The Biggest Mistake In Dance Class! Ban the Back-lead

I’ve said it time and time again and it continues to be one of the greatest truths I’ve discovered while dance salsa:

“You learn the moves in the classroom but you learn to DANCE on the dance floor”.

No amount of time spent taking salsa classes will actually make you a good dancer. That transformation happens doing the real thing, with real people on a real dance floor. That’s where the refinement and neuro-muscular programming happens. Where you tweak a turn pattern so it actually works for you and the people you dance with (or at least with most of them).

I’m not bad-mouthing classes

That said, I still consider classes an essential part of a salseros training. Personally, I’m a slow learner, initially. It takes me a while to pick up a new combination and even when I do, unless I regularly practice it socially I’ll forget it pretty quick. Good classes allow people the time to pick up a new pattern and hopefully provide the instruction required by everyone (at one point or another) to overcome any difficulties with certain movements.

Basically, it’s great to have a move or pattern broken down for you and methodically explained by people who know what they’re doing. That’s why people are willing to pay for salsa classes and why they are often a central component of any dance community (there are a lot more reasons to do classes but that’s for another article).

Get your money’s worth

However, if you’re going to take classes, you need to play your part to actively learn as much as possible while there and I recently noticed an equal but opposite pair of mistakes made by men and women when taking classes.

I finally restarted taking classes again after an extended break while doing my masters and last week I was made very aware of a huge problem that is probably rife in dance classes around the world.

Ladies, I’m calling you out

Don’t worry, I’m gonna have a word with the guys in a minute but I’m going to start at the source of the problem.

Ladies, you need to stop back-leading in class!!!

Back-leading (when a follow leads herself into an expected turn) does not do dancing any favors, neither in the classroom nor socially. That said, it’s perfectly understandable why it happens so regularly. When a women is evolving as a dancer, she naturally develops a certain ability to predict certain movements on the floor when social dancing. To a point, this can make social dance more fluid but, let’s be honest, no one is right all the time so back-leading can often lead to mistakes or accidents of the social floor.

Back-leading becomes even more prominent in classes because people are specifically learning one, limited turn-pattern and by the end are expected to have it memorized. So naturally, during a class, women (the follows) may unconsciously end up back-leading the move the couple is trying to learn.

The problem with this is two fold:

  1. Firstly the man never truly learns how to lead the pattern. He simply learns to move his arms in accordance with his follow who is leading for him
  2. Secondly, the woman doesn’t truly learn how to react to a real lead. She comes to rely too much on her ability to “predict” what is coming next… and that’s just not salsa, baby.

I’ll give you my own example from the class that was the inspiration for this article. I was in a new class that was practicing a pattern that they had started the week before (I didn’t make that class last week) so I had never seen it before. The teachers kindly got me up to speed and we started working on the rest of the pattern. Near the end of the class we were all practicing the finished pattern and there was one girl in the class who I was dreading my turn with. She was a good dancer and had clearly memorized the entire move. So much so that when it came to dancing with her, I didn’t have to do much… she pretty much just lead herself through the pattern. At this point I got frustrated (as I have been known to do on occasion 😉 ) and I stopped mid move, looked her in the eyes and asked (very politely) in spanish “Could you let me lead the move, please”. She opened her mouth and looked like she was about to chew me out but suddenly, she backed down, softened her expression, looked me in the eye and said “OK, sorry”.

She realized right away that I was right in what I was asking. She was back-leading and it wasn’t helping. Long story short, I learned the move but will probably have lots of awkward moments with that girl in the future. I can live with that.

As for you men!

Man the F up! Don’t allow yourself to be lead by your follow. That does not mean that you become all controlling in the dance; it does not mean that you can be rough with your partner; it does not mean that you can be a jerk and verbally attack your partner if she back-leads.

What it means is that you need to lead with confidence and skill, both on the dance floor and in class. Remember, if a woman gets a clear, confident lead from a man she won’t feel the need to back-lead. It’s up to you to make sure she doesn’t feel the need to lead herself.

Check yourself!

Ladies, the next time you’re in class, if you catch yourself back-leading, stop yourself right there and leave it up to the lead to do his job.

Equally, gentlemen, if you feel that a woman is back-leading in class, ask her, politely, to allow you to lead. She should understand immediately and if she doesn’t, tell her to talk to me… (nervous laugh)! Then do your damn job and lead her well, like you’re supposed to.

Together, we can ban the back-lead!

Keep dancing folks!

Join the Conversation


Leave a Reply

  1. says: David

    Good points in your article, Richie, and looking at all the comments, you sure hit on a good topic. I like particularly comments by:
    Bryan – lead back onto beat
    Mark – instructors, teach how to lead
    Penelope – lots of good points
    Guillaume – flexibility in approach with partner

    A lot of back leading comes from teachers who not only don’t teach lead principles, but who teach to patterns by saying, “Follow along with me.” What happens? Instead of following their leader, the followers follow the teacher! Secondly, teachers who insist you practice only the pattern the just taught, over and over again to nausea, instead of letting leaders connect the pattern with real dancing. Followers expect only the pattern and fail to follow non-pattern work or variations.

    In our Tango Tribe classes we teach everyone to both lead and follow because it strengthens each persons primary role, both in knowing what their partner wants to feel, and because at higher levels of dance both partners are doing similar movements at different times and different ways. We teach principles that can be combined into patterns, and for patterns we also teach how to slice, dice, and rearrange them, recognizing different entrance and exit possibilities.

    Instructors can help empower everyone by teaching them how to give each other useful and respectful feedback. In general we use a formula of, “At this (moment/spot/move/time) I want to feel (more/less) of (dissociation/space/pull/push/force/support/elevation/lowering/etc.).”

    There is a place where back leading helps. If a leader isn’t getting it, I’ll say, “Let me back lead you, and you feel the shape and spaces (or closed off spaces) at each point along the way.” Then have them lead and add corrections where necessary.

    Thanks to you, Richie, and the other with their good comments.

  2. says: Meg

    I went back to salsa lessons after doing nothing but kizomba lessons. In kizomba, as a follower you really have to follow, so I found when I went back to salsa lessons, this was good practice, and some of the leads thanked me for not anticipating the moves. I did notice though that when practising a salsa turn pattern very slowly, the follower does have to turn herself to an extent because there is no momentum when you’re going slow.

    1. I totally agree with you Meg. With kizomba, connection and understanding your partners are very important. With turn patterns, momentum is obviously important so it doesn’t carryover quite so well to slow practice..

  3. says: andre

    this problem is indeed two fold because some women are taught they should “take the lead” if the male doesnt know how to lead it or is lost on the dance floor.

    I have been dancing for a year now (bachata) and Im a solid lead. Not the best dancer but a solid lead. I know the patterns (up to an intermediate level) and I give clear preps. I dance on beat.

    Even still!!!!! I will still get a female who not only asks me to dance but then proceeds to back lead it. Its a yucky feeling having the woman lead. I dont have the best explanation for what I feel when a woman leads but suffice it to say it aint good!

    Ladies, relax on the dance floor. Its just 3 minutes of your life. You’ll survive. Men on the other hand will not. We will die if we are back lead through a dance.

    This has been a public service announcement. Thank you.

    1. says: Guillaume

      IMO the yucky feeling is the result of the two dancers both trying to lead and these leads conflicting. Some time ago, when I was almost a beginner in bachata (10h of lessons) I danced once with a partner who was backleading a lot (not because I was “lost” but because I didn’t know how to adapt the bachata moves to the music yet, while she did). After some lead conflict I decided to follow her backlead and this improved the situation, because the roles were clear: I was following with leader’s steps and she was leading with follower’s steps.
      Of course I still don’t recommend backleading, and I don’t expect many leads to react this way 😉

  4. says: Shubhojit Roy

    Every one, when a follower, does a back lead when starting to learn. Except if they are naturally talented and very gifted (maybe 1% of entire human population since eternity). That’s very natural. I’m a guy, and being a lead, I have faced this with everyone in class. And, I actually don’t blame them or call it a problem because this is natural tendency and people do it mostly without even knowing that they are doing it (muscle memory I would say). I mostly tell the ladies politely that hey you are leading back and it’s not gonna help either of us. And at least 90% of time they take it positively, since mostly they understand they are there to learn. There are many many beginners (and sometimes people dancing for some time) who are very reluctant to follow the lead and would always do the routine taught, and believe these are the people who are very very good at memorizing.
    But it can be a big problem for guys (leads), especially for people who might be moving to different cities (like me). Back leading badly ruins the leading capability of the leaders.
    I won’t blame all the classes for this. Mostly people go to salsa classes just for a course and just wanted to learn some new moves or routines to show that they can dance now. Many people are not serious about technique, rather they want fancy routines. And, the classes then give in a bit many times to make people learn many routines, else of course they get marked for being slow and lose students. But, they do give the right tips to the willing people. Recently I joined one latin and ballroom class where they made people do the routine first and said would elaborate on technique later some day. And, they were not the first class that I saw doing that.
    Luckily, the salsa class that I go to emphasize on not back-leading in every class. And of course, at the end of the day it is upto the students as well to what they take back home. In salsa class I go to, they even sometimes reversed roles, where the lead was now follower and follower was lead. I do admit, being a lead all the time, I was pretty bad at taking the lead though not back leading once (cause I know I have been through that pain). But, in this case all those who back lead actually failed to lead properly when asked to. Another experiment what classes can do is that blindfold the followers can let them be led by any random student in class. It helps big time (if you have enough space and students).
    One thing that I always do is mix up steps, mostly mixing different steps learnt in the class or pieces of routine that was taught in that class, so that I get the steps and the lead and also the partner that I danced with knows what exactly is happening and would be ready for any other dancer in the world who would be attempting some combination out of those basic step pieces. Some get frustrated by that (and that frustrates me as well and I make a mental note for next time), but mostly people take it positively. Of course I’m not a very experienced dancer myself, but this is some thing I learnt over time that I have been dancing. I do not know much of fancy moves or numerous spins or dips or lifts, but I keep mixing all the basic steps (also do that ’cause I get bored and feel like trying something new). And, I have found that most of the regular students enjoy that as well, though there are some who strictly do not like any deviation from the taught routine.
    Anyway, to summarize it, back-lead is bad, both for the lead and the follower, but it is inevitable (like sweating in hot summer day) and natural, and can be and should be taken note of when learning. Ability to take the lead is a huge part of learning any for of partner dancing.
    And at the end of the day, one should stop worrying of the step or routine and enjoy the dance have fun!!
    Happy dancing!! 😀

  5. says: salsaboy

    Not the good female teachers! Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe it’s because I’ve danced other dances also and taken other classes. Some by competitive professionals. I’ve noticed that a good female teacher, when she’s in rotation during the class, will not execute the move correctly unless the guy leads it. Period. Instead she will instruct on how to lead it as opposed to back leading.

  6. says: Nina

    Love this! I was always scolded by my teacher that I didn’t lead enough and I’m a girl lol! I always found it ridiculous but hey there are trainers out there who have no clue what they’re talking about and find the craziest crap to teach. The man should initiate the direction and lead always not the lady pulling and going wherever the hell she wants full force and no need for her partner. That to me isn’t partner dancing and it’s creating an independent dancing mentality that’s saying they don’t need either person to accomplish the move which is so wrong it’s frustrating.

  7. says: salsaboy

    Preach boi preach. I’ve been dancing salsa for years… and you do not learn in class. You are taught in class, and learn on the dance floor.

    Secondly, fellas, the best way to learn how to lead is to stop dancing with women who wont let you. Booom! Let me state it another way. When you are dancing with a woman who you notice keeps back leading kindly, after the song is over, thank her for the dance, and don’t dance with her any more that night. At least in the beginning stages of learning. Yes. If sounds very harsh but it’s the only way you can learn. It’s like a relationship. You pick the right partner as opposed to trying to make someone into something. There are plenty of women out there who are ready, willing, and able to follow a guys lead. Find them, learn with them, dance with them.

