Tag Archives: Dance

The Greatest Salsa Playlist EVER!

10 Oct

YES I DO!

If you’re impatient you can go straight to the playlists here.

First off, my apologies for my lack of posts these last three weeks. It’s been kind of crazy at work during the day, which I’m not so happy about and I’ve been dancing a lot more in the evenings, which I’m very happy about.

Moving on, I’ve been spending a lot of time playing around with my latin music playlists and I think I’ve come up with something spectacular.

There are songs that, as soon as you hear them, make you want to get up and dance. It might be the chorus, the opening or the variation in the rhythms. It might be the lyrics, the percussion, the piano or the brass. What they all have in common is a certain magic that makes my body want to convert that music into pure dance energy. All of the songs on my new playlists have to meet this requirement.

Asking Around
Recently I’ve been asking a lot of friends and readers of this blog for their favourite songs for two reasons:

  1. to remind me of songs that I may have forgotten to include and …
  2. to introduce me to new songs which I hadn’t heard before.

What I’ve come up with is what I feel is an amazing mix of songs for dancing the 4 main styles of salsa: Linear On1, Linear On2, Cuban and Cali style.

Evolution
This list is by no means finished, it is going to constantly grow and evolve. I’m going to add more songs as I encounter more that I like and more importantly, my tastes are going to evolve themselves.

Since I moved to Cali, I’ve been exposed to to much more salsa music (and every other latin genre) than ever before. I’ve come to enjoy really fast salsas that I can really get my feet moving to. On the other end of the scale, I also now love slow salsas which are danced very close and sensually here.

And on top of that, I still love dancing linear (cross-body) salsa to the more medium paced songs that are popular in such salsa communities outside of Latin America.

Learning Spanish and finally understanding the lyrics of songs has affected my taste in music too and has given me great motivation for my Spanish practice.

The Playlists
You can see the lists here on the blog or you can check out all my songs on The Dancing Irishman’s YouTube page which is more up to date and you can also view the individual Salsa, Bachata and Latin Mix (very eclectic mix of very different latin music genres that equally, make me want to get up and dance in one form or another) lists.

It’s my list
You may love the songs I’ve chosen or you may hate them. This is my list and for me it is the Greatest Playlist Ever! If I mixed the salsa, bachata and latin mix lists together and used them in a party I would have the greatest night of dancing ever!

Thankfully, you’re different. You and your style are unique. I do want you to like my lists but more than that I hope this will give you the incentive to go and create your own, to discover more about your own tastes and to learn more about the incredible wealth of music out there. I guarantee it will make you much more complete, not just as a salsero or bachatero but as an all round rumbero.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Cloudy Dancer

22 Aug

“The wind blows gently and the cloud follows,
one giving its force
one giving its form
together, united, as one,
The wind blows gently and the cloud follows.”

A dance with a “Cloudy Dancer” is nothing short of magical!

For me, it’s the ultimate dance. A dance where you barely feel your partner while at the same time feeling everything! The guide is light as is the contact between each dancer but a light touch is all that’s needed. Just enough for the idea, the intention to be understood between each other.

It doesn’t have to be the most complicated dance ever, nor the most spectacular. What’s important is that everything just works; no tugs, no false leads, no off timing… pure dance magic!

I first started using the term “cloudy dancer” to describe some wonderful salseras I had the pleasure of dancing with when I moved to Dublin. Dancing with a cloudy dancer is just how it sounds. Their touch you barely feel yet they respond to your lightest lead with a precision that astounds me!

Clearly, the name I went with isn’t that original, nor does it sound particularly catchy but it describes exactly what I feel when I dance with a “Cloudy Dancer”. Like a wisp of vapor; I’m aware of her presence only by the lightest of sensations on my fingertips.

What’s even more special about them is that they’re not all that common but, by God, once you dance with one you’ll thank the heavens for their existence.

As soon as the music plays and you both start dancing you’ll feel it. The connection without resistance, the flow without force, the magic. You won’t be able to hide the smile on your face and you won’t want to. Your confidence will skyrocket, inexplicably knowing that whatever you do will just work… and work beautifully at that. Adrenaline will flow and hearts will race and when the music comes to an end you’ll want to embrace her… or kiss her… but you won’t.

