One of the keys to good ballroom dancing is good following. If you are a follow, then you might have found that you know the dance steps (ballroom dance steps, swing dance steps, Latin dance steps or any type of partner dance), but find that you can’t always work out which step is being led. This can often come from learning through routines. It can also be from a desire to back lead. Sometimes it is just hard and you’re not sure why. Before writing this blog post I spent a solid period learning to follow to explore all the challenges that a follow can have. I now have some insights that can help you. Let me share them with you now.
Do you have a good lead?
I have come across some follows who feel that they are not good follows, but they have been dancing with leads who are not as skilled. This is because the person they were dancing with was at the same beginner level. It’s not that following is easier, it is more that it can be more instinctive. Thus, if you are dancing with a lead who is as experienced as you, and you’re both in the earlier stages of developing your dance ability, then it might be that you actually need a more experienced lead: it might not be you at all. Worth checking this first before you start blaming yourself too much.
Have you done too many routines? Try some pure freestyle!
I have seen a case after case of people touting that fact that they free-styled in studios where there is a large focus on routines for learning. Because free-styling is rare for them, they talk about it like it is a big deal. I have personally danced with ladies who are at a gold level and still have troubles following. The simple fact is that if you practice only routines, then you will never really learn to follow. You will know all the ballroom dance steps, you might even be able to back lead others through each, and even the whole routine, but you will not be able to follow. If you want good dance ability, then you need to practice your following. Do some pure freestyle ballroom dancing (or Latin or swing) and you will develop your ability to follow.
Making yourself freestyle is one of those universal dance tips for many aspects of dance so there’s many reasons to do this when you can.
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Have you danced with only one partner?
Sometimes follows pick up different/wrong signals for a lead - I did this when learning and noticed it when leading. These might be the habits of the one person you always dance with - as long as you dance with them, these mistaken lead signals are not an issue. However, it means that when it comes to ballroom dancing you know it only with one person. This is also common in studios that use routines to teach dance - the routine is drilled with one teacher, and that's the only person you can dance with. The solution is the obvious: group classes and free-styling (that same dance tip again).
Do you want to be a good follow?
I have danced with women, who learned through routines, who have decided that they simply couldn’t follow. They decided that they simply weren’t good follows and that was how it was going to be. This was honest of them in a way; they were not good follows. But they could decide that they wanted to be different (better) when it came to dance, and work on their ability to follow. Do you want to exhibit good dance? If you do, then put the effort in to learn to follow and demand help from your teacher if needed.
Do you know the steps without a lead?
This was one of the more interesting aspect of being a good follow that I discovered.
If you know the ballroom dance steps and know them well (without the lead), then when you are ballroom dancing you can focus on the leads so you can follow easily. I have danced with many who are concentrating so much on the steps that they miss the leads or even back lead. Try to know the steps well. Then all you need is the first lead to perform the figure. You will see you will have good dance ability very quickly.
However, there might (probably will) be when you don’t know the dance steps. Here is a dance tip that is almost the opposite of what I just said for good dance. Try to forget the dance step altogether and simply be led through everything. This was something I found I was doing when following. When I knew the step, all I needed was the first lead, and the rest would come. However, if I did not know, then I went blank and handed myself over to the lead and simply ran on instinct.
This, I found, required some mental agility. You need to quickly determine if you are to execute a dance step you know or simply go mentally blank to follow everything. You might even need to make something up, which is not quite a back lead, but might feel like it. A good lead will accommodate this if it does happen - if free-styling.
Do you have the right contact and know what to be aware of?
I found at times I needed to focus more on the contact I had with the lead or change my awareness of the lead. Sometimes the lead is visual, sometimes it is physical. By being aware of what you can both see and feel, you will be a better follow. Expanding your awareness beyond yourself to your partner in general is one of the best dance tips I can give you for good dance.
Maybe you’re meant to be a lead
Sometimes we assume we should take on the roles allocated to us by our gender. It has worked for me: I am a man and I enjoy taking the lead. However, you are probably a woman if you are reading this and looking for advice on how to follow. It might be that you’re meant to lead. Just something to consider if you find yourself having issues following and maybe at times you back lead.
Do you trust the lead (and yourself)?
I found that when it came to following I needed to trust the lead. And this came to trusting myself as well. If I did not trust the lead or myself, then I found that I tended to back lead more. I would then dance the ballroom dance steps I thought expected and not what was led: not good dance at all. Feel confident that your lead knows enough and that you can respond in a suitable way to whatever lead you get - even if it is not what they expected (it's not really a big deal if it does not work out in this context).
If you apply the above dance tips, then you will see your ability to follow improve. However, I think it is worth noting what else I have discovered. When it clicks, following can make good dance great. You can start interpreting the ballroom dance steps to style them your own way. When that happens, you’re really ballroom dancing: a good follow is what makes a couple look really good on the dance floor; a good lead only let's it happen. When it comes to ballroom dancing following it often thought of as being the easier out of leading and following. However, while the basics of following can come faster at the start (they do not need the same grasp on ballroom dancing steps) you always need to be switched on when following and you need to overcome some habits that might be holding you back. I am not saying following is harder than leading, but doing both has let me know follow is not easier either.