Being an Honest Dance Partner

Last week I jumped into a beginning tango class when I noticed they were short on followers. The first guy I rotated to looked at my fancy-schmancy tango shoes and said, “You’ve done this before”, to which I affirmed. He lit up and say, “Great – I’m in good hands then”.

I saw a slight buzz kill when I smiled and said, “Actually, I will follow exactly what you lead. Otherwise, you won’t learn anything.” I was kind – but intentionally blunt – so he understood my intention. He got it right away and smiled with understanding when I only did part of what he led. Later he thanked me and expressed how helpful that was.

Most ladies show up in a class and execute the move – regardless of what the lead does. The ladies do their part, the lead does his but they aren’t connected. They just happen independently of each other at roughly the same time so it ends up looking like a successful execution. At the end, the lead is smiling because he thinks he did it right and the girl is making a mental note to avoid this particular guy once open dancing starts.

Basically, the guy pays $15 to develop delusions of competenceAnd we wonder why people don’t get better despite all the classes they take.

So ladies, speak up. Tell the lead what you are feeling. Class time is feedback time. If you didn’t truly feel the lead, tell him that. Ask him to give you a stronger lead. If you don’t know what was wrong, ask him to experiment together on various adjustments.

Leads, if she didn’t execute what you expected, ASK HER what she felt. Don’t assume she just didn’t do the move correctly. Please seek to understand what she experienced especially if you’re not sure why it didn’t go right.

Did she feel the lead?
Was it clear enough?
Did she feel it was safe to execute?
Was she able to execute her part?

Followers don’t execute moves for a variety of reasons – and not just because we are confused, incompetent or thinking about unicorns. If I don’t feel safe doing it (i.e., the guy is trying to dip me but I sense he doesn’t really “have” me) I’m not going for it. Sometimes the guy has me on the wrong foot when he starts the big move. Sometimes he feels so ungrounded I’m just trying to protect myself from falling over. Sometimes he’s skipping a critical part that my movement is contingent upon. Those little things might render me “unable” to do the move.

So ladies, tell him what you need if something isn’t working. Focus on what you want or need instead of what he did wrong. 

I believe in being an honest follow by following precisely what is led (yes, this will frustrate the lead, but no one said learning is easy). Being a true partner means actively contributing to both people learning the move and the technique being taught.

Remember, if the guy isn’t leading a move correctly, you aren’t able to learn the move properly either. Participate. Communicate. Help the guy figure it out with you so you both get something meaningful out of the class. Because that’s what you are both paying for. Unless you really are just seeking delusions of competence.

Photo by: Bryce Richter

Photo by: Bryce Richter

About Epiphany

epiphanies on life and spiritual living as I chase wisdom - one insight at a time.

Posted on November 2, 2015, in Dance and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Good point, I caught myself “helping out” last night in a lesson and I pointed out to the lead what I was doing wrong. He smiled and said, “Stop it” We laughed, he got better.


  2. Hi Karen, I could not find your email address so i post you a message on fb but i am afraid it will go under ‘other’ fb messages. It will be great if you may contact me regarding your post here 🙂 ( cheers


  3. Hi Karen!
    This is a very interesting post and I would like to share it with my fellow followers in our swing community. It’s a spanish one and some people don’t read English. Would you mind if I translate it – of course giving you the proper credit and linking back here – and share it with them ?
    Thank you so much 🙂


  4. Very true and exactly what my teacher told me in our first class (“you’re not helping him by doing it yourself”). Now, many moons later and I am learning to lead and agree that yes its important for the follower to provide some feedback however she also has to remember that she is not a professional and has a lot to work on herself. The dance is 50/50 and the follower has her own technique to focus on, including not anticipating and staying on her own axis. I think too much is made of it always being the “leader’s fault”.


    • I agree on all fronts. I believe that is why that communication is so key. I never assume I’m doing it perfectly and I always ask what I can do differently to make it better/easier for the lead. I love that in a partner dance, we are BOTH responsible for a successful execution. And I do enjoy actively participating in that. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!


  5. Very, very true Karen!

    On the lower levels, I think there is another reason why this happens as well. The girl looks at what the instructor is doing, and thinks it’s perfect when she does the same thing. I sometimes stop completely during class, so that the follower herself can notice that she’s continuing without me – and then we can start dancing together.

    As for social dancing, I just love when a follower tells me what I do wrong, so that I can do it right the next time. I understand you point to not doing it when you “can’t”, but just feels stupid when I don’t understand why – which happens more often that I would like.


