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An Introduction to Lead and Follow

by Dick Fisher

Like most mysterious things, lead and follow is very simple once certain prerequisites are understood. It is these prerequisites, which at first blush seem unrelated to lead and follow, that make it mysterious, and to the uninitiated, difficult. The fundamentals of lead and follow begin with proper poise and balance, proper forward and backward walking, and a sound and unvarying dance frame in the standard rhythms; and with proper poise and balance, connection, arm action, and shaping in the Latin rhythms.

STANDARD RHYTHMS

Poise, in this case, refers to how we stand, and when dancing we need to stand in a very particular way. We need to stand very erect with our knees slightly flexed and our weight mostly on the balls of the feet, but with the heels not off the floor. We need to have our blocks of weight (head, shoulders, hips, and legs) directly over the supporting foot. We need to have muscle tone in our torso (shoulders, chest, and solar plexus) in order to maintain this stack of blocks. I think of this as “the mean streets stance” or “fight or flight stance”; the way we hold our bodies when we face a threatening situation. Men usually relate well to this analogy.

The forward walk in dancing is very much like our everyday brisk walking motion, but put a partner in front of us and we often forget how to walk. The leader moves the follower’s body by moving his body, so that movement must be detectable and definitive. To walk forward properly, you must take full weight onto one foot and begin to swing the other foot forward with the foot just skimming the floor. Then propel yourself forward with thrust from the supporting leg, release the heel of the supporting foot from the floor, and reach forward with the heel of the free foot. At full stride the ball of the supporting foot and the heel of the free foot will be touching the floor simultaneously. As forward momentum brings your weight over the forward foot, that foot becomes your supporting foot. It is essential that the lady also use this technique when she is the person moving forward.

The backward walk, usually done by the lady, is more difficult than the forward walk because we seldom have occasion to walk backward except when dancing. The person going backward must still maintain forward poise with the weight firmly over the ball of the supporting foot as the free leg is moved backward. The momentum of the person moving forward provides the momentum, through the frame, to the person moving backward. As the weight of the person moving backward is shifted back by this momentum, weight is transferred to the heel of the supporting foot, and the toe of the free foot glides along the floor as the free leg reaches backward. As momentum moves the body, and the center of gravity, of the person moving backward further and further from the supporting foot, weight will be momentarily divided between the heel of the supporting foot and the toe of the free foot. As the person going forward completes the weight change from one foot to the other, the person moving backward is forced to take full weight on the formerly free foot. Thus the person moving backward, whether lady or man, steps slightly later then the person moving forward, and as this is accomplished the backward stride of the follower will perfectly match the forward stride of partner.

This may all seem a bit pedantic, but the only way that the partnership can move and turn smoothly is for the partners to have proper poise and proper walking mechanics. To visualize this partnership movement, you might imagine two magnets on a smooth tabletop. If you carefully place one magnet next to the other with either both of the north or south poles facing each other, you can push one magnet about by moving the other magnet, but the magnets will not touch each other. However, one false move, just like a breakdown in poise or walk mechanics in dancing, and the “follower” magnet abruptly turns and slams into the “leader” magnet.

We practice poise and walking by having the lady extend her arm and place the palm of her hand on the center of the man’s chest. The couple can then practice walking together without fear of feet colliding. Next we have the couple assume the practice hold, man’s hands on lady’s shoulders and her hands placed comfortably on his arms. In this hold the couple can also practice with the man moving backward.

The final prerequisite to leading and following is a proper hold. This is as true in rumba and cha cha as in foxtrot, quickstep, and waltz. The hold provides the connection between the partners, and a good connection is essential for leading and following. There are many “proper” holds for foxtrot, quickstep, and waltz. In fact, there seem to be as many different versions of the “proper” hold as there are ballroom instructors that we have consulted. We have found most to be too sophisticated for all but the dedicated phase VI dancer. The version that we have found best suited to the majority of round dancers is the “Beach Ball Hold.” Men should imagine holding a wet, sandy beach ball between their hands away from their body and at about chest height, and then dancing with the ball, while always keeping a particular colored panel of the ball pointed toward their chest. We often use a clean, dry beach ball when teaching.

The description of our version of the “proper” hold is as follows: Partners should stand erect. The man’s right hand should be placed on or beneath the woman’s left shoulder blade. The man’s elbows should be as far apart as he can comfortably get them and should never be allowed to go behind his back. The man’s left hand should hold the lady’s right hand comfortably with his palm pointing toward the palm of his right hand. The lady must resist any pressure from the man’s left hand to keep the joined hands steady and well out from the partnership. She must also stretch slightly leftward to keep her shoulder blade firmly in the man’s right hand, but the lady never leans to the left. The lady places her left hand on the man’s arm at a point no higher than her own shoulder. Obviously, this point will be slightly different with different partners.

