We thought about giving this post the title “How to Zouk Like Leonardo Da Vinci.” You might ask yourself, “what does an Italian Renaissance painter have to do with modern Brazilian zouk?”
On the surface, not a whole lot. Except that Da Vinci had one very important quality . . . he was ambidextrous, meaning he could use both hands equally well, or that he was unusually skilful at doing so.
One way to apply being ambidextrous to the social dance floor is cultivating the ability to both follow and lead.
For most of us, our primary role on the social dance floor was probably determined for us at birth . . . which is to say, if you tend to feel most comfortable in the ladies’ loo, you probably follow (most of the time), and if the urinal is more your style, you most likely lead.
This works fine, most of the time. But we think that if you really want to get the most out of your dance experience, it pays to be ambidextrous on the dance floor. And, in our opinion, there’s many benefits to cultivating this Renaissance quality. Here’s a few reason why we think it’s so important to not only learn both roles, but actively dance both roles.
#1 You get to spend more time dancing.
In an ideal world, there would always be the same number of men and women at social dances, and you would blissfully float from one dance partner to the next, with no unwanted pauses in your dance experience.
However (and as most of us know), in reality this is rarely the case. More often than not there are more follows than leads (or vice versa), with many folks loitering at the side of the dance floor, restlessly waiting to snag an outgoing man/woman. Of course there’s nothing wrong with taking a needed time out from dancing; often it’s necessary and needed to recharge or rehydrate. Or maybe you’re just not feeling the music.
The problem is when you really, really, WANT to dance but there simply aren’t enough people in the room that dance your opposite role (but plenty who dance the same role).
Slipping into the opposite role on occasions like these lets you take charge of your dance experience, and contribute to the experience of others who may also be dancing less than they’d like. The advantage of being able to both lead and follow at will is that you can then maximize the amount of time you spend ON the dance floor, rather than on the SIDE of the dance floor.
#2 You get to connect and socialize with twice as many people.
Ever been to a dance class or dance social and realize afterward that you never met (and don’t know the names of) half the people there, simply because you dance the same role as them? It’s not uncommon. In dance communities, it generally takes longer to get to know the people with the same sex as you than the people with the opposite sex, because we almost always dance in opposite sex pairs.
Dancing is a social activity, and that’s why many of us do it. But when we only dance with half the people at the party, we’re missing out on half the potential fun and connection. Which is no fun at all.
#3 It can help calm dance anxiety.
Let’s face it, social dancing can produce a lot of anxiety, especially for the perfectionists among us. Fear of not doing it right, fear of not looking good . . . far too many fears to list here.
This anxiety often gets directed somewhere: either externally toward our dance partner in the form of critical words or thoughts (especially if that person is also your partner in real life!), or inwardly toward yourself in the form of negative self talk.
Dancing the other role can help to let go of the anxiety that comes from expecting perfection from our partner and ourself.
For example, if you usually follow and you start to lead, you’ll notice that everyone will interpret your signals a bit differently. The interpretation may be what you expected, it may not. But you’ll start to notice that there’s rarely only one absolutely “right” way to do something, and that the dance is a lot more fun when you’re agile with your expectations and able to play with the flow of lead/follow communication.
#4 You develop more empathy for your fellow dancers (and for yourself, too).
The reality is that following is challenging, and leading is challenging. If you’ve done it, you know it.
But if you haven’t done it, it can be easy to judge your partners’ skill level and blame them for things that go wrong, instead of showing empathy for the challenge he or she is facing. It’s easy to take ourselves and our partners too seriously on the dance floor. Having danced in your partner’s shoes, however, helps you understand and have empathy for what they’re experiencing (and what you, too, experience when you dance in that role).
#5 You’re better able to help.
This point is closely linked to the points about anxiety and empathy, above. Learning a new dance or a new movement takes time, and things don’t always go the way you want them to go. Sometimes things just don’t work out, at all.
Though it can be tempting to offer feedback to our partners during times like these, we’ve found that it’s rarely helpful for a follow to offer suggestions on what to do to lead properly, or for a lead to offer suggestions on how to follow. In fact, it can feel very frustrating and disempowering to receive this kind of “help,” as well intended as it may be.
We’re not suggesting that you should refrain from ever giving feedback (there’s lots of situations when it’s needed and necessary).
However the point here is that in a learning environment like a class, it’s more useful to hear suggestions based on someone’s firsthand experience, such as: “when I lead, I do this…” or, “try this, it works really well for me…” Speaking from your own personal experience about the role your friend is struggling with can really help.
#6 You improve in your primary role.
Most of us are more comfortable dancing the role of lead or follow, and will probably remain so, which is fine. Similarly, you’re probably better with your right hand than your left, but at times it’s handy to have the flexibility to use both (and studies show it’s even good for your brain!)
As you work on your skills in your less dominant role, you’ll start to notice details that will help you in your primary role. For example, if you usually follow and you start leading, you may notice how challenging it becomes to lead someone when they lose connection with you, or don’t transfer their weight completely. Next time you follow, you may be more likely keep that connection and complete those steps.
Similarly, if you usually lead and you cultivate your skills as a follow, you may notice that often a more subtle lead equates to a more comfortable dance, and modify your own leading accordingly.
#7 It feels good.
The roles of lead and follow are demanding, in distinctly different and complimentary ways. And yet they both feel really, really great!
As a lead, you’re the primary translator of the music into movement. It feels great to be in this kind of action-oriented role.
As a follow, you can totally immerse yourself in the moment and surrender to the movement. Being in this state of receptivity also feels wonderful.
To summarize, we think learning and dancing the roles of lead and follow enhances the connection, empathy and community of the social dance experience.
Come check out one of our classes and give it a try!