    1. says: Shubhojit Roy

      so true!! I must admit I have done that few times as well (but that is after having danced salsa for couple of years).
      Slightly experienced dancers when dancing with a beginner always try to back lead, sometimes to show off, sometimes to teach or sometimes just to learn the new routine for themselves as quick as possible. This badly kills the confidence of the beginner dancer (lead) and not to mention leading ability for that move as well.
      In such situations where I get strong back-leading (even after mentioning about it to them politely) I mostly try to get to the next dancer as soon as possible 😉

  8. says: Penelope Gordon

    In classes, some leaders compound the problem by chiding followers for not back-leading: rather than accepting responsibility for insufficient leads, those leaders vocally blame the followers for not dancing the proscribed choreography. Regardless of your role (leader or follower) in a group class, if you don’t care for your partner’s dancing, then smile placidly and wait for the next rotate. (The possible exception being someone whose actions are physically or emotionally discomfiting.) As warranted, ask the instructor for clarification in an impersonal fashion. For example, a leader might ask “What other moves could be led from this setup?” And a follower might ask “What sort of prep and when should I expect to get for this move on the (social) dance floor?” Encourage the instructor to not just teach routines – and vote with your wallet if the instructor isn’t open to more constructive teaching. If your focus is on learning patterns, then take classes with a partner and don’t rotate.

    Instructors: If your focus is teaching social dancing, then remind leaders to lead (with appropriate preps) and followers to (proactively) follow; and teach technique including how to fit moves to the music – for both roles. Use drills instead of routines to access students’ muscle memory and to readily spot problems. Teach choreographing on the fly – for both roles – rather than how to dance your choreography.

    1. says: Roger S


      Your approach makes a lot of sense.
      Its cites various adaptive approaches to the various aspects of the overall problem. And, takes into account various training environments, as well as different possible participant configurations.

      A good approach (and mindset) for training both the trainer and the trainee.

  9. says: John Hammersley

    Whilst I get what you’re saying here (and we’ve all experienced it), I’m not sure stopping mid-pattern in a class and embarrassing your follower is the right approach. I know plenty of leaders (and I’ve been one of them) who is glad to have some help during a class in order to learn the move! Embarrassing followers seems like it will only encourage them to leave it all up to the leaders, which isn’t helpful either!

    Whenever I find someone back-leading in a class, if it’s a move I’m comfortable with, I’ll make sure to ask the follower for a dance during the social afterwards to try it out. If I get chance, I’ll lead both the move we learnt and a slight variation which I hopefully still lead them through but which causes us both to smile at each other as we both appreciate what we’ve just accomplished together smile emoticon

    1. I would never embarrass someone in class, that’s no way to behave with people all trying to achieve the same thing. I was very subtle and polite when I asked her and no one else was aware of it. Subtlety pays off.

      1. says: John Hammersley

        Sorry I didn’t mean to imply you made a big scene of it, but what I meant was that that follower may now feel embarrassed (internally), and so might not help out someone else who perhaps hasn’t mastered the move yet and who could do with some help!

  10. says: Brendan Murphy

    I’d disagree on courses as opposed to drop-in. I think that if you can get people signed up for and actually attending a run of 4, 6 or more weeks *every week*, the overall development of their ability is much better than drop-in classes where the dynamic often shifts to simply entertaining people for an hour – theres no consequences for them if they dont learn that week as the next week is often something completely different. Having it as a course, allows referring back to and repeating patterns/movements from the previous week, or the addition of some small general leading/following advice each week – and referral back to same in subsequent weeks for re-enforcement.
    Additionally – those that are there week after week are more likely to get to know one another, or at least feel a little more comfortable around each other – leading to increased likelyhood of them practicing at the end or hanging on together for social dance time.