You’ll thank her and walk away, your feet as light as her touch when you danced, feeling a euphoria which only comes from the near perfect orchestration of two individuals moving as one. At this stage you won’t mind going home. It’s the type of dance that fulfills your whole night, the type of dance you can retire on.

At least that’s how it feels for me!

I also know (although I don’t know why) that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it’s like to dance with a cloudy dancer. My salsa still leaves a huge amount of room for improvement and as I get better I know that I’m going to feel the dance like I’ve never felt it before… and I can’t wait.

This post hasn’t really offered anything in the line of advice but if anything I hope it motivates you go out and dance with more people in the hopes that you’ll get to experience a dance like that for yourself, that will fill you with a reinvigorated love for salsa or bachata or whatever. It really is something very special.

Thank you, Cloudy Dancer!

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Up your numbers! The August Challenge

2 Aug

Start dancing and watch those numbers soar!

It is a new month and I’ve decided to make it a month of challenges.

A few posts back I wrote about the rule of 10,000 hours and how the best way to get good at something is through huge amounts of conscious practice.

Around the time of writing that piece I also happened to come across this article written by a kindred spirit who goes by the name of Chilly (he’s got lot’s of other great articles too so check them out).  Chilly had the clever idea of challenging himself to a variation of the 10,000 hour rule whereby, instead of putting in 10,00o hours of dancing, he set out to have 1000 social dances in June and July.

The idea is to get as much practice as possible and setting yourself a goal (such as 1000 dances) is a fantastic way to motivate yourself. In fact, achieving the goal is irrelevant. What matters is getting out there and getting as much practice as you can possibly get.

If you think 1000 dances is unachievable why not set yourself a slightly lower goal. If your just a beginner why not say that you’re going to try and get 100 dances in your first month. If you easily achieve it, just aim higher for your next month.

I’m a huge fan of recording stats in order to monitor progress “what gets measured gets managed”. Chilly decided to use a tally-counter (like in the picture above) to record all of his dances. That way he knew exactly how many dances he got in the time frame he gave himself. If you do the same yourself you can try to beat your own record and don’t have to worry about comparing with anyone else.

I doesn’t have to be used just for dancing either. Try setting yourself a goal for doing sit-ups or push-ups to get fit; starting conversations with complete strangers to get over shyness; writing pages of that book you’ve been meaning to finish. Whatever you want to do, set yourself a challenge and use that motivation to achieve it.

Why not mention your own challenge in the comments below?

I’m starting my dance challenge tonight. What about you?

My salsa is better than yours!

12 Jul

Why limit yourself to dancing just one style of salsa (or to just one partner for that matter)?

The world is full of salsas: On 1, On 2, Cuban, Caleña, Lineal, Verde, Picante… with so many types it’s no wonder that things can be confusing for a budding salsero.

Almost everyone you talk to will tell you:

  • their style of salsa is the best
  • that it’s the most widely danced
  • that it’s the easiest to learn
  • that it looks the most spectacular
  • that it will help you meet the most beautiful women!

All I can say about this is: BULLS#!T, BULLS#!T, BULLS#!T.

Salsa is a dance that has evolved over the years from it’s 0riginal form in Cuba to the many diverse and beautiful styles that we see today. Just like with languages, every distinct type has something unique and beautiful to offer so it’s impossible to say that there is a “best” type. English is not the “best” language on Earth just because it is the most widely spoken nor is French because it is considered the most romantic (by some). The same applies to the different styles of salsa.

I’m very lucky in that living in many different places over the years has given me exposure to and appreciation for many different types of salsa. I started dancing LA style in Japan and got to practice Cuban style when I moved to a new city there, I was introduced to New York style in Hong Kong and later in Dublin and now I dance Cali style every week right in the World Capital of Salsa. Over the years I’ve learned to piece the different styles together helping to give my salsa it’s own particular flavor and I think that everyone should at least experiment with doing the same.

What’s your salsa?
The 4 main styles of salsa are:

  • Los Angeles (LA)
  • New York
  • Cuban
  • Caleña (Cali style)

Of these, the first 3 are probably the most widely danced internationally. I’ve included Cali style because I consider it (or at least variations of it) to be very popular in South America and because of some of its characteristics which make it unique.

LA and New York style are lineal salsas i.e. salsa that is danced forward and back in a line (or slot) whereas Cuban and Cali style are non-lineal salsas i.e. they are danced in a more circular or side-to-side fashion.

