I’m a follow. Not a follower. A follow. Whenever a lady is encouraged to “take one for the team” and lead in a class light on a gentleman, I get very quiet and interested in that far off spot way over there. Despite how often I’m told I should learn, how it’ll help me be a better dancer, I just plain and simple don’t like to lead. For nearly two years I’ve managed avoiding leading very well.
Recently, that all changed.
Let me set the scene. I’m in a group practice. We’ve been learning choreography for several months now. On this practice, due to circumstances, we had twice as many follows as leads. I imagine there will be a lot of fast rotations so each follow gets in their partner practice. Instead, this happens.
“All right, here’s what we’re gonna do…Luna’s gonna lead.”
But he was serious. Making me lead added a lead and took away a follow, making the numbers much closer to even. There were only two problems. One, I’ve never lead. Not really. Two minutes here or there when I was bullied into it. Two, this wasn’t a little class combo or technique. This was choreography. Months of choreography that I had been practicing like mad as a follow and had only the faintest inkling of what the lead looked like. Sure, I knew the lead parts pertaining to me. I could tell when a hand or a foot or a shoulder had to be here or there. From my perspective. I got two slow run-throughs before we ran it full speed to music. How did I do? Well, I got my partner to the end at the same time as everyone else, and more or less in the same position. Other than that, here are a few things I learned my day as a lead:
Muscle memory is a curse as much as a blessing. How do my teachers do it? They just switch between lead and follow and back again like it’s nothing. Even in full concentration, I still kept going into follow’s dance position. And every time my partner would give me the most confused look. My teachers are always telling me to practice until it’s second nature. Until it’s muscle memory. Well, that doesn’t help when the music cue hits and my body goes right foot back even as my brain is telling me left foot forward. Having to know both parts and perform them adequately is mentally exhausting.
Back leading is awful. And I say this as a chronic back leader. Sometimes a new lead will even thank me for a back lead when they get lost halfway through the new combo and I “nudge” them in the right direction. So in my head, there were some merits to back leading (though I promise 90% of the time I do it unintentionally). And maybe that’s what my classmates were thinking when they tried to back lead me through the choreo. They were wrong. Getting back lead felt terrible. Like everything was completely out of my control—like I had no part to play in this dance. I’m trying to lead this, but now she’s already over here, and I’m scrambling to catch up, but why did she take her hand away, and then there she goes again! I spent the whole time just chasing her down and being off time and on the wrong foot in a never ending game of catch up. Will this cure me of my back leading? Probably not. I don’t think that’s how it works. But at least now I’ll empathize with the leads as I do it.
Leads go through a lot to keep the dance going smoothly. Putting up with our back leading, our mistakes, their mistakes, watching for other couples, and constantly adjusting to the follow, there’s just a lot going on! Not to say there aren’t just as many things to think about as a follow, but I’m used to them. Now there was a whole new set of factors. In one such instance, I lead my follow for a free spin, followed by a split second pause before I thought “oh man, I have to go after her!” as she spun away much farther than I thought. Still being in follow brain, it didn’t immediately occur to me that it was my job to close the gap.
Leading is hard. Following is hard. Which is harder? That’s impossible to say. It’s like when people ask me what’s harder, knit or crochet, I tell them “What you learned first is almost always easier.” I think I’d like to stay a follow.