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Leading and Following: Staying in Tune with Your Partner
Before you and a partner hit the floor, you’ll need to decide who will lead. Learn why dancing is more than a game of “Follow the Leader” in Groupon’s study of the concept.
A truly great dancer can lead a partner through a waltz on a crowded floor without smashing any toes or shattering any monocles—even if that partner has never waltzed before. The lead dancer (traditionally, but not always, the male of a male-female partnership) is charged with sending nonverbal cues to his partner through subtle movements of his hands and arms. This task can be incredibly nuanced, as the lead dancer must simultaneously keep time with the music, plan out his next steps, and navigate around other dancers. This is not to say that the other partner is entirely passive. Richard Powers, a dance instructor at Stanford University, asserts in his Thoughts on Dance that “the follow role is mentally and physically active,” just as aware of her surroundings and her partner’s movements as the lead. Each partner must constantly adjust their movements to match the other’s, and a good lead will never exert too much force if his partner does not catch his cues or know how to read his semaphore flags. “Clear leading is the physical equivalent of quiet, perfect diction, not shouting,” writes Powers.
This equality-minded philosophy of social dance gained widespread acceptance after the gender-role upheavals of the 20th century, but it isn’t a new phenomenon. Many 19th century men were emphatic about respecting the autonomy of their dance partners, with famed dancer Charles Durang noting in 1847 that “Gentlemen ought always to be attentive to their partners, and they should move in unison with their every step and attitude.” That sentiment makes a striking contrast with that of a 1930 writer who argued that “No matter what her views on suffrage and feminism may be, it is a woman’s duty to let the man lead on the ballroom floor. He is the pace-maker; she is his shadow.” These attitudes about female submission on the dance floor persisted well through the 1950s, when the rise of the feminist movement began to reshape attitudes throughout society. Today, many dancers of any gender feel it’s important to learn to lead and to follow in order to become a well-rounded, attentive partner.