And before anyone calls me on it and tells me there are many more styles of salsa; stop right there. I’m well aware that there are other styles but they are not as widely practiced as the styles above and I don’t really have the time to research and write about them all! Maybe in another article.

LA Style
LA style salsa is also commonly known as On 1 because the “break” (i.e. the change in direction from forward to back) occurs on the 1 count (and on the 5 count when returning) with the lead starting by stepping forward.

It is probably the most popular style of salsa internationally (i.e. outside of South America). Any large, developed city in Europe, Asia, North America or Australia probably has an LA salsa community.

It features complicated hand combinations and “swing” style movements as can be seen in this video:

New York Style
Also called On 2 or Mambo, this style breaks on the 2 count (and 6 when returning) with the lead starting by stepping back which allows for a “smoother” looking dance.

It is the most popular style of salsa danced in New York (obviously) but there tends to be On 2 “sub-communities” anywhere LA style is danced.

Dancing On 2 is often seen as an evolution from dancing LA style On 1 with many advanced dancers sticking with On 2 after making the switch. Frankie Martinez gives a great quote about the transition from On1 to On 2 in this interview.

Music for On 2 dancing is influenced heavily by jazz (lost of brass and piano) resulting in a very elegant dance style that often features “shines” i.e. a time during the dance when the partners separate and dance by themselves, interpreting the music in their own ways.

Cuban Style
Salsa Cubana, also known as “Casino” is probably the second most widely danced form of salsa internationally. It developed from Cuban “Son” and the African influence in salsa can easily be seen with the freedom of movement and focus on shoulder motion.

Cuban salsa, unlike lineal salsa, is danced in a much more circular manner with the partners changing positions constantly during a dance. It also features many complicated “knot-like” hand combinations with the lead often ducking in and out of different closed hand positions. Salsa Cubana does not have a cross body lead but has a similar movement known as “Dile que no”.

Rueda de Casino: is the name for a Cuban salsa group-dance that features 2 or more pairs of dancers performing synchronized combinations and exchanging partners while dancing in a circle (rueda). The moves are directed by a “caller” who calls out the next combination to be performed. Rueda de casino circles can be huge!

Cali Style
Salsa Caleña, is the style of salsa most commonly danced in Colombia and from what I’ve seen myself, in many parts of South America. It takes a great deal of influence from another popular Colombia dance called Cumbia.

It is a non-lineal salsa with a lot of diagonal “back-step” movements and huge focus on exceptionally fast footwork and hip twisting. The basic objective is for partners to move their feet together in a synchronized fashion which can be as simple as just stepping on the same counts or it can involve very complicated leg flicks and kicks with not a huge amount of focus on arm work. There is no movement similar to the cross body lead or “Dile que no” in salsa Caleña.

Salsa Caleña also features an interesting “false” double step where the dancer taps his foot down and quickly raises his heal up and then down again which makes Cali style footwork look incredibly fast. Apparently professional dancers in Cali practice this step for hours on end supporting themselves with their hands against a wall to make themselves faster.

I’m confused! Which style should I pick?
That depends on a lot of things:

  • What styles of classes do you have available to you in your area?
  • What is the most popular style danced in your town?
  • Do you plan on learning to dance in preparation for visiting a particular country?

Do some research, and find out about your nearest salsa scene. There may not be much point in learning how to dance New York style salsa if you’re going on a two week vacation to some place in South America where no one can dance it.

But…why bother picking?
I can’t think of any logical reason why someone would want to dance only one type of salsa (apart from wanting to dedicate their time to get really good at a particular style).

Learning different styles of salsa enriches the style that you already dance and allows you to dance with even more people (just like learning a new language).

For example, in both Japan and Ireland I’ve danced with latin women (who danced salsa but never took a single dance class in their lives) and I noted straight away that they couldn’t follow a linear style of salsa. However I had taken a few Cuban salsa classes before and knew how to guide them through a more circular style of salsa that they were used to.

I spoke a little of their salsa language and because of that I could communicate better with them than if I had just continued “speaking” in my own. Have you ever been abroad and had a local shout at you in their language, hoping you’d understand if they continued long enough? Well it didn’t work then and it won’t work in salsa (at least not in the time it takes to complete a song).

