I get it: you’ve spent ages mastering these beautiful moves. They look great. They go great with the music. And they feel great.
Except that’s not always true. They don’t feel great if your follower can’t do them.
This Dance Will Disappoint Both Of You
There are few things worse than a dance that is too far above the follower’s level.
For the follower, it’s awful. They feel nervous, self-conscious, and like they’re a disappointment to dance with. At the start of each new move, the only thing going through their head is “please let it be something I can follow correctly”.
And for you, the lead? You end up disappointed because none of your moves are working. Your follower will do something that’s unexpected or move too slowly and so you won’t be able to execute your next move. You won’t get to play with the music or be creative.
In the worst of cases, you might even injure yourself or your follower. (And I’d argue that it’s even worse when you injure them, not because your partner is more delicate than you, but because you chose to do that move without confirming that they could follow it safely.)
Of course, even when dancing to someone’s level, sometimes a move will be misinterpreted or poorly executed. But when this is happening all dance long, it’s unpleasant and unsafe.
And nobody wants a dance that bad.
So, how can you avoid it? Well, I’ve encountered this problem as both a follower and lead. Here are the three things I think all leads should try to do.
Salsa Bonita, Cornwall, UK. Credit: Peter Micek Photography
1. Learn To Evaluate Your Partner’s Skill
It can be hard to judge a new partner’s level, especially if they have great styling, connection, or musicality. However, it’s an important part of leading. To do this:
Start with the basics. As leads, it’s easy to feel like you have to do impressive moves all dance long. But as a follower, a basic with good technique, good connection, and good musicality is delightful. So, start with those basics, get used to how your partner moves, how they connect with you, if they have a good frame and tension… Let them also get used to you and how you lead.
Build up. Slowly, start putting in slightly more challenging moves. Put in a turn, then a slightly more complex turn, then a single spin. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that, just because a follower has good technique in a basic turn, they’re ready for that triple spin you so badly want to do. Confirm it first.
(Worried that you won’t have time to show off your most impressive moves if you do this? That’s what the second dance is for. But you won’t get that second dance if you terrify your follower in the first one.)
Oh, and while you’re slowly increasing the difficulty…
Work out your follower’s strengths and weaknesses. A salsa dancer might be great at spins but less confident with shines, a kizomba dancer might thrive on urbankiz but struggle with (or dislike) tarraxinha, a bachata dancer might love those neck rolls but not know dominicana. Adjust your choreography accordingly.
Challenge your follower a little – but not too much. There are two types of challenging dances for followers:
- The dance demands that they bring all of their focus, whether it’s related to technique, connection, musicality, or even all three – but when they do this, they can follow it.
- They flounder from move to move, knowing that they’ve done it wrong but not knowing how to correct it or simply being too off-balance from the previous move to do the next one well.
The first dance is thrilling. It will keep your follower coming back all night long. But the second one? Your follower will spend the entire song feeling worried – and this is the opposite of a good dance.
It’s also worth mentioning that followers don’t always want to be challenged in every dance. Sometimes, your partner is tired. Sometimes, they’re not in the mood. Sometimes, they just want a comforting dance that will allow them to relax. Pay attention to your follower’s body language and facial expressions.
Learn how to reassure your partner. If you end up scaring them? Nobody’s perfect; we all mess up sometimes. But all you have to do is tone it down. And then, reassure them that you like dancing with them. It’s that simple.
Oh, but do it in a way that it feels like you really do like dancing with them. Don’t say: “You’re the only one who dances bachata sensual. Everyone else is stiff.” Say: “I like dancing bachata sensual with you. You have great body movement.” Because the first option makes the follower feel like they’re the least bad of a bad bunch, while the second one makes them feel like a good dancer.
Salsa Bonita, Cornwall, UK. Credit: Peter Micek Photography
2. Challenge Yourself – Not Your Partner
Again, I’d like to emphasise that yes, you can challenge your partner, but only to a reasonable amount.
However, let’s say that you’re a more technically advanced dancer than your follower. Does that mean that you have to be bored? Absolutely not!
This is when you challenge yourself instead. Sometimes, as leads, it’s easy to focus so much on directing the follower that you forget that you too can do spins, complex footwork, and more. (And if you can’t do these? Have empathy for your follower.)
But fancy moves aren’t the only way in which you can push yourself. Focus on your creativity, musicality, and choreography. How much variety can you create in a dance, even if your follower doesn’t know many moves? Work with their strengths to lead a fun and engaging dance, for the both of you.
I know that this is hard. It requires a certain level of dance expertise and experience to be more creative. You might not be able to do it well just yet. But be patient with yourself – and, even more importantly, don’t take this as an excuse to not try. Instead, do your best and celebrate your small successes.
3. Learn Beginner-Level Moves In Different Styles
Perhaps you’re a cross-body dancer, not a Cuban one. Maybe your go-to Brazilian zouk style injects hip hop influences. Or it could be that you prefer kizomba to urbankiz, or bachata moderna to bachata sensual.
Well, no problem – you’re the lead, right? You can dance the style you like.
But if you want to be a considerate lead, you may find you sometimes need to dip into other dance styles. And what’s more, you might need to do more than just dip your toe. You might need to learn enough basic moves that you can lead someone in a whole dance.
Again, I’m not saying this is easy. Like everything in dancing, it will take time, lessons, and hard work. However, in my opinion, it’s worth it.
Because one day, you will dance somewhere with a different dance style. And while the experienced followers may enjoy the challenge of your “unusual” moves, the less experienced ones will struggle. Do you really want to make someone think “I thought I was a good dancer, but I guess I’m not”?
For beginners, familiar moves are comforting. It reassures them that they can dance this song with you. And so, it’s helpful if you know a reasonable range of basic moves across the different styles within your chosen dance.
Because when you dance, you don’t want to convince your follower that you dance great. You want to convince your follower that you dance great together.