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portrait of Susana DominguesThis is an opportunity to voice my own personal opinions on issues regarding the art and intricacies of Salsa dancing. Hopefully you'll gain some insight on how I approach Salsa to keep it always fun and interesting!

The Dancer's Mold?
The Styles of Salsa
How Teachers Count The Basic
To Dip or Not to Dip
Dancer's Euphoria
The Best Student

~ The Dancer's Mold? ~
Are some people just born to be a dancers? Not in my opinion. Perhaps, some people have had a head start in their development due to some previous exposure. However, I don't believe that becoming a dancer is privy to those who fit some sort of traditional archetypal mold.

When people hear music that has a strong percussive element, the natural response in most is to move some part of the body, be it nothing else but to tap their feet or to smile. Having a physical response to music is one of the most base human behaviours.

As a teacher of adult dance I see many people who begin dancing, having never danced before, or who come back to dance after many years away from it. I believe many of them come in part because they've had the perfect and simple experience of completely being in "a moment" in dance, where there was no preoccupation with where things are going or what they've been before. This is what I think people want to experience through dance whether they realize it or not, whether they have felt this in the past through their own experience or by witnessing someone else's such experience. To truly dance I think the only requisite is to truly be in the moment.

"It isn't the experience of today that drives men mad. It is the remorse for something that happened yesterday, and the dread of what tomorrow may disclose"  Robert Jones Burdette
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~ The Styles of Salsa ~
There are 3 main styles of Salsa being danced in Vancouver: Mambo Style, Colombian Style and Casino Style .

  Mambo Style:     refers to styles, such as LA style and New York style, in which most of the patterns are based on ballroom Mambo where the man moves forward and back, while the woman moves back and forward (as apposed to moving towards each other and away as in Casino style). Each partner always moves forward with the left and back with the right in the basic step. Cross-body leads are frequently used for more advanced steps in this style.

  Colombian Style:     In the Colombian style basic-step, partners dance side-to-side and mirror each other's movements. In many of the advanced steps the upper body is kept still, poised, and relaxed while executing endless intricacies in the feet. Colombian style can be danced not only to Salsa music, but also to Cumbia music which is frequently played in Latin nightclubs. This style is especially useful on packed nightclub dance floors where space is limited.

  Casino Style:     is a Cuban style in which the couple dances forward and back moving towards each other and away, using resistance in the arms and body to control the distance. The man moves forward with his right leg and back with his left, while the woman moves forward with her left leg and back with her right. The cross body lead is utilized often in this style, especially when danced in a group wheel formation called "Rueda de Casino" in which a leader calls the steps for the group.

  Following The Various Styles:     A woman dancing Salsa has the advantage of enjoying various styles when properly led. The fundamental movement theories for women apply to all three styles as mentioned above. However, her ability to respond to new patterns both in her own style and from other styles, depends greatly on her level of dance. For female beginners, there is a tendency to stop moving ones feet when lead to a new and unfamiliar pattern. This will pass and eventually the woman will apply the skills learned in class to steps she has never done before. A good female dancer never "anticipates" (feels the need to guess at what to expect from her partner) on the dance floor. It takes time for her to develop this comfort level, but it's well worth it.

Remember also that there are very many personal styles. Dancers often mix their knowledge of a particular style(s) with a personal tendency to move their body in a particular way. That's the excitement of it. It's great to enjoy the diversity.

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~ How Teachers Count the Basic ~
Whatever style of salsa you dance, there is probably a group of people that does the same basic, but dances it on a different count of the music. Since the musical measure for salsa is 4/4 time (4 beats), there are 4 options. For Example, if you dance the forward and back basic in Los Angeles, you could be one of many dancers there, who start with the forward step on the # 1 count of the music; in New York on # 2; in Colombia on # 3 (although they don't do much forward and back); and I'm sure there are dancers out there that prefer on # 4. No stone tablets have been found to indicate which one is more authentic. It is a matter of preference. Certain double spins alter the beat the dancer is on. I ask my students to pay attention to the music so that they are aware when this happens and can choose to change back to their preferred beat if they so desire. Some dancers don't have a preference.

If the counting differences from teacher to teacher confuse you, you can call out the steps to yourself using not numbers but movements. Using again the example of the forward and back basic: "together - front - together - back".
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~ To Dip or Not To Dip ~
I have been asked on many occasions why I don't cover dips in my classes. Firstly, I am dedicated to teaching people how to dance in a social way in the social dance environment. Many of the dips, drops, jumps and tricks that dancers attempt have been rehearsed and often involve the woman trusting her balance in the hands of her partner. I've seen female dancers dropped while dancing such steps. To ladies in Salsa, I highly recommend that these types of moves, if desired, should be rehearsed with the partner who is intended to execute them with you. The risk of injury to yourself and others around you, is too high otherwise.

