2.8 On Why Forceful Leads Are Not Required

When a man leads his partner he first must know exactly where he wants his partner to go. His lead must be resolute, confident, PRECISE. As a leader you should adhere to the "rule of TBC" (Tender But Compelling) Without words, his body should communicate his intentions to her so well that her body has almost no choice but to follow. This is not to imply that a strong lead is the product of "muscle power" developed in the gymnasium. The leader's timing and clarity of purpose is essentially what "powers" the "tender but compelling" communication to his partner that almost seems to appear in her body - something approaching ventriloquism, something so skilled that I'm barely aware of it at all. (Of course the follower must be "totally ready mentally and physically" to execute just what her leader is compelling her to do).

Leaders - if you don't dictate where your partner's body should be at every moment, it won't be there (and as a good leader, if it doesn't end up where you planned, you quickly change plans - remember, "leading" is really "leading AND following".) Consequently, when leading you restrict her choices until there is no choice; it should feel to her like the most natural (and only) thing to do. This works well with a good follower who knows the rules of following since within these rules she has only one option. With a beginner follower, some leads are likely to be met with a good deal of resistance. In this case a stronger lead will probably just be met with more resistance. If you overpower her, she will usually give in - and the move will not be smooth and will feel terrible for both you and her. I find that if I give up leading when I'm met with unusual resistance, the beginner follower will be more likely to want to try again and will make a real attempt not to anticipate that it is a move in her current and limited repertoire. Your partner will be more likely to look at this as a learning experience and thank you for showing her some new stuff rather than apologize and probably think that she wasn't good enough to dance with you. At times I have had advanced beginners backlead and start doing something they know when the first part of the lead is identical to what I intended. If I am giving no lead and my partner just takes off, I used to be inclined to hold her back. I've come to find it's really not worth the effort and just makes a mistake look worse than it really was. Of course, it's not always her fault... While I've had the experience of meeting enough resistance to prevent proper dance movement, I've later found in all such cases that my own technique was lacking in some way. Admittedly, with sufficiently poor followers, very subtle faults in the lead can result in major problems.

Eddie Harper defines lead as "An indication of speed and direction without force or verbal communication " and defines follow as "traveling in the path of least resistance." Some say that a lead is an invitation. The term, "invitation" is not synony mous with leading - in fact this is probably the most inaccurate description of leading I have ever heard. A lead should never be just an invitation to do something. Instead, a good lead clearly and unquestionably places the follower where she should be - there is never a moment where the follower thinks, "Hmm...shall I accept his invitation?" That is, a proper lead will leave the follower with no choice whatsoever. When communicating his intent through a lead, the man must "speak" clearly - if he "mumbles" the lady cannot understand no matter how good she is at following;

With better followers, one really does have a choice in techniques. I've heard of debates between Bill Irvine (a former world ballroom dance champion) and his primary rival from the '60s, Peter Eggleton, where Bill Irvine would say that one should always put the lady exactly where you want her, and Peter Eggleton would object, saying that one should rather permit the lady the freedom of going to the right place. I myself prefer the latter philosophy with ladies who follow reasonably well, and the former is not always realistic in practice. For example, an ECS crosshanded tuck-turn (American-spin), where the only connection is right hand to right hand. A beginner has a choice of simply letting simply letting her elbow go back behind her torso, which, given that she is a beginner is likely what she'll do because at her level of dancing following means letting yourself be pulled around.

There are definitely techniques that can be used to give a more assured, less ambiguous lead to beginners. For instance, when dancing socially, I could usually get people to dance continuity style properly even when they had never done it before simply by making sure they had their weight over the proper foot and taking a very strong foot rise to keep them from changing weight too soon.

The concept of leading is not something that can be easily passed on by pen (or word processor) But here goes...

In Swing as in all forms of partner dance there are three overriding factors for good lead and follow:

  1. Each person is responsible for their own balance. (However, for many moves, you need to put some slight weight behind your connection and use your partner for an instant - to help start turning for example in an American Spin. Followers who hold themselves up *all* the time - those wonderfully balanced ballet dancers who have never partnered - don't give the leaders the connection they need, and thus the leaders can't do their jobs)
  2. The center line of each partner should always be in a relationship towards the other.
  3. The lead should be just that- a lead: not a victory in a tug of war. The partner must react to the leaders initial action, not resist the lead until his force overcomes her resistance.

"*Leader must compensate. Follower must compensate. If a follower moves far away from the leader, it is good dancing for the leader to follow the follower out instead of tugging her back into position. Also, the follower must compensate for poor indications from the leader."

Applying physics to ballroom dancing leads to the pushy F=MA view. The proper theoretical basis of ballroom dancing is signal analysis. Leading is negative feedback, and following is positive feedback. Dancers should strive for high gain with stability. Here's a metaphor that an engineer might relish: positive and negative feedback.

I notice that a lot of beginning (or maybe just: bad) followers react to my pull at the start of a WCS pattern by pulling back. Instead of coming forward of their own accord, they act as if they're standing on a skate board, and I'm a doorknob: they pull to move themselves forward. Some will even lean back, really hanging off me. Expecting of course that I, as the studly stud, will be rock steady and thus make them come forward. I hate that. (I've managed to floor one woman by inadvertently letting go while she was hanging off me like that.)

Trying to rationalize I would say that their reaction to the pull at the start of a pattern is to increase the tension. Ultimately this will move them forward, but it's a waste of energy. The correct reaction to my pull would be that they move themselves in order to *lessen* the tension. The opposite also happens: in a push break I push on the 4th beat or thereabouts. I've encountered (thank goodness very few!) followers who will give me a sharp push at that point. This has zero effect, because I'm not a wall: my muscles absorb this shock. It does start to hurt amazingly fast. Same story as above: when they feel my compression (push) they should not increase the tension (as if they push themselves off a wall), but try to decrease it.

So, the correct action would be positive feedback (they make themselves move more than a purely rigid system would do, given my force exerted), while the incorrect one is negative feedback (trying to counteract my force exerted, and only moving as a side effect of this).


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This file is part of the lead/follow FAQ list. These are articles compiled from the newsgroup rec.arts.dance by Mark Balzer. Html-isation by Victor Eijkhout, victor at eijkhout dot net. See also the Rec Arts Dance FAQ list Copyright 1996/7/8/9 lies with the compiler, the maintainer and the contributors of various parts.

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