How to dance salsa: My story (or “How to get blood from a stone”)

20 May
Español: Reevolución XIII Festival Internacion...

You may have already figured this out but that’s not me in the pic!

I am an Irishman and I dance salsa!

You could interpret this in a couple of ways:
You could think “hmmm, those two things don’t sound like they should go together”, as I used to, before I started and maybe even a little during the beginning of my salsa journey.
Or you could think “Sounds like an new member’s introduction at a Salsaholics Anonymos meeting” as I sometimes feel these days.

In any case, the fact is that a little over three years ago I didn’t dance at all (besides an occasional, embarrassed Irishman-shuffle when it couldn’t be avoided) and now I can’t imagine my life without dance. How things change!

What I hope to accomplish with this post is to show you how I, a mild mannered, arrhythmical, introvert “defied the odds” and became a salsa dancing machine, a salsero! I hope that this may encourage those of you starting out in salsa (or any dance for that matter) and make the whole process even more enjoyable and a whole lot faster.

(Note: the following guide speaks mostly about lineal salsa i.e. LA or New York style and from a mans (known as the lead) perspective but can be applied to any style of salsa, indeed most styles of pair dance and of course to women (known as the followers).

So, let’s rock and roll.

Step 1: Find a dance class

You can watch as many videos on YouTube as you want but without someone to correct your mistakes and form, progress will be slow. At the very least find someone who can dance and get them to go through the basics with you until you’re comfortable with the rhythm and can find the beat yourself (which comes with plenty of time and practice listening to salsa).

In my case, this is the reason I was so slow at improving during my first year of salsa. The most regular salsa classes  in my area in Japan, which were run by the famous (at least in the Miyazaki salsa world) Yano mama & papa, were every two weeks on a Sunday and because of my weekend surfing habit I initially only made it there once every two months. Yeah, that’s right, every 60 or so days.

I did however find another class, for ballroom dancing in fact, which included an hour of salsa once a week. I would usually hop in for the salsa and duck out when it came time for things like the foxtrot and the Charleston, much to the disdain of the instructor.

She was an older Japanese lady who all the students respected without question but as the weeks went by I realized that her teaching methods weren’t the best. What I mean is that her explanations of moves and combinations were a little ambiguous and relied a lot on her doing the move for the students to see and expecting them to imitate it without much referral to the timing of moves within the context of the salsa beat (I’ll write more about this in the future).

So I learned a few new moves that I could “kind of” do although often it would be hit and miss. The important thing was that I was practicing and listening to salsa music and improving my basic step, which brings me to…

Step 2: Master the basic steps

I can’t stress the importance of mastering the basic step in salsa. Until you can do this without thinking, that is, until it becomes as natural as walking, doing additional hand movements and patterns is going to be very difficult indeed.

When I hear salsa music these days my body automatically starts swaying to the rhythm (thankfully I live in Colombia where it’s a little more acceptable to “get your dance on” when waiting in line at the supermarket, where they’re always playing salsa. When I lived in Japan there was one store I visited occasionally which was always playing salsa music in the background for some reason. I couldn’t help breaking into a little salsa shuffle whenever I was there, despite the protests of my girlfriend at the time).

You should aim to become as comfortable with salsa as you can, make it automatic. The best way to do this is plenty of repetitive practice. Yano papa, who was manager of a bank, told me he used to practice his salsa basic step under his desk while sitting in his office and that was how he “automated” his footwork. You shouldn’t have to do that yourself but you should find as many opportunities as you can during the week to practice so you no longer need to think about what your feet are doing when you dance.

Step 3: Find a dance partner

You should try and find someone to practice with during the week to help consolidate any new moves or steps that you’ve “learned”. Learning a new move and doing it relatively well at the end of a one hour dance class means absolutely nothing if you forget it by the end of the week (I forgot the vast majority of moves I learned when I first started salsa for this reason). Having a dance partner allows you to practice those moves again and again at your own pace to make sure you remember them.

I’ve been very lucky over the past few years to have been blessed with many amazing dance partners (and friends). From Yano mama and Chihoko, the original members of my salsa group in Japan, to all my beautiful partners in Dublin and here in Cali, I’ve always actively sought out someone to practice and improve with.

I also think having multiple partners is a fantastic idea (minds out of the gutter people, you all know what I’m talking about!). Practicing with different people teaches you how to adapt and react to different dancing styles ( and everyone develops their own style and idiosyncrasies) which is something you need to be able to do in the real world, especially when you dance with someone for the first time.

Try and find a partner that’s a little (or a lot better) than you too. Just like in martial arts where sparring with someone above your level leads to quick improvement, the same can be said for dancing. A good partner (and plenty of practice) will help you to “up” your salsa level in no time and will help you make some amazing friends along the way.

