Applying a New Lead – The Dancing Grapevine






Most leaders have been in a class where they learn a new combination that works on all the follows in rotation. They get excited that they’ve learned something new, head to the next social… and then watch their lead fizzle with many of the follows in the room.

Some leads blame themselves; some blame the follower. Some assume that the movement is too niche for the social dance floor.  But, is it really one of those three options?  Today, we’re going to talk about why this might happen, and what to do about it.

Lost in Translation

When you learn how to lead a new movement, there are three components that will affect the success of the movement:

  1. How well you are leading it
  2. How well your follow can follow
  3. Whether the components of it feel substantially different to other things most follows would have experienced

Let’s talk about each of these components.

How Well You Lead

The magic ingredient for many leaders is whether they have internalized the movement enough to lead it. If you have just learned a new variation that is well within your current skillset, you may have internalized the movement by the end of class. (As an aside, this is why I love taking pattern workshops below my skill level. They almost always become insta-applicable).

However, if you are taking a class at or above your current skill level, you probably won’t internalize the movement the same day. For example, you may struggle with:

  • Where your feet need to be
  • What the lead needs to feel like
  • Getting the lead into your body instead of in your arms
  • The amount of tension in your body
  • Visualizing what you want your follow to do
  • Knowing when to lead each part of the movement

Until these pieces are in place, your success will be limited and, very often, clunky. You will be more reliant on your follower’s interpretive skills to accomplish a movement, which means you will rely on either your follow’s experience or their knowledge.

How Well Your Follow Follows

The second component is how skilled your follow is, or if they have pre-existing knowledge of the movement.

For example, highly skilled follows are more likely to be able to interpret a sub-optimal lead based on the fact that they’ve run this “script” many times before. In addition, their feet and flow are helping to inform them of what you likely want, even if it would not be otherwise clear, and their body can adjust around any misalignments.

Of note, knowledge is different than skill. For example, someone you practiced with in class that “knows the move” can likely rely on knowledge to fill in any gaps in their (or your) connection without being a highly skilled follow.

Substantial Differences

The last part is whether what you are doing requires a “twist” on an existing script a follower knows that feels substantially different for the follow. For example, leading a basic in close hold versus open hold creates two different feelings, but for most follows, those two settings feel substantially similar if they’ve been dancing more than a few weeks.

The second part of that is that what is substantially different for the lead is often different than for the follow. For example, a shadow or cuddle position feels very different for a new follow than the leader being in front, even though for the lead it is usually not often a substantial difference. In contrast, switching what hand is leading a movement can often be substantially different for the lead, but may have little to no impact on a follow’s understanding.

Building a Useable Repertoire

Often, when something isn’t immediately applicable, leads get frustrated that it does not work. Sometimes, that can manifest as assuming something does not work as a normal part of the dancing. But, often, it’s a combination of the three factors listed above.

Ultimately, the only way to build new movements into repertoire is through practice and application. Over time, those movements often make it into general landscape of a dance as social dancers see pros performing them, teachers are frequently teaching it, or because enough people are able to lead it successfully. Part of this process is developing the mental script for the movement over time.

For example, most people in Brazilian Zouk understand what a Toalha looks like now even if they have never led or followed it – but when I started a decade ago, they certainly did not. This means a less experienced follower or lead today is more likely to achieve a workable Toalha than back then because they have a visual “script” for the movement. In contrast, a Table Drop used to be a fairly common “trick”, but likely would be unsuccessful on most followers who have started since it went out of style.

Managing Errors

In the process of internalizing movements, there will be errors and awkwardness. This is normal, and is not necessarily an indication that the movement will not work or that it is not suitable for the average social dance. Rather, it is often an indication that the skill or familiarity are not adequate for the move to function at that time. With time and repetition, that can change!

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