Switch: Learning the opposite role in Cuban Salsa

If you are already an accomplished social dancer as a Lead or as a Follow, it might be the time to learn the other role. I have wanted to learn to dance as a Follow for a long time, and I have now started the process, and I want to share my experience.

I believe in the benefits of switching roles, and that it is equally true for Lead and Follow. I write from my personal view point going from Lead to Follow. The opposite journey is at least as interesting, but I can only tell my own story.

1 Why dance as a Follow?

I want to dance as a Follow for three reasons. 1) It will make me better as a leader. 2) To become a complete dancer. 3) To be able to teach Cuban Salsa.

In a nutshell: I want to own my salsa dancing, I want to be on top of it, I want to be a master of my own art by constantly improving and honing my skills. How can I become better at anything if I know nothing or just a little about half the game?

My plan is not just to try being a Follow but to become a Follow, ideally half of the time. I want to become a complete dancer. It is not enough to get to know the opposite role. I want, ideally, to dance both roles equally. The good old story about Yin and Yang, of being both masculine and feminine, of developing and using all your talents and abilities to your own liking, instead of being boxed into a limited edition of a half human being.

When dancing as a Follow, I must accept to be led by men some of the time for the purpose of training. There are not that many women around being as good in the role of leading as many male leaders doing it all the time. But my personal preference as a man is to dance with women. Others might have other preferences. I want to be led by women.

I am dying to be asked for a dance by a woman, and she says, “now I am in charge, I am the Lead and you the Follow, I am going to give you my best dance”.

It could be for a whole dance, or the Follow could take over as Lead for a section in my dance, just like we have sections for free styling and Rumba or what ever we like in Casino, Cuban Salsa.

2 Becoming better as a Lead

The most obvious reason for wanting to learn the role of the Follow is of cause the assumption that the more you know about being a Follow, the easier it must be to led a Follow.

Actually there are many more benefits than just becoming better to lead. But there is an important qualification: it is not enough to have learned the opposite role just a little, in order to have tried it and to help out in classes when there are too few women present.

It takes very many social dances in the opposite role as Lead or as Follow, if you really want to benefit from it in your normal role. Even most dance instructors have only learned the other role to get by, just enough to show both roles in their own classes. They have seldom danced in the opposite role in social dancing to the extent that they could significantly benefit from it in their natural roles.

3 What makes a good dance?

If a Lead is dancing a lot as a Follow at a high level, it ought to give you a better understanding of what works in a dance, of what moves are actually fun and what moves mostly boring from the Follow’s perspective.

Dancing a lot as a Follow will make you better at judging how much turning is appropriate in what situations. And it is good to have experienced yourself, how too much Complicado can be counter productive in social dancing. You are likely to learn why it is often nice to go slow and easy and be more music driven instead of just doing turns, turns, turns.

It really is tough and often tiresome to be a Follow having to accept even the weirdest whimsy moves presented to them as orders by a long queue of more or less qualified Leads for a whole evening, without ever having a fair chance of charging back and expressing yourself in any other way than following.

4 A broader perspective

As a Lead you have an extremely narrow perspective of what is Cuban Salsa or whatever dance style, you are dancing. Basically you only know your own 10 moves and your own exact ways of holding hands, of stepping, of how to move around, and your own way of tailoring a dance.

As a Follow you experience the dance of very many different leaders. As a Follow you experience many different ways to hold hands and to be lead, many ways of stepping and moving around on the dance floor, a wide variety of moves and ways of choreographing a successful dance.

As a Lead you only experience your own dance with many different Follows and how they adapt to you. Very exciting. As a Follow you experience a new dance all the time with a new Lead, and the challenge of having to adapt to them, and that is also very exciting.

5 A complete dancer

The traditional dance roles in partner dancing are old-fashioned, almost parodies of the classical sex roles in the most outdated extreme. Almost the last stand of patriarchy. The Lead decides everything, the Follow should just follow and be pretty.

Many social dancers are not proud of the dance roles, we have today, but we go social dancing anyway for the opportunity to dance. We love dancing. We regard the antiquated dance roles as a temporary evil and a game for a few hours.

It might be possible to develop new social dance styles reflecting contemporary sex roles. Man and woman should share leading and following, take turns leading turns! We want to be equal, to become complete human beings, complete dancers.

