What is the most important element of ballroom dance for a beginner? To me, it is building communication between the leader and the follower. If you focus on leading from your center and communicating your movement to the follower--even if it is "wrong"--both people get to move together, to dance!
The leader's role is to make the follower feel secure, communicate moves to the follower, navigate without collisions, dance with the music, and decide what steps to do. That's a lot to do at the same time. However, if you concentrate on moving from your center, the follower can stay with you. Because you are making your movement requests clear, the follower feels more sure/secure, and allows you more control over the steps. Moving from your center allows you to stay more balanced, helping to avoid collisions and allowing you to move with the music more easily.
The follower's role is to give the leader energy, while following the lead (pretty obvious). The follower's role has fewer elements to juggle, but it is still not easy to follow. First, many people find it difficult to give up control, let the other person determine the course, and trust that all will be well. Second, in a beginning class, all the people leading are new at leading and so require more attention on the part of the follower to understand what steps need to happen.
I make my students try both roles in order to better understand the structure of the dance. Also, understanding the role of the other dancer makes most dancers more sympathetic when difficulties arise: each person knows that both roles present challenges, and can help each other with technique, steps, and keeping the dance together.
I try to balance my games/exercises to improve couple dancing in general, with steps :-) We are starting with a traveling dance (foxtrot) to get used to moving around the space; and rumba, a mostly stationery dance, to practice holding a space on the floor.
Foxtrot has two rhythms in the dance: slow, slow, quick, quick (SSQQ)--6 counts--and slow-quick-quick (SQQ)--8 counts. We started with the 6-count steps, practicing traveling around the room.
- Basic (SSQQ rhythm): Leader (Ld) starts forward (fd) on the left (L), fd on R, and steps side together (sd tog) on LR; Follower (Fl) starts back (bk) on R, bk on L, and sd tog (RL).
- Hesitation (SSQQ rhythm): Ld steps fd on L, bk on R, sd tog (LR); Fl: bk on R, fd on L, sd tog (RL). Turn counter-clockwise (CW) to rotate the step.
Rumba has an 8-count rhythm (QQS, QQS--or SQQ SQQ; as I explained in class, I am of the QQS school), and the steps are built off box steps.
- Basic turning box (QQSQQS): Ld steps sd with L, tog with R, and fd with L; again side step to R, step tog with L, and step bk with R; Fl steps sd with R, tog with L, bk with R; and side with L, tog with R, and fd with L to complete the box.
- Long underarm turn (QQSQQS): The turn is completed using the time of an entire box, 8 counts. On the Ld's bk step, the Ld raises the left arm, starting to signal a turn. As a new box starts, the Fl moves under the raised arm to start a 6-step, 8-count circle. The Fl's circle and the Ld's box resolve at the same time. (Note: we didn't get to finish the finer points of this yet. This week, we'll make the turn look great).