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by Harold & Meredith Sears

Whenever our round dance teachers bring up the subject of leading and following, we assume that the man will lead and the woman will follow. But dancers have discovered that other styles of leading work well, too. The traditional man's lead can yield wonderfully smooth dancing, but a more collaborative style, where both partners contribute to the lead can work well, and even a woman's "back" lead can give good results.


The traditional, modern style of lead and follow expects the man to direct the movements of the couple, much as a conductor directs the playing of an orchestra. I like this simile, because the orchestra knows perfectly well what it will play, just as the woman round dancer knows what she will dance. The orchestral players have the scores right in front of them, and the woman dancer hears the cues just as the man does. But, as an orchestra must not play until the baton rises, so must the woman not dance until the man leads.

A teacher once said that the woman must assume her position, poised and responsive, and then she must simply "wait for something good to happen." Of course, that "something good" is the man's clear and unambiguous lead. (His partner then confided to the women, "Sometimes it's a long wait.")

The man's lead comes from throughout both dancers' frames. In closed position, the arms are up, and both man and woman have their muscles well toned. When the man steps forward, he lowers a bit in anticipation of the move. She begins to respond. He doesn't push with his left hand, but his toned frame maintains its shape, so she feels pressure at her right hand and hip, and she feels a release of pressure at his right hand. She moves to regain that pressure in his right arm and to maintain her position on his right hip. She feels the movement along her left arm. Especially in the smooth rhythms and in closed position, your frame is a single, integrated unit, and the lead is transmitted at many points of contact. Such a lead can be very clear.

Again, don't try to steer your partner by pushing and pulling with the left hand. Don't pull or shove with the right hand. Don't lift or drop a shoulder. These sorts of local or focused movements break the frame and move you out of position with respect to the other. They destroy the smooth lines of your dance position. They are often jerky movements and impediments to smooth flow. A strong lead comes from the legs, hips, torso, and both arms, all at the same time; it comes from the whole frame moving as one.

As a specific example, consider that the whole frame is used to move from closed position into semi-closed and back again. One might think that the man could simply push with his left arm to open the woman, but this will only push her off balance. Instead, stretch the right side. Your frame will sway left, her head will open to her right, and your bodies will open that little bit to semi. You may use the heel of your right hand to apply a little pressure to encourage this opening. To return to closed position, lose the right stretch and use left stretch to sway right. This will close her head and return your bodies to dance position. You may use the fingers of your right hand to encourage this rotation to closed position.

As the man takes his first step forward, the woman's step back should be long and from the hip. The man lowers and begins to step forward with his left foot. The woman follows by lowering and stepping back with her right. Reach back. Allow the tip of your toe to touch the floor, but don't transfer weight until you feel the man transfer his weight. You might think to yourself that you must not commit until he does. Otherwise, you may cut his step short with a bump, or you may get your toe stepped on. If he is taking a long, flowing stride, you can let your right toe slide along the floor. When he begins to shift weight, you do, too. If he shifts sooner, you will be in position to shift as well, and you will remain together, your movements smooth and not jerky.

This delayed commitment means that the woman always steps just a bit after the man does. It also means that there is always some tension or resistance between the man and woman. This tension can be thought of as part of the overall tone in the dance frame, and it is crucial to both leading and following. This tension or tone is the connection between the man and woman. It is the line of communication. It is how the man invites the woman to do a particular figure, and it is how the woman can hear or sense what the man is trying to convey. If the woman hears the cue and moves exactly with her man, then the connection between them is lost; the lines of communication are broken. Ladies, listen to the cues, but delay action and respond to your lead.

In the latin rhythms, the hold is looser, and the partners are usually farther apart. One feature that improves the lead, now that there are fewer body contacts, is that almost every latin figure returns to a facing position as a base for the next lead. Do your movement, whether it is a new yorker or hand-to-hand, and then come back to a facing position, with a firm frame and clear awareness of each other.

Avoid "Noise" —

It can be especially difficult to avoid extraneous movements as you dance. An extraneous movement is any movement, from head to toe, that might be a lead, but it is not. Extraneous movements are "noise" in your lead/follow communication system. Men, I know you are groovin' to that music, and it is telling you to shake your bootie. It is saying, "get down!" But don't do it. Don't shake. Don't bounce. Don't look around the room. Your partner will assume you are communicating with her, but she won't understand, and in truth you're not talking to her; you're just talking to yourself. You must stay toned and quiet. Each movement must be smooth, conscious, a clear signal, a clear lead.

