At a junior high dance, my date said to me, “I’ll lead.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that exactly, but it was a tip-off to me that he took dance lessons. I suspected this because the words, “I’ll lead,” don’t naturally fall out of a 13-year-old boy’s mouth.
When I ran into the same boy, as a grown man, 20 years later at a dance club, my suspicions were confirmed. He told me he took dance lessons in preparation for our big dance floor date at the Stillwell Junior High Sadie Hawkins Valentine’s Day dance.
More than 30 years after I hearing, “I’ll lead,” I experienced what it truly means to be led by a partner on the dance floor.
A few years ago, I stumbled across “She Left Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” by Matthew Fray. It’s one of the most clear articles I’ve ever read about relationships. In the article Matthew states, “the sexiest thing a man can say to his partner is ‘I got this,’ and then take care of whatever needs taken care of.”
That’s what leading is about, right?
Yes; mostly. But there’s also more.
As I noted in “Practical Conversations About Single Parenting, Independent Women, and the Evolving Roles of Men,” women often have a hard time allowing their partner (or even friends, and family members) to help them take care of their needs. This can be offputting and even be emasculating for some men. This practice of independently taking care of everything also leads to isolation and a constant need to be hypervigilant and take control.
“It’s because for many of us, we’ve had to step up and do everything on our own. As a single mother for the past 20 years, in many ways, I’d had no choice but to operate in masculine energy. At a very basic level, when you look at the way we’re designed, men are designed to give and women are designed to receive. However, women are placed in roles where they must give (often to the point of martyrdom which isn’t healthy), but sometimes necessary. We must work, pay the bills, take care of our children, and generally keep all of the balls in the air. The idea of receiving is so foreign to us, because we’ve been so used to doing everything on our own. Allowing a man to give (even in simple ways like opening the door for us) isn’t something that comes easy.”
When thinking in these terms, the idea of allowing a partner to lead is a challenge at best.
Dancing has been a big part of my recovery from 20 years of depression. In most cases, I dance alone or with a group of girls. Every now and then, I’m fortunate enough to have a partner to lead me on the dance floor.
When dancing with a partner, I often attempt to lead. It’s not purposeful, it happens because it’s not natural for me to be led. I’m used to leading the show in nearly all areas of my life.
Leadership is natural for me, following is not.
To counteract this tendency to be “in charge,” I often close my eyes when dancing with a partner. Doing this enables me to feel and mirror my partner’s movements without stepping in and taking over. It works for me, but it looks strange and often takes people (and Dance Studios) off guard.
I started taking salsa lessons in my new home state of California, and it’s been a bit of adventure.
Tonight was the seventh class and I can safely say, I now understand what it means to be led well by a partner.
Let me explain.
I’m taking these classes alone. I’m not attending with a partner. The first 30 minutes of class are dedicated to the lesson. The instructor breaks down the steps and we practice them independently. The last 15 minutes are reserved for dancing with others. The instructor teaches the men how to lead well and the women how to follow. You’d think all the onus is on the man as a leader, and that’s mostly true. However, being a good partner takes skill as well.
What became crystal clear to me tonight is being led requires one to relax and trust (and have lots of patience).
It’s interesting to me that the three skills required to be led (relaxing, trust, and patience) are the same skills I’ve been cultivating over the last couple years. Not only do we need relaxing, trust, and patience for our partner, perhaps the bigger hurdle is developing the same mindset of relaxing, trusting, and exercising patience for ourselves. I’ve gotten pretty good at trusting myself — I know I can count on me. However, relaxing and patience often elude me.
Tonight, while dancing with a partner I don’t know personally, I found myself overturning, overstepping, and tripping over myself.
He took the lead in a way I’ve not experienced before. Then he declared, “It’s ok. I’ve got you.”
Those words are a trigger for me and it was as if a switch was flipped. Knowing I was “being held” enabled me to relax into the situation and find new patience for myself. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if I spun a little too hard on my turn, overstepped, or tripped, because my partner had a good enough hold on me to make the proper correction for it. In addition, when doing a cross body lead, my partner literally opened up space for me to step into.
While I only danced with this particular partner for 10 minutes or so, the activity was profound.
I considered afterward a dance class I took with a lover a few years ago. It was a great experience. However, after five classes together, we couldn’t move past the stance with measured steps of “slow, slow, quick, quick.”
Tonight, the reason for the lack of advancement with my former love was crystal clear. I didn’t allow him to lead. I tried to lead. Now I know, trying to lead while being led looks like controlling, stepping out of turn, and getting ahead of myself (and especially ahead of the partner who should be leading) versus being patient and having space “opened up” for you.
That’s a completely different experience and not nearly as much fun.
On the other hand, being led feels amazingly beautiful. It looks like a partner who sets you up to succeed and a partner who has your back always. Being led means having a partner who clears the path to usher you in. It feels like being held, even when you’re doing your own thing. In other words, it feels a lot like love (even when it comes from a complete stranger).
You know who is the greatest lead when it comes to dancing? The Universe. The Universe is always working things out in your favor so you can succeed. The Universe clears the path so you can walk into the full authority of your life. You are always held by the Universe (even when it doesn’t feel like it). And yeah, the Universe is totally in love with you. Why not let the Universe lead?
Being led is a great experience that requires trust, patience, and relaxing into the knowing you are loved and protected while responding to each step with eyes wide open.
There’s life (and dancing) after depression and it’s brilliant. Let’s do this!