Knowing many dance steps and figures is fun, but the true art of social dancing, and its greatest pleasures, lie in great partnering. The nonverbal lead-follow connection between partners is the essence of social dancing. And the best dance partnering is not only a matter of skill, but also of attitude.
In writing about "leading" and "following," I first want to clarify that I'm not especially fond of the term "following." Yes, I use the term, but it's a bit problematic for two reasons.
The less important reason is that the term "following" still carries a negative connotation for some people, left over from the early 20th century (the "Dark Ages" of ballroom dance) when the term lead meant "command" and follow meant "obey". If you wish, you can read more about that here: Partnering Before and After the Vote. But fortunately that old attitude has mostly disappeared by now.
The main reason I don't care for the term "following" is that it doesn't accurately describe the role. Dancers in this role do not "follow." They interpret cues and signals, with a keen responsiveness that is highly active, personal, musical and creative.
A Follow's ability to interpret and expand on these signals benefits from intelligence and experience. Leads, if you want to make a good impression on your partners, show them that you respect this intelligence and experience. How? If they do something that you didn't intend, recognize that they still made a valid alternate interpretation of the signals that you gave. They didn't make a "mistake".
No, don't just recognize it. Show them that you know they didn't make a mistake, by flowing along with them during their valid alternate interpretation. They are dancing — try to keep up with them.
Interpreting cues includes Follows leaving their own stamp of individuality, adding flourishes, style, musicality and flair which their partners admire. Sometimes they also invent their own footwork variations that harmonize with their partner's footwork.
But don't you still use the term Follow?
Yes, I don't wish to change the dance world's use of the terms Lead and Follow, and some dancers take the opposite role, so saying men and women doesn't always apply. So I use the terms, but I want to clarify what I mean by following.
Perhaps this is a minor point, but I prefer the term follow to follower, because follower sounds more passive, and is thus farther from describing this highly active role. The dictionary definition of a follower is someone who trails behind. Oppositely, a follow is a dynamically active dancer. And the dictionary definition of leader implies an elevated hierarchy or dominance, as in "leader of the pack," whereas a lead is merely a role, like a hat that one chooses to wear, holding the same status as a follow. But this is just a personal preference, not an argument against those who still use the older terms leader and follower. I also prefer to capitalize Lead and Follow, to further differentiate the dance roles from the verbs.
Roles are a choice
In the past, Western culture set a prototype of men in the Lead role and women in the Follow role, including hundreds of films and television shows, but the roles are not necessarily gender-based. The 21st Century has seen a marked increase in social dancers learning either or both roles, and discovering that both roles are equally wonderful.
Friendly but clear
Leads, I probably don't need to state the obvious, but you must give your partner clear indications to interpret. Just as a language interpreter can't translate mumbling, dance partners can't interpret a mumbled lead. But forceful leading is no more helpful than is the shouting of unintelligible mumbling.
Great Leads have learned to "speak" in a friendly warm tone with their partnering. Leads, be clear and precise, but also warm and friendly with your leads. And instantly flexible when your partner comes up with an alternate interpretation of your signals.
The flow state
The Follow role is mentally and physically active, like the flow state in sports.
In sports, we admire the players who zigzag brilliantly across the field, completely aware of their surroundings and responding instantly to each moment, rather than those who slavishly follow a game plan that is no longer working. The nimble, intelligent player is in the flow state of relaxed responsiveness, paying highly active attention to possibilities. The Follow role in social dancing does the same — paying highly active attention to possibilities.
That has also changed since the dark ages of ballroom dance. The best dancers now know that a part of great leading is following. I prefer the term tracking. After leading a move, Leads track their partners' movement and stay with them, perceptive and responsive to their situation, watching where their partners are going, where their feet are, where their momentum is heading, and which subsequent step can flow smoothly from their current step. Good Leads know and care what is comfortable for their partners, what is pleasurable or fun. Sketchy guys don't. Good Leads dance for their partners' ability and comfort.
Good Leads clearly suggests an option, which is different from controlling their partners. They propose, not prescribe, a certain way of moving. If their partners don't go with their proposal (do not 'follow'), they refrain from exerting more power to force partners to accept the proposal.
And as with the Follow role, the aware Lead also enjoys the flow state of relaxed responsiveness. Both roles benefit by paying highly active attention to possibilities. Both remain flexible, constantly adapting to their partner.
The flow state in sports has often been described as ecstatic. Social dancers often describe their flow state the same way.
As we dance, we constantly discover new opportunities, which open doors to possibilities, as opposed to rules and restrictions that close doors. We generously adjust our own dancing to be compatible with our various dance partners, rather than insisting that they conform to us. We enjoy the individuality of our dance partners, and we continually modify our dancing to maximize their comfort and pleasure. Doing so then doubles our own enjoyment of social dancing.
Then once we discover the benefits of this awareness on the dance floor, we find that it applies to our other activities and relationships as well.