Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dance
When both partners know how to lead as well as follow, dancers can switch roles during a dance. This is truly the ideal solution for people who are worried about sexism in the roles of lead and follow, but not everyone wants to learn both parts. Yes, it does make you a better dancer, but so does constant practice. We each do what works for us with whatever commitment we have to the learning process.
That said, switching roles is fun when you both know what you’re doing, but it is definitely not traditional. You can only do it in a community where it is normal for both people to know both parts, or if you dance with a particular partner who can do it with you.
It’s most common, not surprisingly, in gay dance communities where the roles are not defined to begin with. However, it’s also common in the Lindy Hop community in the Bay Area (but not any other dance for some reason) and in the waltz community at Stanford University.
Dance teachers have a lot of power when teaching beginners who not only know nothing about dance but also nothing about dance culture. Sometimes students ask me if it’s traditional for men to lead and women to follow and it’s always tempting to say “Not at all. Do whatever you want.” I can’t do that because when they get out in the real world to go dancing they would find out I lied. But Richard Powers, who heads the popular vintage dance program at Stanford, does exactly that. He teaches a lead switch in Cross Step Waltz as if it’s a traditional move. It flows easily in Waltz because the footwork doesn’t have to change with the switch. As far as I know, Richard is the only one who does this, but his students don’t know this. They all are part of the same community and they all learned from the same teacher. Here’s a clip of Richard and his partner Angela Amarillas demonstrating Cross Step Waltz. You can hear him call the partner change along with the other steps as if it’s a natural part of the dance. And of course, since he teaches it that way, it is.
It also has something of a history in Lindy Hop, as women often danced together when the men were off at war, and so did the men, while off at war without the women. I doubt that that has anything to do with the popularity of role switching in today’s Bay Area scene, but it is interesting. Here’s a wonderful clip from the 1944 movie The Canterville Ghost with Margaret O’Brien. I don’t know who the dancers are, but they are doing classic Lindy Hop.
If you’re intrigued by the challenge of knowing the lead as well as the follow, give it a go. I recommend getting solid in one part first, however, before tackling the other. Leading and following are very different skills with their own challenges and it’s not easy to learn them both at the same time. This is particularly true in Swing dance where the foot work is also different.
Have fun, you all, and tell me about your own role switching experiences in partner dance!
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