As we wait for up-to-date social dance styles to emerge, we could simply learn both roles in the social dances we already know, and dance in both roles, when we go social dancing. It might even pave the way for new dance styles, where both men and women can make use of all their talents.

6 Cuban Salsa is extremely Lead heavy

Of all social dances, Cuban Salsa probably has the worst record of unequal dance roles. All social dances, I know of, are very male dominated in the sense that it is the man’s dance, his moves, his choreography. The traditional paradigm of the man being the frame with the woman as the picture. Problematic in a modern world.

In some social dances like Swing dance styles but also in e.g. Brazilian Zouk and in Bachata Sensual, the Follows not just follow but contribute almost equally to the success of the dance and must have a trained skill level equal to the Leads.

Cuban Salsa is extreme in the sense that the Follow can literally just close her eyes and follow except that she must be good at stepping and to position herself, and good at stomaching turns. In most Cuban Salsa, we have exceptions, the Lead doesn’t just provide the frame for the woman, he is also the picture, he is almost the one and only hero of the dance and gets all the credit and attention with the Follow as his almost faceless dance toy or theater dance prop.

If the Lead is good in Cuban Salsa, he can make more room for the Follow, and in the best music driven Cuban Salsa, the Follow gets a chance to shine equally, to become more than a blind-folded dance follower. But Cuban Salsa is and will remain one of the most Lead heavy social dances in general.

Wouldn’t it be nice, if we took the weakness of Cuban Salsa as a social dance being almost, on average, all about the Leads, and made it also it’s strength? Simply by making it common to dance in both dance roles? Why not promote Cuban Salsa as the most modern social dance, the dance where it is realistic to learn both dance roles, and to dance socially at a high level as both Leads and Follows, and to dance with both men and woman, if that is what we want?

The plight of being a Follow in the extreme is actually a very nice feeling, just to let go to someone you trust, to listen and parade orders, to be safe and protected and completely embedded in the arms and hands of another human being, totally at the mercy of the will power of a strong Lead. No worries. If we could just change roles now and then or at least for a dance or two.

7 Teaching salsa

Most experienced salsa dancers are not able to teach salsa. They have danced for many years, they have completed the full curriculum of several dance schools and very many workshops, but they only know every second page of the dance manual, so to speak, half the dance experience. Most of us only know one of the two roles of an activity that is all interaction!

For many learning processes to progress and continue, you first know and own a skill, when you have passed it on to someone else. It is when you teach, you really question and think about what you are doing. Teaching is when all the pieces, as you know them so far, finally fit into place for a while and lift you to a new level.

Knowing both roles of a social dance is a prerequisite for understanding it good enough to teach it, and teaching, broadly speaking, it could just be teaching a friend, is likely to bring you a decisive step forward in your own dancing.

8 How to switch roles

For me the most natural would be to find some women equally interested in learning to be leaders and just dance, dance, dance. The problem with this approach is of cause that it is a little difficult to learn to be a Follow dancing with Leads learning to be leads.

The other solution is to dance with good male Leads. But who is going to give input about how to be a Follow? And if a Follow dance as Lead with Follows, who is giving input about how to be the Lead?

The best solution for a start is to take beginner classes where both Lead and Follow get the proper instructions and slowly get into the new role. I don’t think many classes as a Follow is necessary when you already know how to dance as a Lead. Especially in Cuban Salsa, it is rather common that talented Follows can get a long way with very little formal training. Starting to be a Follow, already being an experienced Lead, you already have a lot of formal training compared to a Follow starting from scratch.

The Follow wanting to dance as Lead, on the other hand, is in for a hard time learning moves and will probably need more classes and workshops to get anywhere. And they will need Leads that want to be lead by Follows to help them out. I am ready. Ask me for a dance, please, no matter your level.

The video is from “DC Casineros”, 2014, featuring Amanda Gill and Adrian Valdivia. They take turns dancing as Lead and Follow in the same dance, and it works surprisingly well, and could be one way to switch roles if the song is long or for training. But the wonders of being the Lead for a full successful dance, in charge of everything, is impossible to beat. This is my dance, this is what I can give you, this is me.

Same Video on YouTube

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