When I was first learning salsa I wished that the teachers would explain how to lead and how to follow. I felt like the girls were always ahead of me but for some reason they would do the next move in the pattern. I thought that maybe they were back-leading but I didn't know enough to call them out on it. Now I know. They were backleading. One reason why I dislike patterns. It encourages women to take charge of their own moves when the guy is supposed to do it. Women learn to backlead and men never learn how to lead properly, or if they do, they learn to be too strong, too rough, too fast, or at best after a very long time.
Now I can control my follower with my connection. By tensing up certain muscles and loosening up others she can really feel my intention. And when she starts to back lead I understand how to use those various muscles to influence her to do what I want rather than what she thinks I want. But this takes a lot of experience.
While that level of detail might be next to impossible to explain, I think I can at explain the mechanics of my own leading style. That seems to be a good step to begin with so you can start to develop some sense of the muscles you'll use to lead, and how the follower feels when she responds. It would probably also be beneficial for the follower to practice responding to the guy.
Maybe one day I'll add some illustrations but for now I'll try to make it as clear as possible without them.
First let me explain what a good lead is not: A strong lead.
Repeat after me... Men and Women:
A strong lead is NOT a good lead!
I know a lot of ladies like a strong lead. But I've been told that, as long as it's very clear and well timed, a SOFT lead feels like you are floating on a cloud. It also gives the girl something much more pragmatic, room to express herself. A soft lead is less controlling. It lets her be a part of the team... a partner, not a puppet. She wants to be a part of the dance, not the object of the dance.
A lot of guys at first think that they have to maintain constant pressure on the girl. Don't do that. She will feel controlled and you'll actually be pushing the girl to dance faster than she would otherwise. My technique enables me to slow her down if I need to.
Another thing a lot of guys do, especially the strong leaders, is they use a lot of muscle. The girls don't need you to force them through the moves. All they need is for you to let them know what you want them to do. You lead and after you recognize that she has started to do the move you asked her to do, you follow her movement. You maintain connection, but you don't need to lead any more until it's time to resolve the current move and to set up for the next one.
So what makes a good lead?
A good lead begins with connection. Connection is not a lead. I'll describe that later. We have to cover connection first. Basically the connection is the minimum force of touch that it takes to keep you from slipping off of your partner. Metaphorically speaking, it is like a line of communication. Think of it like two cups held together with a piece of string. You aren't talking to each other yet. That would be the leading and following. You are just keeping the line of communication open. Now when you pull your cup all you want is to maintain enough tension on the line so it vibrates when you talk into the cup, right? You aren't playing tug of war. If you try to pull the guy on the other end of the line he has to react by pulling back. You might break the string and sever communication. So if you can apply that metaphor to your connection with your dance partner, you can imagine that if you apply too much tension or compression, you can actually hinder communication. You want just the right amount of connection. This is one thing that improver/intermediate level dancers should work on.
Leading and following is a conversation, with the guy leading the conversation. He asks a question, she responds. He responds to that and so forth. When the topic resolves itself, he asks another question and they begin another exchange. When you have a good connection, you enable communication with your partner. She can hear the leader with her sense of touch. And he can hear the follower's movements with his sense of touch. It is just as important for him to feel her through his hands as it is for her to feel him through her hands.
Two kinds of connection
There are two kinds of connection: compression and tension... or in other words, pushing and pulling. I don't like to use the words push and pull though because they imply a strong force, and that is not appropriate for a good lead. Compression and tension are much better words. You apply the appropriate form of touch with your fingers to maintain the connection with your partner.
I generally teach that maintaining the connection is the woman's responsibility. (After all, dance mimics life and Women are much better at maintaining interpersonal connections than men are.) Of course the guy's not completely off the hook, but typically he is spending his time doing things to break the connection and she responds by attempting to strengthen it. This action sets the woman up to follow.
Then there is Lead.
Please understand that the lead is different than the connection. I'm trying to be very deliberate with my language so pay attention when I say lead or connection. I was talking about connection. Now I am talking about Lead. Lead is essentially connection with a follow through. But the timing is extremely important. If you do not learn appropriate timing, you will either give a false or confusing lead, or you will be too rough or strong. This is something that the leader must work on until he masters it.
Before we discuss the mechanics of the lead, we must cover the third state. The period of time in which there is absolutely no lead. This happens when you switch from compression to tension, and vice versa. The period of time when you are neither leading with compression nor with tension is this neutral state.
If the leader does not embrace the state of neutrality he will feel like a strong lead, and even worse he will actually push the girl to dance faster than she would otherwise. This is the reason why I believe so many leaders dance too fast. The guys try to maintain the connection instead of giving the responsibility to the girl. More on this later.
It's also important to realize that you cannot lead the girl in the neutral state. You must move from the neutral state to a compression or tension in order to lead her. You want the change from neutral to compression or tension to be gradual. It should never be abrupt. Of course if you make it abrupt, you will feel rough to the girl. Also, do not change your grip in the middle of a neutral state. You need a good connection when you change grips or you risk losing connection.
Most of the time, maybe 90% of the time, you need to be in a "connective" state, either compression or tension. But NOT actively leading. You aren't leading and you aren't in the neutral state. What are you doing when you are in the connective state? Are you leading? Not yet.
There are two times when you'll be in a connective state. One is before a lead. In this period of time, you do nothing. You just maintain the connection. The other time you are just connecting is when you are in the midst of a move, for example a turn. In this case, you follow. Yep. I said YOU FOLLOW. You follow the girl in the middle of her turn. Of course she isn't leading you, and you do eventually pick the lead back up, but when you aren't actively leading her, you are still following her.
Now, since you set up the lead you know where she is going. It's like you sent her on a trail and let her walk in front of you. You know the trail so you know where the tricky spots are. You are also ready to respond in case something unexpected comes up, like a snake on the trail. But for the time being, you let the girl go in front. Of course during the state in which you are following, you must maintain the connection. Imagine that you are holding the girl's hand on the trail.
Let's get on to the meat of this post. The actual mechanics of the lead.
Okay, so you have a good connection and you are tired of not leading. So you want to execute a move. What do you do?
We communicate our lead by bouncing from tension to compression and back again. Back and forth. Please understand the word bounce here doesn't mean jerking or dancing swing style or pushing then pulling. I know the word bounce has a lot of baggage attached to it. You think rubber ball bouncing. But rubber balls only respond with compression. They don't experience tension. So when I use the word bounce, I mean shifting from one to the other, compression to tension or from tension to compression. I use the word bounce because if we examine a ball bouncing in slow motion we know that there is a lot going on. So in this description of the mechanics of a good lead, I am describing things in super duper oober looper slow motion.
Ok. The entire dance is bouncing from tension to compression. When we move from one to the other, we enter the neutral state. Since we can not lead without a connection, it's important to try to minimize the time in which you are in a neutral state. It is the girl's responsibility to seek the connection. It is the guy's responsibility to set up the bounce.
Let me explain.
Let's begin assuming we have a compression connection. You extend the compression, or follow through with the compression until she begins to respond by moving, let's say, back. Now that you can feel through your sense of touch that she is moving back you let off the lead and start to follow her. You do not let off enough so you lose the connection though. This would be a good time to change grips if necessary. You don't have to change grips though. It depends on the move. At the appropriate moment you will stop following her. Inertia will cause the girl to continue and when she does, you will lose connection, for a moment. You will enter the neutral state. But, since you have slowed down your following she will begin to settle into a... tension. You let her gradually settle into the tension until she stops. And you continue the tension, follow through with it, and she will respond by following, probably by reversing her direction. You let off the lead, follow, change grips if necessary, then back off to enter the neutral state, then set up for the compression connection. And so on and so forth.
Reaction time is important here girls. The faster you react to the changes between compression and tension and vice versa, the shorter the period of time you'll be in the neutral state, the easier it will be for the guy to lead you, the easier it will be for you to follow him. This is something that women need to work on right from the beginning. Following this way engages your mind. You can strengthen your mind by dancing. Who woulda thought?
Remember, you must WAIT for the connection. If you do not wait and start "leading" when the compression or tension is not there then you are going to be rough. If you try to create the compression or tension yourself, then you are being too domineering, too strong. Just wait for her to come to you.
It's really not that difficult, once you understand the technique. Of course all of this happens in the blink of an eye, but you'll get the hang of it. The key is embracing the connective state. In fact, if you watch very advanced dancers you will find that they play with the connective state.
There is of course a LOOOOOT more to it than bouncing right from compression to tension and back. You will use tension and compression in combination. If you compress with one side and tense with the other side, you will cause the girl to twist. You might combine them to encourage the girl to turn, or to turn faster. You will use both in turns. You will use them to guide the girl down the slot. You will apply connection without a lead to communicate to the girl, saying in effect "pay attention." Or you might use a connection without a lead to encourage the girl to move and not turn. You will compress or tense with the sides of your hands. Or you'll compress with your shoulder, or tense with your forearm. There is a lot to all of this. It takes a long time to master all of the nuances, but as long as you practice the timing of moving from compression to neutral to tension to neutral to compression, etc. you will begin to make progress. Learn to maintain connection without giving confusing leads.
One benefit of dancing this way is that it gives both partners the ability to influence the timing of their partner. Both partners have the ability to extend the period of time in which you are in the neutral state. And that will cause your partner to slow down or to speed up.
One final thought. Lead tangentially. If you don't lead tangentially you will feel jerky to the girl. You know what tangent means? Remember geometry? It's a line or an arc that intersects an arc or a circle at only one point. As you are following the girl in that connective state, when it comes time to apply a lead you apply that force tangent to her natural movement. You should NEVER apply a force across her natural body motion. Your lead should NEVER create a corner. To do so will jerk her around.
You don't want the girls to call you a jerk, do you?
Okay. I hope this makes the mechanics of a lead more understandable to all of you.
Good luck and God bless!