Looking at the traditional role of men as the “leaders” and women as the “followers” of the dance, how much freedom does the follower have within the framework of a given dance style to express the music and add her own interpretation?
The point I'm trying to get across is that the follower's role is not a passive one. I personally think that there is a subtle difference between simply following what is lead as opposed to understanding what musical elements (if any) that the leader is trying to express and responding to both the leader and the music. It's the difference between a monologue and a dialogue.
Different dance styles have different philosophies: for example the lead/follow dynamic in Tango is very different to the dynamic in Salsa. However, if the follower is simply following her partner then she is not really dancing because she is not moving in response to the music - she is moving in response to her partner's interpretation of the music.
So, once you reach a certain level of competency in any dance style, the notion that "the leader leads and the follower follows" becomes overly simplistic. There is however a skill to following which is different to leading - how else would you explain that some ladies are easier to lead (lighter on their feet, quicker to respond to your cues...)?
A great leader is one who creates an environment for their partner to feel comfortable, enjoy and express themselves, the same definition goes for a great follower.
Even though partner work is the mainstay of classes, leaders need to incorporate their own styling and give the followers freedom of interpretation. Until that happens, we will never change the 'leaders lead, followers follow' mentality.
Styling is and always will be ancillary to the partner work and should be driven by the music not by a need to look good/sexy/feminine.
There are three elements of a good dance - the leader, the follower and the music - and you won't have a good dance if one of the elements is suppressed. The leader initiates and invites, the follower interprets and 'puts her stamp on it'. We work with and play off each other and the music is what connects us.