Learning to Let Your Ballroom Partner Take the Lead

August 27, 2017

When former ballet dancer Kayci Treu first joined the ballroom team at Brigham Young University, her coaches would often reprimand her for “backleading,” or performing steps without waiting for cues from her partner. The Vaganova-trained dancer had done her fair share of ballet pas de deux—but, as she explains, “that’s about a ballerina being supported by her cavalier or prince. Ballroom is more symbiotic. The heart of ballroom is the two-person connection—a man and a woman working together.”

In the ballroom world, the role of “leader” typically falls to the male partner, while the female dancer is the “follower.” But if you’re a woman trained in a style like ballet or jazz, where you’re in command of your performance at all times—or if you’re just a type-A person—it can be challenging to relinquish control. We asked Treu and veteran “Dancing With the Stars” pro Ashly DelGrosso-Costa to offer tips to help you get out of your head and move in sync with your partner.

Know the Importance of Your Role

Any feminist might initially bristle at the idea of “following” a man, but don’t get psyched out. Ballroom partnerships are equal partnerships: A strong leader won’t perform well unless he’s working with a nimble follower who can pick up on his subtle physical cues. “It’s not about one person controlling the other,” explains Treu. “I’m responsible for my own body and my own movement.” As a follower, it’s up to her to respond appropriately by completing the movement whenever her partner invites her to a step.

One way to gain appreciation for both sides of the partnership is to step into your partner’s shoes. DelGrosso-Costa says that occasionally switching roles in rehearsal can help each of you better understand the unique challenges the other faces, so that you can anticipate each other’s needs in the future.

Ashly DelGrosso-Costa (here with Jared Murillo) suggests occasionally switching roles with your partner in rehearsal. (courtesy Ashly DelGrosso-Costa)

Be Present

Ballroom is inherently social—it takes two to tango!—so you have to truly connect to your partner to do it well. You need to be comfortable enough to look your partner in the eye and respond to his touch, since he won’t be able to give you verbal instructions on the dance floor. For newer ballroom dancers, “it’s sometimes a struggle to be with the other dancer in the moment,” DelGrosso-Costa says. While real trust and comfort builds over time, be sure to at least break the ice with a new partner by introducing yourself and chatting with him a bit before you get dancing.

Improve Your “Listening” Skills

Seasoned ballroom dancers can perform well with almost any partner because they’re masterful tactile listeners. Each leader has his own “voice” or communication style, and a good follower can decipher the subtle meaning behind a certain glance of an eye, squeeze of the hand or shift in weight. When Treu was starting out, she went to tons of social-dance clubs so that she could work with a wide variety of partners and figure out their different ways of communicating with their bodies. DelGrosso-Costa says you can also enhance your ability to pick up on physical cues by practicing (very carefully) with your eyes closed in the studio.

A version of this story appeared in the September 2017 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Follow Like a Boss.”