How to Lead like a Man

By Joe Donato,
all rights reserved © 2007


There are all different types of ballroom dances, and different ways of classifying them. You’ve surely heard them broken down into an overkill of categories: Smooth, Ballroom, Latin, American Rhythm, Freestyle, International, Argentine Tango vs. Ballroom Tango, Viennese Waltz vs. Argentine Valse, and of course all the different flavors of swing from Lindy Rhythm to Lindy Hop, Jitterbug to Jive, West Coast to East Coast, Balboa, Shag, Charleston, etc. But there’s one thing that all partner dances have in common. In any dance you are learning, one of the best things to focus on is how to be a good leader. Do you think you’re a good leader in any of these dances? Here are some signs of the “fruits” of being a good leader:


-When you make a mistake (not if, when), the woman will usually apologize, before you even have a chance to admit it was your bad.


-People will tell you that you make ANY woman you are dancing with, look like a pro.


-When you start dancing with a woman for the first time, she will have an initial look of terror on her face, which will then be followed by very large smile.


-Other men competing for the same partners will tend to either ignore you completely, or come to you asking for advice.


-You will notice that women will be making a beeline from across the room, to get a dance, specifically from you.


Each of these things has happened to me, and I know that it is NOT because of the moves I know, or some other special magnetism; it is simply because I learned how to lead. I wasn’t always that way. I had to learn it. And you can too. Any man can learn. Here are a few things to remember when developing your lead:


A good lead is all about your frame. All dances have different postures, but the one thing that the woman needs to feel from the man, is the core momentum coming from the center of his gravity; the torso. And the part of your body through which a woman connects to your torso, is through your frame. The simplest way to define a good leader is that he has a good, consistent frame, which makes the woman feel like she’s literally a part of the man’s body. But Men, you do not lead with your arms, you lead with your Torso! Your arms just happen to be the tool that your torso uses to tell the woman where you are going. If you try to tell the woman where she is supposed to go with your arms, you will most likely end up “pushing and pulling” and the woman will feel like she’s being yanked or shoved to another spot on the floor. But if the woman can feel your body (your torso that is), moving to that spot on the floor, it will feel like she’s being carried there, instead of pushed. Here are a few crucial tips to help you maintain your frame:


 For your basic ballroom hold, in a perfect world, the distance between the man’s chest, and the palm of his right hand (which is usually just under the woman’s shoulder blade) should never change. If your feet move forward 3.785 inches, your torso should also move forward 3.785 inches, and therefore, the palm of the hand has also moved forward 3.785 inches as well. If you moves back 1.6748 feet, your torso should have also traveled 1.6748 feet, and the palm of your hand should have also moved back 1.6748 feet, taking the woman 1.6748 feet forward. OK, math class is over.


Another way of thinking about it is to remember that the elbow joint never really contracts or extends. You could also say that the angle between the forearm and the bicep on each arm should never change either. Pretend your arms are in a cast, and/or your elbow joints are frozen. You’re starting to get the idea. And since we are talking about elbows, here’s a great exercise: Put your arm out as if you are getting in dance position.


Pretend you are a butler, holding a towel in your right hand. Now look at your profile in a mirror with this stance. Your elbows should always be in front of your chest, not behind them. If the elbow is behind you, odds are your right shoulder is also sticking out, and ready for the woman’s mouth to take a bit out of it. Bring the elbows forward. This will also put your chest back, creating a concave shape. This will allow the woman to feel connected to you.


Now, raise the elbow up so that it is higher than the wrist. If your elbow is lower than the wrist, two things will happen that will hinder your frame. 1 – Your arm will feel fatigue at the wrist, as blood has to travel up again to get to your hand. 2 – It will be far too easy for that hand to "undulate" its distance from your chest, thus misleading the woman about how or when, your torso is moving.  I call this "shock absorbing". While it's necessary in automobiles, it's detrimental in a leader's frame.


When I first learned to develop my frame, it was about a month or two into serious training, and all I knew was that something was wrong and something needed to change. My partner was an experienced dancer and it was very intimidating to have to lead her. But I had no choice; I had to dance with her, it was my job. I first started to move my left leg forward but she just stood there. “Aren’t you supposed to move now?” I asked. “I can’t feel you” was her response. “I can’t move, you’re in my way, I’ll run you over” was probably my response. And there we were stuck at a standstill. It reminded me of the Dr. Seuss story “The Zax” about the two guys who found each other in their path, and neither would take proactive action to change that situation. They were both waiting for the other one to get out of their way. From what I remember, an entire city has built up all around them, and they are still there to this day. Well Men, in the world of ballroom dancing, it is the Leader’s job to move first. That’s why we’re called the “leaders”.


What I finally discovered, was that if my frame is strong, as soon as I start to move; the very split second I gain a few millimeters of momentum moving forward, the woman will feel it and respond. It is not visible to the naked eye, but to this day, I make sure I first have a strong frame, and then I focus on sending my torso forward, unapologetically. The woman’s feet always magically get out of my way as she responds and travels backwards. I lose the precautionary tendency to “waddle” around her feet; I discover that I am free to take larger, freer steps. Just so long as my frame stays strong, the woman will be carried along with me. The woman responds every time and in all these years I've yet to “run over” anyone on the dance floor.


Here’s another exercise: Next time you are in a supermarket, try pushing a full shopping cart from standstill. First, allow your elbow joints to expand and contract (i.e.: moving your arms). The shopping cart will not like you very much. You’ll probably go back and forth between right into the cart, and being in a constant push-and-pull, tug-of-war with it. Now try it again, and don’t think about it. Notice that when you start, from a standstill, you first encounter resistance from the shopping cart, but then your body reacts to that; your elbow joints “tense up” providing resistance and it’s the weight of your body, centered in your torso, which counteracts the shopping carts weight, causing it to go into motion. You’ll feel yourself “pushing” not with your arms, but with your whole body: Your torso "rises to the challenge” and then your feet get into the act. You start “Pushing off the floor”, until you’ve reached a nice steady velocity.


Now, you’re free to deal with all the other stimuli coming at you from the aisles. Starting up a dance with your partner is very similar. And remember that a good leader of basic fundamental steps is ALWAYS better than a sloppy leader who knows a lot of fancy arm and foot patterns. What good are fancy moves if the woman you are dancing with feels like she’s your public plaything?


Read through this article several times. If it was helpful, drop me a line and let me know, or tell others about it. Next time you dance, come back to the article and read it again. It will slowly start to sink in and hopefully, the size of the smile in your partner’s eyes will grow in direct proportion with your leading ability.


And if you are a follower reading this, I implore you to read the “How to Follow like a Lady” article. Dancing is symbiotic. Now that the man knows how to lead, the lady has no excuse and must learn how to follow. Let me help you, help your partner, and vice versa. Now go practice…


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