The aim of this article is to convey the tools, strategy and the know-how of becoming a desirable Salsa social dancer. How to become decent dance partner others look for on the dance floor. 😉 How should you plan and pace your self at night out dancing. What can you do to calm down, when is it time to leave and how should you construct a dance so as to let the “magic moment” evolve with every dance partner?
This article is based on a workshop that we were allowed to give at the Croatian Summer Salsa Festival in Rovinj this weekend, a workshop which again in itself was based on this blog. The organizers of this wonderful festival asked us to teach a long (progressive) workshop, to train the social skills of the dancers. I’d like to summarize the essence of that workshop in this article.
Of course it was also about saving your surrounding dancers from injuries.
One question to you all reading: who doesn’t want to be a desirable dance partner?
The ones who raised their hands now can stop reading here, because they won’t (want to) understand the rest of this article.
But everybody else…please follow me! 🙂
For us, social dancing is about “creating” the best possible (dance) experience for ourselves, our partner AND our dancing environment.
In this article we will discuss the strategy and the mechanics of this process. Later on there will be a 10-step-strategy for creating a smooth Salsa dance!
First of all it’s important to create a good connection with our partner, on more levels than one. People talk about that faaaaar too little in Salsa. Especially compared to other dance styles. Most people get distracted by the sheer number of moves and body movements and start dancing more with themselves than with their partner.
To establish and cultivate this connection, let’s look the analogy.
We want to build a house – THE SALSA HOUSE!
First it needs a plan, a strategy. Then we’ll start with the foundation. Then come the walls, all the installations for electricity, gas, water, the roof and terrace or garden. Then you can start to furnish the house. So far so good…
The foundation – the rhythm
For us the foundation is the rhythm to which we dance Salsa. The famous 123 567 (or any other possibility in other Salsa styles – but at the very least a continuous rhythm that can be described as “short short long, short short long”).
That’s The One Thing, the language, the thing that’s essential for communication in Salsa. That’s the base for words that we “pronounce” in the shape of figures. For most dancers this sounds mundane and self-evident, but often one loses this rhythm during a dance, without noticing it. It just slips away. At some point “maybe” the rhythm might return… Or maybe it won’t at all during this dance.
We should put far more work into automatizing this rhythm, so that we can concentrate on the fun part of Salsa. So that it’s not in our way any more.
This isn’t primarily about steps, it’s more about absorbing the rhythm – the movement of the music – in our whole body.
So if you want to have a stable foundation for your “house” you should look into the Salsa rhythm as soon as possible and “train” it so persistently, until it becomes part of a natural movement.
Listen to Salsa music, move to it at home, during your everyday work, sing along to it and try to dance this rhythm with different parts of your body (shoulders, upper body, hips, feet, etc.).
The walls – essential Salsa elements
The essentials, as I call them, are basic Salsa elements that make up the structure of the dance. It’s the basic turns which most more complex figures build up on. I’ll repeat that last one: Basic turns, THAT THE MORE COMPLEX FIGURES BUILD UP ON.
The means there’s not much point in learning more figures without profound knowledge about the essentials. Osbanis, a fantastic Cuban Salsa instructor, got it spot on:
“One should learn to walk first, before learning to run or to sprint.”
I wrote about the basic structure of each dance in this article and especially about the 10 reasons why they are so essential and what we can gain from internalizing them. Here are a few traits of our dance that become more refined by mastering the structure: routine, security, rhythm, focus on the partner, relaxation in the couple, flow, lead & follow, quality of movement, styling, contrast and variety in spite of simplicity.
Do I need to elaborate further about the importance of essentials? 🙂
The roof – partnering skills
A participant in the workshop meant lead & follow by “partnering skills”. But that is just ONE aspect of partnering skills. Lead and follow is the actual mechanics, the execution of the skills in the joint movement.
The skills I’m talking about, include a whole science of communication and the social interaction of people. Of course only the part that you actually put to use in dancing…
One could write whole books on this topic, not just one blog article…
I will try and keep it as short as possible, even if that isn’t one of my strengths. 🙂
The best method of communication is not speaking, it’s listening.
