The Etiquette of Salsa (All the stuff you need to worry about besides the dancing)

27 May

I take my “Golden Rule” to extremes as I don’t even refuse dance requests from men.
(Even if I don’t appear too pleased when I realize one of my friends is taking photos)

Salsa is not just a dance but a social outlet.

Be it the ubiquitous night out dancing that salsa represents here in Cali or the seemingly hidden sub-culture of salseros in non-Latin countries like Ireland and Japan, salsa is a way to enjoy yourself with other people, to socialize and to make friends.

And, as with any other social phenomena, there are certain rules that, to a greater of lesser degree, one must abide by.

Of course, these rules never get written down nor are they ever explained to you at your first salsa class or at the start of your first social night. You learn them yourself, over time, sometimes through trial and error, sometimes through the words of a friend and they begin to form part of your behaviour whenever you step out on the dance floor.

I write them down here today so that you won’t have to go through the whole (embarrassing) procedure of trial and error, hopefully helping you integrate into your local salsa scene much more smoothly.

Obviously the rules will vary depending on the social norms of the country/culture where you are but I feel that these pointers here represent a pretty decent guideline to follow wherever you are in the world. Feel free to add more to your own list if need be.

Shower
The very nature of dance means you are going to be in close physical contact with other human beings. There is nothing worse than beginning to dance with someone only to catch the whiff of BO and have to endure it for the next 4 minutes or so.

Shower well before you plan on going out dancing, put on some deodorant (I use baking soda) and wear clean clothes. Otherwise you risk developing a reputation as a “smelly dancer” and let’s face it, no one wants to dance with that guy.

Brush your teeth
For the exact same reason as above, it is not pleasant dancing with someone who has breath bad enough to strip paint off walls. Brush those pearly whites.

Carry a Salsa Survival Kit (SSK)
To combat issues with the above two points I started to bring a salsa survival kit with me whenever I go out dancing. While you can wash yourself as much as you like before hand, the fact of the matter is that you are going to dance, which means you are going to sweat (if you are like me, you are going to sweat a lot). Thus, you may not smell that same as you did at the start of the night. This is where the SSK comes in. It consists of the following 3 items:

  • Handkerchief: (or any small cloth you can fit in your back pocket or handbag) You will sweat and you will touch other people’s sweat when you dance. It simply can’t be helped. It is nice though, if you can wipe the sweat from your face and hands after every dance. Carrying a “sweat-rag” is a handy little habit I picked up to deal with the shockingly humid Japanese summers.
  • Antibacterial wet-wipes: If you notice that you’re starting to smell as the night goes on, you may have to take emergency action, run to a toilet cubicle and give your underarms a quick cleaning. Antibacterial wipes should help ensure that you don’t start to smell again for a few hours. Nowadays you can get wet-wipes in handy pocket size packs, perfect to carry along on a night out.
  • Chewing gum: (preferably sugar-free) If you go out to eat with friends before you dance or if you smoke, you may need to freshen your breath during the night. Chewing gum is so portable too that you have no excuse not to bring it along.

This is my SSK and is probably one of the simplest there is. I know of other people who add other “essentials to their list; cologne/perfume, a spare shirt, deodorant, make-up etc. (my friend Imi recommended that I also include Pepper Spray! I’ll leave that choice up to you). It all depends on your own necessities and how much you can carry. Men obviously don’t have the luxury of a handbag, although I rarely leave the house without my courier bag (notice how I didn’t call it a man-bag!!!).

Asking for a dance
Both men and women should make the effort to ask out the people they want to dance with. It should not be left up entirely to the men and thankfully in Europe and the U.S.  women feel a lot more comfortable asking men out to dance.

It’s not rocket science either, just remember to be polite and smile. Simply approach the person you want to dance with, smile, say something along the lines of “Excuse me, would you like to dance” and when they say yes, take them by the hand and gently lead them out to the dance floor. You may now begin to dance. That’s it.

If you know the person already you might get a little playful and do what I do; from a distance, grab their attention with your eyes, give a cheeky little wink and a little head nod in the direction of the dance floor and voilà, time to get your dance on. This is guaranteed to make you feel like pro.

DO NOT REFUSE A DANCE! (The Golden Rule)
I would prefer to say “NEVER refuse a dance” but I rarely use the word “never”, as life is full of exceptions. However, my sentiments on this point verge on those conveyed by the word “never”.

The reason; IT HURTS!

For those of you who are more experienced dancers, try to imagine how nervous you were when you first started dancing. For beginners, it takes a hell of a lot of courage to work up the nerve to ask someone out for a dance. Imagine yourself trying to work up all that courage and finally asking that person you’ve been wanting to dance with all night, only to get shot down. For guys, it ranks pretty close to castration (at least it did for me) and I’d imagine it feels worse for ladies who have the extra hurdle to get over, of not being the sex that normally requests a dance (which I personally believe shouldn’t be the case. I love it when a girl asks me out for a dance).

I remember the first time I was refused a dance all too well. I was in a salsa club in Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong on the second leg of my first salsa training expedition. I was pretty green but I knew a few moves so I decided do ask a dance of a girl I’d seen dancing really well earlier. I walked up to her, smiled and politely asked “Would you like to dance?” to which she responded, without so much as a smile to dull the blow, with “no”, followed by a halfhearted “maybe later”.

After recoiling form the initial shock of (what felt like) having my internal organs ripped out and stepped on in front of me, I picked up what was left of my testicles and scurried away to a dark corner to hide my shame. I did however recover and go on to have plenty more dances that night but I will never forget how I felt.

Beginning salseros need to be encouraged especially  by dancers with more experience. I will dance with anyone (I’ve even danced with men who want to practice their following. That usually gets a few odd looks) because I know how it feels to be refused a dance. I’ll even dance with someone who tells me before hand that they’re not the best dancer or that they’re only a beginner. I’ll just modify what I do to make sure they have as fun a dance as possible.

There are a few situations, however, where it’s ok to say “no”, for example if you don’t like dancing a particular style (like merengue for me), if your last dance was particularly vigorous and you want to take a breather, if you need to go to the restroom etc. You should always smile and explain the reason and tell the person that you will dance the next song with them instead. Be nice.

I try to imagine myself in the shoes of beginners and I try to encourage them with salsa as much as possible along with trying to help them avoid any of the “unpleasant” situations I’ve experienced in the past.

Don’t pester people for dances
One of the great things about social dancing is the chance to dance with many other people.

However, even if you’ve really enjoyed a dance with someone, that doesn’t give you an excuse to repeatedly ask them out over the course of the night. Give them and yourself the chance to enjoy dancing with different people. They may even come and ask you for a dance later, saving you from doing it. If not, wait for a while after your last dance and then ask again.

Also, on the rare chance that someone says “no” the first time (or any time) you ask them, just leave it at that and don’t ask them again that night. It’s their loss.

Don’t clog up the dance floor

If the dance floor looks full, just “F#$K @FF” (I don’t normally swear at all but this point really gets to me).

I’m feeling particularly livid about this point as I write this post right now as someone did it to me last night (which was otherwise a spectacular night of dancing). There is nothing worse than when, while your enjoying a dance with your partner, some inconsiderate idiot decides to “squeeze in” next you and suddenly all that lovely space you had to do your tricks and patterns (along with that of everyone else’s around you), disappears.

I’m a fairly easy going guy but when this happens I feel like rolling up my sleeves and unleashing pure, unadulterated fury on the eejit who just did the salsa equivalent of “cutting me off”.  Not only does it mean that both pairs (probably more) have less room to perform certain moves but it also increases the risk of collisions. This is more relevant in LA or New York style salsa as they both require a relatively long “slot” and room at the sides for complex hand movements and turns. In Latin America, people are used to dancing much more closely so the style of salsa (i.e. lack of intricacy) accommodates this.

So, do everyone a favor and either, find an area with more room to move or sit it out, wait for the next song and grab a space on the dance floor early. Otherwise you’ll have an angry Irishman to deal with.

If you’re not dancing, stay off the dance floor

Don’t be that rude, clumsy idiot who forces his way through a dance floor full of quick spinning couples, bumping into every one of them along the way and basically pissing everyone off.