    This is one of the reasons I think learning through Rueda, as Cuban is often done, is , if beginners are shown their basics well, such a great way of developping people into at least good Improvers level dancers as the earlier core moves are constantly re-used – keeping them fresh in dancers minds, and, getting the dancers used to the continous flow of dancing – not just doing one pattern, resetting, and doing the same pattern.
    A little individual couples-based time during class is essential also, to encourage leads to learn to think on their feet (so to speak) and follows to get the realisation that they wont know whats coming – all without the sometimes threatening feel of a real social dancefloor as a beginner.

  11. says: Bernie Morrison

    In my experience places like Barcelona are particularly bad for this due to the way classes are laid out. People usually sign up for a course of classes, and then they learn routines over a number of weeks. I think this is a inefficient and tedious way to learn, as it promotes who can remember the next sequence as opposed to useful social skills. Not, a criticism of Barcelona as i loved going dancing there, just of the way classes are structured.

    1. Hey Bernie, what alternative is there to courses, just out of curiosity? I’m just curious because Brendan makes a pretty good point below about their validity. I’ll agree, that a course will never make a social dancer, that takes practice and time on the dance floor.
      BTW, see ya back home in September, it’s been over a year 😀

      1. says: Bernie Morrison

        It’ll be good to see you come September! Those years fly by!!
        Drop ins are the alternative to courses. Or courses where they do different sequences every week. Repeating moves is great, learning long sequences not so, i reckon. I’d consider any sequence that takes longer then your average phrase in a salsa song is too long, because then to use it in social dancing would mean you are ignoring the phrases of the music (so it will look like you are not connecting with the music).

        There is no fixed length to a phrase in a salsa song, however they usually are around 4 dancers bars (i.e. 8 musical bars). The mood can change considerably between phrases of salsa songs too, so it’s best not to have one sequence to overlap them.

        Courses which are building towards a performance do have some benefits to them though.

        1. I agree with you completely on that one Bernie. A lot of teachers these days are creating overly long sequences that verge on mini-choreos for the sake of eating up the hour of class. More focus on accurate execution of individual moves would be a big step in the right direction.

  12. says: Mark

    And here’s note to instructors: Tell the followers that if the leader doesn’t lead the move, don’t go!
    And one more note to instructors: Actually teach the leaders to LEAD, rather than simply mimic turn patterns. That means more emphasis on frame, connection, listening to the music and interpreting it through movement, clear arm and hand signals rather than simply waving them around like a mock conductor. I’ve noticed a clear deterioration in the ability for people to actually dance rather than count out patterns learned in a studio (and I have hosted a weekly social for 10 years, so this observation has been made over time).
    I’ve had many partners who have said to me, “I don’t know that pattern” when I’ve led them into something they’ve unsuccessfully attempted to anticipate and back-lead. I then tell them just to follow and don’t worry about the pattern. With that “permission” to follow, I lead them into all sorts of fun things that they’ve never done before, and we both have a great dance. (And this applies to other lead-follow styles too!)

    1. Absolutely. That’s why I emphasized that classes need good teachers who can teach well. The fact that quite a few teachers get away with getting their students to simple “mimic turn patterns” is a problem that deserves a long article all to itself.
      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  13. says: Carlos

    When I realize girls are back leading in class, I just change the move and enjoy their WTF look muahhahahahahahahhaah

  14. says: Brendan Murphy

    Stop back-leading, make/let the men look stupid – women have enjoyed this since the dawn of time, why stop on the dancefloor?!

      1. says: Brendan Murphy

        Exactly my point. Nobody likes looking stupid. Its harsh, but good motivation.
        If you dont truly learn to lead the move, and the follow doesnt learn to follow, neither of you will execute such moves on the social dancefloor… defeating the purpose of being there…

    1. says: Maria

      Sometimes I have to back lead, especially when the lead is not dancing on beat to the music, what should I do in that case?

      1. says: Bryan

        A good tip is to “lead” him back on beat and then start following again. Always try to follow, but if he’s off beat you should stay on

      2. Bryan makes a good point below, slowly leading him back onto beat is one option but it’s particularly difficult amongst beginners who haven’t learned how to catch the beat easily. Another option more suitable for social dancing is to break away for a quick shine and make sure that your timing can be seen.