If the lead tends to be noisy, then a look to reverse could mean anything or nothing. The man may just be checking out the refreshment table. But if the lead is relatively noise-free, then a glance to reverse does mean something: it means, get ready to go that way. It might work something like this: You are in butterfly, and you are doing a side, close, side, touch; cucaracha; (notice that I am using punctuation to describe timing: a comma marks the end of a beat and a semi-colon marks the end of a measure). These step cues can come fast. Tone in the man's left arm leads the side step, and continued tone there helps insure that we both close and step side again. As you begin your "touch," relax that tone, turn your head slightly to reverse, and strengthen the tone in your right arm. All this primes the woman for the change in direction. Then your cucaracha to reverse comes as no surprise, and she is smoothly with you. These little movements and glances work only if your lead is noise-free.

Manual and Visual Lead —

This might be a good place to note the two very different categories of lead:

    • manual lead - movements that are felt
    • visual lead - movements that are seen

A good follower is paying attention with all of her senses. You can lead a reverse underarm turn with your lead hand, bringing it through, between your bodies, but you can lead it with a deliberate turning of your head to your right – leading with your chin. It might even be that the wafting of your aftershave in that direction might help lead the figure, an olfactory lead. I don't think I can stretch this description enough to propose a "gustatory" lead.

Actually, I get the impression from the experts that a visual lead with the chin is not something especially to cultivate, but sometimes any help you can give is worthwhile, and how are you going to lead a latin chase? In loose closed or butterfly, you can begin with a clear manual lead, but you must quickly let go. From that point on, it is only visual information and knowing the figure that will get you both through the figure. And how will you lead a peek-a-boo, instead of a regular chase? Even in free-style, clear visual leads will do it. You are not touching, but when you stop your forward motion, do a right cucaracha, and peek back at her, she can only mirror you and return the peek.

Even less "proper" is a third category of lead, the vocal lead. Notice that I didn't have the nerve to include it in the bulleted list above, but there are times when you are unable to give a clear manual or visual lead, your partner has not heard the cue, and a little whisper from you can make all the difference. Maybe a transition is called for, and you will whisper, "left foot." Or a spot turn needs to be overturned, and you will say, "face the wall." These whispered cues could so easily be overdone – a steady buzz that would absolutely ruin the romance and music of the dance – but once or twice in an evening might smooth out a figure or two and be well worth the impropriety.

So, be aware of your manual and your visual leads (and maybe a few vocal leads), and keep them clean.

Ladies, Ignore the Cues —

Perhaps you can tell that the cues we so enjoy in round dancing can really interfere with good leading and following and therefore with smooth dancing. If the woman hears the cues, if she knows the figures perfectly well, and if she steps off into what she knows she is supposed to do before the man leads her to do so, then they will go bump, bump, bump, down the ballroom floor. She steps producing a little separation, he steps to catch up, and they bump. The next cue comes, and they do it again.

Women, you must learn to wait. Confidentially, you may know that you are the smarter one with the better sense of rhythm. You hear a cue, and you know that you must step back, but don't do it. Wait for your man. Wait for him to lower. Feel his knee bending and moving toward you. Use these actions as signals for you to lower and to move your free foot back, but don't take the step. Instead, keep your free toe on the floor as long as possibel. Let it slide back freely. Don't let the toe catch; don't let the toes begin to bend. Keep the tip of the toe gliding over the surface of the floor. As long as he is lowering and moving forward, you too stay with him and move back. If you anticipate the step, you will cut him short. Instead, keep your weight balanced over the arch of the supporting foot for as long as possible, lowering, and sliding the free toe back. Only when he finally steps do you take weight. In this way you will be dancing as a couple, rather than as two dancers, each responding to the cuer. Yes, you do hear the cues, so you are forewarned. You know ahead of time what you will do. But let the man tell you when to do it.

Finally, if you are really good, you will even let the man tell you what to dance, as well as when to dance it. Imagine a dance in which the cuer cues a Reverse Fallaway, and somehow your man hears "Reverse Turn," and he dances and leads a Reverse Turn. What will you do? Will you jerk him into that fallaway position, where you know you're supposed to be? If you do that, it won't look pretty. Instead, dance the Reverse Turn with him, and do it with a smile on your face. He will know something is wrong by now. You don't have to tell him. The Reverse Fallaway is a one measure figure and the Reverse Turn is two, and the cuer is telling him to do something he can't do from there, and he is dancing and trying to hold this partnership together. The woman's job is to follow. Eventually, a cue will come along that you can do from where you are, and you will be back on track. Those on the sidelines might not quite recognize what you are up to, considering what is being cued, but mostly they will see how smoothly and pleasantly you are dancing together. Years ago, one of our dance teachers confided to us that her partner, "liked her to dance a little fuzzy," a little compliant: You want to turn left, hon? Sure, I'm with you.


There are several, separate steps or skills that a dancer must use in responding to round dance cues.