I will admit, that depending on the salsa club itself sometimes traversing the floor to get to the bar, the restroom or even the exit , is unavoidable but you should always try to move around the outskirts of the dance floor avoiding the dancers as much as possible.

The same has to be said for people hanging out on the fringes of the dance floor; make yourself as small as possible, avoid the dancers and don’t get annoyed if some of them bump into you. Remember, you’re in their territory.

Acknowledging and Apologizing for a collision

Salsa is a free-moving, high-speed activity carried out by multiple pairs in a confined space. Collisions will happen.

The best way to deal with this is to acknowledge it, apologize and keep on dancing. Usually both pairs are, at least partially, to blame so both usually apologize to each other. When I say apologize I don’t mean that you need a long winded verbal apology either. When a collision happens simply catch the eye of the other pair, give them an apologetic look and mouth the word “sorry”, end the interaction with a smile and keep on dancing. An apology should not require you to stop dancing (unless someone is sprawled out convulsing on the floor, which is quite rare).

The rudest thing you could do is not to acknowledge it. This is not the case in Latin American culture where in general the dance floors are much more tightly packed and light collisions are much more common.

Amongst a dancing couple, incidents (stepping on someones toes, the odd elbow to the head etc.) happen too. In this case, providing you haven’t incapacitated your partner, just apologize, smile and keep dancing. Stopping would just draw too much attenuation to the incident. Also, you only need to apologize once as constant apologies during a dance can be really annoying and take away from the fun.

It is always the man’s fault

The lead is the one responsible for guiding the dance and the lead is virtually always a man, thus logic states that if something goes wrong, it’s the man’s fault.

Usually if something goes wrong (an ill-timed move, a collision with another couple etc.) it is due to a lack of foresight or planning on part of the guy so gentlemen, just accept it and don’t get into an argument over it. This is why it’s usually the men who apologize to each other when something happens.

I will admit that there are occasions where the follow is clearly to blame for an “incident” but my policy is just to accept the blame and keep on dancing (anything for a quiet life). Suck it up guys, you’ll be taking the fall a lot.

Tie up your loose ends

This is one for the ladies (mostly). Although I think that hair spinning freely during a dance looks beautiful it can be a serious safety hazard. Do your partner a favour and tie it up or otherwise keep it under control. Getting a face-full of hair moving at full spinning speed during a dance really stings (and a plaited ponytail in the face feels somewhat similar to getting hit with padded nunchuks). This can really mess up a leads concentration not to mention the risk of hair getting caught in someone’s fingers or watch strap during a spin. Keep it under control ladies.

While on the point of wildly spinning hazards I should mention this;
DO NOT DANCE WITH A HANDBAG.
They are not only a hell of a lot harder than the most unruly ponytails but their long straps mean they pose a risk to surrounding couples too. Either leave it with a friend or, as salsa scenes in Europe, Asia and the U.S. are quite safe and friendly places, leave it at your table, maybe under a coat and go and enjoy your dance without the deadly weapon. Really, handbags have no place on the dance floor.

Help your fellow man

If someone ever asks you for your advice or guidance on salsa matters, consider it a compliment that they admire your abilities or style of dancing and do what you can to help them out.

I know that when I started out, I was full of questions (I still am) and I am very grateful to all the people who have helped me to improve my salsa over the years. The same is probably true for you so do the right thing; be friendly and help out the next generation of salseros.

Don’t start teaching on the dance floor

I’ve witnessed this scene many a time; a couple are dancing together, usually for the first time, when suddenly one of the partners notices the other is not behaving the way they would like them too and decides to stop the dance to “teach” them how to do it correctly. They have just ruined a perfectly good dance.

I know one particular guy on the Dublin dance scene, a spectacular dancer and highly regarded amongst other dancers in Dublin, who does this constantly. So much so that the image of him stopping a dance to “teach” his “inexperienced” partner, is burned into my mind. I’ve spoken with some of these girls after the fact and all of them have said the exact same thing “It’s nice to learn something new but it’s so annoying when he stops the dance”.

