Dance Roles (original in PT)

A contemporary view of the relationships in partner dance

by Sheila Santos (*)

At each new step in the evolution of the genres of ballroom dancing, we hear a frequent speech among dance professionals and amateurs: the dance most desired by all is the one in which, during the improvised movements, a true dancing dialogue takes place between Leader and Follower. Two people unite their bodies and energies to, together with the music, exchange information, sensations, ideas and feelings.

But does this really happen in practice? Would this conversation, very mentioned in the speeches of dance teachers and dancers, be really a dialogue or a monologue?

If we go back a bit in history, perhaps we can first attain the understanding that the couple dance was not always danced by improvise; nor were they always male and female to form pairs during its practice.

Early in its birth, the dance was practiced in choreographed pairs who, with little physical contact, performed marked steps learned at parties and later in etiquette classes. The relationship between men and women was one of respect, elegance and distance, since only hands, often times covered by gloves or handkerchiefs, were the form of contact among the two. At that time, women could only dance and participate in dance balls accompanied by their families or husbands.

But if up to the moment all the steps were marked and performed in a group, how would the relationship between the couple be, that would depend on only one another to dance?

Perhaps the beginning of an organized communication between the pair was necessary, during the improvised steps, so that they could be understood. Thinking that man, at that time, was still the provider of all the needs of the family, the greatest holder of knowledge, and the woman, completely submissive in all spheres of society, it might have been natural for him to take on this role of the Leader of ideas also in the dance.

There are also those who believe that, as the steps have become improvised and creative at this time, the more skillful have come to serve as reference to the less skilled. In order for this form of knowledge transmission could take place, one should be responsible for learning, teaching his partner and promoting the execution of the figure. And, in that case, we may also think that men had gone ahead, assuming this role. Regardless of the version, it is a fact that from that moment on, the terms conduction and response were born, the main foundation of our technique.

However, if we look up in their stories, some genres such as Tango had had moments in which men would practice and take dance classes forming pairs with another man.

In Samba de Gafieira, in the same way, the period would not allow “decent women” to attend dance classes. Thus, in the classes, men trained with men. Later on, they also began to practice with women, with the practice of “madamism”, that is: prostitutes or ladies who were not from high society were given money in order to practice their dance movements with the men. The elite and respected girls could not attend classes, unless they were private.

Then, the knowledge of new movements was studied and transmitted by men, practiced among themselves or with women in brothels. The women had only the right to accompany them in society parties, where, during the dance, they would be led to perform the steps already determined by men.

Thus, the idea of conduction and response is established, with the men in the role of conductors, deciding on the paths, figures, time and direction. And the women had only the task of keeping up, following the indications of the men and, at the most, making the dance well finished and graceful.

But, gradually, in society in general and in dance in particular, women began to occupy spaces allowed previously only to men. Achievements in the business market, access to knowledge, financial independence, contraceptive methods, have led women to take over the leadership role in various areas of their lives. In the dance, besides the parties, they began to attend classes and later, they became dance teachers and school owners.

But has the male-female relationship in the ballroom dances changed?

Even today, when we talk about conduction and response, we use terms and relationship formats that we have inherited from the first forms of partner dance.

Being a person able to perform both leader and follower roles and a dance teacher, I am daily confronted with these matters. Based on the historical context of male-female relationships and also on experiences lived in years of studying the diverse ballroom dance techniques, my reflections have been constant regarding the future of these relationships. And they have become object of study for classes and works.

But, our society has changed over the years and today, the issues of gender; sexual choice and identity are constantly changing. Thus, for the purpose of attending to all, without distinction, we can use the terms conductor and conducted in order to name who communicates the information, at that moment; and who, in the sequence, will respond (and who knows even ask again!).

Seeking the identity of the ballroom women

My experience with ballroom dancing began informally, during the School of Dance. Along with a group of friends who practiced various types of partner dances, I started to attend to ballroom dance parties, where various rhythms were played and used to “let me get carried away”, without any knowledge of the technique.

