Salsa leads — you frustrate me! And I am getting fed up with it.
As I mentioned in a post way back in May, I have been learning to lead salsa. The majority of follows I have led in classes or on the dance floor have been okay with it — heck, some even prefer having me lead them — but I have gotten nothing but scolding from salsa leads, who see fit to lecture me and treat me like I am being stupid or outrageous for taking up leading.
This weekend, I had a complete stranger come up to me as I was practicing leading air before the start of a social dance.
“It looks like you’re leading,” he said.
“I am,” was all I got a chance to say before he proceeded to start lecturing me on how follows should not lead, and should leave the leading to the men.
Without even having danced with me, he told me how bad it was for follows to lead, and how my leading would make me a terrible follow.
Three dances into the afternoon, he asked me to dance. As we finished dancing, he pronounced the dance “perfect.” He ended up dancing with me more than seven times that afternoon, and complimenting me on my following and ability to pick up new moves he explained to me.
I’m not trying to show off in describing this here — I just want to point out that the lead automatically made assumptions and scolded me before even dancing with me, and probably fully expected to confirm those expectations by asking to dance with me.
That same day, during the evening, I received another lecture from a different lead who I had also danced more than seven dances with that afternoon — who had asked me for many of those dances. He told me that learning to lead would harm my following. Even as he told me that he himself had learned how to follow salsa, he lectured me on how leading was bad for me.
I didn’t bother to point out that I have already been leading for several months now, and that he seemed perfectly happy with my following despite this.
“You shouldn’t do that!”
“Leading is bad!”
“Leading will make you bad at following!”
“Leading makes you backlead!”
These are the kinds of comments I seem to always receive from high level salsa leads.
I understand the mentality behind believing that learning to lead can make you backlead. but I have had the opposite experience, and every follow I have spoken to who leads other types of dances agrees that learning to lead has helped improve her understanding of the dance, and improved her following.
Let me be the first to admit this: I do backlead, and I do a lot of it — in my lower level salsa classes. As a follow who has taken some of these classes two to four times already, it annoys me when leads can’t lead the moves right and get in the way of my practicing my part.
I am vicious with leads who blame the follow for every move they botch, or those who show up 12 classes into a 16 class term and expect the follow to put up with all the moves they lead incorrrectly.
This is one of the main reasons why I decided to lead: Retaking classes as a follow too many times brings out the backleader in me.
In my opinion, my taking classes as a follow makes me backlead more than my taking classes as a lead. This applies equally to the dance floor.
I recently spoke to a follow who has never taken salsa lessons and relies solely on her following to dance. She feels that classes interfere with her following. I totally understand where she is coming from.
When I first started dancing salsa, I got by only on the basic step and my following. I had no choice but to rely on my following skills to get me through dances — I couldn’t backlead moves even if I wanted to. I danced like this for about nine months before I started taking actual salsa lessons. The more classes I took as a follow, the more I started to anticipate the moves my leads planned to do, based on the signals I was learning in my classes. Especially when dancing with higher level leads, where the signals used were complex and often required knowing the move to execute it, my lessons as a follow increased my anticipation, and sometimes led to backleading due to my misinterpretation of signals and nervousness over not wanting to be a crappy dance partner.
When I am out on the floor dancing as a follow, I am not thinking as a lead. I am not criticizing my lead for the grips he is using, the steps he is taking, etc. I am too busy following and trying not to botch my end of the move — trying to read what my lead wants me to do, through what I am feeling from him. The only thing I am concentrating on when I am dancing as a follow is my own steps, and trying to make the dance flow as smoothly and seamlessly as I can. I feel horrible whenever I misinterpret a move and respond in a way that my lead did not intend.
Learning the lead’s half of the move does not make me “correct” my leads for leading a move “wrong,” because I follow what I feel. In fact, leading opens my eyes to how much backleading sucks, and makes me aware of areas where I should not backlead. For example, in a move called the “Stretch Texas Tommy” where the lead is supposed to throw the follow’s arm behind her back and catch her hand, I would often throw my own arm behind me, just because I knew it was coming. Now that I have learned how to lead the move, and how much such an action interferes with the leading of the move, I try my best to remember not to do it anymore.
I think I am less likely to backlead a move I have learned the mechanics behind than a move I only know as a follow.
I backlead guys when I know they are leading me wrong and will affect my ability to practice a move correctly (in class) and when I misinterpret the feeling of a signal (on the dance floor). I usually apologize profusely if I backlead a move wrong.
My lack of spatial perception and my inability to learn by visually pretty much prevent me from transferring my knowledge as a lead into my following.
The most annoying thing for me about the attitude that many salsa leads have been giving me is that most leads who scold and lecture have never even danced with me before they start judging what my leading is doing to my dancing.
In all the other dance communities I have danced with, I have only received positive feedback about my interest in learning how to lead. My West Coast Swing instructor didn’t have a problem with my learning to lead (and told me it didn’t affect my following). Lindy hoppers thought it was cool when I decided to try a free beginner lesson as a lead. Blues dancers are probably the most open bunch — with them, it’s perfectly okay even for the most macho guys to lead each other — even through lifts. And females don’t have a problem dancing in close-hold with other women.
I do not know what it is about the salsa community that makes it so close-minded about female leading. I know that not all leads are like this, but this has been the case with most leads I have encountered.
The most hypocritical thing I find is that some of the leads who scold have learned to follow and are proud of it, but are completely against follows learning to lead.
I say, “To hell with them!”
I’m learning to lead so that I don’t have to sit out when there are not enough guys to dance with. To me, being a lead is just another aspect of dancing.
And I am not going to stop leading just to please men!