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Lead and Follow

These are observations from some dancers on leading and following in dancing with a partner. Information is obtained through instruction in person, and through practice to discover what works and what doesn't. Please don't expect to learn too much about dance frame, and lead and follow, from words on a page. If you are going to try to use the information on this page, you might make it more manageable by trying just a piece at a time. The most important concept is connection. For all of the following, please use your common sense, don't follow what is said blindly. If you have trouble with some of it, get someone to teach you in person, preferably a dance teacher.

Why does lead and follow matter?

If you and your partner have already choreographed a set of figures, and if you aren't going to have to dance around other dancers, then you don't need lead and follow. Usually, in social dancing, the lady doesn't have any idea of what the man is going to do next. It will be an awkward dance at best if the man doesn't have a way of communicating what he plans to do on the dance floor. Lead and follow is how the man communicates to his partner what he would like both of you to do. If mans knows how to lead well, and his partner knows how to follow well, the man can lead her through patterns she's never even seen before, and make it look good. If man can lead really well, he can lead someone who doesn't even know how to dance. Sometimes you see such skilled leaders in action.


Lead and follow cannot happen without a connection between the leader and follower. So, what's a connection? A functional definition would be leader and follower knowing where their partner is, and what their partner is doing, based only on physical contact. Most of the rest of this document is concerned with how you make that connection.

Roles of leader and follower

In social partner dancing, the leader and follower have different roles. The leader keeps time, and suggests, through his lead, the figures that will be executed in a dance. That means the leader has the job of maintaining the rhythm, knowing the figures of a dance, and deciding what figures he is going to lead, in addition to actually leading them. The follower, through reading the signals of the lead, executes the suggested figures. Connection is extremely important, because it is through the connection that the lead is communicated.

Something to keep in mind on the topic of the leader keeping time: the leader has to keep a time that the follower can match.

Leading and Following

In essence, the lead comes from the body. Depending on the hold, it is transmitted through the contact between the bodies, the arms and hands, or both. What this means in practical terms is that your upper arms stay fairly fixed relative to your body. Not rigid, however.

Here is a little exercise to get a sense of this:

  • a couple stands face to face in two-hand open hold, forearms parallel to the ground,
  • the follower closes her (or his) eyes,
  • and the leader walks around.
When you have a good connection, the leader and follower will move together around the room. If you don't have a good connection, the leader will have to avoid stepping into his partner.

If man has the appropriate tension in his arms, and the appropriate position of his arms relative to his body, and if his partner does the same, when the man moves his body, this leads his partner to move her body. The only exception to this is under arm turns, but even then, if you don't maintain appropriate tension in the arms, turns are difficult to lead.

Dance Positions

International Standard Technique and Latin Technique have more detailed description on frame and dance posture. Here are some additional notes on various dance positions, including open and closed holds.

Rhythm Frame, or Rhythm Closed Position

Leader places his right hand on the follower's waist on her left side, or under her left arm. The hand position is such that you could both push and pull (gently, of course), with no gaps between fingers and thumb. The leader has his left hand at about the follower's eye level, in front of his left shoulder, with palm forward, and forearm perpendicular to the ground. The follower places her left hand on the leader's shoulder, pressing against it lightly to create a connection. Hold your own left arm up, follower. The follower puts her right hand in the leader's left hand in the position described above for closed holds, making contact along the length of the forearm. Both leader and follower stand so that their weight is over their toes.

Smooth Frame, or Smooth Closed Position

The following is the smooth frame for beginners, and assumes your only contact with your partner is through your hands and arms. Leader places his right hand under the follower's left arm. The hand position is such that you could both push and pull (gently, of course), with no gaps between fingers and thumb. The leader's elbow points straight out to the side. The leader has his left hand at about the follower's eye level, again with his elbow straight out to the side, with palm forward. The follower places her left hand on the leader's shoulder, pressing against it lightly to create a connection. The follower holds her own left arm up, and doesn't count on the leader's arm to hold it up. The follower puts her right hand in the leader's left hand in the position described above for closed holds. Leader and follower stand so that if he were to step forward, his right foot would land between the follower's legs. In other words, leader and follower are offset. This allows you to dance without kicking your partner or stepping on their foot.

Hand Positions

For open hold,  We will refer to these as "gripping" and "no-thumbs". In a gripping hold,
Particularly in club dances, no thumbs. In other words, leader and follower's hands will change positions relative to each other many times in a dance, and there needs to be enough freedom in the handhold to allow those changes to happen easily. In most cases, the easiest way to achieve this is by thinking of your hands as hooks, without opposable thumbs.

In a
closed dance position with hold, the leader will have his left hand pointed up, palm facing out, the follower will place her right hand so that her fingers are between the leader's thumb and index finger, and both leader and follower curl their fingers to gently hold their partner's hand. 

open hold is any dance position in which your only contact with your partner is through your hands.
We are aware of two schools of thought on how the hands of leader and follower should connect.

Hold with grip

The lady's hand will be palm down, and the man will grip her palm between his thumb, on the back of her hand, and his index finger on her palm. This gives him a secure hold for leading the lady.

"No thumbs"

When you are holding hands at waist level, the leader has his hands in a line with his forearms, palms facing each other, with the fingers curled to about a right angle. The thumbs point up in the air, and don't do anything. The follower places her hands, palm down, on the leader's index fingers, and curls her fingers over the leader's fingers. The easy way to think of this: the leader is holding a couple of beers, and the follower is pushing a shopping cart. You don't need to grip at all in this position, but you do need to maintain tone in the arms and fingers. With this hand hold, the leader indicates forward and back motion by pushing the backs of his fingers against the follower's palms and pulling her fingers with his.

In a
two hand open hold, you face your partner. The elbows will be slightly forward of the body, and the hands are at about the follower's waist level, holding hands as described above. You want your upper arm to stay fairly fixed relative to your upper body. Think of your upper arms as stiff springs. The same applies if you are holding only one hand.

turns, generally, both leader and follower keep their hands open. What some people find work very well is that the man lightly curls his hand, and as he leads his partner through an under arm turn, her hand can rotate within his, allowing her to balance against his hand, but still have the freedom to move.

The other hand position that comes into play in patterns known by such names as 'swivels', 'fans', 'sugar push', etc. In this case, the leader's palms face forward, giving the follower something to push against.

Do not grip your partner's hand on a turn. Our arms can manage may 180 degrees, and that is what gripping hands might allow. To turn more than this, hand contact that allows the hands to turn against each other is required.

The Lead Zone

In open holds, there are two areas where the man can indicate a lead through the hands. One is at waist level, and the other is above the shoulders. When the hands are between the waist and the shoulders, that is, at chest level, it is not practical to use the hands to lead, and normally the hands are just passing through this area between waist level and above the shoulders.