What about Light Leaders?

Here’s something that puzzles me enormously about partner dancing: we celebrate light follows to the end of the earth, but never talk about the qualities of a leader’s touch.

I know, I know. You might be thinking that this is because in leaders we instead choose to celebrate what some people call strength (as in, a strong leader, which I find to be an absurdly ambiguous phrase), or, in more precise language, clarity. We celebrate leaders who are clear. 

But I think this is incredibly – egregiously – short-sighted.

Partner dancing is physical communication. We interact with one another via our sense of touch. When we dance, we literally have another human’s body — another human’s being — in our hands. We have the ability to communicate with them clearly, kindly, gently, playfully. We also have the ability to communicate with them disrespectfully, roughly, abrasively, inconsiderately. Think about it in terms of other kinds of physical communication: a hug, a handshake, a kiss, a fuck. You can convey enormous amounts of information about your feelings with the way that you use your body.

You can scare somebody. Or you can give them the love of their life.

I recently landed in a crowd of new dancers. This means that I am away from usual friends and favorites. And I am appalled by the way such a huge majority of leaders out there in the world (and, I’ve been told, followers, too) manhandle their partners. I have at times been told that  I am over-sensitive to this sort of thing, but I think actually other people aren’t sensitive enough. (Since my experience is mostly with leaders I will focus on leaders here. If you want to read more about light following, check out this post: How to Be a Light Follow.)

The first thing we should all think when we begin a dance with someone is, how can I make this a positive experience for them?

I understand, leaders, that many of you think you need to use a lot of muscle to get moves to happen. This is either because followers have a lot of resistance in their frames, or because you think you need to be forceful in order to be clear (hint: you don’t, you just need to lead more intelligently). I totally get this.

But you should also understand that force is not necessary for everybody, and also that many followers will respond to lighter leading if only they are given lighter leads. As Juan Calderon likes to say, if you’re dancing with a follower who is particularly rough or stiff, it is probably because they have been handled roughly or stiffly, and have adjusted their frames in order to protect themselves. You can often fix this by inviting them to be softer with you. We as a group can fix this if we focus on quality connection when we teach.

What I am here calling “light leading” does not mean that you never use more energy. But it means that you deploy it judiciously and carefully, and that you do so with thoughtfulness for how this motion feels for your follower. It also means that you never grab your follower in a manner that is aggressive or tight. This in my opinion is usually the quality with the most potential to make a break a dance. I can forgive boring turn patterns. I can forgive weird shines. I can forgive even cha cha on 1. But I can almost never see past being handled inconsiderately. Conversely, a well-calibrated, delicate touch is heaven. 

Light leaders are extraordinary. They feel kind. They feel intelligent. They feel suave, and sexy. They feel safe. They feel nurturing. They feel considerate, welcoming, and inviting. Dancing with them requires that I use more of my own strength and less of  theirs. This is not a hassle. It is instead empowering, and it makes me a better dancer. Light leaders give me a voice. They make me feel held, and cared for, listened to. They are attentive to my experience of the dance. When I dance with a light leader, I feel like we are actually communicating, actually taking care of one another, and actually facilitating an experience that  feels like love. They create a sensuality that is subtle, playful, and and ecstatic. They are, transcendent.

There are many disparate points that I’d like to make related to lightness and leading. For the sake of my own sanity I will make each briefly: 

-Thumb pressure on the hands is extremely unpleasant. You don’t need thumbs in order to lead. Only in specific instances is it adviseable. If you press your thumbs on my hands while we dance, I assure you I will spend the entire dance flicking them off my hands.

-You can exert higher levels of energy without being aggressive. You can achieve this mostly by concentrating the force in your back, shoulder blades, and upper arms, and moving it out of your forearms and hands.  Relax your grip. Remove your thumbs. Relax your grip. Remove your thumbs. Consider perhaps my post on Maximizing the Purity of Your Connection. Keep your frame smaller and more controlled. Maintain connection between your hands and your lats and shoulder blades with the smallest amount of tension possible. The smallest. 

-I would say that on a spectrum of super light to super heavy, anything  from 1-50% is a good ballpark to shoot for. Anyone who exerts more than an average amount of force probably feels uncomfortable.

