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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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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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My Cuban Salsa Adventure: 3 Weeks of Casino, Rumba & Sabor

24 Sep

In this article I’ll be giving some recommendations of salsa schools in Havana and also on places to go dancing. Next week I should have an article on general traveling tips for Havana, a city you should definitely consider visiting.

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

 

 I’m currently in the U.S. of A folks, I arrived in Miami last week after 3 weeks in the Mecca of salsa; Cuba. Here’s the article I started writing over there.

It’s been a few weeks of highs and lows.

I started writing this article in El Escorial, a beautiful café in the equally beautiful Plaza Vieja in Havana’s old town, one of the most architecturally stunning neighborhoods I have ever visited in my life. This is one of the highs.

However, I started writing this article because I physically can’t do anything else… I injured my neck this morning and can barely move without wincing in pain so it’s either sulk in the air-conditioned comfort of my “casa particular”… or write. I chose the more constructive latter. This is one of the lows.

We’ll get to my neck injury later.

In my last article, almost a month ago, I wrote about my challenge to learn Cuban-style salsa, casino, as well as learning as much about this country (or at least Havana) as I could in my short stay here.

Let’s be terribly unoriginal and summarize some of the more interesting points from this little adventure:

  • I took 27 hours of private lessons of salsa, rumba and a little reggaeton
  • I went out dancing a total of about 14 nights
  • I walked aimlessly around the streets of Havana enough to wear holes in my sandals
  • I discovered it’s actually possible to sweat more water than one consumes in a day  (some additional water may have been lost as tears)
  • I received countless offers of taxis, cigars and chicas
  • I went to a Cuban wedding party
  • I met some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered
  • I got to see a traditional Santería (Cuban religion of African origin) party in someone’s home
  • I learned that Cuba has some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen

Cuban Salsa from scratch (almost)
Let’s get down and dirty and talk about what people most want to hear about from that list (this site is, after all, mostly about dancing (or at least my attempts at it)).

My previous experience with casino had been a few sporadic classes in Miyazaki, Japan when I first started dancing salsa. I ended up forgetting most of what I had learned as I stuck with LA-style salsa but I regularly used one or two Cuban turns even when I danced LA and this helped me a lot when I started dancing Cali-style salsa.

To give you an idea of my “transformation”, I’ll explain things like this:

On my first night out (Friday) in Havana (before I had taken any classes here) I sat on a sofa in the bar of “Hotel Florida” with my jaw hanging somewhere around my ankles, staring in awe at some of the most intricate dancing I had seen in years.

I psyched myself up (this took a while) and finally worked up the courage to ask one of the local girls for a dance. Before we started I told her clearly that I didn’t know how to dance salsa cubana. The look of discomfort that I saw flashing in her eyes caused the flock of butterflies in my stomach to go on a rampage.

What happened next… was not pretty. I managed to pull off some basic turns from salsa caleña but in general things were sloppy. Let’s just leave it at that. I sat down disheartened after only one dance and thought to myself: I need to start classes soon.

Fast forward to the night before writing this article (Sunday, 16 days after that first night) and I danced Casino… all… night… long. I filled my dances with “dile que no”, “corona”, “habana loco”, “America”, “setenta y tres” and a whole host of other moves who’s names escape me. Now, it may not have been the most finely choreographed display of salsa cubana ever performed but I can definitely say that I now dance casino… and I love it.

How to dance Casino in under 3 weeks
First things first, I owe my progress entirely to the fantastic teachers in the school recommended to me by my friend Tanja from The Cuban Food Blog, who was my initial contact for all things Cuban (thanks for everything Tanja 😉 ).

The formula that worked for me was the following (and in my opinion it’s the best way to learn any social dance):

  • regular classes with good teachers
  • recording new movements learned
  • regular social dancing

I took about 25 hours of private classes with “La Casa del Son” (it would have been more had it not been for my neck injury calling a halt to everything that required… you know… movement!). The majority of the classes were of Cuban salsa but I also spent a good amount of time learning rumba (a traditional Cuban dance of African origin that heavily influenced salsa). Rumba is not easy, especially with my teacher Adrián the perfectionist but I think it can really enrich one’s salsa and especially one’s body movements (although don’t expect to see results quickly, the road to rumba is a long one).

At the end of every salsa class I took I a video of myself and the teacher dancing the combinations we had learned. This is vital for remembering not only the sequence required for each movement but also for just remembering the sheer volume of moves that you can learn in a couple of intensive weeks of salsa classes. Even on nights out dancing socially, if I couldn’t remember a particular move I would just take a quick look at the video on my phone to remind myself.

