What is salsa and where is it from?
It’s a kind of dance and music from Cuba. While the roots originate in Cuba, the genre was largely popularized by musicians and dancers from New York and later dancers from Los Angeles. What we colloquially think of as salsa is actually a generic word that groups many different and distinct types of Cuban music under the same umbrella for the purpose of marketing to broad audiences.
There are many ways to dance to the same salsa music. The above video is one style called Casino.
What is bachata?
A type of music and dance originating from the Dominican Republic. Think of it like latin country music — typically very sad themes about losing lovers and what not. Bachata music is usually slow to medium paced and often has a lot of bongos and guitar. Bachata is also a worldwide phenomenon and most places that have salsa dancing will also play bachata.
What is cha cha cha?
Another genre of Cuban music/dance (often just referred to as cha cha instead of cha cha cha). It’s similar to salsa but much slower. This dance emphasizes the alignment of the conga and the guiro by marking it with a triple step (cha cha cha). This type of music is not played very often in most venues. Many consider this dance the most difficult in the genre.
What is merengue?
Another music/dance that comes from the Dominican Republic. Musically, there’s a large degree of overlap between merengue and bachata. This dance is perhaps the easiest of all to learn.
Am I too young/old to dance?
No. Anyone, regardless of age can dance and can learn. When I was first researching places to learn, I found a ballroom studio which was targeted for the elderly. Their motto was “If you can walk, you can dance”. I never took a class there but initially I thought the statement was apocryphal and just a gimmick to entice older folks. I also seriously doubted that I ever would ‘get it’. After about a year, I realized that I was wrong on both counts. Social dancing, regardless of what kind, is largely specialized walking. If you can walk, you can dance — REALLY!
How big is the scene? Is it growing?
The salsa scene is simultaneously big and small. It’s big in the sense that latin dance is a worldwide movement with millions of people and new people are joining all the time. It’s small in the sense that the environment is welcoming and it’s easy to make friends. You often end up seeing people you met dancing in unexpected places (like a different state or country). Other times, you will find you have mutual friends in common with strangers whom you met dancing. The best way to figure out the size of your local scene is to start going to events. Your inner nerd can get an idea using facebook and google trends.
What should I wear?
To a class: Wear comfortable clothes that you can move in and get sweaty in.
To a club: Depends on the dress code of the club and your scene. Latin dance culture is generally relaxed, so in most places you can get away with street clothes. In other places you may need to dress up.
To a social: Wearing comfortable street clothing is usually fine. Socials are very relaxed environments.
To a congress: Go nuts. You can wear just about anything on a congress social floor. Many people like to dress up. A congress is a great place to express yourself so feel free to wear something that reflects your inner dance persona.
For everyone, but especially ladies: please avoid jewelry and hair styles that could be hazardous to you or your partner (pony tails, jagged rings, hoop earrings, etc).
Try to be practical. Wearing clothing that is overly hot, doesn’t breathe well, restricts your movement, restricts your field of vision, or has the possibility of coming off/being torn are not going to serve you well. You should always wear appropriate footwear. Wearing shoes that grip the floor will be disastrous for your knees.
What style should I learn?/I learned Casino/On 1/On 2 – should I really learn another style?
A hard question to answer. You might want to read this article to help you decide (though, that article doesn’t talk about casino much). The TL;DR version: 1) Dance whatever style is danced in your scene or 2) Find songs you like, figure out where the tension is released in the song and learn a style the places the cross body lead at that point in the music. If you love timba, learn casino.
How do I find the 1/the 2?
Check out my article on salsa timing. In case that falls in the TL;DR category for you a short version: practice, listen to music, use the salsa beat machine.
Where can I get/listen to music?
Digital music retailers like Amazon Music are probably the most efficient way to start and grow your archive of music. You can also ask DJs for the names of artists they like to play. I have found many artists using shazaam at socials. There are also plenty of playlists on youtube, sound cloud, pandora, etc. I personally like to scope out the music section of public libraries. Most public libraries have an extensive music collection which includes a latin music section. It’s a good way to get a chance to listen before you buy.
How do I look less robotic/more natural while dancing?
- Step onto bent knees.
- Keep the weight on the balls of your feet.
- Transfer your weight on the upbeats and on beat 4/8. That is, step onto a bent knee on 1, transfer your weight half a beat after. Continue with that pattern until beat 3. On beat 3, transfer your weight on beat 4. Repeat this pattern for beats 5-8.
- Only one leg bears weight at a time.
