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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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: