Leading and Following, by Benoit Papineau

by Benoit Papineau

A few weeks back, Mr. Keith Morris presented to us a very important and interesting article on the matter of leading and following.  As he and Mr. Michael Herdlitzka (guardian angel of the WDC site) described, the article only introduced the tip of an iceberg, since the matter of leading and following is probably the most complex factor determining the activity of ballroom dancing and the most difficult to explain in written words.  This matter is usually explained and understood exclusively through sensory perception that is difficult to put into words and appears to require the physical presence of both teacher and student.

Weeks have gone by and it appears that Mr. Morris` article has just been buried under a mountain of various articles, while I believe the matter of leading and following to be worthy of remaining at the surface.  Of course, winning matters more to whom wishes to win and the WDC site is full of those individuals with great aspirations, but in reality the matter of winning will only touch a few, while the matter of leading and following touches every dancer of every level in our spherical habitat.

This issue matters as it is the heart of what defines us as ballroom dancers.  This also matters as it could clarify other things that have been discussed to this day.  Done correctly, leading and following could, like no other, elevate ballroom dancing to the level of an art form.  Done correctly, leading and following could, like no other, bring an undeniable clarification of the equality of the genders.

In order to impose the resurfacing of the matter, I will risk my own personal development as an extension of Mr. Morris` article. Be advised that it will be very deep, as deep as the thoughts triggered in my head by Mr. Morris` article.

The idea behind leading and following

When I read the comments following Mr. Morris` article, I realized that for most people, leading and following just seemed related to patterns, where one partner (man) decides which pattern should be executed and the other partner (woman) had to agree with the decision and execute.  That led to choreography and the idea that it may not be possible or necessary to lead and follow in set amalgamations, while it was possible and necessary if a couple was only free-styling.

Is it really true?  Is leading and following only related to patterns?  Is it possible to lead and follow in set choreographies?

Of course, there is no question that these questions relate to the matter of leading and following, but they actually only touch one of three aspects of any action performed in ballroom dancing, as well as any action performed in life.  These aspects are :

  • the what
  • the how
  • the why

To give you an example of how these three words relate, I chose the very basic act of drinking.  Of course no one can argue the importance of this action for living creatures, although some may wonder how it pertains to our chosen activity

A : What are you doing?

B : I am drinking.

A : How do you do that?

B:  First, I close my fingers on the glass filled with water, then, I elevate the glass, bringing it to my lips.  Then, with an act of volume expansion performed by my cheeks and my tongue, I aspire the liquid into my mouth and finally, through another act of volume expansion, I elevate some components of my throat in order to transfer the liquid from my mouth to my stomach.

A : Man, that’s quite technical!  Why do you do all that?

B : Because I am thirsty.

As everyone can clearly see, the what and the how are determined by the why.  If thirst did not exist, the act of drinking (what) and methods for drinking (how) would not exist either.  How obvious?

The same is true for ballroom dancing and it would be a mistake to believe that leading and following would only pertain to the what of dancing (patterns).  Of course, they do relate to the what, but they also and equally relate to the how and the why, as they are the only constituents of all techniques (how) relating to partnering and that the existence of the two genders is probably the only reason why (the why) ballroom dancing exists in the first place.  Like no other aspect of ballroom ballroom dancing, leading and following relate to the what, the how and the why, as if they formed an indivisible trinity.

  • What is ‘leading’ and ‘following’?
  • How to lead and follow?
  • Why does he lead and why does she follow?

These are questions that will need answers, but before we take care of them, here is another question: why is ballroom dancing an activity exclusively performed by living creatures?  Well, the answer is quite simple; because inert existences cannot do it.  How obvious an answer!  Maybe starting with life itself would be a good beginning, as leading and following should produce the existence of a living form, the birth of a movement.


What is life?  Wow, this one is complicated!  Life involves so many things.  It involves DNA, internal organs, physics, chemistry, biomechanics, reproduction and so much more.  Or we can look at it in a very simple way.  Life is an existence gifted with the independent ability to act.  A living creature is a being gifted with the ability of doing, although the doing could be limited to the ability to independently grow as it is the case for vegetative life.

Let’s put those two words in the back of our minds.

  1. Being
  2. Doing

Only the two together can relate to a living existence. There could be a being, but if the being has no ability of doing anything, it is simply not alive; it is inert like a stone.  Also, if there is no being, there is no doing.  Being and doing or doing and being can already begin to make us see a relationship with the matter of leading and following, as ballroom dancing relates to beings doing something togethera man and a woman (beings) moving (doing) together.

Before we leave these words and bring other words to our reflection, I would like to attract your attention to the fact that being represents a state, while doing represents an action and that ‘action’ and ‘state’ are two very important and interrelated factors in the development of our art form, especially for the matter of leading and following, as two beings are attempting to do something in unison and harmony.


After introducing the word life, it is now time to bring in the word form, as ballroom dancing is an art-form or as some insist in believing, a sport-form.  But regardless of beliefs, everyone will agree that dancing involves movement – changes of form – and that it is executed by humans – living forms.  Two new words can be introduced with regard to the matter of leading and following :

  1. Transforming
  2. Conforming

Those two verbs clearly relate through their similar terminations (forming) and also clearly relate to the word form, as they are formed around it.  They differ in their prefixes, where one uses the prefix trans- and the other, the prefix con-.  The prefix trans- means  ‘through’ or ‘beyond’ and suggests change, which in this case would be a ‘change of form’.  The prefix con- means ‘with’ and in the present case would make conforming mean: ‘with the forming.’

Leading is transforming and following is conforming.  This is clearly beginning to take form, but it only instructs us about the what of leading and following, telling us what they may be.  The how and the why are still unexplained.

Let’s now bring in the nouns associated with the verbs and put more pieces of the puzzle together.  The noun corresponding to transforming is ‘transformation’ and that for conforming is ‘conformity’.  With these two new nouns, we can see that the words created around the word form also differ in their suffixes.  The suffix -ion always suggests ‘action’, while the suffix -ity always suggests a ‘state’.  That brings us back to a previous section of the text, giving us the possibility to extend further on some associations :

  • Leading = transformation = action = doing
  • Following = conformity = state = being

Through these associations, it is possible to comprehend that leading and following, when put together end up being synonymic constituents to the constituents of life itself; a doing and a being put together in an act of creation (action); an act of creativity (state).  In this case, ballroom dancing would only be a natural development and consequence of nature.


It is exactly by looking at nature in general that we can begin to intrude on the how and why of leading and following.  If the goal is to become a natural, it is important to get out of our isolated world, take a look at the big picture, learn from the big picture and bring back to our isolated world what nature has taught us.

Would there be in nature other interactions between transformation and conformity that could instruct us about leading and following?  I wonder, maybe, of course.  It is not unusual to find, in nature, a direct relationship between the male gender and the act of transformation:  look at male birds transforming the color of their coats when they reach maturity;  look at male deer transforming their bald heads into heads decorated with majestic antlers when they reach maturity;  look at male lions growing excess facial hair when they reach maturity. How coincidental that males of the human race  also have the ability to grow excess facial hair with maturity?  Could it be this similarity combined with the human complex of superiority that has made us elect the lion as being the king of the jungle?  How about the transformation of the male voice at puberty, changing from higher to lower pitch?  There seems to be a clear relationship between the male gender and the act of transformation.

I wonder…is there a pill for ‘coat-color change dysfunction’? Is there a pill for ‘antler growth dysfunction’?

Of course, these questions bring us directly into the matter of reproductive organs; the matter we all know about from having experienced it personally or (in my case) from having heard about it.  For all species, it is a male’s duty to transform an organ of urination into an organ of insemination if he wants to be part of a reproductive act of creativity.  In fact, for the male gender the act of transformation is conditional for the fullness of his being.  His full ability to be reproductive is also conditional to his ability to transform proteins into semen, which temporally coincides with either: coat color transformation, growth of antlers, growth of excess facial hair or the transformation of his voice’s pitch.

Leading: males and transformation

It is important at this point to bring all of this natural knowledge back into our isolated world of ballroom dancing, to realize that it may not be so isolated after all.  It is a very common misunderstanding for male dancers to believe that leading consists in the imposition of some physicality into their female partners.  Believe me, I believed it too for the longest time, but this belief only takes its  source in lack of knowledge.  The art of leading is not learned overnight and leads that are not successful engender that desire to be understood therefore, the impulse to induce physical force for the purpose of being understood.  But if we look at the list of masculine transformations found in nature and enumerated above, we can only realize that all those transformations were executed by males within their own physical structures; not outside as a bad lead would be.

But of course, it could be that she is hard to lead…

Following: females and conformity

Well, if she is hard to lead, there are no real benefits in imposing more physicality to her.   This usually results in a woman that is even harder to lead.

What women have to understand also takes its source in nature – the container of life, the container of doing and being and of everything else we need to know and comprehend.  There are little or no obvious physical observations that can be made about conformity.  Unlike transformation which offers obvious visible clues, conformity offers no visual clues other than the change of form it would have absorbed after an act of transformation has transformed it.  With an organ of sight alone, conformity cannot be witnessed.

The clue nature offers about the conformity of the female gender is in the matter of texture and can be witnessed when we study her contribution in the reproductive act.  This contribution is the secretion of a water – based liquid produced at the base of the spinal cord.  In its chemical composition, this liquid strangely resembles the cerebral spinal fluid that circulates over the gyros of her brain; the exact place where her willingness to a male’s sexual transformation occurs and is determined.

Without the fluidity of this liquid contribution, the act becomes difficult and painful to perform.  If she is willing it will be easy and if she is not willing to conform, she will be hard to lead.  There also is a general misconception on the female’s side of the ballroom coin, making the art of following difficult to develop.  The misconception relates to an excessive amount of body tone required to maintain a stable appearance.  Although appearance matters, a ‘too solid’ texture results in the impossibility to conform well, quickly and easily.  Mr. Morris is right and insisted on this point.  For a woman and her partner, a fluid texture is everything.  I can remember Anthony describing the texture of a top Japanese lady ‘she feels like a scarf made of silk.’

She feels like a scarf made of silk.”

Leading and following: transformation and conformity

Leading and following are the transformation of a man’s structure put in contact with the conformity of a woman’s fluid texture.  If the transformation is forcefully imposed by the man into the woman, she will feel violated and react with tension.  Her texture will solidify and begin a vicious cycle most of us have experienced.  He pushes and pulls her, she becomes tense, her texture solidifies.  He feels her unwillingness to conform and feels the need to push and pull even more.  She feels even more violated and becomes even more tense.  He works harder and harder, she becomes harder and harder to lead.  It feels like work and not like dancing.

A violated woman feels deprived of her right to contribute her own desire to conform and becomes resistant.  Violating a female would be wrong for any sexual act performed in nature by any species, how can it be  right for ballroom dancing?

Action and state: Flexion and flexibility

Just imagine trying to flex a bar of steel.  Just imagine trying to flex a scarf made of silk.  The difference is easy to grasp,  difficult not to grasp.  The difference is ease and difficulty themselves.

If you happen to be like most of us, a biological being, the only possibility you possess to perform any biomechanical action is through the use of flexion.  If you have a skeleton made of bones and joints, flexion is your only method of operation.  Of course, bones themselves cannot flex.  Only the joints can and it is important to understand that nervous or mental tension have a direct effect on the muscular (and tendons) system that is only meant to operate those joints.  If the joints are tense, flexion becomes more difficult and could even become impossible.  It is crucial to understand that only flexibility can be flexed.  That simply means that only flexibility can lead because only flexibility can transform itself.  That also means that only flexibility can follow because only flexibility can be transformed when in contact with an act of transformation.

Future and equality (very deep)

Since leading and following have, for their purpose, brought into existence movements that have not yet been executed, we have to see their importance in the development of the future.  A movement does not exist, leading and following occurs, and finally a movement exists.  It is therefore important to look at what the before of a movement may have contained for that movement to come into existence; for that movement to become. For that, we will look at how the future is usually created.

In the English language the future is created by adding will to the present.  For example, we could say ‘I do’ and to make that the future we would simply add will and the statement becomes ‘I will do.’  In the language, the addition of will to the present creates the future and if we think about it deeply, we could realize that it always seems to be the case for living forms.  The will (desire) contained in the present always seems related and responsible for the becoming of the future.

