I recently struck another item off my 30 before 30 list, completing a salsa class at my local dance studio. The merengue, bachata, and salsa were as physically demanding as they were intellectually challenging (I’m still wondering how I suddenly lost the capacity to tell my left from my right side).
What impressed me the most in each of my Wednesday night classes was not the amazingly coordinated and fit instructors, or even how physically demanding following a 1-2-3 and 5-6-7 step pattern might be. Perhaps my ‘Student Affairs brain’ just doesn’t turn off, but it was impossible for me to walk away without a few leadership lessons in mind. The simplest step, it seems, can create the most complex dance.
Learning to ‘follow the leader’ was, without question, the hardest lesson for me to learn. Identifying as female in the class meant I was to ‘follow’ the lead of my male partners. To dance well, together, I had to learn to anticipate where he would lead me but also to wait for him to tell me where to go. For most of us, this isn’t easy. For me, it was nearly impossible.
What challenged me the most was, ultimately, two things. My lack of patience and my desire to get it right – the first time. With each step, I was undoing my hard taught instincts to jump in, lead, and be the first to get where we were going. We had a mutually agreed upon goal (a completed, well-executed dance step) and the means to get there, but I had to learn to travel (across the room or down life’s path) together.
This experience completely disrupted my ideas around ‘leading’ and ‘following’. We often exult the leadership role, defining it, in part, by the collection of followers. To be a leader, there must be someone behind us. To follow, we must wait to be told what to do and where to go.
In salsa, the ‘follower’ is right next to us (sometimes uncomfortably close, but that’s another hilarious story). They trust us to take the lead, but they also must also follow the same choreography (albeit backwards) to create a beautiful, well timed dance. We, in turn, must not blindly force them through their steps but instead create a space where we show where they should go and, very often, move out of the way so they can get there. Followers won’t step on our toes if we move out of their way so they can dance too.
A follower must be just as, if not more, patient than the leader, allowing them to decide on their next step while continuing to keep the rhythm. The follower trusts the leader to lead them, but the leader must gain that trust. They must be prepared with a choreographed plan and coordinated in its execution.
It wasn’t enough to know how to do a righthand turn, or to master the basic three count step. I had to learn a far more important lesson in salsa class – trust in myself as a follower is just as important as trusting myself as a leader. The dance is not a solo performance, and there is no real ‘leader’. The skill involved in anticipating, supporting, and matching someone in pace and progress is every bit as valuable as someone who sets the tone. In leadership, and life, a well choreographed dance can create a beautiful show.