Leaders Can Learn A Lot From Salsa Dancers

Nicole R. Smith
6 min readMar 1, 2023

An Article Inspired by Monica Jasso

Salsa dancing (in my opinion) is one of the most intriguing dances on the planet. I grew up dancing salsa with my father and had no idea the lessons I was learning about leadership, teamwork and communication. I was just having fun!

Nicole R. Smith Dancing With Her Father

If you have watched really good dancers (like my daddy…the smooth operator that he is), they make it look so easy! Well, like anything else, it comes with a lot of practice…and a lot of communication. You see, salsa dancing is the epitome of communication on display.

When salsa dancing, there is a designated leader and a designated follower. They both have an important role and they both have to execute their respective roles well for the dance to flow seamlessly. When the communication is mastered by both parties, it results in what looks like an easy flowing dance between two people gliding across the dance floor.

Lesson 1. Leadership is about communication. The lead is the person who guides the other across the floor. They are responsible for making sure the person they are leading feels comfortable and stays out of harms way on the dance floor. Based upon how they are leading (communicating), the follow learns to trust the lead enough to make the decisions on the floor, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it, because the lead can see the big picture.

Leads communicate with the follow nonverbally (mostly because it just to loud on the dance floor and it looks weird giving directions on the floor if you aren’t teaching). How well the dance flows is a matter of how effective their communication is. It may seem like just a flick of the wrist or a gentle, almost unnoticeable nudge of the arm, but these moves, albeit so minuscule, are monumental to the dance progressing smoothly. If they don’t communicate accurately, succinctly or timely, the couple will mess up. If there is a cross in the signals and they get off track, no big deal…they adjust, just pick up where they are and keep moving.

Lesson 2. People are watching how you lead. The pairing. Often the lead chooses a partner to dance with. In all my years of dancing though, what I have found, is that often the follows are watching the leaders lead other dancers from the sidelines. If the lead is a great communicator, they can dance with anyone in that room and their dance card is full all night. People will be waiting anxiously for a lead to come over and ask them to dance. As a matter of fact, sometimes, before the lead can even ask, when one dance is finished, another follow has already approached hoping to grab the lead before someone else because there are no words to describe just how fun and great a dance feels when someone knows how to lead on the dance floor! However, if “follows” have watched how someone lead others poorly….the longer the night goes, the more difficult it is for that particular lead to find a dance partner because not only will “follows” decline, they almost scatter to avoid being asked to dance.

Lesson 3. A leader is only as strong as those they lead. One of the most important aspects that people fail to realize about salsa dancing is that for a really good dance to be executed, the lead has to have a strong follow. If the lead is constantly giving directions and the follow isn’t paying attention or ignoring the signals given, the dance won’t go well. That is why (as mentioned in lesson two) people tend to watch a lead throughout the night. A follow can tell if the person leading has a weak follow or not; a it takes one to know one type of situation. So, you have heard the saying, “it takes two to tango” well it takes two to salsa well too. It is a constant give and take, constant communication for both the LEAD and the FOLLOW for it to go well.

Lesson 4: The job of the lead is to amplify the follow: If the lead spends too much time showboating and bringing attention to themselves, people will lose interest. The lead’s main job is to guide the follow and “show them off” so to speak; to display them and show off how wonderful they are. Follows don’t want to engage(and often won’t) with someone who is only concerned about how good they make themselves look on the dance floor.

Lesson 5: Be careful and aware of who you choose to be on your team. Another thing you often see on the dance floor is a follow who wants to lead. Simply put, in order for the dance to work, you just simply can’t have two leaders. One person has to give the instructions and the other has to follow the instructions, and trust the lead enough to believe they know what they are doing. You will hear the term “back-lead” often. This is the person who has their own thoughts / ideas on when they should turn dip etc. and is often trying to show off, OR make up for the fact that the person they are dancing with is a weak lead. This can be very frustrating for the lead.

Once the decision has been made regarding who is leading and who is following, it is important that people fulfill their roles for that dance in order for it to go well. Most importanlty, and this can be difficult especially if the lead is weak, one must allow the lead to finish leading the dance even if it is terrible. How else is the lead going to learn to communicate better if the follow just does it for them? The follow must still respect the lead’s position on the dance floor. When the dance is over, the follow can run like H.E. double hockey sticks and find a new dance partner, but must never disrespect the lead on the floor. Note: If you tend to back-lead, let the leader learn. Allow the person to fail or mess up. The only way they can learn to lead better is by learning from their mistakes.

On the other hand, beware of a weak leader. Some like a back-leader because they allow the follow to do all the work and they (the lead) still gets credit for making the dance look good.

All of this to say that in order for a team to work well, communication is vital and there has to be a little give and take. Like Monica Jasso said in our last podcast episode, “you have to be able to know how to follow just as well as how to lead.” You have to know when to take the lead and when to let others lead the way. This is a great sign of a true leader.


Nicole R. Smith Dancing with Her Father

Nicole (@nicolersmithnet) is a Panamanian-American, workforce development specialist, dancer, motivational speaker and published author of Game On! Relentlessly Pursue Your Dreams and the 101 Affirmations Journal Series. She attended Oral Roberts University on a Division I full-ride track scholarship. After graduating, she founded Step It Up! Inc., a non-profit dance organization. Her experience in sports and entertainment, radio, TV, the performing arts and social services has spanned nearly 20 years covering the Chicago, Houston, Miami and Orlando markets. She has danced and cheered for four Professional and Semi-Professional sports teams, has prepared more than 800 interns to enter the workforce and has inspired crowds upwards of 2000. She received the Emerging Leaders ALIVE Impact Award for Volunteer Administrators, was listed as one of WLRN’s “Local Women Who Inspire You” , was selected as one of Legacy Miami’s MOST PROMINENT AND INFLUENTIAL BLACK WOMEN IN BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY OF 2019 and awarded the Amplifying Voices awards from United Latinas. She sits on the Board of the Association of Leaders In Volunteer Management and Ageless Chic Magazine.




Nicole R. Smith

Nicole is a Panamanian-American, single mom, workforce development specialist, published author, dancer, and motivational speaker. Her experience spans 20 yrs.