I’m not innocent of doing this myself, but only when I’m asked to explain it by my partner and usually the most “teaching” I’ll do during a dance is to say “try relaxing you shoulders a little”.

A dance is supposed to be enjoyed and it’s hard to do that when your partner keeps stopping the dance to point out how badly you’re dancing. There is a time and a place for it but it most certainly is not during a social dance.

Smile

Salsa is meant to be fun so show your partner that you’re enjoying yourself with the easiest method possible; smiling.

For a lot of people, however, it’s not as easy as it sounds. When I first started dancing I used to concentrate so much on getting the moves right that I constantly needed to be reminded by my partners to smile (I still forget to do it sometimes).

It may not seem like much but showing your partner that you’re enjoying the dance makes them feel more secure that they’re dancing well.

Off the dance floor, smiling also makes you a lot more approachable and increases the chance that someone will ask you to dance. I know one regular on the scene in Dublin who I have never asked to dance because she never smiles (and because she scares me a little).

Don’t dance TOO close

Pair dancing, by it’s very nature, means that 2 people need to move together in close physical proximity while holding on to each other. This is not an excuse to take advantage. When dancing with someone for the first time you should always be more conservative and maybe later, if your partner gives you an indication that it’s ok to do so, gradually move a little bit closer.

I learned to dance salsa and bachata in a small city in Japan where close physical contact is not the norm. So, you can imagine my surprise when I first saw people dancing bachata, almost erotically, in a club in the metropolis that is Hong Kong. Then I got to experience it first hand with a local woman who insisted on dancing closely. Thank God the dimmed lights in the club hid how much I was blushing.

Here in Cali, dancing close is the norm and it was here that I learned to dance close salsa (Salsa de la alcoba i.e. bedroom salsa) and now I love dancing it with my close friends. But at first, dancing close did make me a little uncomfortable so don’t dance too close to someone that either you don’t know or that is not used to it. Don’t be like the woman who I once danced with at a salsa congress in Ireland who during a dance, suddenly thrust my body towards hers, practically forcing our crotches together and insisted that that was the “real” way to dance bachata.  I finished the dance and quickly shuffled off the dance floor feeling a little dirty and with a face that told anyone who saw it “I have just been violated”. I was so innocent before that dance.

On Flirting

Salsa can be a very sensual dance. I said CAN, not SHOULD.

Unfortunately there are some people who misunderstand the close proximity of dancing as an excuse to “try it on” with every girl who agrees to dance with them. If you’re one of those people, stop being a creep give up dancing and give speed dating (or something like that) a try.

I’ll happily admit that a little bit of flirting can really add to the fun of a dance but I’ll only do it with someone who I know well and who I know is comfortable with it. The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of the people who go dancing are there to dance and not to pick someone up that night (not entirely the case in a lot of places in Colombia where dancing is the social norm).

Adjust your level to your partners

You can never really be sure about someone’s level until you dance with them for the first time, especially if you haven’t even seen them dance before.

You should always start out slowly and with the basics, get a feel for how your partner is reacting and then, gradually and slowly start incorporating more complex moves. If you get the feeling that your partner isn’t handling those complex moves well it’s time to ease off the accelerator and continue the dance with slightly more basic moves. If you don’t control the level you not only risk hurting someone’s pride but you also risk physically hurting them if they don’t know how to react to a certain move.

When dancing with someone with a lower level you should do all you can to ensure that they enjoy the dance so that doesn’t mean you should try as many intricate combinations as possible. This will only end up with them feeling incompetent and disheartened. Lead them through moves they can follow and they’ll finish the dance feeling great and feeling that they’re improving.

Say Thank You

It’s common courtesy. When the song ends and you stop dancing, smile, look your partner in the eye and say a sincere “thank you”. Then take them by the hand or the shoulder and lead them off the dance floor.
Congratulations, you’ve just completed a successful dance… +100 EXP Points.

After reading over this again it’s pretty clear from its frequency of use that “smiling” is one of the most important things you can do while dancing so get those pearly whites working for ya guys.

Keep smiling folks (and keep your eyes open!)

What do you think of this list? Is there anything you feel I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.

