How To Be A Good Jive Dance Lead

How To Be A Good Jive Dance Lead

(What's in a good lead?)

This is something every dancer wonders about and the answer is probably under continual development for each of us! Many dancers simply like to learn at their own speed, with classes, practice and instinct; but for those who also like an analytical approach, this short 'essay' may be of interest.

The following thoughts are by no means original and I certainly don't claim to be any expert authority on leading and following - if you have additional ideas, feedback or related quotes, or even just enjoy discussing the subject, I'd love to hear from you. Meanwhile, this seems as good a place as any to compile and focus on some ideas on 'what makes a good lead' (and with some addditional points on following - which can't after all, be separated!)

Much of what goes in to making a good leader also has a counterpart in being a good follower, but for ease of reference there's also some quick tips on following. If you're a beginner, and would just like some quick tips for both, you can jump down to some quick notes for beginners, otherwise, read on ..

We can look at lead and follow from a technical perspective or as a partnership thing, and a good lead probably combines aspects of both as those two aspects overlap and merge . . .
On the technical side, we can consider clarity, accuracy, awareness of where a partner's weight is and where you want to move it to, handholds, skill and timing. As part of a partnership, which dance of course is, we could include responsiveness to how she follows your lead, 'micro leads', synchronisation, attention, frame, adaptability and practice.

A good lead can be viewed as an 'invitation to do a move'. Lead and follow should not translate as ‘command and obey’! . . . but a better word might be ‘suggesting’ - giving the follower the option to choose the appropriate response for the lead given. Leading is not pushing or pulling. It is communicating an intention. There is no room for pause while the follower considers the lead, but she is also free to accept the suggested lead or change it into something else! At no point should the leader force her into a move.

Remembering it's all about communication, you have to be aware of the 'language' your partner speaks, as you would also her vocabulary and tone of voice if you were communicating by talking rather than dancing.

Women don’t ‘follow’ as much interpret signals they're given, and with a keen responsiveness that is not passive. The follower role is mentally and physically active. In some of the best partners I’ve danced with, this acute, passive receptiveness is almost like a physical force. The follower’s hands and eyes are almost ‘listening’ for the slightest indication and ready to respond.
“Just as a language interpreter can't translate mumbling, she similarly can't interpret a mumbled lead. And forceful leading is no more helpful than is the shouting of unintelligible mumbling.”


A strong, clear lead is the physical equivalent to perfect diction, rather than shouting! As skill improves, the equivalent of a whisper is sufficient.
Be clear, precise, warm and friendly with your leads. And instantly flexible when she comes up with an alternative interpretation of your signals.


The best leaders now know that a great part of a good leading is following. In other words, he is perceptive and responsive to her situation. He listens with his body to be aware of how closely his lead is being accepted. He visualizes where his partner is going, where her feet and balance are, where her momentum is heading, which steps will flow smoothly from her current step.
“He knows and cares what is comfortable for her, what is pleasurable or fun. He dances for his partner's ability and comfort.”


Adaptability and respect for your partner can help to develop that magical empathy that makes the dance just flow. If she misses the lead for a move, compensate by turning it into a different move and hopefully she will not even notice she 'fluffed' it. She may deliberately do something different with it of course, and if you have respected each other's dance space this isn't usually a problem. It is not a 'mistake' if she deliberately does something different with your lead to that which you intended.

Many experienced followers will have a repertoire of ‘sabotage’ moves up their sleeves to make a dance more interesting without throwing the leader off his stride. This can be something simple like extra footwork, or a complete re-interpretation of a lead to produce a more interesting result. If the follower is ready for the next lead then the leader shouldn’t really complain! Free interpretation by the follower is okay as long as it doesn't interfere with the man's lead.


Early on in the dance, a good leader will assess his partner’s dance level and ability. For instance, you can gauge her technical knowledge by putting her into a small dip before doing a big drop, seeing how comfortable she is with specific hand holds and ordinary spins before putting her into a double-speed assisted spin, giving her a little more room for improvisation before forcing her to lead her own improvised section. This is particularly important in UK where the terms 'beginner', 'intermediate' and 'advanced ' have no specific definition and dancers are not assessed formally before moving from one grade to another as they are in Australasia. A dancer may be very experienced and even expert in a lot of moves but be ignorant of more technical aspects, including being responsible for her own balance or doing particular types of spins.


Leading also requires the courage to step confidently and this comes from diligent practice and knowing the steps – not only the man’s steps but the woman’s steps too! Throwing her into moves or dance styles with which she is unfamiliar may result in using too much force and be uncomfortable for her. (Aussie and NZ Ceroccers might wish to note: different conventions mean UK dancers may not automatically move into set positions for set types of moves, so 'rounding' the edges of the moves may make them gentler and more accessible.)

Attention and timing

“Leading requires an awareness of not only one's own well being and enjoyment, but the well-being and enjoyment of another human being. Following requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to relinquish control and allow oneself to be lead. Following requires paying close attention to the leader and non-verbal cues. Following requires trust. Trust is never a given. It must be earned. And therein lies the dance. It is only by dancing together, with each other, that we learn to trust each other.”

