Learning to Dance: Making Good Political Leaders and Followers

To some, dancing comes naturally and can be self-taught; most of us require lessons. Dancing becomes a lifelong passion for many. Politics, in many ways, is also a dance, and understanding how to participate requires effort, but can be similarly rewarding.

Learning to lead and follow, to maintain balance, and to keep one’s frame and posture are all necessary elements of both domains. A political leader must navigate obstacles — floorcraft is the dance term — while continuing to glide seamlessly forward. The dance follower must also know the steps, just as an informed electorate is the root of a successful democracy.

Positions, timing, connection, spin: the similarities abound. Both politics and dance are about freedom of expression and the advancement of an art form.

Over one million people actively participate in dance. Tens of millions more watch TV shows such as Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. At the same time, they all — dancers and viewers alike — participate in politics.

Learning to dance is based on levels: bronze, silver and gold. It begins with foundation training, followed by a well-defined progression toward more advanced levels based on mastery of steps and movements. The goals may be purely social or to perform highly skilled displays of poise and grace. In politics, most elected officials begin at the local level, garnering the experience, exposure, and confidence to advance to the state level and then, finally, to perform on the national stage. The objectives and motivations of politicians also vary widely.

Ballroom dance can be pleasant to watch, but as a participatory pastime, it requires a cooperative effort. Politics is also not usually a solo experience. Success in the political realm requires a team effort — we call it bipartisanship. Unfortunately, it’s a concept not practiced today as often as we’d like to see.

We all know it takes two to tango. A dancer maintains a connection with his or her partner. Handholds, body movements, and visual cues all contribute to this. This connection is subtle, yet critical, in terms of conveying intentions, and the actions and reactions which follow. Political leaders must also strive to maintain strong communication with one’s constituents. This connection between public opinion and policy is at the root of a democratic society.

Sometimes it is difficult to see who is leading and who is following. In dance, there is the concept of “backleading,” a somewhat frowned-upon practice in the dance world. However there are always some exceptions, notably to avoid collision. Does a politician lead or follow? Are they elected to represent the interests of their constituents by serving according to voter preferences, or allowed discretion to act in a manner they think is in the public interest? In a representative government, such as we have in America, the latter prevails.

Does a politician lead or follow?

Dancing, in this sense, is not always an exercise in democracy. The leader leads by his or her own preference; the follower must obey. However, the follower is not without recourse; one can dismiss a partner and find a new, more compatible leader. Under the most extreme circumstances in politics, impeachment is an option. On Dancing With The Stars, those without popular appeal are voted out by the audience. In politics, that’s usually the role of the electorate.

In dance, timing is everything. Music has a rhythm and a beat. A dancer follows the beat, as a politician follows the beat of public opinion. Even off-beat timing can seem a natural rhythm — this is the skill of applying syncopation. Frank Sinatra was a master in his flawless handling of the syncopated beat. A politician needs to handle irregularity in the same way. Not everything a leader faces will be predictable, and the skill by which one responds to the syncopated rhythms of political life can lead to ultimate success or failure in a public career.

Positions are constantly changing in dance: from closed to open to side-by-side to parallel; from breaks to turns, reverse turns, and spins. In dance, an advanced spin can be sensational, a real crowd pleaser. Changing positions in politics can be problematic, but the art of the spin is invaluable to success. Recovery with a good sound bite is worth its weight in gold. In dance, we all know the maxim: “It’s not a mistake, it’s a variation.”

Many regions and countries have their own unique dances, which international dancers strive to learn. The Latin American region has the Rumba, Cha-cha-cha, and Mambo from Cuba, the Samba from Brazil, and the Argentine Tango. Europe has the Viennese Waltz, the Bolero and Paso Doblé from Spain, and a wide variety of folk dances from England, Germany, Poland and more. On the domestic front, we have Swing (West and East Coast varieties), Foxtrot, Jive, Hustle, among many others. Americans have even claimed their own particular styles of dances with international roots. America is, after all, a true melting pot.

Politicians also need to be skilled in areas of both foreign and domestic origin. Some issues, like immigration reform, transcend both foreign and domestic policy.

American dancer Martha Graham once said: “Great dancers are not great because of their technique; they are great because of their passion.” How true this is in politics. As the French playwright Moliere wrote:

“All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.”

As any dancer knows, we can all benefit from learning to dance. Politicians in particular will find dancing skills invaluable in their careers. It will help them navigate obstacles, master their timing, and become effective communicators.

Likewise, dancers, and all of us, should strive to understand politics from a different vantage point. Remember that it is harder than it looks. It takes time to master and mistakes will be made even by the most trusted and respected leaders. In both dance and politics, much of the enjoyment is in the learning process. They are both about shared experiences and understanding how to adapt, remain upright, and move forward.

Keep practicing.

Additional note about the author: I live, write, and dance, in Natick, Massachusetts.