Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dancing

Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dance

classic painting of 2 women dancing

Same sex dancers were common at the Moulin-Rouge

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.

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 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. 

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Have fun, you all, and tell me about your own role switching experiences in partner dance!

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Young People Social Dancing



Standford dancers

Stanford students in social dance program

As a teacher of social dance, it’s very exciting for me to see young people getting into the dance scene.  Stanford University is one of the best promoters of social dance in college aged people.  Stanford’s dance program is so popular that classes fill within minutes of opening registration.

Dance historian Richard Powers is in a large part responsible for inspiring this passion for dance.  In addition to his own excitement and teaching skills, Richard is famous for using contemporary music the kids can relate to.  This sends me and my friends running screaming from the room every time Richard is in the DJ booth, but it works for the kids.  Despite my personal distaste for Richard’s music choices, I have to admit this is a good strategy.  It’s easier to learn to familiar music.  Then, after the dance is in your muscle memory, you develop an appreciation for the music that really fits the dance.

This works the other way around as well.  When I was in a performance troupe, our choreographer, the amazing Steven Mitchell, gave us a routine to a hip hop song.  Not my favorite music by a long shot, but the routine was so well choreographed and so much fun to do that I learned to appreciate the music.  I still like that song even though I don’t enjoy rap music in general.

I live in Oakland, about an hour drive from Stanford, and I see Stanford students at our local Gaskells dances.  The Gaskell Ball is a Victorian Dance that takes place every other month in a beautifully renovated art deco building in Oakland.  It’s a costume ball that people really get into, so it’s fun to go even if you’re not a dancer, just to look at the Victorian formal attire.  The students look absolutely stunning and really contribute to the feeling of stepping back in time.

Any dance scene that no longer appeals to young people is in danger of dying.  The most fun to my mind are scenes that include a wide age range.  My dance friends range in age from teens to people in their nineties.  When we’re together, I forget that we’re not in the same generation.  When I once mentioned at lunch that I first met Frankie Manning at an event to celebrate his 80th birthday, I turned to a friend and asked if she was there.  “No,” she said.  “I missed that one because I was like twelve at the time.”  The fun is that it is so easy to forget age differences when we share a common passion!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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