  6. Kind and honest… What I missed pretty much all of my dancing was verbal communication. So what I created on the dance floor was a mystery to me


    • I think we all feel that way. 🙂 I wish I knew how it feels to dance with me so I could fix or refine specific things. That verbal communication is the closest I get so I am most grateful anytime I get it.


  7. I definitely agree that feedback and honesty are keys towards learning.

    One thing I will add is that the leads can also often tell when a move is “done” but without physical lead/follow and they might also be making the mental note to not dance with that person again while smiling and nodding that all is well. But why do that and lose a potential awesome dance partner when instead we can find a way to improve possibly both ourselves and our partner!

    So as leads we can also gain a lot from this post by being aware of those moments and speaking up about what is missing for us and working through it together.

    One other thought, sometimes it actually is helpful for the follow to “backlead” the movement or do it on their own. The key is in telling your partner your intention ahead of time so they know you are purposefully doing it and can use it effectively for their learning.

    Thanks for the post!


    • Totally agree on all fronts, Andrews. One guy told me that he sometimes needs the follower to just do her part at least once so he has an idea of what the big picture looks and feels like. So that’s a great example of where we can state our intention/need and engage in that active communication. I love any opportunity to work together and to support my lead on what we are trying to do. Thank you so much for the comment and for sharing your wisdom!


  8. Dropping by to say that assuming all leaders learn the same way (ie. feedback loop) is a scary generalisation

    and I’m going to leave this here…..


    • Thank you for sharing the WDD link with me… Great discussion on that thread! As a learning professional in my day job, feedback communication is such a critical part of the effective learning and refinement of the development of any skill, so it’s hard for me to understand how some people do not benefit from feedback. But individuals are all so unique in what works for them and what does not, and if I’m being truly honest with myself, I’d encourage people to just do what works best for them right now. I still think it’s a little crazy (LOL) – but I don’t feel the need to control what others do. 🙂 The way I see it, it’s all good as long as we are all still dancing! Thank you so much for digging up the thread and sharing. Great stuff.


  9. Be gentle with that.
    I’m a professional dancer and teacher.
    Once in a while I volunteer to help in beginner’s lessons when they are short on leaders.
    Sometimes I get feedback like “be more aggressive like the other dancers,” ( or even teacher in case the teacher is a bad leader)
    It doesn’t mean much, the way to truly improve as a leader is dancing with other guys who know how to lead well.


    • Thank you so much for the comment. I’ve had situations where I got feedback I didn’t agree with, so then I go through this triangulation process where I check with other skilled people or the instructor and sometimes I end up disregarding it. But I have been surprised/humbled a few times! I remember disregarding someone’s feedback (who I didn’t think knew what she was talking about) and it wasn’t until later that an instructor I highly respected give the same feedback and I was like, “Oh.” LOL. So I’ve learned to explore things and not make any assumptions (either way) on my part. Or to take feedback too personally.


  10. Seems like one of the big issues with getting feedback is in HOW it is done.

    Leads: how would you like followers to communicate feedback to you during a class or practice? What do you want us to know about HOW to convey that? What are the dos and don’ts? How can we best support and help your learning? (we know you have a tough job as a lead).

    Followers: I invite you to add your thoughts about how you would like to get feedback or communication as well. I know I mentioned a few things in the blog, but here’s a chance to add more thoughts to share. 🙂


  11. Good advice. However, I find the gendered language troubling. Following does not specifically women and leading does not specifically mean men. You are excluding many people by using “ladies” and “guys” instead of just simply “lead” and “follows”. Use phrases such as “when you are following” or “when you are leading”. A dance role is something you do not something you are. By using gendered language it discourages people from trying both dance roles. You are saying that it’s not ok for men to follow because that is the woman’s job and that ladies shouldn’t lead because it’s the man’s job to be in charge of their women. When you only know one dance role, you only know half the dance. Leaders will become better leaders by following and vice versa.
    I would love to share this article in my dance community but I will not till the gendered language is removed.


    • Great point. I recognized that as I was writing it and in order to keep the writing simple and concise, I erred on adding traditional roles. I dance Lindy, blues and fusion as well and in all those dances it is very common for partners to assume either role. I greatly encourage dancing both roles and enjoy experimenting with it myself. You make an excellent point. I’ll look at the article again.


  12. Good followers don’t attend classes. They gain more from social dancing with lots of men. Or at least in salsa 😉


    • I’m guilty of that for sure! 98% of my learning in all my dances has happened on the social floor – and not in a class. I can’t say enough about the value of floor time!


