A Shared Experience on Breaking Out of your Assigned Dance Roles
By Abby Mark
When I first started dancing, it seemed unusual to see two women competing together. I may have seen one or two couples, but otherwise it was strange to me. Why would any woman want to lead? It seemed counterintuitive to learn the lead part when there was already so much to focus on with the follow technique. Now that I have been dancing for four years, I’ve been lucky to see the numbers of same sex competitive couples increase, and I have even competed as a lead myself. To find out more about the reasons for this change, I reached out to some female leads to learn more about their experiences.
Why did you initially switch parts?
There can be many motivating factors in learning the opposite role. For me, it was out of necessity, as we had lost many leads in the upper levels on our team. I found that this was a pretty common theme. Kellen Niles, from the University of Northern Iowa team (UNI) said, “I initially learned how to lead because our group lacked a decent number of members to have a balanced lead-to-follow ratio.”
For others, learning to lead presented an opportunity to get everyone dancing. From Luther, Barb Stier emphasized, “We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to dance as much as possible, so I figured leading would be the best way to help anyone that wanted to dance.” Learning both parts often allows for flexibility, meaning no one has to be left out in a social or team practice setting.
Leading can even be a motivation to stay away from the sidelines and dance more! Nichole Aitchinson from UNI said, “As a follow you are limited to your pool of leads, but as both lead and follow you [can] literally ask anyone in the room for a dance!” In competition, you can dance two levels as a follow, and even more as a lead. It’s more chances to bring home a ribbon, right?! In a social setting, this also means that you can dance all night long without stopping!
Motivations for learning to lead can be as simple as a shortage of leads or a desire to dance all night long. Any reason to swap positions is a good reason! Switching from a follow to a lead position seems to be a positive experience that is worth the time and effort.
Do you see any benefits to learning the lead’s part?
Hannah Alyea of the University of Minnesota shared how leading changed her perspective. “The biggest thing I learned from leading is how much I took the lead’s part for granted. Leading gave me an incredible appreciation for what leads do. The biggest thing was dancing with new follows. They kind of expect a lead to carry them down the floor, and that’s really hard to do when trying to keep good frame. My arms would get sore really fast after leading through a whole summer lesson. After doing that for the first time, I ran to Seth and Kyle to apologize for all the times that I did that to them and to thank them for all of the work they do.” I couldn’t agree more Hannah! I also had no idea how hard it was to be a lead until I tried it myself. In learning the other side of the partnership, I learned to respect what my lead does.
Natalie Wade from Luther shared the same sentiment. “It gives me an overall respect and better understanding of both sides, which is really important because it makes the communication of dance more smooth when you know both parts.” Having this perspective can allow a dancer to follow more efficiently, because in learning both parts, you can better understand how connection is built and maintained on each end of the partnership.
Learning both parts has many benefits inside your own partnership, but it can also have many benefits when helping other dancers. Hannah Heckmann from UNI uses her knowledge to choreograph pieces for others! She remarked, “My favorite part of leading is all of the knowledge I’ve gained, especially as a choreographer. It’s nice to know both parts so I can fully understand what my dancers are capable of doing.”
Even though learning the other part has many benefits, it isn’t always easy. I asked the women about some of the challenges they have faced in a community where leading is predominantly male.
What challenges do you face as a female lead?
Leading as a women can present some physical and mental hurdles. Hannah Alea has experienced some of these setbacks while dancing as a lead. “Sometimes dancing with just as busty ladies makes it hard to lead,” she says. “That and sometimes I get the lead and follow parts mixed up.” Switching back and forth between lead and follow can be extremely confusing at times. Barb recalled similar struggles. “Another challenge is remembering the leader’s footwork when I also have the follow’s footwork in my brain,” she says. “Sometimes I’m tempted to do the basic the whole time.”
An occasional conflict is in the pronouns used in lessons. Nichole shared, “it is hard on us when we want to lead in a lesson and we are referred to as a man. Also, when competing, we have to still have a more masculine everything. There needs to be a definite line between which female is leading or following. Some people say you can’t have the same feel as a man/lady could portray vs a lady/lady or even a man/man partnership.”
Hannah H. discussed her struggles in leading in a seminar setting. “As a female lead I do face some challenges, especially if I’m in a workshop or practice with an instructor who doesn’t know I’m a lead. They may assume I’m a follow and prevent me from learning the lead part by grouping me with the follows. Other times, I’ve had instructors remove me from dancing with a female follow because they found a male lead to dance with them. It can be pretty frustrating, but the ballroom community is becoming a more welcoming space.”
The ballroom community has a ways to go in accepting more female leads, but there is still hope! I have been very lucky to be in the Midwest, where I have found an abundance of support from fellow dancers of both genders and all levels/positions.
What advice do you have for other dancers considering learning the opposite part?
Kellen (UNI): “Similar to learning the follow part, being a lead does take practice. You are essentially starting from scratch when starting out. It is worth it though, because you learn what you need to give to your partner, regardless of your role when dancing. Also, have fun with it and show how strong of a dancer you are! Being able to do both parts is valued, impressive, and even an appreciated skill to have.”
Barb (Luther): “DO IT. It will be greatly beneficial to not only your own dancing but the dance community you are in because it provides more opportunities for everyone to dance by having an extra lead.”
Nichole (UNI): “Do it! Knowing both parts helps you become a better dancer. It also helps you know where you should be in your partnership. If you know both sides of the move, you know how it should feel as a follow so you can definitely lead it better as a lead. Leading also gives you the opportunity to meet fellow ladies in the ballroom world. Most women only dance with men so you don’t get the opportunity to chat with your fellow follows. When you lead and follow you can dance with anyone! There is no harm when it comes to learning both parts. The worst that’s gonna happen is you become a better dancer… and what’s wrong with that?!”
Hannah A. (UMN): “Keep an open mind and work just as hard on the lead’s part as you do the follow’s part. I’m always surprised at the new things I learn as a follow when leading someone else.”
Natalie (Luther): “I would highly encourage it. Work on it to the extent that you are gaining understanding, rather than just doing it because I think there is a lot of benefit in learning both sides of the dance.”
Hannah H. (UNI): “My advice for other dancers is to learn as much as possible. Being talented is great, but to be a great dancer you should also be an educated dancer. This means follows should learn how to lead and leads should also learn how to follow. Often times I only see female follows learning how to lead and male leads tend not to bother learning the follow part. Being “ambidancetrous” isn’t just for female follows to fill in for the male leads. Men need to step up and learn how to follow too.”
All of these amazing women have said all I could say and more. Follows can and should learn to lead, either strictly for practice purposes or for public events like social dances and competitions. Though it isn’t easy, and there is definitely a stigma in parts of the ballroom community, learning both parts is worth it. I wouldn’t be the follow I am today if I didn’t gain a better understanding of the whole partnership through leading. My hope is that in sharing our collective experiences, we can continue to encourage more dancers to cross that boundary and to learn more about both roles in this amazing activity of ballroom dance.
I would like to thank all of the women that collaborated with me for this piece. If any leads or follows want to know more about the experience, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask!