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STOP Dancing with your Girlfriend (and why!)

25 Nov

Your girlfriend is the reason your salsa is so mediocre!

There… I’ve said it. Let the hate mail roll on in.

Or, be reasonable and hear me out. I’ll explain exactly why your significant other is hampering your salsa evolution and what you can do about it without having to break up and go through that whole “uncomfortable” period of trying to avoid the dance socials they regularly attend (you all know what I’m talking about).

First things first, let me appease the ladies and say that I could just as easily have titled this article “Stop Dancing with your Boyfriend/Spouse/Life-Partner” or some other gender neutral BS. I didn’t because my regular readers are well aware that I like a nice controversial title every now and then. It should suffice to say that I’m talking about all significant others or regular dance partners in this article.

Now that I’ve alienated half my readers, let’s move on.

Reasons we get into salsa
A pretty major reason people get into salsa is to meet someone of the opposite sex which I highlighted in this very scientifically referenced chart some time ago. It is by no means the main reason but it certainly plays a role in peoples decisions to start dancing. What often happens when someone joins the world of dance (be it Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, Break or whatever) is that they might meet and start dating a fellow dancer. Another similar occurence might be that the non-dancing partner in a relationship might be encouraged to get into dancing and take a shine to it (as has been known to happen).

Either way, the end result is that beginning couples in the dance community often end up dancing together frequently (if not exclusively… although this is much rarer). I say beginning couples because this isn’t common in more experienced dancers who are generally more confident, whereas beginning dancers are often shy and naturally feel more secure dancing with someone they know and trust.

Getting all Lovey Dovey with your partner is great and all but a little bit of distance could do great things for your dancing!

Getting all Lovey Dovey with your partner is great and all but a little bit of distance could do great things for your dancing!

Too much coddling
Let me make something clear: dancing with your significant other is wonderful. You share a trust and connection that you share with no one else on the dance floor (hopefully) and that will show in your dance. However, if you dance exclusively or mostly with your partner you will not be able to benefit from that essential phase in becoming a good dancer, that is, dancing with different people.

I’ll speak from my perspective as a man and a lead as that’s what I know best (not that I know anything about being a woman… but… let’s just leave it). Anyway, when I first started dancing salsa in Japan, I did so with my girlfriend at the time. I was particularly shy about dancing and worried about making mistakes so I probably danced 90% of dances with my then girlfriend. I actually remember going to my first social in a big city and danced all but one song (or should I say the final 60 seconds of one song) with a random woman at the club. It took me that long to work up the courage.

Anyway, when we broke up, I naturally started dancing with many more different women (keep inappropriate comments to yourselves please). And in very little time I experienced a huge improvement in my salsa ability. So sudden was the change that after a 10 day “salsa vacation” around the Philippines and Hong Kong, in which I went social dancing virtually every night, my friends back in Japan told me it was like dancing with a completely different person.

Variety is the spice of life
People are different. We have different body shapes and sizes, different limb-length proportions, we move at different speeds, we have joints that move differently. On top of that, everyone learns dance in a slightly different way and has their own style. It’s actually rather beautiful because it means no two people will ever dance the same way.

What it also means is that even if you have mastered a certain move with one person (your significant other or a regular dance partner) it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll immediately be able to pull it off with someone else.

I regular extoll the benefits of practicing regularly with someone you feel comfortable with as it helps you to lock combinations and moves into your mental and muscle memory. However, you’ll have locked it into memory using only one partner who has a fixed body shape and dance style. It may not work for others. When I practice a move with my dance partner and then feel comfortable enough to try it on the dance floor I often find that there is a steep learning curve involved in adjusting it to other follows. I regularly mess it up at the beginning even though I might nail it every time with my partner. This is why dancing with others is ESSENTIAL.

Cut the cord
If you want to improve your dancing so you can dance well with everyone… well… you have to dance with everyone. Only then will you learn how to adapt your own style and combinations to other people. You’ll learn to dance with other body types and might find certain moves are better suited to taller partners or partners with shorter arms or more flexible dancers… that’s the amazing thing about dance, the sheer variety of different dancers out there.

I’m not telling you to stop dancing with your significant other or your regular dance partner when you go social dancing… that would be ridiculous. What I’m saying is that you need to venture out there and dance with other people. In dance classes, partners are rotated for a reason, so you can experience dancing with someone else. (Side note: I’ve actually been to classes where one couple stood off to the side of the main group so they didn’t have to switch partners… maybe they were both shy but I honestly thought it was riduculous).

Anyway, if you really want to improve your dance level it’s time to give your significant other a break and start dancing with other people. You’ll get better and I’m sure that your partner will appreciate it.

Keep Dancing Folks.

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The Secret Step Between Dance Class and the Dance Floor!

27 Aug

Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

It’s that simple, right? You know where to start and you know where you want to end up! So getting from Phase 1 to Phase 3 should be a walk in the park…

…not without Phase 2, buddy.

You need to know “HOW”!
If you’re like me (and I’m not so odd that there’s no one out there that can relate) then the following scenario will be very familiar:

You go to dance class, excited and filled with the desire to learn

You learn the new pattern/technique and have it nailed by the end of class… Yippee!

You go out on the weekend dying to bust out your new move

You step out on the dance floor and suddenly your mind goes blank

How did it even start? Did I really go to that class? Are those my feet?

And yet another sweet move is thrown into the ever expanding “Could have been great” junk-pile in the dark recesses of your mind, never to be used again.

This is probably my most common face on the dance-floor!

This is probably my most common face on the dance-floor!

Stupid Brain
Truth be told, we can’t blame all of our “salsa” forgetfulness on our brains or on the dance class itself. It’s become my catchphrase at this point and it still holds true “You learn the moves in class but you learn to dance on the dance-floor”.

There is however an often forgotten or ignored step in between that most people should really consider incorporating into their salsa development…

Practice at Home!
I know from my own experience that I simply cannot remember a new move or technique after a single dance class. I just can’t. I need to practice that move until it becomes automatic, until muscle memory takes over and I no longer need to rely on my “stupid brain” to “think” about what I need to do next.

There is only one way to save a movement to muscle memory and that, my dancing friends, is repetition. The amount of repetition probably varies from person to person but I’d wager that very few individuals can memorize a move from the limited amount of times you repeat it in a dance class. To those of you who can, congratulations… I hate you!

So what’s to be done? It’s rather simple really: Find yourself a partner willing to join you and practice at home.

Home Sweet Home
There are a few advantages to practicing at home that you will not find anywhere else:

  • Home is comfortable and safe and no one else can see you making mistakes
  • You can practice at your own pace, not having to worry about keeping up with other people in a class
  • You can focus on the parts of a move that you find particularly tricky
  • You can dance like an absolute imbecile and no-one will ever know
  • You can review videos you’ve taken from class to help you work on your technique
  • You can play music you like at a pace your comfortable with (building from slower to faster)
  • You can eat a burger or a pizza or an ice-cream sundae while practicing (as long as you share with your partner)
  • You can wear whatever you want (or don’t want). Superman pijamas… Hell Yeah (once again, as long as your partner is cool with it)
If this makes you feel comfortable while dancing... go with it. I have a pair myself!

If this makes you feel comfortable while dancing… go with it. I have a pair myself!

The Importance of Comfort
I regularly talk about how important it is to get out of your comfort zone in order to improve (at anything). I firmly believe it to be true but I also know that to be able to get out of our comfort zone, it has to exist in the first place. What I mean is that we should practice a move until it becomes comfortable to us. Until it becomes incorporated into our muscle memory. The best way to do that is to practice in a controlled, comfortable safe, environment with someone we trust (your dance partner needs to be a friend or at least someone you feel comfortable with).

Once you’ve nailed a move through repetition with one partner, once you’re comfortable, then it’s time to take it onto the dance-floor and step out of that comfort zone and practice it “in the wild”.

That middle step, that “Phase 2” of practicing yourself and committing a movement to muscle memory is what will help take full advantage of what you learn in class and transfer it to the dance-floor.

Keep dancing folks!

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It Is Done!

30 Jun

UBToday, I finished my Masters Degree in Nutrition & Metabolism at the University of Barcelona.

I’ve just presented the defence to my thesis about the effects of wine polyphenols and I am starting to feel human again. IMG_2644
This has been the the most mentally and emotionally demanding year I have ever lived and while I’m happy I did it, I am so glad it’s over.

Now, time to sleep for the next 24 hours.

Keep dancing folks.

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You NEED to be OK with Dancing like an Idiot!

24 Apr

It is probably what holds us back most in life, not just in dancing but in everything we do.

That most irrational of fears, that is powerful enough to paralyze us in our actions and hold us back from achieving what we want. In reality, it’s unfounded and ridiculous. In practice, it’s crippling.

I am, of course, speaking about THE FEAR THAT EVERYBODY’S WATCHING!!!!

I feel like I’m being watched
Most people have felt this, if not when dancing then when doing something (virtually anything) in a public setting. The fear that everybody around is not only watching us but also judging us, is strong enough to stop us from attempting anything where there is a risk (real or merely conceived) of failure.

I’m not going to attempt to get into the psychology of it but if you’re reading this then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s the fear that stopped me, on my first night at a salsa club, from asking anyone other than my girlfriend to dance (until it was almost the last song of the night and I danced with a stranger for the last 30 seconds of a song… oh yeah, totally fearless!). It’s the fear that overcomes us the first time we ever sing karaoke and it’s the fear that forces many people to resort to “Dutch Courage” in social situations.

It is a futile fear that does a great disservice to the endeavors of mankind!
(Give me an Amen!)

Learning to dance like nobody’s watching
So, how in the name of all that is good and latin are we supposed to overcome this paralyzing fear and become the great salseros that we are destined to be??

Easier said than done, right!

Easier said than done, right!

We’ve all heard this a million times right! It’s one of those stupid motivational phrases that’s supposed to help us break free from the self-imposed chains that are our fears… blah, blah, blah! It’s usually followed by some equally nauseating sentences on a cutesy poster… just like this one…

I'm trying to control my gag reflex!

I’m trying to control my gag reflex!

Normally my response to things like this is best expressed by the following

However, for the purpose of this article I feel it serves a purpose. If we could learn to dance like nobody’s watching we could finally relax into the dance, free up our movements and really starting enjoying the intricacies of the music that moves us. We need that sense of freedom to dance well!

I’m certain that all you’re thinking right now is something along the lines of “But everyone IS watching me when I dance, waiting for me to mess up so they can point and laugh at my failure forcing me to run from the dance-floor, hiding my tears with my hands and later moving to a small, middle-of-nowhere town on a different continent so that I can begin my life anew, vowing to never make the near fatal mistake of dancing in public again”….that’s what you were thinking right!?

Well have no fear, fellow student of dance, for I once again have the solution needed by all of us socially awkward dancers.

Come closer… the secret to learning to dance like nobody’s watching… is to actually dance WHEN nobody’s watching!

The inspiration for this genius piece of advice came to me tonight when I put on some music and decided to practice some shine’s I had seen in a class this week.

So I danced… by myself… in my living room… in front of an audience of NONE! AND I LOOKED LIKE AN ABSOLUTE IDIOT! And that’s exactly what I needed.

When you are genuinely free from the anxiety of being judged by others you don’t care how much of an idiot you look like. You loosen up and the magic starts to happen!

You can practice moves you would never dream of attempting on the dance-floor for fear of making a mistake. You can listen to the music without the worry of having to lead or follow a partner and appreciate the way it changes. You can loosen up all those muscles that automatically tighten up when you’re in public.

This new, relaxed you can now practice the body isolations, shines, rumba or even just the basic steps while enjoying the music, reacting to it organically instead of moving like a clunky, rusted tin-man.

While writing this article I’ve actually stood up a few times, when a song I liked came on, and just danced to it; On1, On2, shines, assorted stupidness etc. I lost count of how many times I lost the beat (or my balance) but it doesn’t matter. NOBODY’S WATCHING!

It's good to dance like a crazy fool... at times!

It’s good to dance like a crazy fool… at times!

And here’s the beauty of dancing like and idiot when nobody’s watching. If you do it regularly enough you start getting better at what you practice and amazingly you’ll eventually be able to do it IN PUBLIC!

You’ll become more comfortable with yourself and how you move and that translates to confidence on the dance-floor. There ain’t nothin’ sexier than confidence.

My one caveat for this exercise is that you try and do it in front of a mirror so that you can make sure the movements you’re getting used to aren’t completely… ridiculous 😉

Get comfortable dancing with more freedom... just not too much!!

Get comfortable dancing with more freedom… just not too much!!

So here’s your homework: lock the door, put on a playlist of some of your favorite salsa songs (the funkier the better), find a few youtube videos of some of your favorite dancers for a little inspiration and just start moving. The music will let you know what you need to do!

Keep dancing folks!

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Karaoke: Japan’s Gift to the Language Learner

26 Mar

Four years living in a different country will change anyone. Especially if that country is Japan!

If you’ve ever known anyone who has lived (for an extended period of time) in Japan you’re bound to notice that they’ve picked up a few “interesting” habits and I’m no different;

Not wearing shoes in the house, sitting on the floor despite having a perfectly good sofa right next to you, eating salad with chopsticks (Try it. It’s so much easier), not feeling like you’ve finished a meal until you’ve had a bowl of rice (or two), bowing even while on the phone… the list goes on.

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You'll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You’ll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Japanese was the first language that I learned to fluency and I have one of Japan’s greatest exports to thank for that: Karaoke! This article will cover how you can use it to learn any language to fluency “WITHOUT EVER HAVING TO SING IN PUBLIC”!!!

Why Karaoke?
Karaoke in Japan is as much a part of the culture as rice-balls and ramen. If you live there, it becomes part of your life; you go out for dinner with your friends, you end up singing karaoke; you have a staff party with your colleagues, you end up singing karaoke; it’s Wednesday, you end up singing karaoke. And the Japanese take their national passtime pretty seriously so you learn fairly quickly to improve your karaoke game.

I realized that I was going to need to learn some Japanese songs to keep my coworkers happy and in doing so I realized that practicing karaoke is a fantastic way to improve my Japanese in three major areas:

  • Pronunciation: listening to a song and repeatedly trying to match the way pronunciation of the singer is an amazing way to improve your accent and how you sound in your target language. I’ve spoken previously about how important pronunciation and understandability are when speaking a second language. Repeating a song over and over again allows you to practice the vocal chord/lip movements and breath control necessary to imitate a new language.
  • Reading: karaoke involves reading the lyrics of a song in your target language at (what can be) a pretty challenging pace. That challenge and stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to a huge improvement in your reading speed.
  • Vocabulary: learning (or at least practicing) the lyrics of songs inevitably leads to you learning new words and ways to use them and they tend to stick better when you mix in a catchy tune (I can still recite songs in Irish that I learned as a child in primary school)

How to Karaoke!!! (without the humiliation of actually singing in public)
So, how do you actually go about improving your Japanese (or any language) with Karaoke? It’s as easy as following these 3 (or 4) easy steps.

  1. Pick your Songs: Find songs that you enjoy and that are of a relatively easy tempo. It’s important to start with slow songs at the beginning as it’s easier to keep up and follow the lyrics on screen. Starting off by trying to follow the lyrics of a fast paced rap song is not a good idea, no matter how much you like the song. Love songs (cringe) are usually ideal, just like this one below which became one of my karaoke staples.

    Download the songs to your computer/phone or create a specific “Lyrics” playlist on Youtube (some videos will even have the lyrics included) so you can always access them easily.
  2. Find and Save the Lyrics: Thanks to the good old internet you can now find the lyrics for virtually any song instantaneously. Find the lyrics for your chosen songs and save them in some form of file on your computer or on your phone. I personally save them to the memo app on my iphone (check out the picture below) but I’m sure there are better, more organized ways to store them for easy access. At this point you can also look up any new vocabulary or grammar that you don’t understand so you can actually know what the song is really about.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

  3. Practice: Here’s the fun part. When you have some down time just play the song you want to practice and recite the lyrics trying to match the cadence, intonation and sound of the singer. You can do it in the privacy of your own room and no one ever has to know about your new karaoke fetish. You can even practice in public without bothering anyone or appearing to be a total psychopath. For example, whenever I’m using public-transport I pop in my headphones and listen to my “Lyrics” playlist (I have one for Japanese and one for Spanish). Then I either recite the lyrics in my head as the song plays or I lip-sync the song. I consider lip-syncing the better option as you actually practice the mouth movements needed to produce the sounds. People do this on public transport all the time anyway (and it’s only annoying if they actually do start singing out loud).
  4. (OPTIONAL) Rock some Karaoke: When you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of a few songs, why not show your native-speaking friends how you can rock out and sing with the best of them during a night of unbridled, laser-illuminated mirror-balled, karaoke fury…
    …or just sing in the shower like a normal person!

    Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

                                                      Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

Time Efficient and Free
The reason I’m such a fan of this method for learning a language is that it ticks a couple of boxes that are important for me:

  • It can be done whenever you’re on public transport or driving or just chilling out at home

  • It is completely free

  • You can store the songs and lyrics on your phone and have them with you at all times

  • In all my time learning languages I have found this gives you some of the best bang for your buck when I comes to speaking improvement in relation to time invested.

If you’re sitting at home in front of a computer right now you could literally start practicing this method in less than 30 seconds i.e. the time it takes to find a song on youtube and its corresponding lyrics. There’s no reason not to give it a try.

Do I sing well now?
F%&K NO! But I now have a repertoire of Japanese (and Spanish) songs that I can belt out (as long as I have the lyrics to follow on screen) whenever I end up at a Shidax. More importantly it has improved my spoken Japanese and Spanish considerably, which I’m happy enough with.

Get singing folks.

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How to Instantly Improve your Accent in a second language

7 Oct

We’ve all met a foreigner who has come up to us to ask a question (maybe directions to the bus station or the nearest bakery… at least that’s what I usually look for in new cities) only to not understand a word they have said to us because of their “heavily” accented English.

Was that some form of Quehua???

Was that some form of Quechua???

They might be speaking grammatically perfect English but their accent signals to our brain that: “This person is speaking some strange language that you don’t understand… possibly Dutch… or Klingon! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!”

It happens all the time. I work part-time in a bar and last week I had an older Finnish guy come up to ask for a drink. I had to ask him to repeat his order 4 times before I realized he wanted a Gin & Tonic. I felt ridiculous and I consider myself to be much better than average at understanding accented English due to over 7 years of living in non-English-speaking countries.

The under-appreciated Importance of Accent
Here’s something that you unfortunately won’t hear much about in your average secondary school language class:

“ACCENT IS IMPORTANT”

Working on your accent in your second language will benefit you in the following ways:

  • it will make you instantly more understandable
  • it will make it easier for native speakers to accept you as a competent speaker of their language

Check out this little video I recorded which shows the difference between Spanish and Japanese spoken in my native Irish accent and then with a much more “neutralized” accent. I think you’ll agree that the neutral accent sounds a whole lot more understandable (but does lose some of its Irish charm 😉 ) 

Eliminate your own accent
So, imitating the accent of another language is not easy. It is by no means impossible but it does take plenty of conscious practice.

What I’m proposing, to begin with, is the much simpler option of just eliminating your own accent.

The easiest way to do this is to focus on what makes your particular accent distinct and then gradually try to eliminate those idiosyncrasies from your second language (where they only help in making you more difficult to understand).

This can run the full gamut from cadence, to pronunciation, to sentence intonation etc. Obviously, the more aspects you focus on, the better.

Let me take a Selfie!
So a great way of doing this is to record yourself speaking your chosen language.

Make a quick video of yourself reading something (newspaper clippings or comics are great). Play it back, analyze it yourself and then decide what parts are making you sound… like a foreigner. Better yet, get a native speaker of your target language to review it for you and help you work on your pronunciation issues.

Then it’s just a matter of practicing the same words or sentences, just without the accent that makes it sound… odd!

Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to improve how you sound, be it in Japanese, Spanish, Klingon or whatever.

Keep talking folks.

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Do Choreography-Groups make Better Salsa Dancers?

21 May

This is it.

Months of practice have culminated in this moment. Your heart is racing. Your palms are sweaty (blah, blah, mom’s spaghetti etc.). You run through what you need to do in your mind. No backing out now. You hear the announcement followed by the cheers of the audience. Your heart stops for a split second with the surge of adrenaline (if you needed to lift a car off someone right now you could probably do it). You grab your partner and strut out. You see lights and camera flashes but you don’t see a single person in the audience, you have more important things to focus on. You move into position and grasp your partner as you’ve done what seems like a thousand times before… but this time is different! This time is real!

Everything goes quiet. Ominously so. You center yourself. Take one last, deep breath and… the music begins.

The next thing you know, you’re holding your partner in the final pose, breathing heavily, the audience  is roaring, applauding and whistling. You line up, smile, bow, smile again, turn and walk away.

Once off stage, you finally snap out of the trance you’ve been in. You realize that it’s all over and you don’t remember anything from the last 3 minutes. Post-Traumatic Amnesia. You don’t care… you did it!

Choreos
A lot of people who dance have experienced exactly this. When people start dancing, be it Salsa, bachata, tango, swing or whatever, inevitably they’ll be presented with the chance to join a choreography group or maybe even asked to do a pair presentation.

I’ve done a few myself over the years; Salsa in Miyazaki, Japan (when I was just taking my first steps in Salsa), Bachatango (I know, I know) in Dublin, Salsa caleña in Cali, Colombia (wearing the most flamboyant costume you can visualize) and Bachata in Belfast this past weekend (hence the inspiration for this article).

Let's not forget the real reason people do performances... Flamboyant Costumes!!!

Let’s not forget the real reason people do performances… Flamboyant Costumes!!!

I’ve always been reluctant to get involved in choreos (I’m a pretty shy guy and despite all my experience with public speaking, shaking my booty in front of large groups of people still freaks me out a little). Despite the initial unease, though, I usually feel pretty happy with myself once a performance is over. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment that anyone who has done a choreography will attest to.

Worthwhile… just not in the way you’d think
Specifically for that feeling of accomplishment , and for a few other reasons I would happily recommend people give choreos a try.

However, I’ve noticed that there are quite a few people that may be under the wrong impression as to what doing a choreography will do for their dance ability. Worse yet, I’ve met way too many people that feel that doing a choreo makes them a dance superstar. Some folks (thankfully a minority) feel that simply having done a choreography makes them advanced dancers. I think everyone reading this will agree that just isn’t the case.

We've all met them!

We’ve all met them!

Choreos and Social Dancing
I think a major assumption that some people have is that skill in a choreography translates directly to skill in social dancing. This isn’t necessarily the case.

Practicing a choreography will make you good at one thing in particular: doing that choreography! Usually you practice with the same partner who knows exactly what to expect. They know what they have to do and they do it, probably even if you make a little mistake here or there. That’s what a good partner does.

Try to do some of the moves you’ve learned in a choreography, however, and you may end up pretty frustrated.

Bruce Lee, often compared practicing martial arts without actual sparring practice to “dry land swimming” and left us this quote:

“If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you”

You can compare a performance to practicing to swim on dry land; you may learn the movements but I wouldn’t rely on it to save your ass if you fall into a lake. I’ve said it many times before that the best practice for social dancing is… social dancing. It teaches you how to adapt what you’ve learned in class to other dancers in real life, to react to their idiosyncrasies. There is no substitute for social dancing! (and appropriate practice).

So why join a choreo-group?
Choreography practice and the performances themselves do, however, have benefits to offer that can improve your social dancing.

  • Confidence: going in front of a group of your peers and performing, despite being pretty nerve-wracking usually does wonders for improving confidence, particularly for beginners. Anything that improves confidence will improve someones dancing. Just don’t become so full of yourself that you think you’re ready to give Frankie Martinez a run for his money 😉
  • Styling & Shines: This is particularly important for but not limited to female dancers. Performances are choreographed to look pretty so all the practice will usually give you a few ideas of how you can “sex-up” your own individual social dancing.
  • Socializing: Joining a small choreo-group will mean you’ll be spending a lot of time with some people you might not initially know well or at all. By the end, you’ll have probably made some great new friends and feel better connected to the salsa community. This was actually my reason for doing my latest choreo. It was an excuse for me to go to Dublin regularly and I ended up meeting some really wonderful people 😉
  • Muscle Memory: Again, this is something that really benefits beginners but the constant practice of a choreography helps to lock certain basics into your muscle memory. I found this really handy for getting the hang of some of the fast footwork of Salsa caleña.
  • New Challenges: Sometimes we set ourselves new challenges… just because! It’s something new and different and makes us step out of our comfort zones which in my opinion is something we should try whenever we can.

Give a Choreo a try… or not!
Will doing a choreography make you an advanced dancer?… I doubt it.

Will it make you a little better?… Probably (especially if you’re a beginner)

Will it be a bit of a laugh?… Yeah (and you may meet some great people)

If you fancy the challenge, go for it. It definitely won’t do you any harm. If you don’t feel like it, don’t. It won’t hold you back from becoming a great dancer.

Either way, keep dancing folks.

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Why “Social” dancers are killing Salsa

22 Apr

Purely social dancers have started pissing me off.

Let’s get something straight: Salsa IS a social activity. Most people who take it up do so to get out more and to meet new people. That’s one of the reasons I dance myself and I consider myself a social dancer (just not in the sense that I’m writing about here). Long story short, Salsa needs to be enjoyed. Today, however, I’m gonna talk about a very different type of “Social” dancer!

There seems to be a natural progression amongst great salseros that goes a little something like this:

  • They begin Salsa without many expectations
  • They enjoy the new activity and the new social outlet
  • They improve and their improvement leads to greater enjoyment
  • Greater enjoyment leads to greater desire to improve…

    Great dancers continue to get better over time (in an ideal world of course)

    Great dancers continue to get better over time (in an ideal world of course, so in reality this never happens)

… and so continues the Salsa cycle!

This increased enjoyment and desire to improve is what leads to the development of the incredible dancers we get to watch in awe and admiration on dance floors around the world. These people are true Salsa addicts; the simple taste of what it feels like to dance beautifully drives them to strive for more and more intense highs… to strive for perfection.

However, there is another cycle that some people get caught in. This cycle is more simple that the first and goes a little like this:

  • They begin Salsa without many expectations
  • They enjoy the new activity and the new social outlet
  • They improve a little and their improvement leads to greater enjoyment
  • They become content with their basic Salsa level and see no need to improve

    Some dancers, however, get to a basic level and stay there

    Some dancers, however, get to a basic level and stay there

I call this the “Bah!” (Basic And Happy!) Cycle.

People in the Bah! cycle have achieved a certain rudimentary level of Salsa, they’ve made new friends and learned that they can enjoy themselves “dancing” without putting in too much effort… and that’s it. They remain in a state of perpetual mediocrity (or worse, perpetual awfulness), they never learn to understand or “feel” the music or the real passion that it brings but as long as they can continue going out dancing once or twice a week, they’re happy! Salsa is nothing more than a “social activity” for them.

Two Extremes
Obviously the two diagrams above are two extremes of the same scale. In reality, there is a huge amount of variation with the progression that individuals make. In reality the top graph is probably never achieved, it’s just there to illustrate a point. People don’t keep improving indefinitely but they don’t need to. Often people achieve a decent level and possibly continue to improve at a much slower rate over time, depending on circumstances and interest. These people fall into a broad category of what constitutes “good dancers”. Importantly, they are fun to dance with. Being good has nothing to do with technicality or turn patterns… it’s just dancing the basics WELL!

Bah!-dancers, on the other hand, have stopped improving at a low level. They may just barely be able to handle the basics, enough to get through a song in a haphazard, not-s0-pretty-to-look-at manner… and not much else. They don’t understand the concept of “feeling the passion of a song” and are generally, not fun to dance with.

Bah! does not mean Beginner
Now of course, I’m not referring to recent converts to the church of Salsa, that would be unfair. Improvement takes time and Salsa beginners need time and encouragement to help improve their level.

In a period of (let’s just randomly say) 12 months both men and women (especially women) can achieve a very decent level of Salsa. However, some don’t.

We all know Bah-dancers
They’re the ones who go to Salsa congress’ to get away for the weekend and have a blast but never actually learn anything new. They’re the ones that go to regular low-level Salsa classes and aren’t really pushed if they don’t pick up the intricacies of a new turn or a lead as long as they get to chat about how “tough” the class is with every new partner they dance with. They’re the ones who often spin out of control, or can’t maintain their balance on turns or can’t keep up with the rhythm but just laugh it off and never stop to think “Why is this happening?” or “Is their something I could do to fix this?”. Often they’re completely oblivious to the issues they NEED to improve.

They can be very difficult to dance with and in some cases even dangerous. I’ve nearly had my shoulder dislocated a couple of times from trying to keep someone (with years of dance “experience”) from spinning out of control and into other couples. They dance generically and don’t react to changes in the music/rhythm of a song, their dancing lacks life and soul.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black
My own Salsa skills leave a lot to be desired; I’m still not comfortable dancing On2 timing, I still have issues maintaining eye contact with my partner, I haven’t learned a new combination in “I don’t know how long”, my attempts at shines verge on the ridiculous… the list goes on and on and on (humiliatingly so). However, I’m aware of these shortcomings and my need to improve. I sometimes ask my dance partners (those that I’m close with) what areas I can work on or what they don’t like about how I dance. That self-awareness is very important to me and to my development. Bah!-dancers, on the other hand, don’t seem to care!

Bad to worse
Since I returned to Ireland last year after almost two and a half years away, I’ve had the chance to dance with (and see dancing) many people from the Salsa scene when I lived in Dublin 3 years ago. Many have improved incredibly and I noticed it from the first moment I danced with them or saw them dancing.

However, some, amazingly after almost 3 years, haven’t improved at all. In fact, some are worse dancers than what I remember. They are Bah! Basic And Happy!

So let them be Bah!
I’m all in favor of people doing what makes them happy. At the end of the day, if something makes you happy and doesn’t negatively affect you or others, then go for it.

However, the proliferation of Bah!-dancers has far reaching repercussions, well beyond the individual Bah!-dancers themselves.

Let me give you an international example. I moved to Cali, Colombia because I had heard it was the world capital of salsa and I wanted to learn all that I could from those famous Colombian dancers. I went and I was disappointed (but only on the technical level). Cali’s “Professional” dancers are, without a doubt, amongst the best in the world but the regular dancers that you meet in the clubs are a different story. The social activity of choice in Cali is Salsa. This means that everyone attains a certain basic level of Salsa that they can use when they go out socializing with friends, family and colleagues. Theynever feel the need to improve (generally for the rest of their lives) because most people dance at the same basic level. However, at least in Cali most people “feel” the rhythm of music much better than people in non-latin countries. This is, of course, a generalization but from two years of living in Cali, I feel it applies to a lot (obviously, not all) of people there.

So basically, a city known for its fine Salsa dancers has remained in a state of stasis (on the level of social dancing skill) since the Salsa boom in the 70’s. It’s still a great place to dance though 😀

This is why Bah!-dancers are detrimental to a Salsa scene. If the number of Bah!-dancers reaches a certain critical mass, it creates a precedent for others to follow. What this means is that when people are exposed to large amounts of mediocre dancers they have no incentive to improve as everyone is already dancing at the same low level and is relatively content doing so.

And just like a Bah!-dancer gets caught in a cycle of mediocrity, so too can an entire Salsa community. This is just not good for Salsa.

**Now the important thing to note about this is that it’s much more significant for smaller or developing Salsa scenes! Bah!-dancers are probably not even an issue for large, well-established scenes like New York or London where there is an abundance of good dancers.**

This “mediocrity” is a typical “stage” in the development process of any Salsa community but mediocre dancers SHOULD eventually give rise to better dancers, which in turn, encourage others to start improving too. This kind of Positive Feedback is essential for a Salsa community to flourish and grow. The perfect example of this is New York city; it attracts the finest dancers on Earth and because of this other dancers there are not only held to a higher standard but also rise to meet and exceed it. Some of the finest social dancing I have ever seen in my life was on the dance floors of the Big Apple.

This is why we need lots of great dancers in a Salsa community and why I recommend people dance with as many good dancers as possible. Great dancers inspire us, they make us want to be better, to try harder, to go that little extra that takes us away from the safety of mediocrity and down the hard path to greatness. More of us need to taste what it’s like to dance with a cloudy dancer to fuel our desire for greater things. By no means does that mean you need to become a “great” dancer yourself… not “bad” would be a great start for many.

Unfortunately, a surplus of Bah!-dancers reduces the relevance of great dancers. They can be ignored as outliers, on the sidelines of the Salsa community, not part of the main group, unreachable. Most of us still behave like sheep and stick with the herd mentality of “do as everyone else does”. If that’s the case and you’re surrounded by Bah!-dancers, how are you going to end up dancing?

You may think you're pretty damn awesome but you're just too content to notice you're not!

You may “think” you’re pretty damn awesome but you’re just too content to notice you’re not!

I’m a monster
This article is going to make me rather unpopular.

Despite our constant desire to hear it, the truth rarely makes us happy. It’s for exactly that reason that I’ve written this; If I don’t, no one else will and nothing will change.

The only solution to the Bah! Cycle is self-awareness. Awareness of one’s own need to improve. We can’t expect others to tell someone they’re a Bah!-dancer, it could be too easily taken as offensive. But then again, people go years without noticing. It’s a tough one to call. This is where constructive criticism from friends could come in handy.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to strive to be an “amazing dancer”. I’m too much of a realist to assume that’s even possible. I do feel, however, that a lot of individuals and even entire Salsa scenes could do well by setting there standards higher; from “Basic” to “Good”!

If this article has offended you, stop for a minute and think. Why have you been offended? Have I struck a personal chord? Have you realized something about yourself? Have you become self-aware? If so, do something about it!

Keep dancing folks.

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What to do when you’re S#!T at Dancing (or anything else for that matter)

7 Jan

I wrote this article last month, less than a week before I left New York. I’ve waited until now to publish it because January is a time of many, new (usually self-imposed) challenges for lots of people and I genuinely think that this could help a lot of people to break through their limitations and succeed where otherwise they might have given up. I got a little worked up writing it so please excuse the profanity. I hope you find it useful (the article, not the profanity).

Why they hell do I even bother? I’m just useless. Why have I been wasting my time for all these years? I have absolutely nothing to show for it.
I’m still an awful dancer. I should just give up already!

Things like this have been running through my head a lot lately. Some nights when I’m dancing I even let them get the better of me. Those are pretty shi##y nights.

Almost two and a half years ago I left Ireland, moved to Colombia and started learning Cali-style salsa. While it’s not the most technical type of salsa (at least in the form that it’s danced in the clubs there) I wanted to learn to loosen myself up when I dance, to dance more naturally and relaxed, to dance more “like a Latino”.

Many times I just wanted to give up. Who was I to think that I, an Irishman, could ever dance naturally… with “sabor”?

But I didn’t give up. I just kept going, as much as I kept telling myself to do otherwise.

Eventually, I loosened up. Now I dance salsa caleña.

About 3 and a half months ago I left Cali and landed in Cuba. I got straight into learning Cuban-style salsa, pretty intensively. I progressed quickly in the classes but as we all know, when it comes to dance, learning something in class is one thing, applying it on the dance floor is another.

On some of my first nights out dancing in La Habana I couldn’t remember any of what I had learned that very day and kept giving up and just reverting back to LA style. I kept a journal while in Cuba and I remember one particularly bad night at a club where I just slipped into a complete state of self loathing and wrote this while sitting outside the club:

“I’m just getting so pissed off with dancing.
I can barely remember the moves I learn let alone put them all together in fluid combinations. And then my body movement is awful, there is no sabor to my dance. I see other people dancing so well, making the dance their own doing incredible styling and I can’t go up and share the same dance floor with them. I feel too embarrassed to do it. I don’t know how I can have such highs and lows as this. Sometimes I feel like I wasted the last 2 years of my life in Cali…”

That night, the bad thoughts got the better of me and I left angry and disillusioned. However, the very next day I went right back into class and practiced again and again and again.

At the end of my 3 weeks there, I could dance salsa cubana and hold my own on the dance floor.

Sometimes it can seem easier just to give up.  Nothing was ever achieved that way!

Sometimes it can seem easier just to give up.
Nothing was ever achieved that way!

A little over a month and a half ago I found myself in New York city and about 2 weeks ago I started learning to dance On2. My first ever dance On2 was actually a three minute long shine as I didn’t even hold hands with my  partner. It wasn’t completely On2 but it was a start.

I’m writing this post, one week later, on the train ride home after another night of dancing in the same club where I danced that first “dance” On2. I had promised myself that I was going to try to dance On2 as much as possible.

I started off awfully. I was stopping and starting, messing up my timing, just making a general mess of things. I wanted to stop right there. I looked at the other dancers, at how well they danced, at how well they maintained their timing, at how much better they were then me.

I danced with someone else. Not much better. I was so close to just walking out, right there and then… But I didn’t. I danced with someone else. Terrible; I kept slipping off time and ended up apologizing to each of my partners at the end of each song.

Some of them were so nice, even saying they didn’t even realize I had slipped into On1 during the dance. I doubt that’s true but I appreciated the fallacy.

I would walk away, mentally face-palming myself, praying that no one had watched my pathetic attempt at New York style.

Then came the last dance. With pretty much the only girl remaining with whom I hadn’t already danced. I let her know in advance what she was in for, just as I had done with all the others, out of courtesy.

It was a relatively slow song, smooth… nice. I stepped back and started leading, frantically counting “1,2,3…5,6,7” in my head, applying the moves I knew from LA-style. 3 minutes later, the song was over, we were both still standing… and smiling. I had danced the entire song On2…

Tonight I won.

She thanked me and told me she had no idea why I warned her at the start of the song. I thanked her back.

Tonight, I didn’t let the voices in my head get the better of me. Tonight I ignored them. Tonight I won.

Learning to ignore the voices
Whenever we try something new, something that requires skill, we inevitably get to a point where we feel that we’re only wasting our time. The voices that tell us that we’re no good, that we’ll never be any good, get louder.

