obvious. I am not intellectually engaged at all by a dance that gives me standard movements that move in standard sizes and with standard forces.

In part, it is because of gentleness.

In part it is because subtle movements from my leader call me to listen with intense concentration, which I find both challenging and thrilling.

I love nothing more than to be led by one finger tip, one centimeter at a time, moving exactly at the speed and in the direction intended. This creates an intense bond composed of listening and attunement. I am tempted even to call it harmony, or some sort of cosmic oneness.  When dancing with subtlety my partner and I are absolutely present with one another, and best of all we both know it, so we catch each other’s eyes and feel the electricity of each other’s touch, nearly literally.

So this completes my list. I understand that the list may seem intimidating. Is it actually possible to be all of these things at once? Yes, it is, though the number of leaders I know who are is not huge. And I of course do not require that everybody meet every aspect of the list. Just one of them and I might be in heaven dancing with someone.

I just think it’s worthwhile to have conversations about qualities that we value, so that we can get at what the things are that we truly love about dance, and direct our energies toward them.

I would love to hear if anyone disagrees on certain points or has different preferences. I am always delighted to learn about different approaches people have to our dances. 🙂



* the cover photo represents my behavior when my favorite leaders are around and is a reference to this facebook meme:


6 Comments, RSS

  1. Emma T April 19, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

    So many of these I agree with. I much prefer a gentle lead as well, and certainly someone who’ll hear similar nuances in the music as me as well as giving me and us time to complete a move and fill the music.

    In modern jive, there’s not many who do this on a regular basis, so when it comes about it can feel like magic.

  2. Michael Newman April 23, 2017 @ 3:08 am

    To be able to keep this as a comment… I’m not going to get too detailed… but as you well know… This ‘is’ a subject that requires a lot more than a quick overview. To start with, I have to say that how you see a good lead is as close to what I strive for, as well as what I strive to teach my men, as I’ve seen or heard. I especially appreciate the romance side that all too often gets misconstrued as flirting.
    First… And it’s kind of funny… I combine a few of your qualifiers as my number one… Mission statement… if you can stretch your imagination a minute
    My number one goal when I dance with a woman is to make her look and feel good on the dance floor. And with that in mind.. I now apply all the other qualities towards reaching that goal.
    I have five basic qualities that I find important for a person to be a good lead… I say ‘person’… Because I see women leading more and more these days, and it seems they are as good or better than too many men. Soooo… Obviously… number one is rhythm and timing. And no matter how many people… ( Men )… that say it’s not… For two people to move together as one, for leads to be given properly, and followed in kind, both partners need to be on the same… We’ll leave it at rhythm for now. Even photographers say it’s easier to get those good shots if dancers are on a specific timing. The second thing I believe a good lead should do is give a clear signal of his or her intent. In my terms… It has to feel different. A lead for an outside turn should feel different than that for a natural… Hell, a lead for any turn should feel different than when a turn is not being led. I realize that every man feels a little different… but there should be some basic continuity in leads from one man to the next. Yes, I’m saying ‘man’ now because when women learn how to lead, they invariably learn how to lead correctly… because they ‘know’… If they are to be accepted as leads, they ‘have’ to be good leads. Most men don’t feel they need to be a good lead, women are happy just with them being out there trying. But I do digress. My apologies.
    Next is one of those things that I find hard put not to put as ‘THE’ most important thing a man should do when dancing with a woman. Although it hasn’t as much to do with leading per say… As much as a man being a good lead. I know… It’s a Bruce Lee thing… The art of fighting without fighting. I’ll explain if someone asks… But anywayyyyy… I believe a man… Or a lead… Should dance ‘with’ the woman. Whereas most men, expect a woman to dance ‘with’ him. Most men think, or expect, women should dance to the man’s level… ” You’re supposed to follow me!! ” I adhere to the belief that as a good lead, I will dance to her skill level, not necessarily dance down, but more so, not outdance her to make myself look good… And in so doing, not only make her look bad, but also make her feel bad by trying to make her do things she may not be ready for. Which breaks my number one rule. I know this getting is getting long… My apologies… I’m almost done. I wish I could do a point by point response to your message… But.?
    So the last thing I want to touch on is a lead practicing on unsuspecting beginners. Two parts here. First… Leads should not try to lead intricate patterns on an active dance floor with women who have no clue what they’re trying. Basic rule here… Don’t teach on the dance floor. Second… Practice these steps, or amalgamations… In a safe space, breaking it down in sections, acquiring correct leads and movements, balance, so that someone doesn’t get hurt in the attempt on a nightclub floor. I’ve seen too many women turned off of one dance or another because of men terrorizing them with steps that they can’t lead, but are so busy trying to show off, that they don’t care how it affects others. Not only the partners they’re trying it on, but the other dancers on the floor that are in too close of proximity to his out of control attempts.
    Well… This turned into more than I planned. I hope it hits a chord or two. Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll find you somewhere dancing… West coast, salsa, jitterbug… And you can tell me if I’m a lead that you can appreciate. Lol!

    • Stefani April 24, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

      Hehehe. Thanks for writing a lot. It means a lot to me.
      It’s interesting – this idea of ‘make a woman look and feel good.’ I hear this idea pretty often. I wonder a lot though about the whole ‘looking’ part. If women come to the dance floor looking to be showcased, I just don’t find that as appealing as coming to the dance floor looking to connect. I find the emphasis on aesthetics a little bit troubling. On the other hand, I think looking good and feeling good often go hand in hand, as followers will be relaxed, confident, etc if you dance more WITH them and SUPPORT them rather than demanding that they adjust to you. I really hope, in the end, that leaders and followers can just invest their energies tuning into each other, with a lot of mutual listening and support. Then we can all feel good, and enjoy some looking good in the process. :p
      Thank you again for sharing – looking forward to meeting on the floor!

  3. […] As a leader, to initiate stillness shows followers that you are present with your follower. It shows that you are eager to communicate on a level that goes beyond simple steps. It shows them that you care about your connection. It shows that all of the movements you will initiate come out of partnership and intention. (For more on which, see this recent post on leader qualities.) […]

  4. Lilly May 19, 2017 @ 3:21 am

    Dear,it’s a pity you live so far away but I must tell you my husband is one super great lead,he is gentle and keeps the perfect timing,he is caring and never ever looks away when he is dancing with you,for him during those 3 minutes you will be the only one on the dance floor,he will not make you do complicated moves that could possibly confuse you and make you look clumsy but most of all he doesn’t take himself too seriously,every girl wants to dance with him and sometimes I only get to do it when I put my foot down,a few times I went back home without being able to have one single dance with him!He is also a gentleman and will most of the time kiss your hand after dancing.When you come to Sydney make sure you look for a venue where there is Cuban dancing,oh yes,he dances Cuban Salsa,Rumba,Son and of course Bachata (not the sensual one!) ah,he is also in his sixties but I am sure it doesn’t matter to you as he can keep up with any youngster.Wenwant more leads like him,but don’t tell him….

  5. Stefani May 20, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

    Hi Stefani. I am excited to see that you are writing about these topics. After reading this article, I have a much better understanding of your dance style and the partners you tend to gravitate towards.

    I am interested in speaking with you about what you are looking for when it comes to bringing someone on board to articulate technique. I posted a number of articles on reddit in /r/WestCoastSwing. The one I’d offer for your review is “Seeing dance as water” ( The rest of my articles are linked there as well.

    I look forward to asking for an opportunity to dance with you.


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