Finally I went out dancing very regularly. The great thing about the school is that the teachers go out as a group quite regularly so I was able to go out and practice what I had learned frequently and with great dancers. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times “You learn the moves in class, you learn to dance on the floor!”. The more frequently one dances socially and with the greater the variety of partners the better one commits new moves and combinations to muscle memory, making them far easier to execute in the future.

Picking a Salsa School in Havana
If you go to a popular salsa club in Havana you’ll probably meet a whole host of amazing dancers who will offer you private classes. However, being a good dancer does not necessarily translate into being a good teacher so bear that in mind.

Luckily my school was recommended to me and I can gladly recommend it to you too. I took the grand majority of my classes at “La Casa del Son” and I was very happy that I did.

The school has 4 separate, mirrored practice-rooms and is located in the center of old Havana (the heart of the tourist area). The school has a team of 6 male and 7 female instructors who are not only great dancers and teachers but they are also one of the most fun groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. They really take you under their wing at the school and make you feel like one of the family. Going out dancing with these guys is an experience and a half.

They offer classes in Salsa, Son, Rumba, Afrocuban folkloric dances, Tango, Kizomba, Bachata and Reggaeton so I really recommend taking the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can with them.

The school’s details are as follows:

  • Address: Empedrado No. 411 entre Aguacate and Compostela
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8671537  or  (53 6)2641047
  • Email: lacasadelson@bailarencuba.com

Ask for Ray when you visit or email them and tell him that Richie (the dancing Irishman with the beard) sent you. I hope to get a few favors out of sending them a little business (just so we’re clear).

To be honest you’re best off visiting the school as soon as you arrive in Havana so you can organize your class’ and so you can get information on where to go dancing every night of the week (they really helped me out with this). It’s also great because the teachers can become your social circle while you’re visiting the city and it’s always more fun going dancing with a group of friends than going solo (especially in a new city).

I also took classes with Maria Elena Hernandez, a teacher at the well know Marisuri Escuela de Bailes Cubanos. They classes I took were mostly on body movement but she also teaches Folklore, Rumba, Casino and Son.

  • Telephone: (05 2) 760194
  • Email: marielenala@carpusmail.com

I also can recommend a newly opened school called Salsabor a Cuba, which has a group of fantastic dancers teaching salsa, son, cha cha cha, rumba, folklore, and reueda del casino.

  • Address: Calle Oficio No. 18 (First floor, Apartment 5) entre Obispo and Obrapia
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8608982  or  (53 5) 3027501
  • Internet: www.salsaborcuba.com

Where to dance in Havana
You can only enjoy the salsa in any city if you actually know where to find it. This can be issue when you first arrive in Cuba. Luckily I just had to ask my teachers at the end of the day where they were going to go that night and I had an instant destination and a group of dance partners.

I’ve included a very basic night by night list here that can “help” you decide where to go. I’ve left out a huge amount of places that will no doubt enrage other Habana experts but I’ve decided to just include the safe bets that I visited myself. You will be able to find the directions to each venue by asking at any large hotel in Havana (i.e. I’m too lazy to look up the address/contact details).

  • Monday: Hotel Florida
  • Tuesday: Casa de la Musica (Miramar) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Wednesday: Casa de la Musica (Galiano) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Thursday: 1830 (pronounced “mil ochocientos treinta”) until 12pm (I loved dancing here)
  • Friday: Hotel Florida
  • Saturday: Hotel Florida or Casa de la Musica (either)
  • Sunday: 1830 and the secret club full of locals that I’m not going to reveal for fear of ruining it 😛

Remember this, when all else fails, Hotel Florida is a safe bet for dancing every night of the week all though I  didn’t really like the atmosphere in the place. It’s full of tourists and people trying to take advantage of them. That said, if you go anywhere with a group of friends you’ll have a good night.

I recommend the matinees in La Casa de la Musica because it’s cheaper and you tend to get more regular locals there dancing. The later shows tend to be frequented by people on the prowl for foreigners.

Feeling like a beginner again
The interesting thing about learning a new style of salsa is that it makes you feel like a complete dance beginner all over again… which really sucks.

I went from being totally confident in my environment in Cali where I know I dance well to a new environment with new rules and new standards that made me feel like I knew nothing. And you know what, that’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.

