A lead that is done mostly with the body, as opposed to arms, is almost always far more comfortable and clear. Using the body to lead can also help the leader to dance himself, instead of just moving the follower around.
I do not lead with my arm.
He who leads with his arm has forgotten the face of his father.
I lead with my body.
– Part of the Leader’s Catechism, from Stephen King’s imaginary dance novel.
The body leads in at least three different ways: visually, through body contact, and as the source of a lead done with hand contact. Often, all of these play a role in leading the same movement.
Visual leading means the leader uses his own movement to indicate what the follower should do. This type of leading consists of intuitive visual signals, and often works by mirroring principle, where the follower imitates the leader’s movement. For example, a simple turn can be visually lead by the leader by him showing her his back, as he twists his torso to do an exaggerated preparing movement for a turn. When dancing separated, a body roll can be lead by the leader doing a body roll himself, a sideways movement of the hips by him doing the same movement, and so on. Visual leading often happens before other forms of lead as a pre-movement that prepares the follow for what’s coming next.
Body contact is another way the body is used to lead. One example is dancing the basic step in very close embrace, where leading is mostly not through the frame, but with contact in the front of the body. There may be contact with head, abdomen, hip and thighs, with contact areas changing as necessary for the needs of the movement. Another clear example is the situation where the leader is behind the follower, leading chest isolations using his own chest alone, which is in contact with her upper back.
The third way to lead with the body is to use the arms as an extension of the body. The arm is not something that does the leading on it’s own, even though the contact is through the hand – the lead comes from the body, and the arm transmits it. Disciplines as different as martial arts and horseback riding have long recognized the importance of moving from the center of the body, not the extremities. The center or core of the body connects the arms with the legs and the support of the ground, making the body capable of moving as an integrated whole. It is also the location of the center of gravity of the body when standing upright.
A lead that comes from the center of the body feels very different from a lead that is done with the power of arm muscles – it is smoother and clearer. One reason for this is explained in the article here. When the lead comes from the center, the power is generated with the muscles of the legs and the core of the body. The arm muscles are left free to coordinate the lead and to regulate the power that is transmitted to the follower, making the lead more precise, smooth and comfortable.
In the video above, I use the basic figure yo-yo to show the difference between an arm lead and a body lead. It the second case the contact is through hand, but my body is the source of the lead, and the movement of my chest acts as a visual lead.
These three ways of leading often work together, sometimes all of them working at once. For the clearest leading, use as many of them as you can. It’s also possible for the methods of leading to work against each other – if you’re indicating one thing visually with your body, and leading another thing with your hand, you will confuse the follower.
If you notice you’re using the strength of your arms to lead something, ask why. Could you use your body in a different way? “Arm lead” is a curse word in West Coast Swing. The fundamentals of WCS are in many ways different from those of Brazilian Zouk, but the same principle applies: body lead good, arm lead bad.
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