Dear Leads: A Thank You Letter

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Dear leads,

Whether you’re experienced or new, nervous or confident, practically a stranger or one of my best friends, leading me in socials or in classes, sometimes leading me and sometimes following me – thank you.

Learning to dance isn’t easy, neither for the lead nor the follower. But right now, I want to talk about you leads: you put so much effort into looking after our safety, creatively combining moves, matching the steps to the music, and giving us room to also express myself.

And sometimes, all of this work is written off with a simple “The lead didn’t adjust to their follower’s level? How rude of them!” or “The lead’s moves didn’t match the music? How annoying!”, as if all these dance skills came intuitively – as if we’ve forgotten that you need to make many mistakes before you can master a skill.

So, allow me to say thank you for all the things you either do or try to do. Of course, my list of thank-yous is both personal and subjective; some of the sentiments here may not be universally shared (and some may even be criticised). But it is a sincere list.

Monday kizomba nights at Ocean Drive, Bilbao, Spain. Credit: Ocean Drive

Thank you to all the leads who:

  • Smiled throughout the entire song.

  • Laughed it off when something went wrong.

  • Gracefully turned my mistake into a whole new step so that I wouldn’t even realise I’d misinterpreted the lead.

  • Asked me to dance as a beginner – and thank you, also to the leads who, later on, asked me to dance when I was rusty after a long break.

  • Encouraged me, from the simple “You can do it”to “You’re a good dancer; don’t worry”.
  • Recognising that I was new to something, gave me helpful tips without teaching on the dance floor or being overbearing.

  • Every so often, repeated a move that I didn’t recognise until I finally got it right – without ever indicating that my previous interpretations of the lead hadn’t been what you were expecting.

  • Shared my joy when I was able to do a new move – my good moment felt even better because of it.
  • Accepted my ignorance of certain topics, knowing that dancing is a journey, and didn’t judge me for not yet knowing something, whether it was the difference between a turn and a spin or Brazilian zouk and zouk lambada.
  • Adjusted your dance style to accommodate my preferences. Maybe you were the person who led a whole salsa dance without once touching my right arm, because I told you it was injured and I didn’t want to risk dancing. Perhaps you picked up on my increased confidence when you led body isolations, and so worked in more of those. Or maybe you noticed that I was syncopating some of my bachata basics and gave me more room to play with footwork and music.

  • Knew that I had a right to choose not to follow certain moves, whether because I felt uncomfortable with them, didn’t feel secure in the execution, or didn’t believe there was enough space on the dance floor to do them safely… and so didn’t push it when I resisted the lead.

  • Cared about my safety, paying attention to floor craft, looking behind me before dipping me, and using the correct technique for turns and led body movements.
  • Experimented with me, respecting my ability as a follower to co-create a dance and handle new situations, without attempting something we didn’t have the technique to safely do.
  • Took the time to work out my dance skills, slowly building up the difficulty and trying new things. You wanted to dance with me at my level, instead of asking me to follow moves I couldn’t execute smoothly, safely, or quickly enough. (And perhaps you even used this to challenge me just the right amount: enough that I discovered new moves with you on the dance floor, without feeling overwhelmed or unsafe.)

  • Danced with me, rather than just with my level. Instead of churning out a bunch of “level-appropriate moves”, you had as much fun as possible with my strengths. You might have been one of the Brazilian zouk dancers who realised I was still new to the dance but had general spin and body movement technique, the urban kiz dancers who discovered I didn’t have much of an urban base but they could use my connection skills to lead micro-movements, the Cuban salsa dancers who realised they could throw in a lot of turns even if the armology sometimes confused me.

  • Recognised when you’d challenged me too much and toned it down. I know that it’s not always easy to get the difficulty right, and I appreciate how you handled it.

two ladies dancing brazilian zouk
“We’ll take it slow,” international teacher Tessa Tames Prützke said when I told her that I hadn’t been learning Brazilian zouk for long. Credit: Daniel Jové Photo for All Stars Festival
  • Connected with me, opening yourself up to me and allowing us to have a beautiful dance.
  • Had invested time and effort into being a good dancer, from frame to musicality and creativity. It takes a lot of work.

  • Led me smoothly and softly, and in doing so reduced the risk of injury, kept the dance comfortable for me, and respected my ability to follow.
  • Made me feel welcome off the dance floor, especially when I was new to the dance scene. Perhaps you introduced me to new people and gave me recommendations on where to go (without, of course, having any ulterior motives); perhaps you simply asked how I was doing when I looked tired.

