Many Ballroom dancers don't have regular partners and it is also a good idea for dance couples to dance with many partners to expand their dance and social experience. This results in dancers of various backgrounds and skill levels dancing together. How does a Ballroom dancer from California dance with a Ballroom dancer from Arizona when you know they haven't taken the same lessons and learned the same patterns, etc?
Ballroom is a "Standardized" dance. This means that what is taught in California is what is taught in Arizona, etc. Standardization was instituted primarily to accommodate competition but it works well for social dancing. For example: a California "Underarm Turn" element is the same as an Arizona "Underarm Turn" element. The patterns may be different from location to location but patterns are just a series of elements strung together. New patterns are just a different sequence of elements. There are, however, two standardized Ballroom styles: American Style and International Style. American Style is the preferred style for social dancing because it is a more open and playful style of dancing.
The man, as the leader, has the better part of this situation because he can lead the elements and patterns that he knows. He doesn't have to figure out what is happening because he is initiating the movements. His primary goal is to be able to lead in such a manner that the lady (follower) can feel what to do. His lead has to allow the lady to move in a very natural manner. The man may do unnatural things so the lady can move naturally. It is very difficult to lead a lady to move in an unnatural manner.
The lady as the follower has to be able to feel what to do because guessing what to do, just doesn't work. She more than likely will not know all of the same patterns as the leader but she will probably know most of the same elements. Patterns are a specific sequence of elements.
The elements in a Rumba "Underarm Turn Pattern" may be:
The elements in a Rumba "5th Position Pattern" may be:
As you can see, the two patterns use some of the same elements but in a different order. The lady must feel and dance element to element and not try to guess what pattern is being led. One of the hardest things for the lady is to give up control and feel what to do, not know what to do. Women that are or were jazz or ballet (solo) dancers are used to knowing what is going to happen next while dancing and now in partnership dancing, you have to feel what to do. It may take some time for the lady to get her head around this concept and change her way of thinking.
Men generally learn and dance from a mechanical point of view. This works well because the man as the leader creates the framework for the partnership and initiates the elements and the geometry that forms a specific pattern. Ladies generally learn and dance from a feeling point of view. This works well also because the follower has to be able to feel what is initiated by the leader.
The man's (leader's) most valuable skill is leading, not knowing a lot of patterns. The man's focus should be on leading in such a manner as to allow the lady to move as naturally as possible and to be able to feel the lady's movement as part of himself. The lady's (follower's) most valuable skill is to be able to feel what is being led and dancing elements not patterns. She should focus on feeling and being a part of the man. Bottom line the man and the lady need to become part of the partnership (the two-headed four-legged animal). The man and the lady should become trained dancers not just dancers.
When a man dances with a lady for the first time he should dance very basic patterns. If that is successful he should add more complex patterns. When the lady starts to falter, he should back off and dance at her level. It has been my experience that if the lady can feel what to do, the man will not be able to dance beyond her capabilities. Very often the ladies following skills are beyond the ability of the man's leading skills.
Ladies, the men you dance with will have varying levels of the ability to lead. It is important that you do not have any pre-conceived notions of the skill level of your partner. Men often allow the lady to take the responsibility for not following when it is actually the man's fault. Many men (primarily social dancers) think that if they can walk through a pattern that they are leading. They really have no concept of what lead and follow is all about. Ninety-five percent of lead and follow problems are a result of a poor or no lead by the man. Ladies, do not ever apologize for not being able to follow. The lady can only dance as well as the man leads.