The ladies biggest challenge in Ballroom Dancing is being able to follow. On the surface this doesn't seem to be a big deal. The assumption is that there is only "one" lead. "WRONG" The lady has to deal with everything from "Pattern Dancers" to "no lead" to "great leads" and everything in between. There can also be different styles of each dance. The best way for a lady to deal with this large variation in leads, is to be the best trained dancer possible.
The "Pattern Dancer" is a dancer that usually takes only group lessons. This means he learns a lot of foot patterns but doesn't know how to lead. Only learning foot patterns is not leading or following. If the lady he is dancing with, learned the same patterns, then it will work OK. Both dancers are walking through patterns with each other, but there is little, if any leading going on. The same patterns learned from different group classes or different instructors may not be the same. The lady can only guess what to do and try to not get hurt when dancing with a "Pattern Dancer" or non-leader.
Exactly what is the lead? Many men think that the lead is just the "frame". The lead is much more than that. The lead is really a whole body action (a two-headed four-legged body). The way a four-legged animal moves is very different than the way a two-legged animal moves. Four-legged movement is the goal. There are four-legged rules for movement just as there are rules for two-legged movement. There are many parts to "The Four-Legged Lead". Here are a few:
The man may use ALL or SOME or NONE of the above. This puts the lady in a tough position. The lady can only follow as well as the man leads. The primary goal of the leader is to create an environment (lead) such that the lady has only one course of action. The man with the correct lead should be able to lead the lady (a trained dancer) through a pattern that she has never danced before. Ladies, do not ever apologize for not being able to follow. If the man doesn't lead, you can't follow.
As mentioned above, there are several different "styles" for many dances. The man knows what "style" of the dance he is going to lead (he usually only knows one style). The lady has to adapt to what ever "style" is lead. The "West Coast Swing", for example, has several different "styles" that can be lead. The "style" of the dance, should not matter to the lady if it is lead correctly.
"What is a girl to do?" The lady should become the best trained dancer possible. This will give her the best opportunity to be able to dance with anyone of any degree of lead. Once the lady knows how and where the lead comes from and what it feels like, she will be able to participate in any and all parts of what is lead. The lead for the man evolves over time. The lady has to be able follow whatever lead the man has developed at this point in his dancing.
The ladies first goal when asked to dance is to determine if the man is a "Pattern Dancer" or is he actually trying to "lead". Most men are somewhere in-between. If he is a "Pattern Dancer", try to guess the best you can as to what he is trying to get you to do. If he has any semblance of a "lead" do your best to feel what to do and try not to anticipate the lead. As you encounter men with more developed "leads", you will get a better understanding of your ability to follow based on the level of "lead". Remember, there is no wrong in dancing, just better. Some times you can have just as much fun when you mess up than when you do it right. Don't take it serious, just enjoy the moment. Somewhere along the line you will find that moment when the "lead" and "follow" is perfect and then you will experience the feeling that all Ballroom Dancers are seeking.
The art of leading and following cannot be learned in group classes or from video tapes. There is too much going on between the steps that it can't be taught in a group class and video tapes don't even talk about it. The lady dances one step at a time, what she can feel (not what she knows). Private lessons are the best way (maybe the only way) to learn both the lead and follow. I personally don't like the term "Lead and Follow". In actual practice it is more like the man leads and the lady participates in the lead, enhances the lead, powers the lead, etc." It is the responsibility of the lady to become the best trained dancer possible. The better trained she is, the more successful her dancing will be with all partners.