If a partnership meets these prerequisites, leading and following are as simple as 1, 2, 3: have a good frame, leader move from the center of the body, and follower step late -- or in dancing’s three "F" words: frame, flow, follow. The partnership should be able to move forward and backward in both straight and curved lines as easily as the man can move along those same lines with the beach ball. Changing from closed position to banjo, sidecar, etc., turning, and pivoting require some additional technique.

Body motion, in addition to body flight, or the motion generated by walking, is essential for completing turns. This motion is called Contrary Body Movement (CBM), which simply means turning the opposite hip and shoulder towards the moving leg and foot. In fact, we use slight CBM or body swing when we walk briskly. In dancing we can turn right or left while going either forward or backward resulting in four ways of turning.

Going forward, the leader turns right by stepping forward with a right foot and at the same time swinging the left hip and shoulder forward, in other words using CBM. The lead in this turning action comes from initiating CBM during the step. This is also true when the leader turns right while going backward. Going forward, the leader turns left while stepping forward with a left foot and at the same time swinging the right hip and shoulder forward, in other words using CBM. The lead in this turning action comes from initiating CBM during the step. This is also true when the leader turns left while going backward. To accomplish smooth turns, the follower must have CBM that matches that of the leader and this is accomplished by having a stable and unvarying frame.

The Woman Must Wait! A major problem with lead and follow is that, in round dancing, the lady has been taught from the beginning to “do her part.” Although in Phase II two step and waltz the partners can dance separately while in close proximity to one another, this will not suffice at Phase III and higher. Many dancers don’t wish to “move up” to higher phase dances because those dances are so uncomfortable due to poorly developed lead and follow technique. The follower, almost always the lady, must wait for the leader to lead. If she decides to do an impetus or telemark on her own, the figure will end badly. Just having the woman open her head before the third step of an open impetus or telemark will cause the figure to end badly. Women must not “do-their-own-thing” no matter how tempting that might be. Only when she surrenders the lead to the man will he be able to develop proper technique, and only then will the couple be able to execute the Phase III figures properly.

LATIN RHYTHMS

Latin rhythms have different but somewhat similar prerequisites to proper lead and follow. The poise in Latin dancing is more forward with the blocks of weight slightly out of alignment. Weight should be predominantly on the balls of the feet with the chest over the balls of the feet but the hips slightly back. There are no heel leads in Latin dancing, and the balls of the feet never completely leave the floor. The dancer should be able to complete most figures while keeping single sheets of toilet paper beneath their feet. Steps are small and the amount of movement of the hips often exceeds that of the feet (e.g. cucaracha).

The closed hold is similar to that used in waltz but it is more open. This openness is achieved by opening the elbow joint rather than by moving the hands (except in Paso Doble). There are almost as many different versions of the “proper” open hold as there are of the closed hold.

The open hold that we prefer is very different from the “butterfly” hold of waltz and two step; although, round dancing uses the same term for both holds. The man should hold his arms downward from the shoulders with the palms of his hands either upward or more commonly pointing toward his body with fingers extended at right angles to the palms. The lady should hold her arms downward from the shoulders with her palms pointed downward and her fingers hooked over the man’s fingers. The lady needs to apply slight downward pressure on the man’s hands, which he must resist with slight upward pressure. She should generate this pressure by exaggerating her forward poise rather than by pushing downward with her hands and arms.

I describe this as the “wheelbarrow” hold. The man wishes to lead the lady at her center of gravity, which is between her hips, so as he moves her forward or backward it is very much like pushing a wheelbarrow. If the person going backward steps late, it will be an empty wheelbarrow rather than a full one. If the hands are allowed to rise much above the lady’s waist level, they have moved toward the man’s center of gravity in his chest and he losses his advantage in leading the lady. A basic lead in Latin dancing is the raising of the arm to signal an underarm turn, so as the hand moves upward the lady assumes that a turn is coming, which is another reason to keep the hands low unless you wish to signal an underarm turn.

The principle connection between the partners in Latin dancing is the man’s left to lady’s right hand. The lady follows the man’s lifted hand in underarm turns and where that hand ends is where she will finish her turn. The pressure from this same hand leads the open hip twist and the closing of the lady’s feet in the hockey stick. The importance of this hand connection in Latin dancing cannot be over emphasized.

The lead in many Latin figures requires the man to shape his body. A good example is the rope spin where the shaping of the body toward the lady leads the spiral and turns a lariat into a rope spin. The lead in the majority of Phase V and VI figures requires body shaping by the man.


From clinic notes prepared for the ROUNDALAB Convention, 2008, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February 2014.



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