And hardly anybody does it. Most people are already preparing their answer while the other person is speaking, so that they can speak again themselves. Most people like listening to themselves speak. I’m part of most people, by the way. 🙂
I’m not proud of it and I’m working on it.
And you? Do you do that too? Be honest with yourself, I was just honest with myself too. 😉
That means we have to listen to our dance partner to get to know them. To see how he or she moves, how they react, what’s the lead like, what is their touch like, what level is their dancing on?
Osbanis had another great comparison, that made us all laugh:
A doctor needs to put himself into his patient’s position too, needs to listen to them to find out what they need, to give the right diagnosis. He doesn’t have the same shot for everybody that he prepares beforehand and then injects into all of his patients, no matter what their illness is.
Somebody with good partnering skills can also put himself in his partner’s position and can feel how he or she moves, so as to adapt his own movements to his partner’s. Or to compliment him or her. To bring out his or her strengths and brush over possible weaknesses, or to prevent highlighting them.
So that both can profit from it.
In social dancing there is no “Universal Shot“, that you can use on every partner.
Everybody is unique in their own movements and you should try and act on these so as to give that magic moment dance a chance. That way we grow as dancers and also in our own personalities.
As much as everybody loves to speak, we also love it, when somebody listens to us, right? 😉
One should just observe each other really closely when you dance. Look at each other. Now and then even look into your partner’s eyes, but not too often, that might be creepy. 🙂
With a smile you can show each other that you’re enjoying it. You can show your partner that you know he or she is a living being with emotions and not an object with extremities, that one can use as handle bars. 🙂
It’s astounding how few people on the Salsa dance floor actually watch each other and react to each other. Most of them just chuck their moves around.
The universal shot, as I said.
The pipes – the musicality
The music flows through our “house” and delivers us the energy and inspiration that allows us to move.
At the beginning of our dancing career it presents itself more as the “Rhythm- delivery service” and one begins by reducing all the wonderful Salsa songs to 123 567. That’s OK at the beginning. One can’t do everything at the same time. At least not at the beginning.
But it’s a shame that many – even if they aren’t beginners any more – still don’t dedicate themselves to the musicality, but just learn more moves. That way the music still stays reduced to 123 567.
There goes the Uni-Shot again.
No matter what character a song has, it is always danced the same way with the same moves. I wonder how people who ignore the musicality don’t get bored.
For me (and for many others too) the music offers so much more that just the basic rhythm. It offers the vibes, the waves, a certain frequency we can ride and surf on until the next wave comes along.
And every wave is at least a little bit different and one has to surf it differently, right?
I have never surfed before in my life, but at the moment I feel like I’d be quite good at it, haha!
I’m fully aware that it’s not easy to get the feeling for Salsa music, especially for us Europeans. But that’s another reason to try and figure it out, don’t you think?
In this article I wrote about my favourite source for Latino music and I gave many tips how to get great (Salsa) music for free.
The furniture – the figures
It might surprise some of you, that the figures are “only” the furniture, but that’s the way we see these things. For somebody else, this analogy might be completely different. That way his or her dancing might also take on a completely different shape.
One thing is clear for us, the (long) figures are not essential for the house to stand, but are very welcome, especially in Salsa.
However, far too many dancers concentrate on furnishing the house before it’s even built properly. That way you might buy the wrong furniture too quickly, that might not even go with the rest of the house. Figuratively speaking of course. 😉
It’s obvious, first you learn to walk, then to run, then to sprint.
Before you begin expanding your repertoire of figures, you should master the essentials first and automatize them, develop a security in the rhythm and then expand your knowledge of the figures. Because that’s what the essentials are made up of. If you’ve only learned the basic structure very superficially and haven’t absorbed it yet, you’re just pouring water into a full glass with every new figure.
The terrace – the styling
A nice terrace or a stunning garden make a house much more attractive and gives a house a nice frame. But you don’t really need it. It’s not essential. It’s an encore.
The styling we add to our Salsa gives us a certain look when dancing, so our “house” gets its own character. So that it doesn’t look like every other house in the neighbourhood. It makes the whole thing original.
The plan – the strategy
It’s not essential. People have built houses without plans before. And we can imagine what came out of it at the end.
I didn’t mention the strategy at the beginning, because it’s here at the end. I wanted to go into all the elements first, so that one can put them to use in the strategy.