I think it’s great to feel like a beginner again, out of one’s depth. Obviously it sucks at the time as you lose confidence and you feel overly self-conscious about your dancing but you overcome it because you’re reminded of how you were when you started out with other styles. Then all you have to do is remember how much progress you made with those styles and it actually encourages you to drive forward.

On this trip to Cuba I experienced many moments where I felt like I didn’t want to dance in public because I felt I would look ridiculous around the people who had been dancing for years. My confidence hit a low and I would get frustrated (as I regularly do). However, all I had to do to get over it was remember that I’ve done it all before, with LA style salsa and salsa caleña. And thinking of that got me right back in the game.

With dance, the initial learning curve tends to be uncomfortable but just remember that all great dancers most likely had to go through a brief period where they “probably” sucked. That’s the price to pay to dance well and honestly it’s a bargain.

Loads more for another time
This article already is way too long and there’s a lot more that I want to write about dancing in Cuba but I’m going to have to save it for another article.

Note to self: when taking pictures of sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

Note to self: when taking pictures of Cuban sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

My adventure in North America is just starting so I’ve got lots to keep me occupied for the next few weeks. Remember, if you have any recommendations for dancing or places to visit along the east coast of the U.S. drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Most Famous Salsa Teacher in Cali, Colombia (and he’s Irish???)

8 Jul

As of last Wednesday, July 3rd, the Dancing Irishman is now probably the most well known salsa teacher in Cali, Colombia.

I was featured in an episode of the show, “Tiempo Real” which aired last week on the local Cali channel, Telepacifico. You can check out the clip below.

The whole thing came about when a journalist friend of mine (muchas gracias, Paola) mentioned my story to a a friend of hers who was looking for stories about foreigners doing things a little bit “different” in Cali. Apparently and Irishman teaching salsa in the “world capital of salsa” qualifies as different… (go figure).

In the clip you can hear some of my students talking about my teaching technique and a number of them mention a couple of things that have given me my own little niche here in the (as you can imagine) “saturated” market of salsa teachers in Cali. Those would be:

  • I speak English (which makes teaching a hell of a lot more efficient when your students don’t speak Spanish)
  • I break down the movements in a way that local teachers simply don’t do because that’s how I learned myself and that’s why my students, some of whom have never been able to dance in their lives, learn salsa so fast.

Another thing that I think has been helping my students is the fact that I only teach moves that they can use (in the “wild”) in salsa clubs in Cali. Most big dance schools here tend to teach a huge amount of complicated footwork which is fine if you eventually want to perform in a show or something like that but in general, you don’t see that out on the dance-floors in Cali and very few “untrained” girls can follow it.

On the other hand I stick to refining my students basics, body movements and turn patterns so they can use everything they learn on an average night out in Cali with the vast majority of dancers. It looks like that plan has been paying off.

Wouldn't you like a mild mannered, poorly accented, bearded Irishman as your salsa teacher???

Wouldn’t you like a mild mannered, poorly accented, bearded Irishman as your salsa teacher???

The Accented Irishman
In the video you also get to hear my spectacularly awful Spanish accent. I literally cried when I heard it for the first time :-(. Thankfully, some of my friends have assured me that I don’t speak that way normally so I’m going to put it down to being nervous in front of the cameras (I’m really very shy 😉 ). It has, however, given me the incentive to work more on my accent in Spanish, so I should have an article on that in a few weeks.

Anyway, since the show aired last week I’ve been getting a huge amount of emails from people (most of whom are Colombian) wanting to take salsa classes with me (Wuhoo for mass media). I guess with the World Salsa Championships just around the corner (August 5th) people want to learn what their city is famous for.

So there you have it, how an Irishman ended up teaching salsa in the World Capital of Salsa: Cali, Colombia.

Keep dancing folks.

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Why You Need To Dance With Better Dancers

2 Jul
If you want to get better you've got to go "toe to toe" with the best!

If you want to get better you’ve got to go “toe to toe” with the best!

I’ve landed on my face, been punched in the ribs, kicked in the throat, I’ve even taken a shot to the “meat and two veg” (thank God for sports-cups). I’ve had my pale Irish arse handed to me on a plate numerous times and truth be told I’m grateful for every single experience.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not referring to some sick “Fight Club” version salsa where you not only have to keep on time with the music but you have to watch out for body blows from your partner and everyone else on the dance-floor. While the thought of becoming a salsa dancing version of “Tyler Durden” does fill me with intrigue, I can’t see the whole movement really taking off (nobody wants bloodstains on their favorite dancing waist-coat).

No, I’m taking about when I used to spar competitively in karate tournaments.

As a kid I was never big into team sports (I’m still not) which was “unusual” for my village in Ireland where both boys and girls were almost expected to play gaelic football, hurling and soccer (which all three of my brothers play). So in order to not feel left out in the trophy cabinet I contributed with trophies and medals I received for kicking people.

I appreciated sparring a lot; it’s a beautiful balance of speed, timing, accuracy of movement and adaptation to your partner. It’s no wonder then that a lot of salseros I know also have a background in martial-arts. The two disciplines compliment eahc other beautifully. in fact, there are very few differences between a well performed “kata” and a perfectly executed salsa combination.

Better Partners
I learned very early on in my karate career that if I really wanted to improve my sparring ability, I needed to spar with partners who were better than me. If I spent the majority of my time sparring with beginners I made very little improvement. However, if I went a few rounds with the bigger, more experienced guys in the club I made noticeable improvements in very little time.

I loved getting to spar with my coach and the older guys who knew what they were doing. As I said, I had my arse handed to me plenty of times but I knew that every time I stepped on the floor with them, being pushed to my limits, I was getting better and better.

That all came to fruition (sort of) about 3 years ago when I got my black belt and entered a regional karate tournament n southern Japan. In on of my fights I was put up against a guy who my coach “casually” mentioned just before I stepped on the floor , had won the world championship the year before.

I learned two very important things from that fight:

  1. Protective head-gear really does very little to soften a punch and…
  2. There is no better learning experience than going toe to toe with with your clear superior

“Your Salsa is Strong, Grasshopper”
This is something that salseros should take into account when they’re dancing.

When I was a salsa beginner I used to spend most of my time dancing with other beginners for 2 simple reasosns:

  • I knew the other beginners from the salsa classes and we were friends
  • The mere thought of dancing with the really advanced dancers made me break out in a cold sweat

This obviously meant that I wasn’t making much progress in the beginning!

My first salsa “break” came when I left Japan for a 10 day salsa vacation to the Philippines and Hong Kong. I improved hugely in those 10 days because I was both dancing much more regularly (thank you law of 10,000 hours) and I was dancing with seriously good dancers. It was a winning combination.

Dancing with dancers much better than yourself is one of the best ways to to up your salsa game… fast. You learn timing and rhythm, proper hand position and signaling, better body movement etc. Like I’ve always said before, the dance floor is where you really learn to dance!

Obviously a beginner girl dancing with an advanced guy is going to improve quicker than a beginner guy with an advanced girl. This is simply because the guy has more points to master and this is the main reason that women advance in salsa much faster than men.

The challenge of seeking better dancers
Going out and dancing with all the the great dancers that you see on the dance floor is much easier said than done, I know, but you don’t have to spend ALL your dances with the best in the club.

While you might not always find a partner as good as Tanja "La Alemana" you can surely find plenty of dancers better than yourself!

While you might not always find a partner as good as Tanja “La Alemana” you can surely find plenty of dancers better than yourself!

Obviously the more great dancers you dance with the better but even trying to have 3 or 4 such dances a night will go a long way to improving your game.

To do this originally, I set myself a challenge. My challenge was to find the woman that I considered to be the the best dancer in a club and ask her for a dance. I remember the first night of that challenge too.

I was in Fukuoka and my target was a beautiful salsa instructor from Colombia. I set my sights on her early in the night and it literally took me a whole night of heart palpitations, sweaty palms and aborted attempts (imagine me walking up to ask her and then suddenly doing a 180 as soon as I got close, numerous times) before I finally asked her to dance.

When we eventually did dance, it was awesome. She responded to everything I threw at her (which in all honesty wasn’t really that much) and I finished the encounter feeling like a million bucks and wondering why it had taken me so long to ask her to dance in the first place.

Get out of your Comfort Zone
I think that’s the problem! We stop ourselves from leaving our nice, safe comfort zones because we focus on all the things that could “possibly” go wrong! We scare ourselves into believing all these terrifying disasters can happen if we take little risks. That’s no way to live.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and dancing with people who are better than you is simply one of the best things you can do to get better.

You need to remember that we get better due to necessity, due to a stimulus that tells our bodies that we need to improve. Just as a guy who lifts weights heavier than he’s used to gets bigger and stronger or just like a child that is sent to school in a foreign country learns the language quickly, so to will your salsa improve when you dance with great dancers because IT NEEDS TO!

You need the stimulus of a challenge, of something more difficult than what you’re used to, to improve.

