The Collaborative Dance, Part 1

There is a phrase that makes me immediately cringe as a leader, follower, and teacher. Can you guess what it is?

It tends to come up in classes when a leader is working on a figure, looks up at me in exasperation, gestures to his or her partner and says: "I can't make them do (insert figure here)!" To which I want to respond "Of course you can't."

There are a few things I find objectionable about this idea.

1. It places all agency on the leader, making the follower an object to be acted upon instead of acknowledging her contribution to the dance.
2. When agency is given to the follower, the blame is placed on them, as if they were willfully sabotaging the figure.
3. It encourages an adversarial approach to partner dancing, pitting one role against the other, rather than encouraging collaboration.

Partner dancing is an interaction of the knowledge possessed by each dancer. It is a collaboration to create a dance together within the span of a song, not a demonstration of knowledge on the part of one partner or the other.

This is why the best leaders can appear to move comfortably with new followers- they are playing to the strengths of the follower they are dancing with, testing the depth of their knowledge by proposing steps without forcing motions. Followers can also appear to elevate their leaders, injecting ideas of musicality and keeping poised, proposing ideas of their own for the leader to react to, and drawing a leader's focus into the embrace and connection rather than highlighting a small vocabulary of steps.

This is also why two "advanced" dancers can make each other feel terrible, persistently battling against each other to push their idea forward and impose it on their partner.

So how can you change your attitude regarding collaborating with your partners, whether on the particularly at a class or practica?

Be gracious. If a figure isn't going well, humbly offer up one of the following to suggest that improvements could be made (when can't they?) without assigning blame to your partner:
"I'm having difficulty leading..." instead of "You are not following correctly"
"I'm not sure I understand the lead for..." instead of "You are not leading correctly"
"I'm having trouble balancing during..." instead of "You are taking me off balance"

There are, as always, exceptions. If you are being made to feel unsafe, speak up. No amount of graciousness will protect you from an injury.

But go forward trying to address problems in class as a challenge to face as a partnership instead of regarding your partner as the problem.