Leads: 8 Things you Should Never Do

This blog is by and large about following.

But following doesn’t exist without leading… every good follow needs a good lead to make it happen. And, boy, do I have opinions on what a good leader is, or what.

I spend a lot of time ruminating on what leaders and followers need to do to enjoy their time together. Here is a list of what I think are the 8 most egregious wrongs a leader can make on the dancefloor:

1. Squeeze my hands

Seriously, leaders. Don’t do it. You can lead a follower by simply touching your fingertips to theirs if you want to. There is absolutely zero, and I mean zero, reason to squeeze a follower’s hands.

It is uncomfortable. It is painful. It hinders the dance. It hurts your partner. Don’t do it. A simple light grasp is all we need.

2. Be forceful

I understand that some leaders like to be “stronger” than others. They put more force behind their leads. Of course this varies from leader to leader – it is only natural.

There is a difference, however, between a lead with more energy and a lead who is forceful. My favorite leads — my absolute favorites — are extremely gentle. This does not mean they are not clear. Some leads seem to think that in order to be more clear they have to be forceful. But  that could not be more wrong. You can be extremely gentle (given that your follower is receptive to the gentleness) and still be very clear.

There is an important technique that can help with this problem. The brilliant west coast swing champion Bill Cameron calls this “power steering.”

What Bill means is this: whenever you apply force in one direction, you should also be bracing your muscles, exhibiting a degree of force, back in the opposing direction. This provides a feeling of cushioning to your leads, which is extraordinarily comfy for followers. If you don’t power steer when you lead, now is an excellent time to start.

3. Dance too big

This one goes out to all the beginning leaders.

One egregious mistake beginner dancers make is dancing too big. They take too big of steps, they extemd their frames too much/break the lines of their frames, and they throw their arms out in a broad circle to lead spins.

The thing is, the bigger your lead, the more you throw your follower off balance.

Partner dancing happens much more easily, smoothly, and quickly if it must if it’s kept close and tight. When you spin a follower, all you gotta do is raise your hand and give a bit of a rotational motion to the back. Like, a fraction. Seriously. Don’t over lead… instead quality lead.

4. Dip without proper technique

Perhaps this goes without saying, but if I didn’t say it somebody else would.

Dipping followers without knowing the mechanics of dipping and people’s backs is a gigantic, and I mean a gigantic, no. 

Some mistakes leaders often make when dipping is snapping back at the shoulderblade level, which makes the neck snap uncomfortably, not giving enough of a circumference on a dip that rotates, which interrupts the otherwise fluid motion of the spine, or giving deep, fast dips to followers they aren’t already sure will be able to follow them without being hurt.

If you haven’t thought about these issues (and others) and are a leader, it may be time to start.

5. Dance above your follower’s level

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy is when an “advanced” leader is paired with an intermediate or beginner follower, and continually gives them moves that they cannot follow.

This frustrates the follow, makes them feel incompetent, and ruins any kind of positive connection you might have in the dance.

It’s one thing to lead one move, or a move at the beginning, and discover that the follower can’t do it.  It’s another thing to learn their level early on and then ignore it entirely. Sometimes I think leaders do this out of habit — they are simply too lazy to change their normal patterns of movement — and other times I think leaders do this out of arrogance — they are displaying disdain for their partner’s lack of technical ability.

In either case, I do not approve. A good leader leads a follower, and is present with the follower.

6. Collapse your frame / have bad posture

Almost nothing is more important to me in a dance than the quality of my leader’s frame.

The frame is where all leads come from – so it’s super important for the quality of connection and the clarity of the directions being given me.

But the frame is also where, in closed position, you rest. If a leader has bad posture, it will collapse on the follower and feel uncomfortable.

If, on the other hand, a leader has great posture, I’ll ask them to dance all. night. long. I won’t be able to keep my hands off of them. There’s something very homey and sexy feeling about a great frame — because a great frame is, after all, a great embrace.

7. Verbally tell the follower what to do or correct them

Every once in a while a leader will say something to me like “keep your hand there behind your back.” I’m like, “I was going to anyway, but thanks?”

Telling a follower what to do before it even happens is a statement of a lack of faith in their ability to follow.

Telling a follower what they should have done afterwards implies that you think they were wrong.

What partnership really is taking accountability into yourself whenever possible, and doing everything you can to support your partner.

What’s more, if you want to lead your follower in a complicated move, learn how to do it in a way that you can lead it without verbal indication. 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 mentality is what has enabled me to improve as a dancer. But it is still by and large a decent guideline to follow that leads should try their best to lead followers in a way appropriate to them. For more on which, see this post on feminism and latin dance.

8. Overstep bounds of intimacy

This is a problem unfortunately many leaders are guilty of.

They overstep the bounds of intimacy.

Now of course a follow is complicit in what happens in terms of physical intimacy during a dance, too. But just like we live in a society in which men take sexual actions and it’s a woman’s job to say “no” – in dance men often initiate intimacy that women are uncomfortable with.

The acclaimed leader Juan Calderon likes to talk about this issue in terms of traffic signals. Dance is usually non verbal. So how do people communicate? With their body language.

Pay attention to your follower’s body language. If you move to close the gap between you two and your follower resists, that’s a red light. If you move your head forward to connect and your follower tilts theirs away from you, that’s a red light. You should probably stop your current course of action immediately and back off until the follower signals more comfort.

If your follower lets you connect your head to theirs but doesn’t initiate any of their own movement, that’s a yellow light. This is a signal for caution, and may mean you should back up and wait for them to give you more positive signals.

If, on the other hand, your follower notices you inclining your head and moves to incline theirs to meet yours on their own, or initiates another sort of intimacy when you do so such as stroking the back of your neck, that’s a good sign that they’re into whatever you’re leading. This is a green light.

Now, partner dancing is NOT a race to get as many green lights as possible. But it is an intimate space between two people, so ways of thinking about boundaries is necessary.

Don’t overstep intimacy. If you detect any yellow lights, back up to make sure your follower is comfortable. You can still have a great and connected dance without your bodies smushed together from head to toe.


…And with that, I draw my list of my personal biggest leader “no”s to a close. What do you think? Dyou do any of these, leaders? Love / hate any of them, followers?

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