I wrote previously about my thoughts on how to be a good dance partner. This post covers in more detail the how to be a good leader, focusing on modern jive, but easily transferable to other social dances like salsa, west coast swing and others.
While some might say, pah she follows, what would she know. I’m a believer that if you’ve both led and followed in dance, then you have a better grasp of what works and what doesn’t , especially from a follower angle. I rarely lead anymore because when I do go to class there’s usually plenty of taxis to make up any leader numbers, and certainly in freestyle I only tend to lead the first dance out of a lesson if I’ve led. So I’m out of practice, but I’ve had a lot of compliments on my leading from followers in the past, and I can share from a followers point of view.
From a leaders point of view, you can find tips over at Jivey Blues Blog.
How to be a good leader in social dancing
1, Have a clear lead
Not too soft, not too strong. But ensure you’re clear on the direction you want your partner to follow
2, Have a good frame
To lead you don’t actually need to use your arms, you can lead with your body. But you need to have a firm strong frame (without being stiff), which enables you to then lead your follower. For certain moves you also need to tighten your core, hold your frame more, for example penguin/pivot turns, or encouraging your partner to lean away from you. Both require the follower to feel secure that they’re not going
3, Don’t grips or use your thumbs
The leader should provide the frame, the follower then connects with a loose hook over the fingers. There’s no need for thumbs, plus it makes it extremely hard to turn if either is gripping on tightly.
4, Have (good) spatial awareness
Dance floors can be busy places, and if you’re leading you need to keep thinking about where you want the lady to travel to and the direction other people around you might be going. It amazes me how few people recognise that some dance on a slot and dance their partners across it, or happily lead their partners all over the place with no check for potential crashes. Yes, the follower needs to play their part too, but some spatial awareness helps avoid injuries.
5, Learn to adjust to your partner’s needs
I’ve seen so many leaders who’ve been dancing awhile, dance with beginners and then try and lead them in ridiculously complex moves that many followers would struggle to follow. Start fairly calm and basic, work out how well the follower followers and then adapt your lead and moves to suit. This is where only dancing 1 routine with everyone causes a problem if it’s all spins and no basic moves.
If you can adapt to the level of your partner, both will have a more pleasant dance, and you might also have given some confidence to a newer or less experienced dancer. Plus of course, if you like lots of dips and drops and get someone like me as your partner who’s done virtually no drops in the last 6 years and who’s right knee won’t support them for long, you’ll need to adapt to a request to exclude them from the dance.
6, Understand connection
Connection is really hard to get without a really straightforward explanation. Some call it tension, others hate that expression. Personally I learnt it being called tension and have never had a problem understanding it, due to the way we were taught in salsa. You might also hear compression and extension (often in wcs),
We’re not talking musical connection, but about the lead/follow connection of the ‘force’ between them as the lead occurs. That connection adapts through different moves, with different dance partners, and is what makes a nice dance with enough lead to make the follower move, but without the aggressive push and pull. Connection can be light or firmer, and different moves require different strengths of connection.
Here’s an exercise which helps the understanding
The easiest way to explain is have lead and follow stand facing each other with palms up and out in front, against the other person’s. You can think of the connection on a scale of equal pressure or force between the two. So 10 is the equal maximum pressure if you’re leaning in against each other, while 1 is hardly touching. The leader can then lead the follower walking in any direction while keeping the same pressure (practise at different strengths before settling around 4-5).
Then you move to do an in and out move, stepping back out and in at the same time, maintaining the same idea of connection (or tension). If you’re leading to start, the leader gently pushes and the follow should give the same pressure against the hand as she then steps back, and similar pull back in with both using the same strength of connection.
The connection level needs to adapt depending on speed of music, ability and need of the follower with their understanding of connection, and moves. So to do complication arm movements the arms and connection needs to be slightly more relaxed to avoid wrenching an arm where it’s not ready to go. But leading a free spin or ochos you need more connection (this is where the term tension may make more sense).
This article from the Perfect Follow explains it even better.
7, Realise that often less is more when it comes to moves
Sometimes music does call for multiple spins, and it looks great when done well, but not all followers want to spend 4 minutes being spun all over the place. They need a breather however good they are. Watch pro dancers and they all use fast and slow moments within their dancing. Most music asks for that too. Sometimes it’s lovely to go more basic and enjoy the music rather than being flung around all night. Leaders don’t need to throw every single move you know into every dance.
8, Dance with different people
As with other points above, dancing with different people and strangers will help your leading. You’ll have to work harder, you’ll have to adapt and you’ll learn from that. So many times I’ve danced with people who look good dancing with their regular partner who they dance most of the night with. But then I and friends dance with them, and they can’t lead other followers, because they’re used to their regular partner knowing all their moves and timings.
Oh, and it’s called social dancing for a reason.
9, Have confidence in your ability
Even if a move goes wrong, does it really matter? The follower isn’t going to mind unless they’ve been injured or you’ve forced them into something they don’t want to do. Laugh it off and move on.
So much of dancing is about confidence, so be confident, and there’s no need to apologize throughout a dance. There’s probably nothing to apologize for (unless you’ve dropped your partner or led them into someone else).
10, Want to improve
Most people you can have a nice dance with, but if you’re dancing with someone who is really showing the work they’re putting in and you can see them improve, it’s lovely to be a part of that with them.
11, Have good hygiene
This goes without saying. Deodorant, take a towel/change of top if needed, and preferably don’t smoke right before dancing. Alcoholic fumes aren’t the most pleasant either if you’ve had a lot to drink. So mints or gum can be good too.
12, Look at your partner
So many times you end up dancing with people who won’t make eye contact. Now I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard, and there are some guys I struggle with more than others. But the occasional look at your partner and a smile makes them feel like you want to be dancing with them (especially if you’re the one who did the asking!) If you look like you’re enjoying the dance, others will notice that and you’ll have more people wanting to dance with you.
13, Listen to the music
We’re not all musical, and modern jivers often have the reputation of just dancing to the same beat and not dancing with the music. So take time to listen and think about the moves that might fit. And if there’s not enough time to do it on the dancefloor, listen to lots of music outside of dance. The more you listen to different types, the more you’ll be able to hear music, learn to listen and understand where the tempo changes will come, and be able to feel where certain moves may work.
This is certainly the hardest part of leading. I’m out of practise leading, but even when I did it regularly on class nights, while I could hear the music and knew where breaks were etc, it was so hard to hit them, or choose moves that really suited. Kudos to any leaders who work at this and have it working well.
You can read more about connection and lead and follow at the below:
- Salsa dancing tips
- Tension – what differentiates advanced vs intermediate dancers
- Avoid being blacklisted while social dancing
So there’s my 13 tips for being a good leader. Watch out for my upcoming post on how to be a good follower.
What do you think makes a good leader?