The use of dips in Salsa was nonexistent when I started 1986. It was only with the event of the movie Dirty Dancing, in the late 80's, that North American Salsa dancers began incorporating dips into their club dancing. Shortly after Dirty Dancing, the Lambada craze hit. This further encouraged a use of dips.

A dip can be sensual or romantic when done with a partner where there's rapport. However, often dips are done in a quite sensational manner, more suitable for exhibitions. Favouring the use of frequent dips and drops, can be at the expense of rapport with one's partner. Rather than an experience about a man and a woman dancing, it can become much more about how much attention one attracts from onlookers.
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~ Dancer's Euphoria ~
Dancers will often comment on experiencing a sort of high feeling. Kind of like the high you get when you exercise at an aerobic rate. This feeling of ãflowä or of well-being that is experienced by those who exercise to the point where their brain releases beta endorphin and enkephalin often motivates regular exercise, almost as if one is addicted. This certainly is the case with many dancers, they just need to get their dancing fix. Some dancers have even been known to lose consciousness while dancing; common among the Rumba dancers of the streets of Havana.

Professors of Psychology, Howard E. A. Tinsley and Diane J. Tinsley at Southern Illinois University, performed a study on leisure and found that individuals experiencing leisure to the fullest felt the following qualities. Any dancer will tell you that when dancing to the fullest, one experiences most or all of the following:

  • A Feeling of freedom
  • Total absorption in the activity at hand
  • Lack of focus on self
  • Enhanced perception of objects and events
  • Little awareness of the passage of time
  • Increased sensitivity to body sensations
  • Increased sensitivity to emotions

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~ Machismo in Salsa ~
What does Machismo mean? Literally translated it means "male ism". Webster's Dictionary defines it as "assertive masculinity". Why would gender need asserting? How this term relates to our modern society is changing and its very use brings memories of the ever so image conscious late 80's.

Although Salsa does have a particular aesthetic which I try to teach at all levels, promoting Machismo to students would be like encouraging them to be image conscious. For my students, I would hope for much more than that, such as the feelings described in the section above (Dancer's Euphoria) -- "a feeling of freedom", "total absorption in the activity at hand", "lack of focus on self", etc.

I encourage that the dance become a genuine expression of ones self and feelings. This takes time, since there are many responsibilities that fall upon the leader when dancing. Specifically, he must be proficient and decisive when leading his partner, while moving his own body and also being prepared for what to do next.

Then there is one more aspect of importance - rapport and flow with partner. The leader must perform steps which are appropriate to the experience that he is having with any given partner at that moment.

Rapport is especially important when considering steps which assert virility or simulate romance or seduction (e.g. leading from the woman's legs or hips; running hands along the silhouette of her body; leading her to sit on his lap; gestures that simulate shoving; dipping the woman by her jaw or skull). Following the flow between you and your partner will inspire steps that feel appropriate to both of you.

For those who promote the idea of "machismo in Salsa", I
would suggest taking a survey of what women think. You will probably find that when dancing with strangers, women prefer gentlemen.
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~ The Best Student ~
Sometimes the qualities that make someone a good dance student are exactly the qualities that may make him/her not a great dancer. Following the structure provided by the teacher, even a very good teacher with an excellent curriculum and structure, can get the student into a mode of only learning what is imparted by the teacher. What seems like a contradiction in the success rate of dance teachers may provide insight into the best frame of mind a student can keep in order to achieve the best results.

So often teachers who have the ability to instill confidence in their own skills while actually having poor skills and/or structure, can manage to produce a significant number of good dancers. Perhaps what plays a part is that the student is forced to work at sorting out, understanding and incorporating the information presented without help, since the class does not provide a structure in which to do so under the teacher's guidance. This somewhat protagonistic student activity seems to be a consistent quality in successful social dancers. There is also the possibility that only those students with a predisposition or some kind of 'head-start' will flourish in this type of environment. Nonetheless, it is curious and worth noting.

Perhaps the student's best approach to any teacher's instruction is to combine an acceptance of the structure provided with a curiosity to discover more information than what is presented. Of course, this must occur while still maintaining a confidence in the teacher's skills and knowledge. When this confidence no longer exists, the instruction is no longer effective.

This leads to the issue of the importance of combining practice with learning. When the student's 'dance time' is solely undertaken under the teacher's supervision, it does not give the student adequate time to incorporate the knowledge imparted. Many dance classes always present new material in order to keep the students stimulated and interested in coming back. When the student does not give themselves time to incorporate the knowledge before moving on the new information, they eventually discontinue instruction from that teacher before acquiring all of the knowledge the teacher has to offer.

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