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Tips on Leading: Tips on Leading & Following
in Salsa Dance, How to Lead and Follow

 

Author - Lisa King

 

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Editorial note: This is a fantastic article on leading (and one on following) that every dancer, student and teacher should read.  There are great truths revealed in this little piece.  Read on, and share it with people!  Congratulations to Lisa King, a local dance teacher who is passing on the real knowledge. Since this is a long article, I am not printing this page on a black background (so it's easier for everyone to read and print).


 

On a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Mr. Data has asked to be taught to dance. Dr. Crusher is doing Tap. Mr. Data, being an android, is able to watch her and do exactly what she is doing, learning in mirror image in real time. He then states that he now will be able to dance at the upcoming wedding. The woman tells him, no, you need to learn how to Waltz. Well, he struggles a bit because he just can't watch and copy, as the two partners roles are different. But, being an android, he catches on in a minute or two. He then makes a statement to the effect of "As I see it, I need to maneuver my partner around the dance floor, taking care not to bump into anyone or anything, dancing to the music, spontaneously choreographing a changing and pleasing series of moves, all the while maintaining light conversation." "Yes, that's it.", says his instructor. Mr. Data responds "My, this is difficult, isn't it."


The moral of the story: Leading is more than communicating the next move to the follower, it is a multifaceted role. And it is difficult. Most of this material is aimed at someone who has just recognized he needs to learn how to lead. There is more advanced stuff that will come in handy later. I have indicated those sections by following them with the notation: (Level #) where # is 2, 3 or 4, indicating the degree of difficulty. Please note that everything in this article is presented in stark black and white  when in fact leading has rich shades of gray, especially the items in the 'V'. PHILOSOPHY' section.


I.  BASICS

A. Lead clearly: Make your leads the bodily equivalent of perfect diction.

B. Don't be a Jerk. One of the biggest complaints about leaders is that the leads are jerks or jerky.
Followers don't like this because it is both an inef- fective way to communicate what you intend and it is uncomfortable. There is a continuum here: JERKY - OK - SMOOTH. Aim for SMOOTH, don't settle for OK. Why? I think that when she encounters SMOOTH (combined with other signs of expertise), she is much more likely to turn off her brain, surrender total control to you and just dance. Which allows you to turn off your brain and just dance. Doesn't get much better than that.


C. What is Jerky? What is smooth? An analogy: Consider swinging a golf club. Once you were past the rank beginner stage, you did this SMOOTH and precise. At the beginning and end of the swing, the club is motionless. The entire swing can be viewed as a continuous transition, starting at motionless, accelerating smoothly to the desired force then decelerating smoothly back to motionless. At no time during the swing do you do anything jerky. Before the swing, you decided what you were going to do and then did it. During the swing you were not thinking about some- thing else. Once you started the swing, you did not change your intention and try to change the nature of the swing. Lead the same way.

D. Use the lightest effective lead. A lead is an indication, not a demand. Show her where you want her to go, don't push or pull her there. You decide what you want her to do, but her following ability determines whether she's going to do it or not. Don't force her. The better the follow, the lighter and briefer the lead can be. The poorer the follow, the stronger and longer your lead must be, but never so strong as to be more than an indication.

HOW NOT TO LEAD:

1) Deliver a lead.
2) Observe that she didn't go where you wanted her to,
3) Use whatever force and hold(s) necessary to shove her into position.

HOW TO LEAD:

1) Deliver a lead.
2) Observe that she didn't go where you wanted her to,
3) Unscramble the resulting mess, take her into a basic hold and start dancing again.

E. In general, you lead with your center, not your arms.

F. Your leading can not be better than the quality of your own dance frame.

G. Your leading can not be better than the quality of your follower's dance frame.

II.  LEARNING TO LEAD

A. You can't learn to lead when your follower knows what is going to happen next. If during class you only get to do the move or pattern when the instructor tells you, you are learning the move/pattern, but not how to lead it. Its only when you are dancing, and she does not know what comes next, that you can learn to lead a move.
 

B. Take her by surprise. This is the single most important thing you can do to learn how to lead. During class or practice you are now free to dance how you wish, not under direct verbal control of an instructor. You have learned a new sequence and are ready to begin to learn to lead it. Well, your follower has learned this same sequence and is ready launch right into it as soon as she recognizes it. Don't let her. Make her follow and you lead. How? Surprise her by changing the pattern. Vary the number of repetitions, eliminate moves, add moves.

 

For example, imagine a pattern: Two basics, two inside turns, one basic, and one outside turn. These three moves can be done in any combination and any number of repetitions. By varying the pattern slightly, e.g. Doing one or three inside turns when she expects two, you will begin to learn to lead. If needed, she will begin to learn to follow.


C. Write it down. Everybody who does this comes up with their own shorthand, you will also.


D. Ask her for feedback and watch her facial expressions. Depending on the follower, the information will range from totally useless to priceless.


F. Work with good followers. This works both ways, as you become a better leader, the ladies will remember and want to dance or practice with you.