The induction of will in a ‘before’ creates an ‘after’.  This simplistic matter becomes obvious when we just think that before any leading and following action, there has to be, in the before of those actions, a containment of desire (a will) to lead or to follow.  Two new words need to be brought to our attention and they are :

  1. Will
  2. Willingness

The word will does not finish with the suffix -ion and therefore is not representative of an action.  Nevertheless, it is the immaterial impulse that will bring any action to materialization.  Without will there is no action; there is inertia.

On the other end, the suffix -ness contained in willingness also signifies a state.  Willingness is also immaterial and is also a necessary element of a before.  Willingness is like a gift; it is the promise of offering the state of conformity to any future action.  Willingness is the gift of conformity before conformity is used.  Without willingness, any attempt for action becomes sterile.

In terms of movement, the states of sterility and inertia become obvious synonyms. An attempt to flex a bar of steel with my bare hands will remain sterile because there is no willingness in the solidity of steel. A scarf made of silk, although willing, will remain inert without a will to flex it. ‘Will’ is sterile without willingness and becomes a waste of energy.  ‘Willingness’ is inert without will and becomes a waste of potentiality.

It is only through the deep understanding of the containment of a before that anyone can be brought to the realization of the true equality of genders in an act of ballroom dancing or in any other actions.  Will and willingness are different but equally important for any future to become; for any movement to be brought into existence.

Without doing, being is inert and there is no life.

Without transformation, conformity is inert and there is no change.

Without flexion, flexibility is inert and there is no flexion.

Without will, willingness is inert and there is no future.

Without the act of leading, the act of following is inert and there is no dance.

Without being, doing is sterile and there is no life.

Without conformity, transformation is sterile and there is no change.

Without flexibility, flexion is sterile and there is no flexion.

Without willingness, will is sterile and there is no future.

Without the act of followingthe act of leading is sterile and there is no dance.

The other way

There is no question that the content of the previous paragraphs confirms the equality of the genders, but it was still necessary to have a discussion about the matter a few months ago,  discussion that is unfortunately alive.  The reason for the existence of that discussion takes its source in the fact that there is another well spread view about the matter of leading and following.

This other view exists and is also formed of an ‘action’ and a ‘state’.  If it was not, it would not be alive, but it is unfortunately.   This other view sees the act of leading as being the act of dictation and the act of following, as requiring the state of submissiveness.  Instead of creating partnerships, this method creates dictatorships.  Although both methods need to be formed of relationships between individuals, dictatorships are not equalitarian and give a superior importance to the dictator (leader) and an inferior value to the subordinate (follower).  The prefix  sub- means under and can only confirm the inequality preached by this view.

Although widely spread, the problem with this method is that it renders witnesses uncomfortable.  No one likes to see abuse although many live by it.  Dictatorships are very common in our world and succeed to a certain extent, but judges as well as spectators prefer to see partnerships.  Teachers prefer to teach partnerships.  Coaches also prefer to coach partnerships.  In other words, although our competitive world is full of dictatorships, very few end up with a trophy in their hands.


Leading should therefore be : the will to transform without any imposition of physical force.  Following should therefore be : the willingness to conform without any induction of physical resistance.

Of course, this may not be easy to achieve, but still our world of dancing has succeeded at creating some of these individuals of ultimacy.  When I think about the ultimate leader, the first name that comes to my mind is Andrew Sinkinson.  When I think about the ultimate follower, the first name that comes to my mind is Lyn Marriner.  These individuals did not become ultimate without great efforts at understanding flexion and flexibility and of course, the scope of their knowledge which constitutes the how of leading and following, is beyond the capabilities of this article.  Nevertheless, they made ultimacy possible and I encourage every dancer to follow the path that they have led us to witness; a method perfectly consistent with how nature intended existences to be brought to life inside an harmonious context.

‘Leading’ and ‘following’ are not only related to the what of ballroom dancing.  Leading and following are behaviours that should be implemented into every moment leading to the next; into every before leading to every after whether it is improvised (free-styling) or planned (choreography).

And finally, ballroom dancing – art or sport?…

Benoit Papineau

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