Step 4: Record to remember

Record new salsa moves (with a video camera) and keep them all together so you can review them after your class and practice them again. This will also help you remember moves that you may not have tried on the dance floor in a while and thus have temporarily “forgotten”.

You may of course be one of those savants that can remember something forever after seeing it only once, in which case, good for you! However, if you’re anything like me you have a mind like a spaghetti strainer and have a lot of trouble keeping track of new salsa moves.

I solved this problem by outsourcing the task of memory retention to my computer hard-drive. Whenever I learn a new move I record a video of it (mobile phone cameras mean I don’t have to carry a separate camera around with me) and load it onto my computer (remember to try and get whoever is doing the move to do it relatively slowly and if possible calling out the step-counts as they’re doing it).

I also download salsa videos from sites like YouTube using keepvid and keep all my dance related videos together in a file on my computer. This means that whenever I’m practicing with my partners I can just open this file, watch a video and practice any move that I want to (and I don’t have to worry about forgetting it).

Step 5: Dance

“You learn the moves in class, you learn to dance on the floor!”

This step is by far the most important step of all. You can spend hours practicing the same move over and over again with your partner but that all means nothing if you can’t lead someone new to do it out on the dance floor.

The only way to really perfect a combination is to try it over and over again with new partners, constantly tweaking and refining your form, learning what works and what doesn’t, getting better every time.

Unfortunately, this happens to be the the step that most salsa newbies find the most emotionally traumatic. I’ll admit, at the beginning it’s not easy asking someone new out for a dance. Your mind is full of “what ifs”; what if I forget my basic step? what if I lose my place in the music? what if they get bored with my lack of combinations? what if I try a turn and accidentally hit them in the head with my elbow sending them into a 5 year coma after which they wake up unable to handle all the changes that have happened and seek me out for cold blooded revenge?

My attitude to this is “it happens”. All of those “what ifs” have happened to me at one time or another (except that last one, it was actually more like a 5 minute coma…no revenge…yet).

This is where you’ve got to bite the bullet, confront your fears and take the bull by the horns. It’s time to man-up and dance!

Easier said than done right? I’ll be honest, I had a lot of trouble getting over this fear when I started. I was afraid that I would be repeating the same moves over and over again and the person I was dancing with would get bored and never want to dance with me again. The first time I went to a real salsa party (Salson in Fukuoka) I was very green in salsa terms. I went with my girlfriend and apart from her I only managed to work up the courage to ask one other person out to dance (after 3 hours and near the end of the night). Obviously I felt pretty stupid for being such a chicken.

However, after that, I came up with the ultimate method for getting over this fear, a method that I am happily going to share with you as I know it will get your beginner salsa progress off to a flying start.

Here it is: all you need to do is wait for a song to start, wait a further 2-3 minutes and then invite someone out to dance for the last minute! That’s it. You’ll have about one minute of pure, unadulterated dance time. If you don’t know many moves, you won’t have to worry about boring someone for a full 4 minute (approx.) song and if you feel that you suck, all will be over in about 60 seconds. You’ll have gained valuable dance experience and (hopefully) your ego will still me intact

That’s it! For a beginner, if you follow the steps here you’ll improve quickly and will be a salsaholic in no time. Of course this is only the beginning, the first baby steps on the road to salsa super-stardom (which I’m slowly trying to follow myself) and there are many more aspects to salsa that you’ll become familiar with yourself and which I hope to introduce to you in upcoming posts.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful or at least it has taken down a few of the barriers that might have been preventing you from giving dancing a try.

If you have any tips of your own or any questions that you think I might be able to answer, right them in the comments below and I’ll try and reply as soon as possible.

Keep dancing.

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5 Responses to “How to dance salsa: My story (or “How to get blood from a stone”)”

  1. David Aguilar February 5, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    very similar to my road to becoming a salsero.

    • The Dancing Irishman February 8, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

      Great to hear… just as long as you don’t plan on starting your ow blog… I couldn’t handle the competition hahaha


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    […] I decided to add it as a post on the blog to help reiterate a point I made in an earlier post about how to improve your dancing. […]

  2. The Sneaky Trick that Every Salsa Beginner Needs to Know (Better salsa in just 60 seconds) | The Dancing Irishman - June 19, 2013

    […] This article is an expansion of a point I made in one of my first articles on how to dance salsa. […]

  3. Becoming a Great Dancer (Obliterating racial stereotypes in 10,000 hours) | Latin Dance Community - February 24, 2016

    […] practice came about a year after I “started” dancing salsa. As I’ve stated in a post on my own blog when I first started dancing salsa I had trouble getting to regular classes (due to my schedule, […]

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