Be proud of your style
People who know me know I dance a particular way and that I throw in a few extra kicks and foot flicks for flourish, which I picked up from the few classes of Cuban salsa I’ve taken and I also frequently add Cuban style turns to my mostly lineal dances. Since I moved to Cali I’ve added a lot of Cali-style moves to my toolbox too.

I’m proud of the style I’ve developed over the years through my different backgrounds and experiences and I really think everyone should aspire to develop their own unique style of salsa.

So forget about deciding on what’s the best style of salsa out there and just focus on learning as much as you can from as many different sources as you can find. You’ll be a much better dancer for it.

Keep dancing folks!

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How to be Great at Anything (Obliterating racial stereotypes in 10,000 hours)

6 Jun
English: Frankie Martinez performing "The...

Could I ever dance as well as my hero, Frankie Martinez?      With enough practice, you bet I could.

Dublin
Foreign girl: Where are you from?
Me: Ireland
Foreign girl: No your not, hahaha!

Cali
Local girl: De donde es usted? (Where are you from?)
Me: Irlanda (Ireland)
Local girl: jajaja, mentira (hahaha, lies)

I was dancing with both of these girls when they asked me these questions.

Apparently it’s common knowledge that I, as an Irishman shouldn’t be able to dance well. Apparently, I do not have the genetic material that would provide me with the bone structure and joints needed to move smoothly nor the ear for beat that would let me react intuitively to the music. Apparently, these genes can only be found in Latin and African populations which is why they’re the best dancers.

BULL S#!T

This is a lie that has been perpetuated throughout the world and especially so in the dance community for far too long. Preconceived notions like this are what stop people from even attempting new things. If we listen to them we WRONGLY believe that we are destined to fail at a certain activity because we lack a certain characteristic, be it physical or mental, that is necessary to excel in that endeavor. How many times have you heard someone say something like “Oh I could never learn Japanese, I’m no good with languages” or “I’d never be able to play the guitar. Music just isn’t my thing” or the classic “You can’t teach an old dog, new tricks”? BULL S#!T BULL S#!T BULL S#!T

I’m going to put all those lies to rest today by saying this: “I am an Irishman and I dance salsa”.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to base my entire case on that one comment. It’s time to elaborate.

When I first started dancing in Japan, I was constantly told by the people who got me into the scene in the first place, how latinos were the best dancers, that they could move better than Japanese people and really express themselves with the music. I was told this by people who danced salsa well, by the people who were teaching me how to dance. I later remember going to salsa clubs in big cities in Japan on a few occasions and seeing Japanese people dancing spectacularly with passion and rhythm and everything else that dance should be. Every bit as good as their latino counterparts.

When I returned to Ireland and started on the scene there I lost count of the times that people would tell me things like “I’ll never be as good as “so and so” because he’s black and they just move better”. One of my own dance partners (you know who you are ;-)) even told me that I would never be as good as a latino dancer because I was Irish. She was convinced that her own latin heritage meant she could feel the music differently and dance better. Yet despite this I still managed to get many comments like those at the beginning of this post in Ireland, Japan, the US and even here in Colombia, a latin country. Despite being Irish, I still dance well. (I know it sounds like I’m blowing my own horn here but I’m trying to make a point. I know for a fact that I have a very long way to go before I’m a great dancer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dance WELL now).

Some of the best compliments I ever got were when I went with my friend “la Mulata” (introducing a new character folks) to a party held by some friends of her uncle. La Mulata is, obviously, black as is her uncle and the vast majority of the people who were at the party. I, on the other hand, am super-white so I tend to stick out “a little” at such parties. I’m used to it at this stage. The lifeblood of Colombian parties is of course salsa, so the time came and I took la Mulata out on the floor and started doing what I do. It was a great dance as I had danced with la Mulata many times before but I also felt that every eye in the room was on me. It’s easy enough to justify; the white guy in a house of black people trying to dance salsa in the world capital of salsa. Everyone was dying to see if I’d be able to keep up with the beautiful black girl I was dancing with. The song ended and we walked back to our seats smiling. What came next was a stream of compliments from my hosts about how well I danced. They all expressed their surprise and told me things like “you move so well” and “you’re really able to get the rhythm”. I blushed hard (as everyone who knows me knows I do often) and went on to dance plenty more songs during the night.

A little later the only other white people at the party (a married couple and their daughter) told me how impressed they were by my dancing and I continued talking with the father for a while. He told me that he had never been able to dance, that instead he preferred to to just listen to the music and chat at parties. He thought it was really amazing that a non-Latino like me could dance salsa so well. As we were talking we watched his teenage daughter dance with her friends. She danced just like them. She moved her body, especially her hips, beautifully and in perfect rhythm with the music, just like all the other girls dancing around her. I asked her father about it and he told me that he didn’t really understand why his own daughter danced so well. Neither he nor his wife were big dancers but she simply had always been able to dance well, since she was a child.

Let’s think about this a little: a white girl whose parents can’t dance, grows up in a mostly black community, with black friends, and ends up being able to dance just like them!

Is it possible that the ability to dance doesn’t actually come from some innate genetic ability that varies among races and is in fact something that can be simply learned? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS IT IS!

Here’s the thing, in general (I have to say in general because I have encountered plenty of exceptions over the years) people of African descent and latinos are amazing dancers. Is it because their bodies move differently, because they have “dancing genes”? I’m going to say “NO”. Then why do they dance so well? I firmly believe it is all down to cultural exposure and the resulting practice.

Latino culture (at least here in Colombia) is full of music and dancing. Children are exposed to this music from a young age and start dancing salsa in primary school and continue to dance it at virtually every social function they go to during their lives. They spend a huge amount of time “practicing” so it’s no wonder they’re such good dancers. Black people in Cali often live in black neighbourhoods where they have an even stronger music and dance culture than non-afro-descended Caleños. Due to all of this exposure many of them end up being spectacular dancers. This explains how the white girl at the party was able to dance so well. She grew up in an Afro-colombian neighbourhood surrounded by its culture and “learned” to dance in exactly the same way as all her friends.

How to be Great at Anything

How can we use this, in practical terms, to improve our own dancing (or anything else for that matter)? We’ve established that even if your not of African or Latin decent you can still become an excellent dancer just by immersing yourself in the culture. So all you need to do is travel back in time and convince your parents to move to a Latin neighbourhood to raise you, right?

Thankfully it’s a little easier than that (no time travel required).

This brings me to the concept of 10,000 hours popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. I first heard of this concept while studying Japanese after discovering a great website with the snappy title of alljapaneseallthetime.com. The whole concept of “10,000 Hours” is that anyone who has ever mastered or excelled in a particular field, be it sports, arts or business, has done so only after putting in a huge amount of time (for example 10,000 hours or so) “practicing”.

Why is Tiger Woods one of the greatest golfers on Earth? Because his father introduced him to golf when he was 18 months old and encouraged him to practice constantly. By the time he was ranked world number one he had racked up years worth of experience. The Beatles honed their concert skills over four years and 1,200 live concerts in Hamburg, Germany leading them to become one of the greatest music groups the world has ever seen. Think about it, how many times have you heard of some prodigy child musician on the news? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the kid started playing the piano or whatever when he was two and practiced 3 hours a day for 10 years? Not at all!

CONSTANT, DELIBERATE PRACTICE MAKES MASTERS. IN ANY FIELD!

But hold on, if you do the math, it would take almost 14 years of practicing everyday for 2 hours a day to reach 10,000 hours!
Yes…if you want to become one of the greatest in the world.

Some people, however, have less lofty goals. The whole point of this article is to point out the importance of practicing frequently to improve your chosen skill. Practice and you will get better. If you want to dance like a latino, increase your “cultural exposure”; listen to the music every chance you get and dance to it like it’s going out of fashion. Move with the music, make it part of your life and watch how you improve.

My own personal experience with the power of constant practice came about a year after I “started” dancing salsa. As I’ve stated in an earlier post when I first started dancing salsa I had trouble getting to regular classes (due to my schedule, location and interference from other hobbies) so my initial progress was slow. So in September of 2009 after deciding I wanted a holiday and wanted to improve my salsa at the same time I booked a trip to Manila in the Philippines and Hong Kong. My logic was that I could get some private coaching there much cheaper than I could in Japan and there was a more developed salsa scene in both cities so I could dance regularly while I was there. I booked a number of private lessons with some instructors who I found by searching on the net, packed my bags and left on what is known in Japan as Shugyou (修行) (training or the pursuit of knowledge).

A birthday prank by my friends that ended up becoming the symbol for my monthly salsa parties in Miyazaki. Everyone was well aware of how big a part of my life salsa had become.

