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Sometimes You Follow

Updated: Jan 11

After a couple of months taking ballroom dance lessons, I have come to a surprising realization. The hardest part for me has not been the steps or the rhythm as I had expected. Those have been coming fairly naturally. As it turns out, the thing I have found most challenging is learning how to follow.

My life has unfolded in many ways that have forced me to develop leadership skills and a strong personality. I am a single mother of 9 children. Motherhood by its very nature involves leading and training, but when you are raising a family alone that amplifies. You are the only one in charge and carrying the responsibility for managing the schedules, maintaining financial stability and nurturing the household. The weight is often heavy, but the longer you do it the more resilient you become. I've worked multiple jobs for several years too (common for single moms) including running my own businesses, which while exhausting, has made me pretty tough and capable. I have also faced some significant personal challenges that have forged the fire of fortitude within me as I healed from them. Pain first breaks you, then can instill power in your spirit if you allow it to. I would not for one moment ever give up an ounce of the strength life has taught me. It was hard won, and an integral part of the woman I am today. I encourage an independent mindset in my children too.

I think many of us have similar stories. Power and leadership are praised in society, so we are groomed from an early age to strive for them. But there are some lessons I am learning on the ballroom floor that are making sense to me in other aspects of my life as well. I'd like to share them with you.

In dance, sometimes you follow. This can be an uncomfortable reality for those of us used to usually being in the lead. But if both partners try to lead at the same time it becomes less like a dance, and more like two people pushing and dragging each other around the floor. Toes get stepped on, and grace gets lost in the struggle of it. In life too, it is important to know when to let go of control and follow someone else's lead. We don't always have to be the boss. We aren't experts on every topic or in every situation. Think of all we can learn from others if we humbly acknowledge their expertise and let them teach us. New perspectives, methods and styles we may never have discovered on our own. Some we may keep, others will not feel right and we may discard them, but still the experience will inform and shape us. The most successful people study and learn from mentors, following what they do and absorbing what they know. Your ability to learn, grow and expand will multiply to the degree you acknowledge that you don't already know everything. Learning to follow can actually increase your ability to effectively lead.

Following is not weak, and not entirely passive. To allow the leader to control the movements, the follower must remain actively engaged and hold a strong frame. This creates the tension necessary for the dancers to be guided and feel each other's rhythm and intent. Even though one is leading and the other following, both maintain and exchange energy throughout the dance. In our daily lives as well following doesn't mean checking out and doing nothing. It means actually following. Participating and trying out the things being demonstrated. Understanding that teamwork requires effort on the part of all of the members. Supporting the direction of the leader to encourage someone else to shine. Bringing all of your knowledge and skill to the job even if you are not the one currently in the spotlight.

Sometimes we operate under the assumption that leadership equals glory and followers are somehow diminished in that role. Not necessarily so. A good leader knows that their job is actually to help everyone else succeed. If you watch a polished ballroom dance couple, you'll notice that your eyes are almost always on the follower. When you don't have to expend energy on directing the steps, it frees you up to focus on the beauty and styling of the dance. There is immense creativity and joy to be found in the follower position. An art and artistry made possible by the support of a trusted leader.

But what if our dance partner is not very good? What if we know the steps better, and they are doing them completely wrong? There may be times when gentle teaching is in order. Leader and follower are not hard and fast roles that never change. But it is not always necessary to correct others, even when we know better. Remember that leaders are learning how to be leaders too, and it is gracious and kind to give them the space to grow without criticism. Dancing and life can be fun even when they are imperfect. Sometimes you can just dance for the joy of it.

Let me be clear. This is not meant in any way as an anti-feminist statement suggesting that women should always be the followers, even though in ballroom dance that is typically the case. I am a huge fan of strong and powerful women spreading their wings and flying in every aspect of life. I aim to be one myself. But I am finding a new kind of softness and beauty in also learning to sometimes allow myself to be led. To be free to simply breathe, move to the music of life and enjoy the dance.

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