-Many followers will be able to follow lighter moves. This means you shouldn’t start every dance with more force and then move to less. Rather, start with less, and then move to more if your follower seems to ask it.

-If you’re doing moves around the legs/hips/torso as in bachata and zouk (or, in my opinion, in pretty much any kind of movement), less is often more. Bigger almost always means more speed and more force. If you’re going to go for big, you must be incredibly controlled about it, with what some people call cushioning, or what Bill Cameron calls power steering. Bigger is only better if there is a specific musical reason to be big for a short period of time. It shouldn’t be a constant in your dance, but rather a stylistic choice.

-If you’re doing moves about the head or neck, for the love of god be gentle. I was once at a sensual bachata social in London. The leaders who teach there are extraordinary dancers with very considerate touches. Most of the leaders who take classes from them on the other hand scare me. I once felt legitimate fear a man had snapped my neck.

-Our culture has told us men need to be commanding and forceful, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Down with the patriarchy. A softer lead doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re considerate, which is actually a remarkable strength.

-You can be as light as you want! You can be so light that you feel like feathers to your follower. You can be so light you lead gently with one finger. I am not exaggerating. This ties back to the point with which I opened this post: we sing the praises of ‘feather-light’ follows all the time, but you can also be a feather-light leader! Of course, it requires a light  follower to follow a light leader, but when you two match up it is delicious.

Followers who say that leaders are ‘too light’ to be followed don’t dance with enough of their own power. There, I said it.

-We should prioritize quality of touch when we teach. In my opinion, the way in which we communicate is more important than the specific ideas we communicate. When I teach I foreground every discussion of moves with a discussion of how to connect in ways that are attentive and considerate.

Touch conveys feelings. If you lead with force, you’re touching somebody with force. If you grip their hands tightly or pull their arms around forcefully in turns, you may not only be injuring them physically (I know followers who actually get bruises from this sort of thing), but you may also be harming them emotionally. Just imagine what it’s like to be grabbed and tossed around. Imagine what it’s like to be gripped so tightly it hurts. I know that a lot of followers expect this sort of thing when they dance, and the majority certainly seem to be fine with it, but it doesn’t have to be this way. How lovely would it be to dance in a world where everyone (leaders and followers both) is intentional about the way in which they touch each other’s bodies?

The ‘Golden Rule’ applies to dance. People usually say this: treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Others sometimes say: treat others the way they’d like to be treated. In either case, some thoughtfulness about what your partner experiences will never do you any harm on the floor. In fact, it will only turn you more and more into the kind of dancer for whom people line up to wait to dance with.


I originally set out to write this post because I was tired of having to actively defend myself on my the dancefloor. I want to put an end to this. But more than this I also want to create positive change. Our culture is not all that intentional–but it can be! It can be a world in which we think considerately about what our partner is experiencing. All we have to do is think, and want to care-take. We can foreground the quality of our dancing over the quantity. We can elaborate and enhance our ideas of what it means to be a good leader.  And we can in doing so become more connected dancers.

5 Comments, RSS

  1. Emma T December 12, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

    I’m glad you wrote this. It’s a topic that is always discussed in my dance genre (modern jive), the heavy handedness of leaders.

    Personally I’m a big fan of a light (but clear) lead. I want to be able to control my own route of dance while following and only need a slight touch or ‘sign’ to go somewhere. So much so that some people who are a heavier lead think I’m anticipating. I remember way back when I was learning salsa, and the teachers were big on teach good lead and follow, and the on/off compression/tension. The male teacher rotated round in the class and told me he only ever needed to give me a light lead, the same as he would dance with his wife.

    Obviously there’s sometimes a need for a stronger lead and I can work off that for certain moves, but I’m all for the feel of a lighter lead.

  2. GUY LOVELL December 27, 2017 @ 6:15 am

    Well Said…

    Just to add a little something, there is a such thing as being too light. I believe in smooth yet firm. A leaders job is to gauge their partner to find a middle ground. Just enough to lead the move but not too much to man handle. Almost sounds like the story of the three bears… this is to hard, this is too soft… this is just right. Need to learn how to find that happy medium.