- Only one knee is bent at a time. As you transfer your weight, the weight bearing leg goes from bent to straight. Simultaneously, the formerly straight leg becomes bent.
- Keep your feet slightly offset from one another. Your feet shouldn’t really come together at any time.
- Don’t bounce up and down.
- Your arms move counter to your feet – similar to when you’re walking or running.
How long does it take to get good?
Depends on your seriousness, ability, work ethic, role, and personal interpretation of what “good” means. Check out this graph which describes the learning curve of partner dances (I believe first published by Edi Williams).
Leads tend to take longer to develop so if you’re learning as a lead, be prepared to adjust your expectations regarding the time and amount of work you’ll need to invest. Regardless of the role, it will take intention and effort to get ‘good’.
The best way to learn is to understand your learning style(s) and find instructors who can teach to that style. You should put into practice immediately what you learn. Go out frequently and dance with as many people as possible. Dance with the complete spectrum of people from beginners to advanced dancers. Practicing infrequently will mean you’ll likely forget what you learned. Dancing with only one person will mean that you will not develop a true sense of the communication between dance partners and as a result not be able to dance with anyone else. Dancing with people at different levels will help you grow faster.
As you begin you will be focused on the cognitive part of learning. You’ll be spending a lot of time actively thinking about what you should be doing, how to move, how to respond to the music, and how to respond to your partner. Your goal though, will be to move from active and cognitive part of your mind to the passive and emotional part. Moving to the emotional part of your mind will make your dancing automatic and expressive. You will no longer need to think about what to do, it will just be a natural response to the music and your partner. You will learn how to express yourself and embody the emotion of the song. There’s an internet meme that went viral which says “Music is what feelings sound like“; if you accept that, then dancing is what feelings look like.
Can I (a woman) ask a man for a dance?
Absolutely. Latin dance culture is egalitarian and relaxed. Gender, skill level, age, sexual orientation, economic status, race, etc do not factor into the question. Anyone can ask anyone.
Guys appreciate it a lot when ladies do some asking. Also, people, it’s 2015 people… c’mon!
How can I get more dances?
Let’s get the obvious things out of the way:
If you suck at one of those, fix that and it should sharply improve your nights out.
Now on to the not so obvious. For ladies, there a few signs that often indicate you are not available for a dance. For example, holding things such as food, a beverage, or a purse, especially a bulky purse, will likely indicate that you’re not interested in dancing. Being deep in conversation might signal you’re not interested in being on the dance floor. Also, many leads pay close attention to shoes. Showing up to a dance venue in flip flops or crazy high heels will signal that you’re not seriously interested in dancing. In general, you want to appear capable, ready, and interested in dancing. Usually, being visible, being near the dance floor, making eye contact and smiling are usually enough to convey this message. If that fails, you shouldn’t hesitate to start asking people.
As for guys, you usually have the onus of doing most of the asking. It’s also the leads responsibility to ensure the safety of the follow and provide a positive dance experience. If you’re asking in a polite manner and still getting turned down it might be because you have earned a creeper status or you are a rough lead. Fixing either of those problems is quite difficult but not impossible.
Another common issue that people have a hard time ‘connecting’ with you. There are simple things you can do to help fix this like have good frame and the proper hold (no thumbs). Ladies can be too stiff or too loose. Likewise, guys can be too rough or overly limp. For guys, your goal is to be smooth and clear. You can’t force the follow to do anything — you must try to express your intent and emotion. For ladies, you need to be connected, yet light and responsive/expressive. Your job will be to interpret both the lead’s signals and music and add your own creativity. The dance is a conversation and the follow’s participation in that conversation is essential. The video below is a great example of where the conversation can go.
Lastly, there’s another big reason why you might be getting as many dances as you want. It has to do with your current level and your desire to grow. In some dance scenes, there are some people who treat dancing as their social outlet. They take a few lessons, achieve a rudimentary capability, then hit the floor and never desire to improve or change their dancing. The way they dance now is the way they will always dance — never improving, changing, or growing. Fellow blogger Richie Kirwin calls these dancers BAH (basic and happy) and makes the polarizing claim that BAH dancers are ruining salsa (read his article here). Whether or not you agree with claim is besides the point. Dancing with someone who never to wants to improve or change will be a one-way (aka NOT a REAL) conversation that is always the same. Imagine a toddler who always wants to have the same story read to him over and over and over again. Will that be fun for the adult? The toddler grows up and is more interested in having a two-way conversation. Is that true of the BAH dancer?
Got a question I didn’t answer?
Great, submit questions and feedback in the comments and there will be a FAQ Part 2.