Years later, I was hired as a ballet teacher in a school which was specialized in ballroom dancing and then I began to learn and study this style. But the sudden need for one more ballroom dancing teacher on the school team, made me suddenly go to the classroom.

Even studying the technique, understanding and accepting that another person would choose and plan my movement was not a very easy task. It went a long way to allowing and surrendering my bodily possibilities for another person´s idea to come true, for I always had the impression that my intentions, wills and sensations were constantly hindered.

In this process, I began to teach with a great and experienced leader. Besides attending to the movements requested by him, which was already very difficult, I should be a charming follower and make ornaments with my arms during the time I was already performing the steps. My way out was to seek references to such arms styling that were being asked for. But, unfortunately, to be promptly available to the leader, most followers did not use the arms so much as an extension or ornamentation for their dancing. Then, the way was to gather some information received in class and to unite them to the corporal experience that I brought from other techniques.

For a while I believed that this was the way out of my concerns: I could finally express myself, even if it was only with part of my body, performing what I really wanted.

During this process, I started a new and important dance partnership. This partner has always been a creative leader, attentive to the follower´s movements. In that way, he instinctively went on to generate more space so that I could finish one step and enjoy better a certain part of the song. Between one movement and another, he created a “silence” in the conduction that returned as soon as I communicated the completion of my idea. This way of relating to us was broadening the possibilities for the use of different parts of my body, and so I began to express what I felt and heard in a more creative way.

But that was still not enough. At various times, especially when I was in close contact with the leader or during a certain movement, I felt an uncontrollable urge to say to him: “calm down! Wait just a bit longer because I´m going to finish or extend this movement and then you may continue!”. Or yet: “I´ve got an idea, I can come back spinning or in another position towards you after this move!”.

From the intimacy that we were creating within time and partnership and also counting on the ability to lead, which I developed in the training as a teacher, I began to bodily ask for more space to my partner. He, very attentive towards what I had been doing, began to understand and reuse the positions generated by me.

The movements with my partner were turning into a dancing dialogue, where I could express myself as well as feel. Our dance has become more complete and also more sensitive. Less organized from the footsteps and more encouraged by what we were feeling of the song, from each other´s bodies and from our own body.

During this process, we were not very clear that the relationship that was so natural for us, would generate challenges and second thoughts for other people. And it was from the questionings of professional colleagues and students that we felt the need to better understand each stage of what we were experiencing.

To explain to them what I was already doing with my partner, I had to organize this idea in a clearer and more didactic way and the four stages, for now, in relationship with the pair then emerged.

Relationship stages in partner´s dance

From a didactic organization, an idea is to propose, in classes, the development of a more open and creative relationship in the partner dance. Sharing the communication during the dance in four stages of relationship, we can identify which skills we must develop during the learning of dance so that later, leader and follower can express themselves equally when dancing.

For writing purposes and to facilitate communication, we will use in the text, the term Leader with reference to the man and the term follower to the woman. But in this idea of broad possibilities, men can be in the role of followers as well as women in the role of leaders, respecting the desire and choice of each person.

Stage One

Leader: Leads all moves for the follower, choosing directions, time of execution, contact forms, among others.

Follower: Performs whatever the leader suggests, without embellishing or altering any information received.

This is the most traditional form of relationship and it is preserved until today in the teachings of partner dance. Leaders are encouraged to be quick decision-making and to convey this information to their partner, in a clear and organized way. Whoever is in the follower role, in their turn, must be attentive to the information that will be received, with the body prepared to execute it accurately and faithfully, without anticipating themselves to the movement or changing paths or forms from their own wills.

For this type of relationship, both must have active, balanced and ready bodies to perform the proposed figure.

Leaders who have a greater perception of the way the followers´ body move during the step he is proposing, are more likely to conduct the idea clearly. This one is usually the leader with whom the followers prefer to dance, because they have no doubt of the paths they must follow.

