Leads suggest, follows interpret: it’s the golden rule of partner dancing. Sometimes, I adore it. As a follow, the feeling of connecting to my partner and constantly being surprised by the next move is sensational. As a lead, I appreciate the space it gives me to think and experiment—and yes, be surprised and often amazed by how my partner interprets the leads.
But sometimes, it can be stifling.
Why Does One Person Have to Be in Charge?
When I follow with my romantic partner, I often hijack the lead to suggest a move or change of energy. Sometimes, it’s because I want to help them in a moment when they’re stuck or confused. But often, it’s because I have an idea about how to represent the music, and I know they’re happy for me to have a creative input.
When following with other people, however, I’m more hesitant about making suggestions that aren’t related to safety or comfort. The stylistic suggestions that I do end up making are tentatively done and frequently accompanied by apologetic looks. I don’t want to be accused of “backleading” or being selfish; I don’t want to be one of those follows that so many teachers and leads rant about.
Yet if dancing is meant to be a conversation, why can only one person suggest a new topic? Is it really so bad to imply, as the intro comes to an end, that we’d like to shift our weight back so we’re ready? Propose some body movement? Or help an unsure partner out by indicating a solution to our crisscrossed arms and complicated hold?
Sometimes, I Want More Than Styling and Role-Switching
“Styling is how a follow can express themselves,” people tell me, or “but you lead anyway, so why does it matter?”
It matters, because suggesting isn’t the same as role-switching or styling. It feels different: more natural, more collaborative, more equal.
When I style, I express myself, but I always do it within the framework of moves set up by my partner. If I feel like the music and my partner are dancing with different energies, I have to ignore the music (or ignore my partner). That doesn’t feel good.
When I role switch, it’s fun, but I’m committing to leading for at least part of the song. Although I like leading, I don’t want to give up following just because it’s the only way to have a voice.
But when I suggest, I get the joy of following while still feeling like an active participant in the conversation. I might suggest a toned-down, on-the-spot energy because I know the beat’s about to fade away. Yet assuming my partner accepts that suggestion, they are still the one who selects and leads the toned-down moves.
Suggesting moves feels like the equivalent of recognising that I don’t want to talk about a topic (politics, celebrities, breeding snails…) and so instead, asking my partner about their best travel experience. It’s not talking over them—it’s suggesting another topic in the hopes that it will interest them as well.
Suggesting Something Isn’t Refusing to Follow
Refusing to follow, or “backleading”, is a despised sin in the partner dance world. Leads complain about being ignored; about being bored; about feeling like they’re just there for decoration—and they have every reason to feel dejected after an experience like that. (Although it is also always tempting to ask how they think follows feel in most Latin dance classes.)
No matter our role, whether we’re leading or following, we shouldn’t feel like our experience and opinions don’t matter. Good dancing is about creating a positive experience for lead and follow alike. It’s possible to do this without the follow making suggestions, but only if the follow is happy to not do so. After all, if follows aren’t allowed to express opinions, we can’t pretend that their opinions matter.
Respecting our dance partner’s opinions means collaborative communication, listening as well as suggesting, and accepting “no”. And that’s what makes suggesting different to refusing to follow: the follow offers something up to see if the lead would like to do that.
Like all forms of communication, sometimes there will be miscommunications. Sometimes, the lead won’t pick up on a suggestion; sometimes, the follow will suggest too strongly; sometimes, ambivalence will be misinterpreted as reluctance. Sometimes, one dance partner will simply be distracted or tired or tipsy and so not dancing at their best. Yet suggesting should be done with the intention of respecting the other person’s agency while co-creating a dance—no matter if the suggestion comes from the lead or the follow.
This is a win-win situation: everyone feels empowered, respected and listened to. Leads don’t have the burden of creating a good dance alone because if the follow isn’t enjoying it, they have the agency to suggest something. Follows don’t have to feel selfish for wanting to dance with the music as well as with their partner.
What’s more, the entire partner dance model is reframed. Not only is the experience of follows (who are typically women) given as much importance as that of leads, but their contribution to the dance is recognised. And it’s long past time that we do this.
Relax, This Is Just a Suggestion
Not all follows want to make suggestions. In fact, when I follow, I often don’t want to either. Yet I do want to be able to suggest things without being considered selfish.
“Leads suggest, follows interpret” is a dramatic improvement on past understandings of the lead-follow relationship. It gives follows some agency and underscores the ability to say “no”. Yet it’s still predicated on the idea that one person tells another person what to do.
Sometimes, that’s fine. Sometimes, it’s fun. But sometimes, it’s nice to have a more collaborative relationship in which I can use my metaphorical voice to not just say “no” but also express ideas.
And wanting that shouldn’t be considered selfish.
Feature photo credit: Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock.com