Leadership Lessons from Dance – Providing Space for a Follow to Soar

I once heard a colleague equate advising student leaders and organizations to taking care of a bird. He said something to the effect of, if you try to hold the bird in your hand too tight the bird wants to fight you to get out and get free but if you open your hands a little so they have some room to fly but still have a protective parameter around them then not only will they not fight you but they may appreciate you and then both parties can soar together…

I thought of this example as I was getting a private lesson on leading a cross body lead in SalsaOn1. As I step back and open up to create a path for my follow I also needed to open my frame to give my follow the freedom to walk across to the other side of me.

As the instructor was trying to verbally correct me on this I asked him to lead me both ways so that I could feel the different in the experience I was creating for my follow (check out somatics/learning through body movement and resilience leadership). It was amazing how as a follow I could intuituvely tell when the lead didn’t feel right. When the lead’s frame wasn’t open I felt stiffled and not able to style or express how I was interpreting the music yet if a lead would have asked me how to fix it I won’t have known what they would have  needed to do to create this space for the follow.

Side bar: This is a plug for learning how to both follow and lead because that awareness and appreciation for what the other needs to be successful has the potential to help you be better. In mainstream this has been observed more and more with actors becoming successful directors and producers because they have been in the actor’s place and can take the needs of that role into consideration while they make a decision. This can for sure be said for dance. So many times I try and lead men so that they can understand through their body what I am saying and they freak out because “I’ve never had to follow before” or “this feels weird”. Many men have relegated the follow role to “women’s work” and feel inferior when they are placed in that “subservient role” when quite the opposite is true. Both leading and following is difficult work and deserve equal respect!

Often I have experienced a lead who misunderstands their role to mean control and therefore ends up being too rough, pushing, squeezing, or using their thumbs to make the movement happen not realizing that half the work of the leader is done by their follow and that the focus and responsibility of the lead is to present the possibilities, hold their own frame, engage their core, and give the follow room to interpret the suggested movement.

Like the baby bird example the dance follow wants to be protected, to know that the protection is there when or if they need it AND to be allowed to be free enough to flap their wings and fly within reason. The moment the lead is too protective, controling, or rough the follow will begin to fight you and you will both not get the desired dance experience.

If leaders can provide the structure with adequate tension in their frame (arms, chest, back, elbows, fingers) and learn the moments when to follow (the back and forth of non-verbal communication) then both partners shine and together the dance can look effortless!.

My interpretation of the dance lessons translated to life would be:

  1. Try to see or feel the world from another person’s perspective
  2. Take the time to consider and reflect upon how your actions affect how other’s respond to you
  3.  Sometimes when you care about someone you have to let them go rather than hold them close before either of you can grow

Remember: Everyone has the potential to lead (and follow)…


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