Followers who are agile in interpreting information and respond promptly, performing with control, without “relying” on the leader for the performance of the movement are those they consider light and good for dancing.

This initial relationship seems obvious; but not always easy to conquer. We are remembered that today women who seek ballroom dancing are, in the vast majority, socially active and responsible for running their companies, families and homes. They are no longer used to leaving their opinions and wishes aside; much less to not put them into practice. Men have also long left the role of sole and exclusive provider and have come to discuss and rethink ideas before applying them. The fast and exclusive decision position is no longer part of the routine of today´s man.

Stage Two

Leader: leads, creating variations from the original movement (modifying the contacts, directions, dynamics).

Follower: executes the leader´s proposals, adding movements of her own choice, with the parts of the body that are available (ornaments or adornments), without changing the initial idea.

This is the moment when leader and follower begin to use their creativity to make their dance more active and with their personal style.

Leaders are encouraged to “break” or divide the figures that were already learned, joining parts of different movements. They can create new beginnings or endings for their proposals. In addition, they have the possibility to change the contacts that provide the information to the follower, modifying the form of the communication of the idea. Time and direction can also change, making movements slower or faster, in straight or circular lines, with or without changing levels.

This is an important moment in the development of the conduction/response relationship, since the idea has to be even better conveyed, imagining that the follower already knows the traditional form of execution of the figure.

The follower, on the other hand, must wait even more for the transmission of information, so that the moves are exactly in the form and the dynamic that the leader wishes.

But now the follower also gets the right to put her creativity into action, and can choose embellishments or adornments to complement the partner´s idea. The follower needs to have a well-developed ability to separate parts of the body and perform movements in different directions and times with these parts, because in here, while she is able to do, for instance, a quick leg movement, the follower will have the opportunity to make a slow and continuous adornment with the arms. All this without failing to attend the commands of the leader. The finishes of movements are very important so that, in the end, these adornments really fit the follower´s expectations.

Creative leaders, with good space dominance and of dynamics. Watchful and accurate followers, with excellent use of different parts of their bodies. These are some of the skills needed for this moment in the relationship.

We may say that today, stand out in their performances in the ballroom dance the leaders and followers who dominate this stage. They are those who usually draw attention because, in addition to fulfilling the traditional, they still place their identity in the dance.

Stage Three

Leader: In certain moments of the movements, he can generate more time for the ways and adornments of the follower. This time proposed by the leader is given through a “silence” in the conduction, so that the follower has the freedom to execute her idea.

Follower: Identifies the beginning of this “silence” in the conduction, takes advantage of the proposed time, enlarging her possibilities of adornments and responds to the return of the leader´s conduction.

This stage already requires a more attentive and sensitive relationship between the couple. The leader who disposes time for the follower to add something to his idea is one of a kind, for he understands that the follower can complete the paths with proposals that the leader might have never thought of. The leader trusts that the follower can be as musical or creative as he is, which makes the dance even more interesting. Leader identifies the energy used by the follower, perceiving the end of the movement, to begin the new path together.

This follower is also special, as well as mastering her body and using it at the disposal of the partner´s suggestions, she can still identify this lack of conduction to use it with intelligence, without letting it seem like “a moment of free dance”, but rather, something that really complements the initial idea.

Here, ideas begin to converge in a single proposal. The dance begins to assume the form of a dialogue and the energies used are much more refined and organized by the two.

This form of conduction and response is much less used in most dance genres, however it is well-recognized in Tango. We can quote a very characteristic movement of this genre – the “sandwich” – in which, after creating a pause in the conduction of the backward eight, the leader really allows the follower to place her adornments without any interference at that moment.

Silences in the conduction suggested in finalizing musical phrases are interesting so the follower may add her idea more broadly. But there is nothing to prevent these absences of conduction from occurring in other musical emphases nor is there a loss of contact between the pair, so that the follower has that freedom, still offered by the leader.

