Learning to Let Your Ballroom Partner Take the Lead
When former ballet dancer Kayci Treu first joined the ballroom team at Brigham Young University, her coaches would often reprimand her for "backleading," or performing steps without waiting for cues from her partner. The Vaganova-trained dancer had done her fair share of ballet pas de deux—but, as she explains, "that's about a ballerina being supported by her cavalier or prince. Ballroom is more symbiotic. The heart of ballroom is the two-person connection—a man and a woman working together."
In the ballroom world, the role of "leader" typically falls to the male partner, while the female dancer is the "follower." But if you're a woman trained in a style like ballet or jazz, where you're in command of your performance at all times—or if you're just a type-A person—it can be challenging to relinquish control. We asked Treu and veteran "Dancing With the Stars" pro Ashly DelGrosso-Costa to offer tips to help you get out of your head and move in sync with your partner.
Know the Importance of Your Role
Any feminist might initially bristle at the idea of "following" a man, but don't get psyched out. Ballroom partnerships are equal partnerships: A strong leader won't perform well unless he's working with a nimble follower who can pick up on his subtle physical cues. "It's not about one person controlling the other," explains Treu. "I'm responsible for my own body and my own movement." As a follower, it's up to her to respond appropriately by completing the movement whenever her partner invites her to a step.
One way to gain appreciation for both sides of the partnership is to step into your partner's shoes. DelGrosso-Costa says that occasionally switching roles in rehearsal can help each of you better understand the unique challenges the other faces, so that you can anticipate each other's needs in the future.
Ashly DelGrosso-Costa (here with Jared Murillo) suggests occasionally switching roles with your partner in rehearsal. (courtesy Ashly DelGrosso-Costa)
Ballroom is inherently social—it takes two to tango!—so you have to truly connect to your partner to do it well. You need to be comfortable enough to look your partner in the eye and respond to his touch, since he won't be able to give you verbal instructions on the dance floor. For newer ballroom dancers, "it's sometimes a struggle to be with the other dancer in the moment," DelGrosso-Costa says. While real trust and comfort builds over time, be sure to at least break the ice with a new partner by introducing yourself and chatting with him a bit before you get dancing.
Improve Your "Listening" Skills
Seasoned ballroom dancers can perform well with almost any partner because they're masterful tactile listeners. Each leader has his own "voice" or communication style, and a good follower can decipher the subtle meaning behind a certain glance of an eye, squeeze of the hand or shift in weight. When Treu was starting out, she went to tons of social-dance clubs so that she could work with a wide variety of partners and figure out their different ways of communicating with their bodies. DelGrosso-Costa says you can also enhance your ability to pick up on physical cues by practicing (very carefully) with your eyes closed in the studio.
A version of this story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Follow Like a Boss."
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
If you've ever seen a Janelle Ginestra class video, you know how lit her combos are. What you don't see in those clips is how devoted Ginestra is to her students. We went behind the scenes at one of her sold-out IMMA SPACE classes to see Ginestra in her element, mentoring some of L.A.'s most talented dancers. It was an inspiration feedback loop.
All photos by Joe Toreno.
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured!
I love ballet, and I've been told that I have a lot of potential. I can see myself dancing professionally one day. But I'm also working toward my black belt in karate—and I'm passionate about that, too. How can I keep up my technique while also making time for the other things I love? Is that even possible?
What do you get when you combine a Beyoncé anthem, fierce girls from all over the world, and choreography by legends like Ellenore Scott and Lamar Lee? You get the epic music video below. The viral video features little girls who live everywhere from Tanzania to Washington D.C. dancing and lip-syncing to Queen Bey's song "Freedom," and the result is electrifying. These littles can dance—and they bring a determination and enthusiasm to their movement that's truly inspiring.