A few years back, a guy that I worked with convinced me to take Salsa dancing lessons with him. Now, I am not a dancer. Not at all. I am not graceful, I have no rhythm, and I’m SO incredibly self-conscious that I can never get out of my own way. I don’t even know why I agreed to take the classes, but there I was, in a dance studio, learning the steps, and somehow getting through them.
That guy that I went with, he was amazing. He liked to dance, but he was as new to Salsa as I was. We fumbled through it together, but it was his attitude that made it fun and not frustrating. A better dancer may have found him a pushy leader that lacked in finesse, but from where I was at, I appreciated his strong lead and the way he made nothing of my mistakes and strongly helped me get back where I belonged when I missed steps. And the way he laughed when we messed up, the way it was ok to try harder stuff and make mistakes, and when we got messed up, the way he pulled us back together before I could get all self-conscious about my two left feet… he made it a success for both of us.
In the classes, we had to switch partners sometimes, and I found other guys in the class seemed to have even more left feet than I did. Once I knew the steps, I had no problem stepping into the lead and helping them bumble through it. Now, to anyone watching, I’m sure it looked like an awful mess that hardly resembled dancing, and after a few of these dances I was told firmly by the instructor that I was not to lead. I nodded and really did try my best, but when these guys couldn’t figure it out, I couldn’t help myself! If I didn’t lead, we’d have just stood still or tripped over our own feet through the whole song!
So we took the classes, and we practiced in between classes, and I started to get more confident about the whole thing. I started to even feel kinda good about it! Then when we were at a party one night where there was plenty of Salsa music playing, we danced a few times and had a few drinks and it was fun. And then another guy asked me to dance. It was a guy I knew, and a guy I had seen dance. He was an incredible dancer. He was comfortable in his own body, so a part of the music, he looked so effortless and natural.
Well, it was the shock of my life to quickly realize that I could not dance with him at all! We didn’t have that subtle communication, that mutual understanding that I had with my usual dance partner. And he was so light! It’s the only way I can describe it. He didn’t guide me through the dance, he simply expected me to follow! Well, I was lost, and as each of my feeble attempts to keep up resulted in tripping over my own feet, I became so self-conscious of my failures that I couldn’t follow him at all. I looked around desperately for my usual partner, who must have seen what was happening and was right there, ready to provide me the strong, steady lead I needed. And just that quickly, I was back. I knew the steps, I knew the beat, and I could enjoy the moment.
I suppose if my usual partner and I had practiced long enough and taken enough lessons, we would have gotten better. He would have become a “lighter” leader like the other guy I had tried to dance with, and I would have become a better follower that needed less guidance. Before that happened though, we both got busy doing other things and stopped dancing.
It is an interesting experience when I relate the way I felt dancing with the different men to how horses must feel under different riders. In the horse and rider partnership, the rider is supposed to lead, but just like in dancing, the leader should lead in a way that the follower wants to follow. But as I experienced, when the leader doesn’t lead, the follower has to step up or else nothing happens. Most horses seem to understand this idea and readily adapt to either a leader or follower role, depending on which role the rider makes available.
On the other hand, when the leader tries to lead as if the follower has more skill than she does, the follower loses confidence and quickly loses interest, as we see when young, green horses are pushed too quickly and over-faced. But the leader that offers as much leadership as the follower needs, building the followers confidence and making the process of learning fun and successful, makes for a partnership that can progress. So with the horse, we, as riders, need to offer as much leadership as he needs. At the beginning, with a young or green horse, this may be real firm and steady, ready to catch him when he loses balance or trips over his own feet, and ready to laugh off the mistakes and offer encouragement while bumbling through the hard steps, using finesse in the saddle to make up for the horse’s lack of experience. As the horse advances, this same type of leadership will be too strong, and will stifle the beauty of the dance. Earlier on, the “lighter” leader will not offer enough support to the learning horse and the horse may either step up to lead himself (if he deems the leader less knowledgeable than he) or else the horse may lose confidence and quit trying (if he is asked for more than he can do, without enough help, and fails too many times). With experience, the rider can learn to decipher when a horse needs a stronger, more confident leader, and when he is ready for a lighter feel and a little more room for self-expression and self carriage. This is the rider that can take the partnership through the realm of sport and into the realm of art.
It’s a really interesting analogy to me, and I think helps us to feel compassion for our horses. When we think of situations where we have felt what they are feeling, we can understand what they need from us to succeed. And when we provide that, we become a partnership capable of great things!