If her timing seems 'out' try to see how she's hearing the music. It may be a valid rhythm, simply placing the emphasis on a different part of the note. If it seems she can't hear the beat (some people just can’t!) and all else fails you can try counting it gently and with a nice smile (careful though - this may also get you a slap!)


Effective lead and follow need a degree of (for want of a better word) tension. You need a 'frame' to dance with a partner, or else you have to rely on very close understanding! Understanding alone may be fine for basic or choreographed moves but there is little use of genuine lead there (regular partners beware!) A good frame, on the other hand, allows you to communicate movement to your partner with the whole of your body to the whole of hers. It has enough tension to be sturdy, an equal tension whether moving her backwards or forwards, but at the same time devoid of any strain. It’s a dynamic thing, flexing and compressing, not an uncomfortable rigidity.

Frame is the key to moving as one. Lead and follow is the gateway to making a connection. Professional dancers talk about making the three connections: with your partner, the music, and with the floor.

A common exercise used in beginner style workshops is designed to balance and maintain a gentle pressure that is even and unvarying – once that dynamic, interactive connection is developed then leader and follower are sensitive to the tiniest variations:

Face each other, and place the fingertips of each of your hands against the fingertips of each of your partner’s hands, very lightly. There should be a light but tactile connection between the two dancers. Each person should take it in turns to move their hands around together (up and down, right and left, forwards and backwards) while both dancers concentrate on maintaining a constant pressure between the pairs of fingertips. As you feel a pressure, you move with it in order to maintain the initial light pressure – not too much and not too little. This should also be done with the eyes closed and 'dancing' without music. The man should be able to lead, vary step size, and even vary the tempo of the dance all with the woman’s eyes closed.

You can repeat the exercise with the hands not quite touching, keeping an inch of air between them as you complete the moves. Leading can even be done with body placement and eyes alone. You can test your connection by placing a small coin between the joined pairs of fingertips and moving around without dropping the coins.

“A stable frame is important because it maximizes the couple's signal-to-noise ratio - maximizes the amount of useful information that can be transmitted between their bodies.”

In closed position, imagine you are holding a large ball between you and maintain continuous light pressure on that ball. Stability comes from keeping the same amount of pressure between you. Speed comes from good frame. If you have a good frame, then you can communicate with the tiniest of movements, using much less force. Combined with good balance techniques, this enables complex moves to be done safely and gently at speed if required.

Keep the navels of the leader and the follower pointing to each other (or in parallel alignment) wherever possible. The dynamic tension of a good frame also makes the woman look good since it helps to make sure she moves fluidly.


“Proper leading is accomplished by leading with the body, not the arms. If you maintain a proper arm-body connection, when the leader's body moves, the body-arm arm-body connection causes the follower's body to move. Leading with the arms instead of the body is not only wrong from a basic lead/follow standpoint, but it results in bad body lines, which will make your dancing look awful.”

The essence of keeping a good connection has two parts. The first is feeling that your hips/groins are pushing into the balls of your feet as you step. The second is feeling your lower shoulders/ribs connect with a) your arms and hands and b) your partners' spine.

(For developing connection with the music, see examples in Kinetic Imagery.)

Awareness of where your partner's weight is

Also in leading, it is helpful, or necessary, to be aware of the woman’s balance point. You need to know not just the steps but how your body works, so you understand how you got from A to B, and then you need to know the same for her, so you can effectively visualise and lead her through. For instance, if you are going to put her into a right spin, it will be easier for her if you have her weight over her right foot (or over her left foot for a left spin). Whichever foot and direction you are spinning her from though, she needs to have her weight over the foot on which she is spinning.

Tango dancers use a simple exercise to establish where a partner’s weight is:

In closed position, rock very, very slightly, shifting your weight from left to right and back again. If you have good frame you will be able to feel your partner’s weight shifting too. Wait until her weight is off her right foot if you want her to step with her right, or vice versa if you want her to step with her left.

If you are dancing with a beginner, you will need to simplify your moves and speed of execution unless you can establish very good frame early on. But a woman without good posture, correct body/foot positions and body tone is very hard to lead.

One of the most difficult skills in dancing is the ability to dance well with anyone. This not only requires being able to adapt your leading/following style to that of your partner, but also being able to adjust your repertoire of moves to your partner as well.

"Lead or follow, but always dance. It will harmonize the movements of your life and the life we share together in the same way that music takes differing sounds and harmonizes them."


When the man leads, he should preface all his steps with his momentum; for example, if he plans to step forward on count 1, he puts his body weight a tiny bit forward, a tiny fraction of a second before count 1. In this way, he tells the woman where to step next, so that she can step as much with him as possible. Another trick is to ‘begin’ a lead one or two beats ahead of the move, using the momentum of the current step to get you into the next move. If you do this, it helps to visualize the next move in advance in your mind. If you can visualise it well like this, you will find it will help to put your partner at ease. Most micro-leads are pre-leads – a small lead in the direction you want her to turn.