Keep dancing folks.

P.S. I spent a fairly solid 5 hours writing the first draft of this post only to lose it all at the click of a mouse. I now know what true rage feels like.

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28 Responses to “The Etiquette of Salsa (All the stuff you need to worry about besides the dancing)”

  1. DAO June 13, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Excelente! muy buena nota y deberías imaginar mis caras cuando leía tus notas, me alegraste mucho.

  2. acts20v24 June 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Great list! I’d add hand sanitizer to your bag (if guys bring shoes then they legitimately can have a bag and it not even be a man bag.. a shoe bag!) I stole the idea from a Kiwi guy in Newcastle who hand sanitizes between most songs. I’d think it’s weird but he’d the best cuban dancer in the city. And I have gotten eye infections twice now the day after a salsa night. Ew. Lots of hand sanitizer.

    Also.. hahahah.. poor you being violated. Never thought about it from the guys perspective of that happening as well! On a couple bachata numbers.. I have actually stopped in the middle of the dance floor with a creeper at a congress, wagged my finger and said NAHHH UH! No wayyyy are you grinding with me. When they have argued I have gestured that any number of men would love to dance with me.. they can take it (the spacial distance) my way or not dance with me and I’ll go dance with someone else. Sometimes a girl needs a bit of attitude. 😉 lol.

    • Christy June 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

      WordPress is awkwardly not letting me sign in with my blog. 🙂
      http://www.awakeningsardis.blogspot.com.. oh and Hi I am Tiffany’s friend.. and working in Dublin for ten weeks this fall.. do you have any recommendations on where to go dancing? 🙂 I do on1 on2 and cuban but reaaaallly wanna work on my on2 more

      • Christy June 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

        Oh it worked that time! 🙂

      • The Dancing Irishman June 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

        According to my friends things have changed a lot in the 9 months I’ve been gone but the Garda Club on Thursday nights is a staple. Tuesday nights were good in Q-bar and apparently Sundays are good at Dame Lane. Saturday used to be good at Havana’s but the place is tiny and that really used to annoy me.
        The best thing to do is ask a salsero at any one of those venues on a salsa night.
        As for practicing on2, you’ll want to find 2nFro (check them out on facebook), Helen is a fantastic dancer and can fill you in on the rest of the scene in Dublin. Tell her Richie, the Dancing Irishman sent you 😉
        Have a blast in Dublin, it’s a great little city.

    • The Dancing Irishman June 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

      Great comment Christy. Yeah hand sanitizer, while it does sound a little extreme, sounds like a good addition to me. Especially when you think how many peoples hands you touch during an average night out dancing.
      As for guys getting violated, yeah it happens alright but probably no where near as much as for women. It’s really sad to say that women “need” to have “attitude” to deal with creeps like that but that’s the way it is. Well done on sticking up for yourself.

      • Christy June 14, 2012 at 12:03 am #

        Aw brilliant! Thanks lots! 🙂 Looking forward to investigating a new salsa scene a bit for a couple months.

        And thanks.. yes.. normally I think holding the attitude is good (ie.. I agree.. give people dances who ask! It’s just the nice thing to do!) but.. on rare occasions.. the attitude must come out for a little self respect 🙂

        I think I am going to enjoy reading your blog. I laughed about your plea not to tell your parents about your mugging one. 😛

      • The Dancing Irishman June 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

        If you knew my parents you’d realize why that plea is totally necessary.

  3. dancinginthecity89 June 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Thanks for liking my Havana Rumba Dance Review and checking out my blog. Have enjoyed reading your blog. Love your Salsa Ground Rules, wish everyone would read them! 🙂

    • The Dancing Irishman June 27, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

      Any time. I’m glad you the post on etiquette, I loved writing it (it all came from the heart and experience). Keep dancing and keep writing.

      • dancinginthecity89 June 27, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

        Sure Thing! Thanks! It’s great to hear about your experience of Salsa in Colombia!