My holiday lasted about 10 days of which I had a number of hours of private salsa instruction (maybe 6) and I also went out social dancing almost every night (amounting to maybe 24 hours of practice). So when I came back to Japan 10 days later I had an extra 30 hours of practice under my belt. It showed. My salsa friends in Japan noticed straight away a huge improvement in my leading skills and general movement. I moved smoother and more easily and my lead became lighter but more definitive. In less than 2 weeks I had returned a different dancer.

I needed to increase the amount of time I spent practicing so I took matters into my own hands. I started organizing a monthly salsa class and party to get more people interested in salsa and so I could dance more. It took off and once a month my salsa friends and I would teach beginners the basic salsa steps and then dance for hours on end until our feet ached. I tried to practice with a partner on occasion too and I tried to occasionally make the 4 hour bus ride to Fukuoka to dance in the salsa parties there. I improved a huge amount because of all the new practice and because I needed to learn to adapt my style to that of all the other new dancers I was dancing with.

All of this taught me the real value of constant practice. I now know that if I want to improve in Salsa, or anything else, I just need to put in the hours. If I want to learn to dance like a latino dancer I just need to dance (a lot) with latino dancers, to watch and imitate what they do and practice it (a lot) for myself.

Since I’ve come to Colombia on my current salsa adventure I’ve noticed 2 things:
1: My LA style salsa (that is, my technical salsa) has taken a slight nosedive because I don’t have access here to partners that can dance LA (I’m currently training some in to remedy this).
2: My body movement and my ability to feel and react to music has improved significantly. I dance salsa regularly here in much closer contact than I ever have before and that has given me that opportunity to work on isolation in my shoulders and hips that I felt I was lacking in before.

With lack of practice one skill has deteriroated while with added practice a different skill has improved. It’s all about the number of hours you dedicate to a given skill. Simple as that.

So if you want to be great at something (or even just want to improve a little) there really is nothing stopping you except yourself. The only thing keeping you from being as good (or even better) a dancer as Africans or Latinos is time. Go take every salsa class you can find. Practice your basic step while you’re cooking in the kitchen. Get a good partner and practice together as often as you can. Fill your iPod with salsa music and listen to it when you drive to work. Dance socially at every, single opportunity you get. Show the world that you don’t need magical dancing genes to be a great dancer. Put in your hours and reap the benefits.

If you’re not practicing, you’re not getting better!
Use every chance you get.

How many hours have you put in this week?

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

27 May

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

Salsa is not just a dance but a social outlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reason; IT HURTS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t clog up the dance floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging and Apologizing for a collision

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

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

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

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

It is always the man’s fault

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

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

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

Tie up your loose ends

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

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

Help your fellow man

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

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

Don’t start teaching on the dance floor

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

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

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

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

Smile

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

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

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

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

Don’t dance TOO close

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

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

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

On Flirting

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

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

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

Adjust your level to your partners

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

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

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

Say Thank You

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

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

Keep smiling folks (and keep your eyes open!)

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

Keep dancing folks.

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

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

20 May
Español: Reevolución XIII Festival Internacion...

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

I am an Irishman and I dance salsa!

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

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

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

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

So, let’s rock and roll.

Step 1: Find a dance class

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Master the basic steps

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

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

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

Step 3: Find a dance partner

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

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

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

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

Step 4: Record to remember

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

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

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

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

Step 5: Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep dancing.

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Who am I?

7 May

I’m an Irishman, with a beard!

I live in Cali, Colombia, the world capital of Salsa.

I dance.

Basically I am living my life the way I want to live it right now and I am very happy the way it’s working out.

Everything that has happened to me in my life has brought me to where I am right now and I am enjoying being taken along for the ride (while making sure I’m staying on the right track). I’ve lived around the world, met many incredible people, seen some unforgettable sights and taken up some really fun hobbies.

So, on the advice of some friends and out of feeling the necessity to share some of my insights and experiences with the world (which apparently is waiting for me) I’ve started this blog.

I hope to talk about everything that interests me, everything that makes me tick so I’ll be covering a lot of topics. From food to world travel, language learning to skill acquisition, nutrition to exercise science and maybe even how to make a good cup of tea (because I am, after all is said and done, an Irishman).

Oh yeah, and I’ll probably mention something about dancing too.

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