Push Me, Pull You – Lead/Follow

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This is a longer response to Marian’s question on my last post.   I had made a comment about Hilde and her tendency to anticipate but I used the phrase “despite that”, she was one of the more talented female dancers at our little studio.

That prompted this response from Marian.

Does her liking to lead affect her ability to follow? I inquire because I’m curious about how gentlemen tend to feel about ladies who lead. Threatened? Impressed? Resentful? Supportive? I know you cannot speak for your entire gender, but I welcome anything you wish to share.

I realize that I may have misinterpreted her original question so let me answer one version of it right away.  If you are talking about a lady being a leader like at a group class or leading another lady at a party, there is really no issue there.  I used a lady leading a lady since most guys don’t want to learn the follow parts but a lot of ladies seem to like learning the lead.  And, just learning to lead creates no problems.

What I was referring to was when a lady anticipates what the man is trying to do and beats him to it.  In Hilde’s case, she did both.  At the end, when the gender numbers didn’t match, she did the guys part at a couple of groups.  But she’s also notorious for doing her own thing and not paying attention to what is being lead.  This may not be what Marian was after but since she said she’d welcome anything I wish to share, that’s my opening to provide a rambling response.

As I said in the response, it is more anticipating rather than leading.  The most classic example of this is doing an open break to an underarm turn which comes up in a lot of dances.  The lady is supposed to wait for the man to trigger it by raising his arm.  A lot of women know it is coming and simply start their turn before the man has a chance to raise his arm.  There are certainly other examples but it comes down to the lady deciding what she is going to do on her own and starting the move before the man has given any sort of signal.

There are certainly other things that would qualify that are less of an issue.  Take my example from above.  If the man is tentative and doesn’t raise his arm high enough, a lady may push his arm up to give herself some room.  That is still the lady taking the cue from the man but clarifying the signal.  And, I won’t talk about the type of back-leading that most good female pros can do to subtly direct you or keep you on time.  Their job is to make you look good and so adding a helping hand from time to time isn’t really a problem.

How do men feel about this?  Well I could say unscientifically that the vast majority of arguments couples have are around lead/follow.  Mostly it boils down to the man saying “you didn’t go where I wanted you to” and the lady saying “well you didn’t lead it”.  There are of course other variations but it all comes down the man expecting the lady to do one thing and she does something completely different.  But she doesn’t give him the Monte Python tag line “and now for something completely different” which would probably make most men laugh and more forgiving.  (Oh dear, I’ve gotten off track here – my inner quirkiness coming through)  To get back to the point, I would clearly say that most men would not be impressed or supportive in that situation.  Most are frustrated or ticked off that the lady didn’t do what they wanted her to do.

Now, to be completely fair, this can be either person’s fault or it can be a joint effort.  Lead/follow can be very subtle and there are so many steps that are very similar so a man leading one may give the lady an unintentional false signal to cause her to do something else.  And, he may not be skilled enough in the lead and his lead is too soft and she really doesn’t feel it (this I have been accused of in the past).  So she just guesses what he wants and hopes for the best.  I’ve also had situations where Z or Kid T suddenly veers into someone else’s routine.  They just get on autopilot because many of the routines will have similar steps at some point but they branch in different directions.  The good thing is that when they do that, they’ve typically apologized and made it clear it was not me.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, if you don’t feel a lead, then you should say so rather than just making something up.  Granted, it will likely lead to an argument but even when you guess right, you aren’t helping the man truly learn to lead.  A lot of us end up having a few steps we simply enjoy doing and it can be easy to guess our patterns and just anticipate but then you are letting the man get lazy and that doesn’t help him become a better dancer.

When we were at the other studio on Friday, the instructor said something really interesting.  I wish I could remember it exactly but he called it something like the 47/3 rule meaning that in the beginning, the guy has 47 things to remember and the lady has only 3.  I didn’t have a voice recorder to remember what those three things were but he was using that to make the point that the lady should focus on just those three things.  Having written this, I wish I had remembered more because it doesn’t make much sense to me now and I can see why ladies may want to help.  I think he was trying to say that you shouldn’t which I did agree with.

In answer to the basic question, does it impact her ability to follow, the simple answer is “yes” and it has a huge impact.  There is a Michael Jackson quote that goes something like “the worst thing a dancer can do is think, you have to feel”.  When you are anticipating, you are thinking.  You are thinking about what the next move is and what your feet need to do and how you need to move.  You aren’t reacting to what the guy is doing.  You aren’t FEELING what he is doing.  Just my opinion, but then it isn’t so much dancing as it is two people doing separate parts.  Dancing is a union.  It is two coming together and merging as one.  You get the subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) clues and react to them and the moves flow seamlessly from one to the next to the next.  This is another one of those situations where I truly lack the words to explain the difference but, trust me, there is a huge difference in how it feels.  And there is a huge difference in how it looks.  I’ve seen couples struggle down the floor when both people are trying to drive.  It can be cringeworthy when the guy does “x” and the lady does “y” and there is that moment when you know something has gone horribly wrong.  Sometimes, you can fix it and sometimes you are both just stopped in your tracks and having to start over.