  3. Shay December 27, 2017 @ 6:19 am

    I practice the art of effortlessness! I am told that because I use standing vs settling to trigger movement in my partner and to create a “vacuum-ous” power it is comfortable and very easy for follower to be a part of. The art of leading is the same art as in speaking. “Never manage your partner, never talk at your partner”, we as leaders need to strive to always show clear direction, but always realize the most important thing is our partnership.

    How does our partner feel at all times? How can my body lead something easy and effortless? I practice the art of suggestive leading thru this effortlessness idea. Frequently when my followers aren’t visually connected and being partner relative, I realize they are to heavy, then the challenge for me is how do I make this more human, and be more human to my partner.

    Everything I do as leader, I am partner relative, but it’s all in my transitions and how gentle and effortless I can be. I have over 40 years experience across Ballroom, Latin, Salsa, Bachata, Zouk, & Westcoast and for me I choose effortlessness, and prefer always keep the story about boy meets girl “the blue lagoon”!

    Call me old fashioned but if I dance with my partner with ease and effortlessness in mind, after they have danced with the whole room, they will remember the dance with me. And this my friends insures a message of thanks, and eternal memory for my Partners dance with me!

    Touch very much conveys so much, so it’s very important leaders to always remember to trust your science when stepping on to the dance floor and making the dance about your partner. There comfort, there sexiness. Hope this help… Shay

  4. Paula February 21, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

    Thank you so much for creating this blog and sharing all this dance wisdom! It’s amazing how many of my questions I’ve found answered here. Also, love your writing style! 🙂 I’d love to stay updated on your new posts, is there a newsletter I can subscribe to, to let me know when you’ve published a new article? Oh and another question, would love to see more videos from you, do you plan on creating more? Thanks a lot!

  5. Light lead :-) April 3, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

    Hi. I am a light leader 🙂 In fact, I did not know this until a few girls told me that I have a certain reputation among ladies in the clubs I frequent. That I am a soft leader, and that is awesome. Now, those instructors you mention, who are soft leaders, but all their students are rough – this might be just the same thing: These soft leaders might just not realize that it is something special and that they have to really make an effort to teach soft leading to their male students.

    Now the guys can only learn this much about it in the classes. The thing is, I never learned this. This is just the way I dance. But I have a few tips to guys, which I think might fix at least some horrible cases:

    1. I see often guys whose leading looks like they are participating in a wrestling competition. Gentlemen, imagine that a lady is an intelligent human being. I know, for some of you it is hard to accept this, but then pretend, just for one dance, that you believe she is. And you will see how your leading becomes easier, and your dance becomes better and smoother. At the end, you might just like this new experience so much that you will stop pretending and start thinking that ladies (or your follow dancing partners, if you dance with guys) are Intelligent Human Beings. I don’t know how I can highlight here, but here it is again: women (and men) are Intelligent Human Beings. This is so freaking quintessential that I just can’t believe how many guys I see there leading in the way they do. I mean, if I get scared just by watching these guys, what should their dancing partners feel when they get put through all this crap and horror?..

    2. Tip number 2: Guys, relax your shoulders and upper body. There are plenty of exercises, based on stretching, that will tech you how to do this. There is also something called guaguanco (a style in rumba). Try that one, it really helps to relax (both physically and mentally).

    Now, that said, I have to say a few things about girls as well: My light leading works fine when I dance with intermediate and advanced girls (by this I mean how much effort they have invested in their technique, not the number of years they have been showing up in clubs 🙂 I get praise from these ladies, and I get asked for dance frequently by these ladies. Now, with SOME beginner girls (she might be dancing for years, but still is a beginner), light lead simply would not work. These are mainly two categories of followers:

    (1) Firstly, the so-called heavy followers (for example, the girl, in Cuban salsa, does not move at all – hmmmm… does she expect only me to dance? OK, I can do that. Of course, I end up dancing around her. But I get tired of this dancing style very quickly, sorry, so please do not expect me to invite you very often 😉

    (2) Secondly, girls who have no control of their own movement whatsoever. She ends up flying around, bumping into neighboring couples at random (or was their actually a pattern?), and after the dance she might say that she needs a strong lead. What she needs in fact is a course in salsa basics or a couple of private lessons, but we do not give advice on the dance floor, we are sufficiently adult to make that mistake, aren’t we 😉 So I give you advice here: Girls, you want light/good leaders to dance with you – work on your own technique.

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