Traditionally, we were taught (and still are) that the leader's job is more important. Not only does he have to know his steps and have proper leading technique, but he also has to creatively direct the sequence of the dance. The follower is merely a compliant responder. This ends up placing a huge amount of pressure on the leader and makes for a less interesting, challenging and creative experience for the follower.
While this old-fashioned idea of leading and following has some merit, the best dancers and partnerships do things differently. They go beyond the dominant-submissive role play into a playful, interdependent partnership based on both partners contributing and participating. Each partner openly expresses their ideas and creativity as well as responds to their partner's creative initiatives.
The Two Magical Components Of Leading: Listen and Respond
Often when I go social dancing (especially with beginner-intermediate level dancers) I find that my leader is so focused on completing a sequence of turn patterns that he forgets the most important thing of all - to actually connect with me. For example:
Let's say I'm really feeling the music and hit an accent in the song with an exaggerated body roll. A good leader responds to this by, perhaps, matching my body roll with his own body movement. Or maybe he would sever the connection to allow for a moment of freestyle expression. He could respond in a thousand different ways, based on whatever he feels inspired to do. The main point is that he 'listens' to me. He hears me express my idea and doesn't ignore it. He responds to it.
The disconnected leader may not have noticed my body roll at all. He's worried about what turn pattern to do next. Or he's showing off for the cute girl standing on the edge of the floor watching. It's also likely that a disconnected leader is fully aware of the body roll, but unprepared to respond. He lacks the necessary confidence and skills to change course of action so quickly and spontaneously. Instead, it's safer to stay in control of the dance and just follow through with his own plan and ignore his partner's creative input. Losing control would mean looking foolish and he's not willing to take that risk.
The Two+ Magical Components Of Following: Listen and Respond + Contribute Your Own Creativity
Followers are taught to respond to their leader's cues. But that doesn't mean be submissive, uncreative and passive. If you were to do nothing more than respond to your leader, you would soon become BORED. You must also contribute your own creative ideas to the dance. It's like saying to your partner "Sure, I'll let you drive, but I may want to take some detours along the way." And if he's a good leader, he'll welcome those detours and may even surprise you with some of his own.
Partner dancing is like having a conversation. There's give and take. A mutual asking and answering of questions and getting to know each other. If you're nervous and uptight, your mind will blank and you can't think of what to say next. It's the same with partner dancing. Staying relaxed is key to improvisation. The best dancers are able to mold and adapt as the dance progresses. They stay open, spontaneous and in the present moment. And most importantly, they listen and respond to each other.