 A prep-lead, on the other hand, is a small lead in the opposite direction of the turn that you will lead. They involve a wind-up immediately before the turn or step (eg taking her hand to your right before flinging it left in a ladyspin, or stepping her forward on her right after a grind prior to spinning her to her right.)

Handholds and leading turns and spins:

Don’t force a follower to turn several times if she is not sufficiently advanced at turns (it’ll just result in a loss of balance). In UK Ceroc, just putting your hand over your partner's head indicates you want her to turn. In NZ Ceroc, and some other forms of jive (as well as other dances) it doesn't indicate anything, or indicates you want her to go under - movement is required to initiate movement in the follower!. One of the advantages of the first style is that it is easier for beginners to pick up. One of the advantages of the second style is that it is easier to differentiate between whether you are leading one or two spins. Light hand holds are essential for good turns – anything stronger may be uncomfortable or unbalance the woman. Slow multiple assisted spins can be led using a salsa drop-hand-change; fast assisted spins require changing from a cup grip to a spindle hold (sometimes called a mambo hold) – the man’s hand has the middle two fingers together pointing firmly downwards and the follower’s hand revolves around it as if revolving around a spindle. Fast assisted spins require specific technique (the man drawing accurate ‘haloes’ and the woman raising her elbow into a ‘unicorn’ position.)

‘Maximum results with minimum effort.’ Robert Cordoba


The best dancers, regardless of style, teach use of accurate, light leads. It’s an illusion that makes it look as if the dancers are flinging each other around! “Do not yank and crank, just indicate!” Minimum force is needed to indicate to a follower which direction to go or which figure to execute. This makes dancing more pleasurable and, if a follower does not respond to a the lead for a move, picking another one is simple because the follower is not forced into an unrecoverable position.

 Although there are exceptions, depending on the move, a definite initial lead to establish momentum is generally helpful followed by a feather touch follow through.

Eddie Harper defined lead as “An indication of speed and direction without force or verbal communication” and defined follow as “travelling in the path of least resistance.”

How do you learn to follow?

(the following notes are adapted and expanded from the arts dance newsgroup)

First of all, clear your mind and concentrate on your partner. (You may find some of the exercises in the Kinetic Imagery section helpful for this). Don’t take any mental baggage with you onto the dance floor, either on your own behalf or for your partner (this is sometimes easier when dancing with total strangers – otherwise I often find it helpful to regard the person on the dancefloor in front of me as a totally different person to the individual they are off the dancefloor – it’s how they dance that matters!)

At the beginning of the dance, listen intently to the music without counting the beats or analyzing it too much at first.

The only thing to analyse are the signals your leader is conveying. Don't think of anything specific - if you have to think consciously about steps for a particular move, you are not yet at the level of thought process that enables you to follow effortlessly. Open your mind to the messages that are being sent to you by your partner, first and foremost. (If you are not getting any messages you've got a problem!)

One aspect of dancing is communication: if the lady ‘has cotton in her ears’ she cannot follow no matter how clearly the man ‘speaks’. A follower ‘listens’ in many different way to her partner: his body motion, hand pressure at her back/side, visual cues from his feet and where he moves a free hand; that is a tremendous amount to keep track of and respond to in a short time. In addition to the body leads and signals coming through the arms and hands, signalling happens with subtle movements of eyes, head, etc. As women gain dance experience and knowledge of their partners, they tend to pick up the finer signals and respond without even thinking about it. A good follower will compliment the dance style of the leader she is dancing with.
(Leaders: sometimes a follower who is struggling and analysing too much can be assisted using Kinetic Imagery – this can be conveyed by your bearing and attitude, the atmosphere you create for the two of you to dance in, a sincere compliment, or simple phrases given encouragingly, inspiringly and respectfully – “Just float” is one I’ve used many times to good effect.)

Once the dance starts and you are reasonably comfortable with the fact that you are following, be on the lookout for CHANGE. Avoid getting complacent to the fact that you are following a particular pattern and instead keep your mind completely open to the next (logical) thing that your leader will convey: but do this without anticipating either the change or the new pattern that is coming. A follower must have a ‘receptive’ state of mind; no heavy thinking allowed! Keeping your mind ready and open so you can follow takes practice. It is particularly difficult if you have had a disturbing event happen immediately preceding your dancing.

 Passionate thoughts do not help your following... avoid them at all cost! Trust the leader as much as you can – it is not the follower's role to ‘know’ every move. Sometimes, thinking you know what’s happening can almost be more of a handicap than dancing with the assumption that you don't know what was coming up.

In addition to the above mental state of mind, you must be constantly balanced so that you can respond to your partner's lead (needless to say, the state of being ‘balanced’ is one of the absolute criteria that enables you to respond when your partner leads.) Balance is very difficult to teach to a student who lacks it. Dancing independently until you are capable of keeping your body moving easily, and wearing sufficiently flexible, well fitting, comfortable dance shoes will help. Different techniques for being responsible for one’s own balance are developed in different dance styles. When using extra tension in prep-lead (eg in a wurlitzer), the follower can 'sit' into her backstep slightly, so that if the leader should let go she would not fall; this also makes it easier for the leader as she has reciprocated the tension without relying on him for balance.