On Leading

When people first learn to dance, the concept of leading and following is a tricky one.  Conceptually, it isn’t hard — the leader (typically the man) decides where he’s going to go, and what’s going to happen next and the follower (typically the lady) goes with him.  Not too bad, right?  Well, the trick is making that happen.

In the beginning, one of two things happen.  Either the leader is shoving the follower all over the place, pushing her from point a to point b — basically the brute force approach — or he’s so passive that she takes over.  For whatever reason, in dancing, the woman is very likely to take the lead if the man doesn’t take it wholeheartedly.  Learning to lead is a time consuming process, which takes a lot of practice, and willingness on the part of both halves of the couple.  Without that, instead of leading and following, you end up with a battle of wills.

Really, though, this doesn’t just apply to dancing.  When learning to lead in any aspect of our lives, the process is pretty much the same.  The first time we take the role as an authority figure in our lives (older sibling, teacher, senior staff, management) we go through the same routine.  We tend to either overshoot and become the bully or go too soft, trying not to alienate anyone.  It takes time and patience to develop the techniques of leading without being overbearing or bulldozed.

I went through this same process myself when learning to be a leader in dancing.  I had been a ballroom dancer for years.  I was quite accomplished and well-skilled — I had competed, won awards, and was among the best students in my studio at the time.  Then I became a teacher, and I got to see how the other half lived.  I had never lead before.  I had absolutely never given the guys the credit they deserved for how hard it is to be a good leader.  Not to say that being a good follower is easy, either, but I had spent years cultivating that skill without giving much thought to the challenge the leaaders were facing.  It’s tough.  A leader has to remember patterns, make decisions, steer around obstacles, keep timing and look good doing it.  Oh, and we don’t want him to push to hard, be too soft or step on us in the process.  It’s a lot of work, and I truly didn’t appreciate it until I had to do it.

What I found, as I started working on this skill, is that basically every instinct we have for doing it is wrong.  If we try to lead something, and we don’t get the desired response, we tend to turn the volume up on our lead — push harder, take a bigger step, twist more.  This is the dance equivalent of shouting at someone who doesn’t speak your language.  It gets you no closer to your desired goal, and now the person on the other end of the interaction is ticked off.  If we accept that the follower is probably making their best possible effort to do what we’re asking, we need to rethink our request.  We need to ask in a different way.

One of the biggest secrets of leading is this: if you want the other person to do something, you have to do it to yourself first.  If you want her to move left, try going left.  If you want her to take a big step, take one yourself.  If you want her to turn towards you, turn towards her.  Simple idea, but hard to do.  I call this “being zen” in your dancing.  It’s learning to change your partner by changing yourself, and, as I’ve said, it’s against almost every instinct we have.  A leader will instinctively push on a partner, pull, twist, turn and do every manner of things to her, all while standing still and stewing over why she won’t just do what he’s asking.  Learning to make small changes in your own stance, posture, position or movement is what will create a great lead.

This, really, is true in all aspects of leading, not just dancing.  Think about some of the greatest “leaders” you’ve known in your own life: teachers, managers, role models, parents or others.  What made them great?  Among their many great qualities, you’ll probably list, “they never asked me to do something they wouldn’t do themselves” or “they always helped me out” or ” they always met me halfway”.  Being a leader in dancing is just like being a leader in life.  It takes time to develop the skill, but a lot of that time is devoted to overcoming our instincts and learning to focus on what we can do to create change, rather than what everyone else should do.  Being willing to start with ourselves is the real victory.  After that, the only challenge is steering.  And looking good doing it. :)

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