  • When I was upset, danced with me until I was okay. I wasn’t a good dancer in those dances, and I have no idea what songs were playing or what moves I clumsily followed, but those remain some of my most meaningful dances.
  • Offered me room for creativity, from giving me space for footwork and styling to paying attention to how I was interpreting the music and adjusting the moves you led to suit that.
  • Forgave me when I forgot your name, or called you the wrong name, or pronounced your name wrong. Sorry!
  • Allowed me to be responsible for my own mistakes, and in doing so also granted me respect for when I danced well. Rather than undermining my contribution to the dance by saying “it’s never the follower’s fault”, you simply told me something like “it’s fine – we all make mistakes sometimes”.
  • Agreed to a switch dance, with us changing roles mid-song. Whether we did it well or not, it was fun and I appreciated your open mind and creativity.

  • Followed so I could practise leading, whether in a class or social.
  • Acknowledged the skill that followers bring to a dance and treated me as a co-creator, from demonstrating respect for my creativity and free will in-dance to asking my opinion on dancing, music, and partner connection.

  • Danced like a feminist, keeping comments appropriate and respecting that choosing to follow, or being a woman, doesn’t mean I have to be submissive or accept outdated attitudes.

  • Worked around, or accepted, our cultural differences. Maybe you found my warm hugs and eye contact exhausting. Or maybe my habit of finishing a dance with “thank you” seemed too polite to be friendly. Maybe you were even the lead in the dance culture where followers were responsible for ending multi-song dances and, when I confessed how difficult I found that, made a habit of asking me, “Would you like to stop dancing now or would you like one more dance?” Whatever it was that you did, thank you for understanding.
  • Asked me before leading moves that not everyone likes, such as dips and bachata sensual.

  • Accepted my feedback graciously and adjusted, from “Could you hold my fingers a little less tightly, please?” to “I really don’t like this move; would you mind not leading it, please?”
  • When you were a beginner, trusted me when I said I wanted to dance with you. I know it’s scary, and you probably spent most of the dance wondering if I was bored, but I hope you were able to enjoy it too.

  • Told me when you liked dancing with me.
  • Saw the look of terror on my face when a camera was pointed at us and, instead of doing a pose or launching into something flashy, threw yourself into the dance and made me have so much fun I forgot about the photographer.

  • Saw a camera pointed at us and lined me up for a pose, even though I nearly always fluffed it up out of self-consciousness. (You had good intentions, and I’m sorry I also messed up your could-have-been-a-great-profile-picture photo.)

  • Accepted that my different dance styles were equally valid, and even though it might have been harder to lead me because of them,didn’t disregard me as a dancer. Yes, as a cross-body salsa dancer, I can follow (and have fun following) a lot of Cuban salsa, but we’d be lying if we said that we weren’t sometimes caught by surprise by how I interpreted your leads – especially when the dance got really Cuban.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other things that deserve appreciation. So, let me finish with the most important one of all: thank you for trying hard to create a beautiful dance with me.

P.S. Dear followers, you are equally as deserving of thanks. Your list will be coming soon!

Feature photo credit: Salsa on The Pier

3 Comments

  • David Sander says:

    The idea of social dance is communication so the first rule is to become a good communicator as a lead and to leave your partner happy. Those new to social dancing often concentrate on learning moves which is not bad, but consider it a stepping stone to becoming an experienced lead who can quickly estimate and match up to a partners skill level in a dance. The idea of dancing with a beginner for an experienced lead is that in a year or two they can become an exciting partner while the unpredictability of some newbies gives them their own level of excitement. Leads should also look into the back tables and for those who have not danced in a while to make it a truly social dance event.

    How do you train to become a great lead? Once you learn the basics, figure out ways to connect all the different foot and turn movements. This way when a follow makes an alternative movement, you can accommodate this without getting lost. Social dances are improvised which means that experience teaches a lead how to connect together various endings and exits for different movements. This kind of skill is rarely taught in dance lessons where instructors prefer the fixed set of movements which are easier to teach as subjects. Being able to quickly estimate your partner is a skill that only comes through experience with regular social dancing. You may even get to the point where you look forward to attending events with totally new follows who will force you to refine your lead technique by not being familiar with it.

    Having a precise form and quiet hands are important to communicating your lead. I find it essential to drill twice a week on my step and movement form for 10 minutes to make sure my positioning is good, symmetrical, and on time. Knowing your own position is critical to being able to know and adjust to your partners position, giving them a great dance experience.

    Thanks for the compliment! :)

  • Mick says:

    How lovely to read such a positive article, and yet the messages are clear. All contributors, myself included, should take note of the clever tactic.We could be accused of a negative 2018 on this site.

    • Tanya Newton says:

      Thanks, Mick! I believe there is room to be constructively critical at times (for example, we’ve seen a few articles about consent and sexual assault this year) but that we also need to remember to be grateful for our partners and positive about both others and ourselves – after all, we’re all just meant to be learning and having fun together! I’m glad you enjoyed this article.

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