  13. Excellent advice! The most important job the leader has is to make the follower comfortable. Communication on all levels improves once comfort is achieved.


  14. I have been teaching dance for a number of years now and although I agree back leading is not a good thing I don’t entirely agree with article and makes the guys life a bit too hard at the beginning. A beginner needs some help to build muscle memory this is part of the process. A beginner dancer will be attempting the following things all simultaneously:
    1) to find the rhythm
    2) To understand frame and connection which they have no idea at the beginning
    3) to remember the sequence
    4) focus on footwork
    5) focus on posture
    He is nervous needs some guidance and every girl feels different! It’s a slow process!
    For a beginner to do this all at once is very difficult! All these concepts above are slow to develop and the guy needs some help. I’ve seen professional dancers ask the ladies in beginners class to initiate the dance timing because generally speaking the ladies are better at finding the rhythm early and the guy can feel and understand the rhythm.
    I have done many many workshops over the years and especially for the advanced movements it’s really hard to get the step right of the girl isn’t working with you because there are so many things to focus on at once. Nobody is going to lead the step perfectly by the end of the workshop it’s practicing with your dance partner and in connection exercises that you develop and refine your skills. I understand that it may develop bad habits of back leading from the onset but it accelerates the men’s learning process. He will find out soon enough on the social floor if he can lead the step.


    • Dominique Unruh

      Perhaps it can help to make the students aware of the decision whether the follows follow or just dance the right steps? For example, one could introduce the rule in class that the lead tells the follow whether he’s ready for her to follow exactly what he leads. This will make the students more acutely aware that “not leading” is a temporary solution in class only, and it also gives the leads the opportunity to decide for themselves when they feel confident enough with the step itself to be able to also think of the follow.

      (I have not tried this out, it’s an idea that just occurred to me. But perhaps it’s useful. At least when I take a class myself, and find a step more challenging, I sometimes tell the girl: I’m still figuring out the step, do you mind if I don’t lead it this time? And then after a few repetitions I tell her I’m ready to lead it.)


      • Fantastic idea! I think the leads would greatly appreciate this. And it helps both people understand the intention of their partner. Thank you for sharing… 🙂


      • I think you could make an argument that there’s merit for dishonesty on the dance floor. It’s a leaders job not only to do his steps but also direct his follower as well. This is a very tall order especially for new dancers. If dancing your own steps is hard dancing while leading is going to be overwhelming. In that case it could be understandable to move along with him until he’s more confident in what he should be doing for himself then transition in leading too. It’s dangerous though because it could lead to bad habits if not addressed early 😦


  15. Great article loved it. Honest is so so important on the dance floor.

    Communication is the key and sometimes the key is hard to find 😦 One difficult thing to deal with is when you can’t execute a move and you ask from feed back from your partner and it’s met with the dreaded phrase, “I don’t know I just follow.” This can be frustrating as it feels inequitable how much work each party is putting into making the dance work. When I started following more I began to understand better why this phrase is so popular. Following, especially unfamiliar patterns, can often require a meditative like state. You’re not thinking about the move because you don’t want to anticipate it. You should try to feel and react there isn’t time for forethought or afterthought. While trying to maintain this state of mind it’s very difficult to analyze what is or is not going on with the pattern.

    In short leaders don’t be too hard on your followers if it seems like they’re not analyzing the patterns the same way as you. Followers try to understand why your leader can be frustrated if you’re, “just following.”


  16. I don’ want women in group classes to tell me if they feel my lead. Most inexperienced ladies don’t know how to feel a well done lead so their feedback in annoying. Even the more experienced ladies aren’t much help because they are not that good at articulating what they feel.

    In social dance I don’t mind that kind of feedback from ladies that are experienced and that I know well enough to respect their credibility.


  17. This is all well and good BUT please be very careful HOW you make these comments. I have been a dance teacher, of partner dancing, for more than 30 years, believe me I have seen many students very upset by (often by a perfect stranger) being criticised for their dancing and they are only just a beginner!!!! There is a very fine line between giving feedback and being critical. Even as a teacher, when the student is prepared for mistakes to be corrected, one has to be very kind, careful and contructive in how we correct someone. As an ‘aside’ it would be lovely in 2018 to refer to dancers as either a Leader or a Follower and not assume their role just by their gender BUT THEN THATS ANOTHER THREAD ALTOGETHER


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: