One of the most important skills an amateur female ballroom dancer (at least in the Western world) needs to master is the art of following – a progressive journey of several stages. And a journey that I believe is never completed.
When female amateurs first begin ballroom dancing, we are told that our “job” is to follow. Especially in the U.S., that means learning to let go of control and let our partner “lead” us. The conundrum is that many of us women, when we first danced as teens, were the leaders, so many of us became masters at back-leading. Or, if in our youth, we studied any of the popular dance forms such as ballet, tap or jazz, we most often danced solo and the whole partnering dynamic is a new experience.
In the beginning, this ballroom dancing dynamic of leading and following can often be misinterpreted as waiting for our partner to “push” or “pull” us around. Early on, many of us also expect and/or prefer a “strong” lead so that we know where we’re supposed to go. This approach also lends itself to a lot of early instruction telling us (as the follower) to “wait” rather than jump the gun by anticipating what the move will be.
As we progress and the patterns or figures become more complex, we are supposed to also learn our specific part – which may be a bit different from our partners’ part. And again we are given instruction to not “help” our leader – translate – quit back-leading.
Thus, in addition to following, we are expected to learn how to distinguish between when to dance “independently” (understand and do what our part is) and when to follow. Part of the process is also how to “feel” the leads into our specific part of the figure or pattern. Put another way, this stage is the journey of learning what one’s job is in the dance partnership and learning when to “hesitate” and when to just move.
To further complicate this ongoing journey, every leader leads differently – some leaders are subtler and others prefer to be a bit stronger. Just learning how each partner leads is in itself a journey. As we learn to follow with different partners, we need to work out together how each partner leads.
While the journey never ends, I’ve discovered that the joy of this progressive “following” journey is found in both big and small improvements – like when you dance with a new leader and can follow immediately – at least most of the time. Or when you realize that you have become more conscious and aware of the subtler leads.
And it’s these “victories” that can be addictive, so I keep coming back for the joy in the journey.