What does the strategy look like in a Salsa dance?
- To actually make it all the way to a dance, I need to make a good first impression. I want to look well-groomed and should make sure to not be soaked from non-stop dancing. In this article you can find tips about what to do about annoying sweat stains.
- When asking somebody to dance I try to ask a lady in a friendly and respectful way, without interrupting her conversation or anything else. Even if I really really want to dance with her. 😉
- Then we look for a space on the dance floor, where we won’t disturb anybody, or hardly anybody, in their dancing. I observe the direction my fellow dancers are dancing in and try to adapt to it, so that I don’t dance into anybody.
- Before actually starting to dance one should take a few moments to find the right opening to start in the music. The shorter you’ve been dancing, the more you should concentrate on hearing the 1 at this stage, so that you don’t start of in the wrong timing right away. With more experience this process will become more intuitive.
A few seconds of waiting at the beginning of the dance can work wonders for your security in the rhythm.
- Then we should start dancing with simple elements. Cross body lead, simple lady turns, outside walks etc. That way we establish our small talk and get to know each other better. I also do that if I already know the lady very well. With every Social Dance the whole story starts again from the beginning. No short cuts. One should definitely try to avoid pretending you could just carry on where you left off with the partner from the dance before. NO!!
It’s the start of a whole new conversation that needs it’s introduction to get into the flow. This phase should last longer than many leaders feel comfortable with. 😉 Most of them start into the fancy figure phase far too quickly, before they’ve even established “the intro”. And that makes the connection suffer…
- Then you can carry on with variations of the essentials. That way the conversation keeps its gentle, relaxed flow and you can bring in a certain variation in figures.
- This is the moment to introduce styling. Not that you’re “not allowed to” dance with styling in the beginning phase. But in the beginning the focus should be more on the connection. If you concentrate on your own styling too much at the beginning, you’re left with not enough time and attention for your partner. If you haven’t been dancing Salsa for very long and styling is out of the question for you, please ignore these lines until the time is right. 😉
- Only now comes the time for more complex and longer figures. In the beginning phase we conditioned each other to each other, we prepared ourselves and are now able to “read” each other well, so that the more refined figures have a solid foundation. But be careful. Always pay attention and watch if your partner can keep up with the rising level of figures.
- And now here’s one of the most important figures, that gets forgotten a lot: we should still keep putting our essentials into the dance. That way we can make sure we have relaxation periods and a good pace, so we don’t get too hectic with all the complex figures. This part is essential, because that way we connect with our partner over and over again and because of that we can follow up with the complex moves WITHOUT STRESS. This tactical variation between the essentials, complex figures and musicality & styling makes a real experience out of our dance.
- It’s very common to dance a dip with your lady at the end of every dance, a kind of end pose. I recommend you only do this if you have experience in it. Otherwise it might end in embarrassment. 🙂 At the end of the dance a friendly “thank you” or a little bow before our ladies, a gentle hug or a high five 😉 is enough.
One disclaimer – I don’t always do it exactly this way. But I try to. Because every time I do follow this strategy, the dance becomes faaaar more harmonious and has more flow.
One often loses control over the structure of a dance in the heat of the moment, and that’s OK too. We are not machines. But it’s still good to have a plan, a strategy, that you can stray from now and then, but you can also always return to it.
Without a strategy, without a goal, without a mission you just dance along, from one partner to the next, without ever reaching any depth, without ever feeling that deep connection to a partner.
And this connection is one of the most essential parts of social dancing for Conny and me.
There you go, here’s congratulations to myself for the longest blog article to date! 🙂
The worst part is, I actually held myself back, I could write a whole book about this topic and even that might end up as a trilogy. 🙂
Congratulations to you too, for making it all the way to the end of the article. 🙂 At the very latest you now have the chance to get as much as possible out of every dance using this smart strategy. It might open up a whole new dimension in social dancing for you.
This approach might make you a more coveted dance partner and could help your dancing surroundings to enjoy this hobby even more.
If you share the opinion (as do Conny and I) that this approach to Salsa could change the quality of your Salsa Scene and could promote more positivity, then please share this article in social media, so it can reach more people.
So that we can enjoy our dances in an even more respectful and enjoyable dance culture.