So on your next night out dancing, step out of your comfort zone and ask out a few of the best dancers you see and prepare to get a whole lot better.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Importance of Being Grateful

23 Apr
Being consciously grateful has many of the benefits of meditation!

Being consciously grateful has many of the benefits of meditation!

We all want…

We want more money.

We want to look better naked.

We want pie.

We want more respect from our coworkers.

We want to be better dancers… lovers… parents… painters… friends… speakers…

We want, we want, we want!

The truth is there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting. It’s perfectly natural and it motivates us to work for what we want in life.

However, if you are in a constant state of “want” you can begin to feel deprived and if you consistently feel deprived your mood and general well-being can seriously suffer. On the extreme end of the scale you could even begin to experience depression.

One thing that we need to realize these days is that no matter how much we “want” we also need to be aware of the many blessings that we already “have” in our lives.

Everyone needs to be grateful
I learned about the importance of gratitude as a way to improve general well-being in the same way I’ve come to learn about many useful things in my life; through necessity.

A few years ago I went through a personal “rough patch” that put me on a path to trying to sort it out for myself. I ended up reading a few self-help books and I took a particular interest in the books written by the very famous Tony Robbins. I learned a few different things and it certainly opened my mind to the power of technologies like Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

But of all the things I learned from that time in my life, one of the few that I have maintained and practiced consistently over the years and which is probably the simplest of them all, is conscious gratitude.

Conscious Gratitude. Why?

Why? It is simply the fastest way I have ever found to feel better… immediately and long-term.
And there are a whole host of other reasons why you should practice gratitude regularly, including:

  • better mental health
  • improves the quality of your relationships
  • greater happiness
  • helps you deal with loss and negative emotions
  • improved performance at work and school
  • better sleep
  • improves your immune system and overall health

Check out this article on Huffington Post for a more detailed look on the benefits of being grateful.

How
To be honest there are probably a million different ways to do this but I’m going to tell you how I do because I’ve found it both effective and easy to make a regular habit. It only takes 2 or 3 minutes a day.

  • Pick a time: You need to make this a habit so make being grateful part of your regular schedule. It could be first thing in the morning or right after lunch. Preferably it should be a time when you can be alone and quiet (not the easiest things to find these days). Personally I always do it at the very end of my stretching routine after I exercise, that way I always just add it on to my time in the gym.
  • Optional: Pick an upbeat song you like: Something that makes you feel good that lasts for 3 0r 4 minutes. You can listen to it as you do the activity and use it like a timer, letting you know when you’ve done enough.
  • Get comfortable: Find a position you’re comfortable sitting or lying in. If you’re at home you could lie on the couch or sit in a favorite chair. I’m a little bit of a purist so I do it seated in “seiza” something I picked up from my karate training. Seiza is not easy so I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to beginners. Whatever position works for you for 3 minutes should be fine.
seiza

Seiza, the traditional way of sitting in Japan, is definitely not for beginners!

  • Close your eyes: This is not necessary but it definitely helps you to visualize and focus. I’ve learned how to do this with my eyes open over time but whenever I can (i.e. when I’m alone) I do it with my eyes closed because it just feels easier and more effective.
  • Think about everything you’re grateful for: this is the “bread and butter” of this activity. You should think of everything you have in your life and are grateful for and try to visualize it in your mind. When you visualize it, consciously feel the sensations of happiness that come with the thoughts of those things. The most important part of this whole activity is that you actually make yourself feel good by thinking of these things in your life that you have been blessed with. Only focus on the positive things that make you happy. Physically smile and enjoy the sensation while you think of everything. Don’t be worried if anyone sees you doing this. What’s the worst they can say? Ha, that guy looks really happy !!! (What a burn!)

A few ideas for things to be grateful about might be:

  • The people you love in your life, your family, your friends, your partner
  • Your health
  • All the good experiences you’ve had in life
  • The coming days, weeks and months and all the amazing possibilities they hold
  • That beautiful girl who wears virtually nothing at the gym
  • Your job and the opportunities it has brought you
  • The delicious meal you had with friends last weekend
  • Your achievements over the years
  • Your skills and the things you do well; cooking, dancing, making ornaments out of paperclips
  • The challenges you’ve faced that have shaped you for the better
smiley

Be grateful. It’s a great way to perk-up your day!

Consciously think of these things, visualize them and experience the happiness and gratitude that they make you feel!

And that’s it. Feel better for the rest of the day knowing how much you have to be grateful for in life.

It’s gonna be one hell of a great day.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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