I’ve heard them many times with so many things that I’ve dedicated time to: dance, karate, surfing, cooking, languages etc. Sometimes I listen and that’s it for me with that endeavor… for that day!!! However, I come back the next, with a clear mind and I get right back to it.

And that’s how we win.

No matter what we do in life, the voices will always be there, we can either listen to them and give up or we can just get better at ignoring them.

We will have days when the voices win. Days when we concede defeat and go home, with our egos bruised and our heads hung low. It’s ok, everyone has days like that at times but the only way we will ever savor the sweet taste of victory, the only way way will enjoy the fruits of our labor is if we keep those days to a minimum.

And how do we do that? We stop listening to the voices. We will always hear them but we don’t have to listen. They might scream out “You Suck” but you can hit ’em right back with a “F@#K OFF!” and get back to what you were doing… winning.

At the end of the day it’s all in our heads. Seriously, in the VAST majority of cases the culprit behind our failures in life is that stupid part of our brains filled with self-doubt. That’s where the voices come from.

To enjoy victory, it’s just a matter of ignoring those voices and saying “You’re wrong, I can do this. Just watch me.”

I did just that tonight and it was hard. I wanted to throw in the towel after every awkward dance… but I didn’t. Tonight I won and victory, my friends, is sweet!

Success comes when you scream louder than the defeatist voices.

Success comes when you scream louder than the voices.

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

Hands-Free Salsa (a way to switch from On1 to On2)

30 Nov
Switching from On1 to On2 can be tough. Try this  hands-free follow method to automate your new timing.

Switching from On1 to On2 can be tough. Try this hands-free follow method to automate your new timing.

Don’t worry folks, I’m still alive.

Due to some unexpected circumstances I’ve been unable to update the blog this month (hence this quick post I’m writing just to make sure I at least publish something for the month of November).

The same unfortunate circumstances have meant that I have done virtually no dancing since I arrived in New York. For those of you following what I’m up to you’ll realize that I’m not very happy about this. Anyway,starting a few days ago, I finally have some time to take some dance classes; a total of two, with the lovely Maria Torres. I’ve also been out dancing on 3 occasions; Jimmy Anton’s Social, Santo Rico’s social in Queens and Candela Fridays where I danced last night.

My Confession
Now, I have a pretty major sin to confess. Every time I have danced here in New York, I have danced On1. But wait, wait, before you turn up your noses and decide to never read this blog again, hear me out.

My first two nights out, my jaw was literally hanging around my ankles watching the level of the dancers I saw. If I had attempted to dance On2 (without any practice whatsoever) it would have been the salsa equivalent of watching two white Americans hugging; Awkward!

I didn’t want to put anyone through that and also… I just wanted to dance (I really needed to dance off some pent up stress). So I just asked around, found out who could dance On1 and had a great time dancing with them (one girl actually told she hadn’t realized it could be so much fun to dance On1!)

Last night at Candela Friday on 34th street I had one dance with a girl who I had noticed was not completely comfortable dancing On2; she was an excellent dancer but I could see from the expression on her face as she was being turned that she wasn’t completely comfortable with the timing. It turns out she was German and much more used to On1. So I started my night off with LA style and figured that it was going to stay that way for the rest of the night 😦

However, I noticed this one girl who was dancing beautifully but she wasn’t holding hands with any of her partners. She was pretty much just dancing shines the whole night (and dancing them with an awesome Hip-Hop style that I would definitely be happy to see more of).

Anyway, my Irish accent has giving me a lot more confidence when approaching people here so I had no problem in moseying up alongside her and asking, point blank, “So, do you just really like dancing shines or what?”. I got an instant laugh and an explanation. Turns out she was nursing a rotator cuff injury and wasn’t comfortable using her arms but she also couldn’t resist the urge to go out dancing (with such an awesome scene as in New York, I can’t blame her).

She asked me if I wanted to dance (specifically, she asked “would you like to dance across from me?” 😀 ) and I (with my usual awkward laugh indicating I’m not comfortable with the answer) told her that I couldn’t dance On2. I gave the explanation you guys just read up top.

Ms. Motivator
She gave me pretty much the exact same advice I would give someone in the same situation. You’ve got to practice to get comfortable with the timing and to make everything automatic. Absolutely spot on! However, I was intimidated by the level of everyone else and didn’t want to look completely uncoordinated (I know, I’m such a hypocrite).

Then she did what it appears most girls have to do with me these days and took the bull by the horns. She walked out on the floor and told me we were dancing (and I had no say in the matter).

And we danced, with no hands, starting back and forth and then doing cross body and lots of shines… On2. Fair enough, I slipped back into On1 on occasion but I caught myself and got right back On2. And you know what? I had a blast.

And that my dear friends, is the story of my first ever dance On2.

No major disasters, no uncomfortable fumbling with combinations… just a really enjoyable dance with a really cool follower (or should I say lead in this case?).

Lesson learned
So yeah, I just learned a great way to switch over from On1 to On2. Dancing hands free with a partner who knows New York style well to “lead” the timing helps you maintain your footwork On2, and not having to worry about your hands frees up your mind to improve the muscle memory in your feet. Also it’s great for working on your shines.

If you’re considering switching over to On2, give it a shot.

Ciao from New York and keep dancing folks!

Note: This whole post was typed up, edited and published on my iPhone in about an hour and a half. It was a total pain in the backside and I’m going to blame it for any errors or irregularities in the text. My apologies, I’ll be using my laptop next time.

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Fiona Uyema

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