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The Art of Leading — and Following

 by Frank Hamilton 

Leading is the art of directing a partner through a dance, and it is solely the man's responsibility. Effective leading is based on giving one's partner a feeling of assurance that you know what the next step is to be. It is communicating this knowledge through proper positioning and hand signals, initiating the action at the proper time, and guiding and helping her perform that figure correctly, in the right direction and with good balance. The ladies are understandably critical of the leading technique of most of their partners. Their criticism falls into three categories: too indecisive or "limp," too late, and too rough. The first two complaints are the most common and probably stem from the same cause. While some ineffective or weak leading may be due purely to personality or poor dance training, it is more often due to the man's uncertainty as to what to do next in a routine. Unwilling to embarrass himself by doing the wrong thing, he may avoid leading entirely and just wait — hoping either that the instructor will supply the cue, that an adjoining couple will proceed in time for him to copy their action or that his own partner will "take over" by word or action. A man just cannot lead effectively unless he knows what to do. The first consideration in leading is to know the routine. Uncertainty often leads the man to dance off the beat or to actually do nothing. They should be urged, when uncertain as to the actual steps, to keep the feet moving with the music and progress along with the floor until they  "get back on the beam" again. I am inclined to feel that it is better to do the wrong step than to do nothing. 

Following is the ladies' responsibility. While most girls learn dance routines more quickly and practice more diligently than their partners, they must not usurp the lead. They can help best by being very sure of their own steps and by being alert and prompt in all specified actions, especially with men known to have a weak lead. They must be responsive to the lead and be pleasant about mistakes. In solo and open positions and figures where each must assume full responsibility for her own movement she is completely on her own. The lady has a major obligation in maintaining proper contact or "resistance" — emphasized later in this section. There are some instances where the woman can actively help a less-experienced partner, but most men resent actual physical leading by their partners and can be confused by spoken directions especially when given while the instructor is cueing. We feel that "mixing" of partners during instruction, especially in the early stages of their development, is most helpful in developing any latent ability to lead. Most men seem perfectly willing to let their own regular partner tell them what to do or actually lead them. They become dependent upon her. A new partner is a challenge to any man's ego — he is much more likely to be attentive to instructions and eager to do what is expected of him. Dancing continually with the same partner results in the setting of permanent dance habits — not all of which are correct. Moving to a new partner makes it clear that someone is wrong — he may still make mistakes but they will often be different ones and cause the dancers to think. Impress on your dancers that it is good psychology to approach a new girl with a friendly and confident smile. The friendly phase will warm her spirit — the confident aspect may lead her to think, at least for a few steps, that the man knows what he is doing! Just in case I forget to mention this elsewhere, when leaving a girl after even the briefest of dancing, your dancers should always thank their partners — this courtesy can go a long way to atone for mistakes in footwork! 

Importance of Proper Position. If partners dance in correct round-dance position, the leading problem is half solved. In closed position, they must face each other almost directly with shoulders equidistant and hand and arm positions such that there is definite and even resistance or "apart pressure" at all times. The woman actually "dances against the man's right hand." The "clinging vine" embrace and the too-far-apart stance are both to blame for much poor leading and following. Since dancing is movement of the body from one place to another in a set rhythmic pattern, it requires the position to be correctly maintained through this resistance so that all the man has to do is move his body correctly and the woman will immediately feel and respond to the lead. This body lead is transmitted mainly from the contact between the right shoulder girdle and the arm of the man and the left of the woman. If the man relaxes this right hand and arm position or if the woman moves inside this hand to lose contact at her back, it is very difficult to dance in unison. The same result is noted if the man drops his right elbow from the horizontal or if the woman raises her left elbow to lose contact at that point. Similarly, partners will immediately feel the lack of unity if the woman fails to maintain firm (but not heavy) contact with her left hand on the man's upper arm or lower shoulder. While women know they must not "hang on the man," I feel this tendency applies only to the man's left and woman's right hand hold. I cannot remember dancing with a girl who gave me too firm contact along my right arm. 

Leading Signals. All good dancers anticipate what is coming next and have signals of various kinds to warn their partners of the desired movement ahead of time so the step may be made exactly on time with the musical beat. A slight shifting of position will, for example, indicate that the next move is a change from closed position to sidecar as in a twinkle. Sliding out from closed position into momentary butterfly-facing will facilitate a subsequent action in open position. Hand signals can indicate clearly the type and direction of a twirl. A slackening of clasp with one hand and a shifting and tightening of the other, as that hand is elevated, clearly indicates which hand is to be used for the twirl, thus avoiding uncertainty and confusion. From closed position, a little push with the man's elevated left hand and a very gentle pressure by his right at her side will help initiate the usual right-face twirl. Similarly, a gentle pull on the man's left with a lowering of the hand and a bending of the elbow will indicate that a reverse or left twirl is indicated. These are merely examples — each couple will evolve its own technique. 

Traffic Pattern. Leading involves more than merely guiding one's partner through a sequence. It must be done in such a manner that the dancers conforms to the general floor pattern and maintain the smooth and even flow of movement around the hall. Each dancer must be constantly aware of the imaginary but very definite line that guides the dancing circles. Each figure must be started in proper position and direction with each step timed and "sized" to avoid collision with other couples. Increased space in front of you is always your fault and probably means that those behind you are over-crowded. 

Be Receptive To Help. Round dancing is a team operation involving every person on the floor. An effective and considerate lead will mean maximum enjoyment for each dancer, his partner, and for the others present. Dancers, instead of resenting suggestions or criticisms, should be eager for the help of the instructor, his wife, or another experienced dancer, in improving his lead — or her ability to follow. Teachers should definitely give all possible assistance with this teamwork phase of our program. It is second only to correct and adequate basic step training in the development of good round dancers — it is far more important than "teaching another new dance."


From Roundance Manual by Frank Hamilton, chapter 12,
published by The Sets in Order American Square Dance Society,
Los Angeles, Calif., 1970, and reprinted in DRDC newsletter, April 2010



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