Get More of What You Want On (and Off) the Dance Floor

When you start partner dancing, you get much more than dancing. The skills you build in dancing can improve many other aspects of your life. But first I’d like to dispel a couple ballroom dance myths:

Myth #1: Leader’s are 100% Responsible for the Dance

Truth and Lies
Have you been swayed by these dance myths?

There’s a common saying in the ballroom world, “The lady is the picture and the man is the frame,” meaning it’s the man/Leader’s job to make the lady/Follower look good. Leaders are told they should gallantly apologize and accept blame when something goes wrong, even when it was clearly was the Follower’s doing.

REALITY: Dancing with a partner is a team effort. Both the Follower and the Leader need to take 100% responsibility for their half of the partnership.

Myth #2: Followers Have No Responsibility for the Dance

This belief is the flip side of Myth #1. Many Followers adhere to the false presumption they’re good dancers who just need a “good”/”strong” Leader. Consequently, these Followers don’t think they need to take classes or develop their dance skills.

REALITY: Good frame, connection and partnering skills are complex and nuanced—both Leaders and Followers need to learn and develop them. Followers who think they just need a “strong” Leader are typically a lot of work to dance with.

Strong man
Good followers build their dance skills rather than relying on “strong” leaders.

These Followers tend to be “heavy” (meaning their weight is back in their heels), over rely on the Leader for their balance and are slow to respond to leads. There’s a reason why they need a “strong” Leader—a Leader has to use a lot more muscle to move you around the dance floor than Followers who invest in developing their own dance skills.

In addition to being untrue, these myths place a great deal of pressure on Leaders and leave Followers at the mercy of finding a “good” Leader. Is there any other partnership in life where one person is expected to carry all the weight? No.

Dancing is a partnership in which the Leader and Follower are equally responsible for making a dance go well. Dancing with another person should be like having a great conversation—there’s a natural give and take with both people being fully engaged.

New dancers immediately understand that leading is a skill. Leaders must plan, navigate, make decisions, clearly communicate, etc. So Leaders get it that to become a good dancer, they need to take classes, practice and go out dancing. But Following is also a skill, albeit a less visible one. Good following requires excellent sensitivity and responsiveness, cooperation and—the big one—letting someone else be in control!

Man and woman in tug of war
In partner dancing, there can only be one leader and one follower.

In my experience, many women have a hard time truly following. This tendency is particularly apparent in male-female couples. Women frequently are used to being in control, at least in the relationship realm.

So when women dance, even with someone who’s not their romantic partner, they often can’t stop trying to lead (while at the same time being quick to complain that the Leader isn’t leading!). If both partners try to lead, a tug of war ensues.

Add to this a stereotypical pattern that I see played out with so many of the heterosexual wedding couples I teach—a nitpicky, impatient woman and a man trying his best to please her. The woman’s attitude rarely gets her what she wants—instead, she becomes increasingly frustrated and disappointed. Meanwhile, the guy’s self-esteem gets chipped away and he becomes increasingly anxious and/or angry.

Regardless of your sexual orientation or whether you dance with your significant other, the following tips will help you get more of what you want both on the dance floor and in your life.

Tips for Followers to Get What They Want

1. Take 100% Responsibility for Yourself

Remember, you’re half the partnership. In dancing, this means being alert, responsive and letting go of control. It also means maintaining your own good posture and balance, keeping your shoulder blade in your Leader’s hand and connecting from your center.

Woman gives thumbs up
Be positive—don’t criticize your partner when dancing.

Taking 100% responsibility also means assuming you play a part in any difficulties in the dance (or relationship or job situation) and that you can be a part of resolving them. For example, when you’re out dancing, if your Leader’s frame has no tone, take up the slack in yours to improve the connection. If your Leader is leading too early or too strongly, keep enough slack in your arm to absorb and accommodate this. If the lead is too light, go ahead and move yourself in the direction the Leader is trying to indicate.

2. Give Plenty of Compliments

Appreciate and thank your Leader (or friends, family and co-workers) rather than criticize or complain. Patience, support and compliments are the best way to build people’s confidence and boost a Leader’s dance performance (which means the dance will be more enjoyable for you). Giving corrections and showing dissatisfaction only deteriorates a Leader’s mood and dancing, thus actually preventing yourself from getting what you want.

3. Don’t Take Things Out on Others

If you’re stressed or in a bad mood, don’t take it out on your Leader (or family or co-worker). This includes non-verbal signs of irritation such as not making eye contact, not smiling, sighing, fidgeting, etc.

4. Don’t Be a Know-It-All

Nobody likes a know-it-all. Besides, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being 100% positive about something only to find out that you were wrong. So just assume you might not know what’s right, or that there even is one right way.

5. Accept Your Partner as They Are

People are usually doing the best they can in the moment. So spare yourself some grief and accept your Leader (or friend or significant other) as they are rather than try to change them or get them to do something differently. Or as one groom-to-be told me a dance teacher in Texas told his fiancé, “Oh honey, you gotta give it up. He ain’t never gonna move the way you want him to.”

Tips for Leaders to Get What They Want

1. Start Simple
Man with headphones rocking out
Good leaders don’t rock out on their own—they dance WITH their partners.

Just like striking up a conversation with someone new at a party, start each dance with easy, familiar patterns. As you get to know the person you’re talking/dancing with, you can gauge whether to take things a little deeper. If yes, gradually progress to more complex moves. If the Follower doesn’t seem interested in or capable of more than a light, superficial chat/dance, just enjoy dancing the basics.

2. Pay Attention to Timing

Knowing when to lead (or say something) makes all the difference in how it lands. In dance, you want to initiate leads at the proper time, which means you must prepare one or more beats of music before you need to execute the lead. You also need to pay attention to staying on time with the music. Listening to music at home can help you get better at hearing the beat, and practicing the dance’s basic rhythm on your own to music will improve your ability to step with the beat.

3. Quality Trumps Quantity

As with many things in life, how you move in dancing is more important than what you lead. So focus on the quality of your leading and connection with your partner. Most Followers would rather be led well and on beat in a few basic patterns than sent through a slew of fancy yet poorly executed or timed figures.

Happy dancing couple gives thumbs up
Follow these tips for more fun on the dance floor!


Dancing with a partner shouldn’t be a test or competition. As in life, dancing is most successful when it’s a team effort with mutual respect and cooperation. Yes, leading and following are two different sets of skills, but both are necessary to be successful.

So I have a challenge for Followers, especially you ladies who dance with male Leaders. The next time you find yourself thinking, “I just need a good/strong Leader” (or “If only my boss/spouse/parent would do X, Y or Z”), see what it’s like to replace that thought with “I’m 100% responsible my dancing (or my part in this situation).”

Go find out what it’s like to put these pointers into practice. I hope they will reward you with better experiences on and off the dance floor.

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