I’ve been lucky at some of the events to dance with ladies who were good followers.  Most of them hadn’t seen me dance and had no idea what moves I was going to do next but, when it is done right, there are none of the awkward moments and it just feels right.  (There I go with those feeling again!)

I happen to think lead/follow is one of the harder things to learn.  As the guy on Friday said, it is done with the body and not the arms which is the mistake most guys make as they are starting.  It requires the proper poise (forward for rhythm) and a good, solid connection that doesn’t waver.  Keeping in the right position and keeping the connection is difficult and avoiding the temptation to arm someone into position is also hard.  Likewise, I suspect it can be very hard from the ladies side to just let go and not think as much about their next step but to try and feel what the man is attempting to communicate.  But, if it was easy, then everyone would do it.   The non verbal communication that goes on that creates a real dance and a real partnership is truly important.  Anticipating and back leading may help you get through a particularly rough partner but it really doesn’t help either of you advance.  OK, I’ll get off my soap box now.

Ladies, if you want to learn to lead, go for it.  I don’t have an issue with that at all.  Don’t expect too many men to want to learn to follow though.  Sorry, but most of us just aren’t wired that way.  But, when you are the follower, don’t try to lead!




  1. I’m trying to think of something witty, but nothing is coming. Leading and following are difficult to learn and yet both achievable. I’ve spent many minutes being taught not to anticipate the under arm turn you spoke of. It’s all a work in progress, that’s for sure. Maybe Hilde needs some Argentine Tango lessons. That dance gets a girl to follow!

  2. I think a large portion of lead/follow depends on the situation. I’ve asked several instructors, and I’ve always been told that in group classes (unless it’s a technique or high level class, usually with your regular partner), the lead/follow aspect usually doesn’t figure in–class is more about learning the steps. The follows will anticipate because they’re learning the pattern. The lead may be poor/nonexistent if they’re just getting comfortable with the footwork–it’s understandable. I’ve even had instructors pull me aside and tell me to subtly backlead, as it can help the leads gain confidence… which will eventually translate into better dancing.

    If you know someone well, you may be able to tell them that you don’t feel the lead (or if they’re anticipating), but I think you have to have a previous relationship in order to do so, and only at higher level classes. Better yet, don’t say anything unless specifically asked by your partner. Dancing makes all of us self-conscious of our shortcomings, so pointing out anything negative has to said VERY delicately, if at all. Most people in group classes (except possibly technique or high level classes) dance for fun. Keep in mind that we in the ballroom village generally have a different mindset than your average group classmate 🙂

    At a social dance, lead/follow is much more important! That being said, I can’t imagine telling someone that they have a poor lead/follow (even if it is). While it may be something they could work on, it’s not my position to tell them. Again, dancing socially is for fun, and I wouldn’t want to potentially hurt feelings to prove… what? They aren’t a good dancer? What would be gained? Instead, my favorite line when I can’t feel the lead is, “I don’t think I know that step, could you show me?” Saves face for everyone (though it gets a little awkward when they just wanted me to do a spot turn!).

    1. Totally agree with you on group class. I’ve ranted about that before because I see too many couples try to do the fancy step they learned in group class and then argue cause the guy thinks he knows how to lead it.
      You’ve got a lot of good points. Guess I thinking more of the couples who come to dance for fun and argue about lead/follow and that’s where maybe bringing up (gently) the subject about not being able to feel would be OK. In a pure social situation with someone you don’t know, I would agree that is not the way to go.

  3. Excellent piece, and perfect timing for me, as focus in lessons and coaching has been on the importance of leading and following for both the woman AND the man.

    As you say, “The non verbal communication that goes on that creates a real dance and a real partnership is truly important.” My coach constantly remarks on the huge amount of time her world class pro couples put into working on lead/follow and basic steps. Once you have those two elements (the essential building blocks), the sky’s the limit.

  4. I learned to follow by dancing with everyone and anyone who would ask me to dance at practice parties! It is definitely a challenge when the lead is too light or vague, but at most, if I know I didn’t follow what they wanted, I laugh and say “sorry, I think I missed something!” Frequently, they’ll try the move again and make the lead clearer/stronger. I like dancing the lead every once in awhile too. Having to do everything opposite/backwards from what I’m used to is a fun challenge!

  5. Wall, et al.: I appreciate everyone’s contribution to this thread. I see that when Wall referenced Hildy’s “leading” he meant her anticipating – getting ahead of – his lead. I. of course, thought he was referring to her taking the lead role on occasion. Re that: I’ve found my forays into taking the lead make me a better follow. They cause me to work harder to eradicate such follow-faults as anticipating, leaning, and hand-clutching, because I now know how dreadful they feel to the lead. I’m determined to rid myself of them. I’m also learning a lot about timing and floor-craft. I feel better informed about that on which I spend a lot of time and treasure. And, I’m even more appreciative of leads – I know how much they have to do. I encourage everyone in the Ballroom Village to to take a walk on the wild side – explore the other role. You can only benefit.

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