Stage Four

Follower: Proposes movements in her body or the body of the leader, transforming received ideas or presenting new paths. She may suggest changes in time, direction, contacts.

Leader: Perceives and attends to the requests of the follower, retaking the conduction to the end of her idea. He must be prepared to adapt and modify his initial idea, taking advantage of the follower´s suggested move to generate new paths.

Here we reach a point of total communion between the couple. True dialogue is established. This format generates unique paths, often unknown by the couple and almost always impossible to be repeated. The attention in the energies used, the positioning of the bodies, and the communion with the song make this couple different from the others.

This deeper relation requires bodies that are more attentive to the movement of one another, and also abilities contrary to those initially developed in leaders and followers. In order for the leader to feel the follower´s proposals, especially for having an idea previously formulated in his mind, he must be fully available and noticing the changes of energy that the follower offers during the move. This idea which has already been organized must not be so closed up to leave room for changes. It is, of course, a more flexible and available body.

The follower needs to have sense of the ways the leader´s body is doing so that her idea is executed intelligently, effectively and pleasingly to him. The lack of this skill is usually the follower´s greatest criticism of the leaders´ conduction. Sudden conduction, which comes in advance or late with in relation to the movement, is precisely the points that now followers should avoid when they want to transmit information.

The changes of energy, positioning of both dancers during the movement, the attention and sensitivity of the couple will be fundamental for the success of this conversation.

Final Considerations

It is important to emphasize that this separation is only for didactic purposes, because during dance, these stages happen naturally, without following an order and according to the experience and exchange of the couple. During the dance, the couple may walk through all or some of these stages, depending on the level of experience and body control of both and also the relationship they have developed since the beginning of the dance.

The success in this broader communication has nothing to do with dancing for a long time with that pair. Also it is not exclusive for the professionals and nor for a certain kind of dance. Tango and West Coast Swing present and already use concepts that lead to a more interactive way of conducting and responding.

I don't have the pretense of saying that this way of relating is new or created by us. We have found, in our dance trajectory, several professionals of different styles, seeking answers to the same concerns. The fact is that after many dances and questionings, we are going through an important moment in partner´s dancing. The men and women of today are reviewing certain roles determined in the past and rediscovering themselves through dance.

This way of relating also opens the way for new forms of pairs: men dancing among them, women dancing among them, women in the role of conductors and men in the role of followers. The genre doesn't influence the communication of the pair, if it is done in an open and generous manner.

But, are our ballroom dance classes building leaders and followers for this broader view of relationships? Are the teachers, who run today´s ballroom dance classes, prepared for these changes? I also ask: do these professionals already experience open relationships with their partners in their practice? Or only in their speeches?

We continue to seek to modify paradigms and impositions still existing in our culture. May our generation make a difference by building a more open and possible ballroom dance for all.

I believe we are moving towards building a different dance dialogue. The current follower, with all her strength and sensitivity, participates in this conversation much more actively, not only responding. This follower also has a lot to say about herself, about him and about them both, either through her ornaments, her way of listening to the song or the expressiveness of her body.


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(*) Sheila Santos – graduated in Dance by FAP (1999), postgraduate in Ballroom Dance – Theory and Technique by FAMEC (2006), where she currently teaches the module “Fundamental Elements in the Practice of Ballroom Dance”. Her work focusing on techniques for ladies in ballroom dancing and the study of new relationships of conduction and response has received respect and prominence in the area. She was judge for dance shows and taught classes at major national events, such as the International Dance Biennial of Curitiba, Baila Floripa, Baila Costao and the Costa Cruises Theme Cruises. As a dancer from the SOMA Contemporary Dance Company, she was awarded in the Joinville Dance Festival in the professional free trio category. She was a member of the selection team of new students for the Bolshoi Theater School in Brazil, in Joinville, and was assistant director of the night gala of Russia´s Cia Balé Bolshoi. Coordinator at Oito Tempos chain of Ballroom Dance School.