“Ladies’ Styling” Doesn’t Deserve all the Hatred It Receives

Teacher demonstrates lady's styling in salsa and bachata

Of all the dance sins, few are more harshly judged than an over-styling follow. Too much styling is considered selfish, vain, and a sign of a bad dancer.

Granted, this might depend on what and where you’re dancing. But it’s definitely true for certain parts of the British salsa scene, where excuses will happily be made for poor musicality, rough leads, and even creepy male behaviour—but few people stands up for the over-stylers.

This attitude doesn’t just lack empathy. It denies follows the right to creative expression unless they can already do it perfectly.

Follows’ Styling Makes a Dance Better

It’s a cliché, but like all the best clichés, it’s true: in every partner dance, there are not two parties but three. You have the lead, the follow, and the music (unless you’re dancing role-free, of course).

We dance to express what we feel in the music. When leads do this, it’s expressed mostly through their choice of led moves and only partly through their styling—if they choose to do any. For follows, their creative expression comes nearly entirely through styling.

In other words, styling isn’t only about looking good. It’s about interpreting and representing the music, the follow’s relationship with the lead and their own body, how they feel at that moment in time, and what they think of the moves that are led.

Not all follows want to style, nor is styling in every dance obligatory. But saying that a follow shouldn’t style is akin to saying they shouldn’t think, create, or have an opinion on the song. And if that’s what you’re looking for, you would be better off dancing with a mannequin.

As The Perfect Follow says on her blog, “Some leads give moves and expect you to follow them and that is that… Other leads, however, think about ways to draw their followers into the creativity of the dance… Both methods are great but only the second one feels empowering.”

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But styling isn’t just about empowering follows. It’s also about making the dance better through co-creation. A dance where one partner does nothing but follow the moves would be far more boring. It would lack balance and the uniqueness that comes from fusing two people’s creativity and styles. Meanwhile, the lead would miss out on that exciting moment when your partner’s interpretation of the music or the movement both surprises and delights you.

A woman does arm styling while dancing salsa with her partner

Credit: Lena Nester / Shutterstock.com

Styling Mistakes Are Part of the Follow’s Dance Journey

You can’t learn a new skill without making a lot of mistakes—and just like when you’re learning to find the one, hit breaks, and lead smoothly, most of those mistakes will happen on the social floor. Good teaching may speed the process up, but it can’t replace the trials and errors that we need to work out how to accentuate musical beats, express melodies, or simply decorate led movements without interrupting the lead.

To paraphrase Chloe Loh of Carlos & Chloe Bachata Fusion, as follows start working on their styling, their following ability often momentarily dips. The next step for follows is to work out how to continue expressing themselves during the dance but without disconnecting from their partner.

However, that cannot happen instantaneously, nor without hard work on the follow’s part. There will be many weeks and even months in which the follow will accidentally disconnect from their partner, miss or disrupt a lead, or simply over-style.

Is this a bad thing? Only if you consider dancing with students and people actively looking for new ways to be creative and musical a bad thing.

“Ladies’ Styling” Receives a Lot of Sexist Hatred

If you’re a male lead who dislikes female styling mistakes, that doesn’t mean you’re sexist. It means you’re human. Styling mistakes make your role harder.

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It is, however, unempathetic.

And the dance-wide attitude that a lead’s experience is more important than a follow’s experience, when leads are typically male and follows are typically female, is sexist. Women have just as much right to create, experiment, and make mistakes as men—and it’s time we stopped thinking of female expression as frivolous, unnecessary, or selfish.

Feature photo credit: Alex Goncharov / Shutterstock.com

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Tanya is a social dancer who adores role-swapping. A non-stop traveller, she loves how dancing allows her to meet people no matter where she goes.