He must:

  • hear the cue;
  • process that cue and get a mental image of what is to be done;
  • actually execute the move, with appropriate movements in the right direction;
  • lead his partner through that same figure;
  • hear the beat of the music—count the time, either consciously or subconsciously; and of course,
  • move to that beat.

In an ideal world (see "Man's Lead" above), the man is supposed to do all this, and the woman is supposed to follow. In the real world, the man and woman are not so one-sided, not so specialized, and not so focused at every moment during the dance. Sometimes he misses the cue, but she hears it. Sometimes he is momentarily bewildered, but she understands. Sometimes he does not have as good a sense of rhythm as she has, and all this can create a more collaborative style of leading.

In the collaborative style of leading, he leads when he can, and she leads when she can. Both are sensitive to each other and are prepared to follow, and the dance becomes more of a balanced conversation, back and forth, a give and take, a discussion, maybe even a civilized debate between colleagues; rather than the more one-sided or even autocratic relationship in traditional lead and follow. When he is sure of himself, he strengthens his lead, and off you go. When he is not so sure, he softens, and perhaps she is able to step into the breach and carry on.

So is it okay for the woman to step out before the man does? Essentially, that is what leading is, or it is the preparatory stretching of the body or rotation of the upper body before you actually take that first step. For instance, in leading an open telemark, lowering and a little left-face body rotation is maybe just as important as the initial movement of the lead foot in leading the figure, and the woman can do that as well as the man can. The important thing is that you both develop this dance relationship together and that you both agree that this is how you want to do it. Hypothetically, he might not be very motivated to learn the figures and the dances, or he might not hear the beat very clearly. If so, he might be perfectly happy to have you lead, and the result can be comfortable and smooth. Or you both might be dancing at the limit of your ability to hear, interpret, and execute (as you learn more and more and rise through the phases), and sometimes he is on top of it and in control and sometimes you are.

But if the woman is to lead, then the man has to learn to follow. Following is a discreet activity, a unique skill, just as leading is. While the leader has to visualize the figure and communicate clearly what he wants his partner to do, the follower has to interpret that communication and then execute the request. It's like speaking and listening. Being a good listener is a rare skill. If you both want to lead and follow, then you both will have to work on both skills. Neither comes automatically.

I think I'm dwelling on this point, because I am only a leader and not a follower. So far, Meredith and I can't do the collaborative thing. Occasionally, she will try to lead something. Usually, she is not trying to lead a figure but is trying to change how we are doing a figure. For instance, we might be doing a promenade sway to an oversway. I use right side stretch to turn her to semi and we sway down line. Then I change my sway with left side stretch and soften my right knee to turn her a little left-face. But Meredith wants to have more rotation in her oversway, so she keeps turning beyond where I have led her. She tugs on me.

Now, think about this with me: Most of the time, I am dancing with a responsive partner. There is a softness there, a smoothness. Where I go, she follows, and we glide and float across the floor. I feel no resistance. It's like a knife through soft butter. (Don't get me wrong. This is the occasional ideal. We make plenty of mistakes in actual practice.) But when she tries to lead, it's like eating a pear and biting down on a seed. It's like watching a romantic scene in a movie theater, and a cell phone goes off somewhere in the audience. It's like driving smoothly north, hitting a hairpin turn in the road, and being yanked back south. I'm not saying Meredith is wrong, but I do not know how to follow. My own preference would be for her to finish the dance under my lead and then tell me later that she thinks we need more rotation in our oversway, and can we try for more next time?

I wonder if I'm simply being autocratic, stubborn; I want to be the boss. Probably a little, but it is still true that lead and follow are strikingly separate skills. If you are really focusing on leading, it is hard suddenly to stop and to become a follower. You can learn to do that, but I think that making those transitions might represent a third skill that will require its own work and practice.


And finally, carrying the suppositions in collaborative leading a good bit further, the man may be tone deaf and the woman sharp as a tack. This doesn't mean that he doesn't have many, many fine qualities, but on the dance floor, it is she who has the skills listed above. She may routinely hear, process, and remember better that her man. She may be more attentive, more interested in the whole activity. Dancing may be her "thing" and not so much his. Perhaps he is indulging her passion, and it is good of him to do so. In these circumstances, certainly let her be more assertive. Let her step out firmly and guide the figure.

Sometimes, male dance teachers will joke that on the dance floor is the one place where he is the boss, where he has the final say. I'm sure that such a comment is just a humorous exageration, but even so, the man's lead is only one style of leading. It is certainly the traditional style of dance. But it is not something that we all must aspire to. Dance styles are strongly individual, and other relationships between partners—the collaborative lead and the woman's back lead—can work well and yield smooth and graceful movements. Each couple should work out what works best for them.

A version was published in the the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January 2005; and reprinted in Footnotes In the Round, LRDTA,  March 2006.


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