III.  NAVIGATION

A. Look where you are going to send her before you send her there. Do not start a move unless there is room.

 

B. Look where you are sending her while you are sending her there. Others may have seen the same empty space you did.


C. Once you've sent her there, look around her. Protect her from Bozos.

D. Every collision your follower suffers is your fault. (Minor bumps on a crowed dance floor are almost unavoidable, and I'm not talking  about those, I'm referring to the big collisions.) But, you protest, some total Bozo can come careening across the floor and smash into her while you were minding your own business. As leader, you are in control, therefore you are responsible. Leading means you need to be alert for these idiots, and to avoid them. If you can't avoid the crash, be a gentleman: position yourself to take the collision, not her. (Level 2)

E. Many women love to be expertly led through tightspots. (I call this 'threading the needle'). Don't even think about trying it. When you're good enough, you'll do it spontaneously. (Level 3)
 

IV.  SPONTANEOUS CHOREOGRAPHY

A. Practice basics until they are hardwired. Gives you more time to think about other stuff like staying on the beat, not running into other people, and making conversation.


B. Learn (some) patterns until they are hardwired. Gives you a lot more time to think about other things like what you're going to lead next, how you want to hit the approaching break in the music, and if she is buying any of the stuff you're trying to impress her with. (Level 2)

C. Forget the patterns, know the moves individually and assemble spontaneously. This makes you more fun to dance with because you're not thinking, you're just dancing. (Level 3).


V.  PHILOSOPHY
 

A. Leaders lead, followers follow. You will encounter followers who believe otherwise. There is nothing you can do about it. If you don't like it, don't dance with them again. If you enjoy it, you may find that passing the lead back and forth can be great fun, if the dancers are in perfect sync with each other, with the music and with the dance. (Level 4)

 

B. Don't teach unless she asks. She will be annoyed if you attempt to teach. Besides, how do you know it wasn't you who screwed up? Even if you're 100% sure that you're right and she's wrong, do not teach, it's rude, and followers do not like it.


In class, if you KNOW what you're doing and KNOW what she's doing wrong, approach the subject diplomatically, e.g. "That didn't feel quite right to me, did it seem OK to you?" If she thought it was OK, this is the end of your attempt to teach, no  matter how bad she mangled the move. If she agrees that something was amiss, the safest thing to do is to ask an instructor to watch you two do the move and give you feedback.


At a dance, don't teach unless she asks.
 

C. If she can't follow it, it's because you can't lead it. This was a difficult concept for me to accept. I protested that if her frame collapsed or she got herself off balance or if she was anticipating instead of following, how could it be my fault that she wasn't doing what I was leading?

 

It is the leader's job to assess the ability of the follower and lead accordingly. If she can't follow it, you've led something beyond her ability. You must learn to assess a followers ability in the first few seconds of a dance and respond accordingly. (Level 3)
 

D. Give her a second chance if she flubs a move. They hate it when you don't give them a second chance. Don't discuss it , just smile and set it up the same way and do it very soon after the first flubbed attempt. If she does a lot better on the second time, lead  it a third time. Another reason to give her a second chance is that you may have been the one who blew it.

 

VI.  HOW TO BE A MEMORABLE LEADER.
 

Things which will make them remember you well enough so that many months after you had one dance with them they recognize you and ask you dance:


A. Lead clear and smooth.
 

B. Dance to the music. This is a matter of degree, not an absolute.
 

From less involved to more involved:
1. Be on the beat.
2. Begin moves on the 1 beat.

3. Transition when the music does, e.g., Hit the breaks, react to tempo changes, nail the last note of the song, etc.

4. Interpret the melody and/or lyrics with your spontaneous choreography.

5. Achieve that rare Zen state, where after the dance you will honestly be able to say "The music MADE me do it."

 

Followers expect 1 and 2. Followers appreciate 3 and will seek you out. If you do 4, Followers will be all smiles, and will put you on their MUST DANCE WITH list. If you do 5, Followers will remember you forever and will join your fan club.

 

C. Make her look good out there. Have excellent basics. Lead stuff she can do. If she does something well, lead it some more. Don't pull her off balance. Don't run her into something.

 

D. If you can lead well enough to make her do anything, don't. If there is any showing off to do, let it be you showing her off, not you showing you off. Dance to her level, if you are better, occasionally challenging her, occasionally surprising her. It is not fun for her to be dragged through a lot of moves she doesn't know. You might be able to make her do 12 moves she's never seen before, but she'll like that 1/10th as much as expertly presenting her to the audience (real or imagined) through half a dozen moves she's done a zillion times. This is NOT a case of you 'Making her look good out there', in fact she will think it's just the opposite. (Level 3)

E. Surprise her. Perfect moves that make the follower do unexpected major changes of direction ("... and then we went sideways! Whheeeee...!" ) that are NOT turns or spins and are done SMOOTHLY.

F. Play. Louis Armstrong once replied when asked to define Jazz, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know." You're on your own here....
 

VII.  MISC.

 

A. Wear watch on right hand. This prevents her hair from getting caught in the band when you screw up on a double turn lead and drag your wrist through her hair.

B. Put your keys in left pocket if you must carry them. There's nothing quite as antiromantic as positioning your partner for a corte or dip or some other form of full contact and discovering that your keys are poking both of you.
 

C. Take out the trash. Just because somebody famous taught you the move doesn't mean it is worth using, or that is can be followed by anyone below the level of expert, or that it is fun, or that it looks good, etc.
 

D. Don't do neck wraps until you no longer need these notes. Then, still don't do them.

 

E. Smile.
 

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