Why leads should try following – and followers should try leading!

I have two big wishes for the Berlin Blues scene:

  1. to get it to grow BIGGER
    (meaning: more parties, classes, and dancers to rock out with)
  2. to see more ROLE-SWITCHING
    (meaning: followers trying out leading for a few songs, and leads choosing to follow every once in a while)


I’m sure every dancer will share the first wish, so let me briefly explain why the second one is really important to me as well.

I had never danced until my late 20s, and then chose to get started with Argentine Tango. Needless to say, learning how to become a half-decent lead was already hard enough and I didn’t have any spare brain capacity to figure out how this whole following business is supposed to work.

But then I got introduced to Swing and Blues – and I discovered that in my local dance community in Connecticut, role switching (both in class as well as on the dance floor) was very common.

Being a novice dancer back then, I hadn’t given any thought to the question whether we should accept gendered dance roles as unproblematic facts of life, nor had I thought about whether (and how) things could be done differently. But once I overcame the initial awkwardness to embrace another guy I had barely just met, I began to really enjoy following and started to do it whenever I got the chance.

In retrospect, I must say that role-switching fundamentally transformed partnered dancing for me – but it took me several years to realize just how crucial it has been (and still is) in my evolution as a dancer.

I am fully aware that role-switching is hard, especially at the beginning when you’d rather just stick with the role you’re already comfortable with. I am also aware in some social dances (like e.g. Argentine Tango or Swing), role-switching is a lot harder to do, since leading well requires a set of skills that differ dramatically from the set of skills required to follow well – and both take a lot of dedicated practice to acquire. However, I don’t think this is the case with Blues dancing.

What are the advantages of switching roles?

Here are some of the main advantages I have come to appreciate about role-switching:

  • You have suddenly about twice as many potential partners to ask for a dance…
  • You can practice in a low-pressure partnership (this was especially true in my “nervous dance noob” phase when dancing with women still meant I felt stress to “perform” and “impress” my partner).
  • You gain a better understanding of lead-following dynamics and body mechanics.
    As a lead, I was finally able to feel for myself what a smoothly executed dip feels like – and what it feels like to be violently pushed around by your leader. BOTH experiences made me a much better dancer.
  • Dancers who switch roles occasionally are faster learners.
    In my experience, a fast way to become an “active follow” or a “responsive lead” is paradoxically to practice the opposite role. And with a better understanding of both sides of the dance, partners who are practicing together can suddenly give each other meaningful feedback!
  • You learn to separate physical intimacy and sexual desire.
    In the eyes of non-dancers, the two are often conflated. Spectators often assume that Blues dancing (or Tango for that matter) is just as sexual as two people grinding their privates in a nightclub…
    Most half-decent dancers will know that this is a misperception, but it takes time to learn that this is so – and your dancing will  improve dramatically once you learn how to make someone comfortable in your arms – without involving any sexual tension. This skill is obviously much easier to learn if you don’t limit your dancing to the gender you’re sexually attracted to…
    As a straight guy, my dancing was taken to a whole new level once I started dancing regularly with other straight guys: Once I had learned how to create a cozy embrace with another guy, how to feel his body tension, how to synchronize my breathing, how to open myself up to the movement and musicality of my dance partner, I was able to do the same with much greater ease with female partners.
    So if people see me dance with another straight guy and think we’re lovers, I take it as a compliment!
  • As a lead, you get to experience different dance styles and new moves!
    Every lead has at some point felt like: “I’m always doing the same moves; I’m starting to bore myself and probably my partner as well…”. The quickest fix is to dance a few songs as a follower – and you will walk away with tons of new ideas for leading.
  • As a follow, you can express yourself and the music in new ways. If you try leading, you will no longer be constrained by your leader’s sense of musicality and the degree to which he gives you space. Find out what it feels like to have much more control over how to dance to a particular song.
  • Your window of enjoyable dance partners gets wider: dancers with a lot of experience in one role can still have a great dance with a total beginner if they switch roles.
    If one of your favorite songs comes on and you are weary of dancing it with a beginner, try leading it if you are a follower (and vice versa).
  • Your dance scene will become much more inclusive when role switching is common.
    There are many awesome women who prefer to lead and men who prefer to follow out there – and we should encourage them to come out and dance with us. Let’s not miss out on great dances because of gender stereotypes!

So next time you are out dancing, challenge yourself and try the other role for a song or two!

For a deeper look into the topic, I highly recommend this humorous blog post: Ambidancetrous Blog: Why a lead who doesn’t follow is like a vegan making barbecue

A related post from the Chicago Blues scene: Lead or Follow – Why not both?

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