  4. Yoga With Delana (@YogaWithDelana) February 26, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    One more: *Look* at your partner (but not 100% of the time)! It drives me crazy when a guy is dancing with me and looks everywhere in the room but at me. It’s also a little unnerving when he stares only into my eyes the whole time. Look at me. Look around. Look at me. Look around. It’s respectful and practical at the same time. Give your partner some attention to support a good connection in the dance, but also look around to avoid dancing into other people/objects/off the floor.

    • The Dancing Irishman February 26, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

      haha (awkward giggle), I couldn’t really include that one myself as I haven’t gotten over it myself yet. I do however agree wholeheartedly with you on this one!

      • Yoga With Delana (@YogaWithDelana) February 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

        Oh, interesting. Now that I think about it, you don’t look at me when we’re dancing, but check it out: it never bothered me because you aren’t looking distractedly over my head at other people; you’re eyes are focused in middle space, and it’s obvious that your brain is totally connected to the feel of the dance. Not to mention that, like you said, you’re grinning like a cheshire cat, so I know you’re happy and having fun. 🙂

  5. Mr. Snuffles July 31, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    Hey man,

    So on your flirting section of your advice, does that also include closing a deal (date-wise) with a girl I found attractive and asking her out some other time?

    Not that I’m trying to do a one-night stand (as a guy I don’t believe in that) but been trying to meet women that like dance just like me (even though I do House and Popping). I’ve been told many times that Salsa clubs/lessons are the worst place to meet women because most are there for dancing and not for dating.

    • The Dancing Irishman August 12, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

      That’s a real tough one to call but I would be inclined to agree with the statement “most are there for dancing and not for dating.”
      The best way to think of it is like this: dance communities in general are quite small and many people know each other within the community. If you continuously try to ask women out (and I’m not saying that’s what you would do) you might make some women feel uncomfortable and you might even develop bit of a reputation for that in the community. That doesn’t help I know. If there is genuine chemistry between you and someone else you meet on the scene then you’ll know when is appropriate to go a step further and ask them out. Otherwise, it’s very easy to mistake the passion of latin dance for “interest” from the opposite sex, so it’s safer to play on the cautious side.

  6. Jay Nandu February 10, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    Reblogged this on Kizomba Musik.

  7. kispangit February 16, 2015 at 5:36 am #

    Thank you, Dancing Irishman, an excellent encouragement for us novice salsa dancers!
    Actually, this part of ‘never refuse a dance’ – too bad, but I have experienced it more often than I would have liked. I don’t smell, I don’t sweat profusely, I look more or less, and I am never pushy, and I am not too clumsy either. Well, some girls just plainly did not like me or they are just not familiar with the dance etiquette.
    I asked a girls for a dance, a girl who is in the same salsa practise group. I observed her before, in a quiet way from the distance, to make sure that she had enough rest before another dance. When I asked her, she had been resting for at least 5 minutes. Still, she refused. Her excuse: I have just sat down. Clearly, a bad lie. I could have argued, but of course I did not, I just flashed an embarrassed smile, said OK and left. Some seconds later she was on the floor with somebody else. I got the message. I don’t think I will ask her again.
    And there was another one that stopped the dance after a missed beat, telling me that I was too fast. Maybe, but she broke the spell, the fun was blown, and she begged off.
    So many are inconsiderate, and they only want to dance with the advanced dancers. OK, so I let them be and try to ask girls who are on my level. That is it, then both of us enjoy, and to hell with the conceited ones who want to be the centre of the universe. I don’t even consider them real salseras.
    Maybe I will link your contribution in our salsa group for everybody to become educated in salsa manners!
    Best regards,
    Tibor Perényi, Hungary

    • The Dancing Irishman February 16, 2015 at 5:48 am #

      Thanks for the great comment Tibor.
      I’m sorry you’ve had that experience with some dancers. My own philosophy on refusing dances has changed a little since I wrote that article. I understand that sometimes people just don’t want to dance. I think your idea ” I don’t think I will ask her again” may be the right way to play it at the moment, if she doesn’t want to dance with you, then she doesn’t deserve to dance with you. That might change in the future.
      I think you have a great mentality because you don’t want to let it get in your way and that’s more important than anything else.
      Feel free to link the article, the more people get educated, the better.
      Thanks for the comment and keep dancing.

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