Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Do it first, and look like a leader...

"I'm the sort of guy at the dance, when the girls walk in they sort of walk on by, and they take a few turns at the dance hall with the guys that are a little better looking, a little flashier, and have a little more bling.  They're usually wearing silk shirts and shiny shoes." Ric Santorum.

    I take salsa lessons at the clubs to meet new dancers. I want to be the attending physician at the birth of a new salsa baby.  I still remember the first time I saw salsa.  I was at Ruta Maya eight years ago, and there was a young man dancing with a young lady, and he was spinning her every which way but loose.  I wanted to be that man.      

Just recently, I asked an accomplished salsera I hadn't seen before to dance.  As we were leaving the floor after our dance together, she turned to me and exclaimed: 

"I feel like I just got off the Tilt-A-Whirl at the circus!"    I beamed.

Here are some guidelines for beginning salseros and salseras.

For followers:

     I tell all the girls the same thing when they mention they are new and don't know what to do. 

 "All you have to do is two things to dance with me:  Keep your feet moving, and look pretty.  Can you manage that?"  They always say yes.  

As a follow, you want Galaxia's attitude, who told me one night, "I want to be the girl that every guy wants to dance with.  I pray to God to make it so."

     Beware of the beginner's bunny hop.  All beginner's exhibit a distinctive hopping motion early on.  As you become more comfortable with the basic step, try to iron out the hops.  You'll progress faster if you do.  Another characteristic of beginners is the death grip.  This is a powerful grasp of the leader's hand, and is very uncomfortable, and hazardous as well, because you can twist the leader's hand right off if you're not careful, like an aikido move.  To avoid this, follow the Rule of Thumb:  No Thumbs.  If you don't use your thumb, you cannot grasp your partner's hand.  Lose this annoying habit as quickly as you can.

     After a woman has been dancing for a few weeks, she becomes nervous and self-conscious about her lack of style and coordination.  She has started to know what she doesn't know.  My advice then: relax, breathe, follow your hand, and listen to the music.  Dancing involves having fun, so don't get hung up on what you can't do yet, and focus what you can.  And, practice, practice, practice.  

As famed salsa instructor Jose Santoyo told us during a recent class: "Repetition is our friend."

      At my last salsa outing, I danced with Illiana, who runs a horse stable north of Austin, where she offers equine therapy for autistic children.  It seems a special affinity exists between autistic children and horses.  There are several equine therapy centers in the U.S., and Illiana, along with several other women, provide training seminars in cities across the country.   

About half way through our dance, I leaned over and remarked:  “It must be hard for a horsewoman to be led around the dance floor like this.”   

She nodded yes, and replied “This is why I tell the other women at the stable they need to take dance lessons, so they can learn what being led feels like to a horse.”

    Dance shoes.  Women must find dance shoes that fit well.  Loose shoes will lead to blisters, and can cause you to stumble or twist your ankle as they slide around on your foot.  

The more experienced dancers wear shorter heels, although, as Galaxia told me one night: "If you can't dance salsa on 3 inch heels, you're not a salsa dancer".

For leaders:

   Learning to lead salsa requires more work than learning to follow. The leader has to perform the immediate move, plus think about how to lead into the next move at the same time. It's similar to playing pool, where one shot sets up the next, only the next shot happens every five seconds.  Plus, unlike pool, you have to watch out for whirling elbows.

    Partner dancing requires non-verbal communication. Similar to language, salsa has a vocabulary and grammar, which one uses to form sentences and paragraphs of movement. Before they can begin to salsa, newbies first have to learn the rules of vocabulary and grammar.    Just as there are four letters in DNA, the basic step, the  cross-body lead, the right turn and the left turn comprise the fundamentals of salsa.  When you can both perform and lead these four things, and carry on a conversation at the same time, you're ready to move on.  Remember, the term expert implies someone who performs the basics better than anyone else.

    The only demand in salsa involves respecting the clave.  I call it the tyranny of the beat.  Once you know the basics and can stay on the beat, the moves one can perform become limitless.  Take classes with as many different teachers as practicable, as each instructor will have his or her own preferences as to style, and you can pick and choose which ones fit your style.

   Always look busy.  A cardinal sin in salsa is to stop moving because you feel confused.  Instead, do the basic step, a cross-body lead, and a follower's right turn while you think about your next move. 

    Most salsa events have a free class early in the evening.  Take those classes.  After the class, stay and dance, even though you feel intimidated. It takes real courage to begin salsa.  I see it time after time, when the music starts, the beginners scatter like cockaroaches when you turn on the kitchen light.   After I had spent six months attempting to dance salsa, I saw, on two different occasions, a young man in his thirties who looked calm, and smooth, and in control of his partner.  I asked each of them how long it took them to achieve that level of skill.  

They both said: "18 months."  

At the end of my initial 18 months, and for the entirety of my birthday month, I went to thirty clubs in 30 days.  My dance marathon ended with the U.T. Salsa Fest, at which I met Melody, about whom you will hear more later.  So, keep dancing, don't quit, and you too can become a salsero.  The results are worth the effort.

    Salsa guru David Abril says salsa happens in the pause.  The pause on counts 4 and 8 gives salsa its' distinctive herky-jerky motion.  Listen to the music, honor the pause, and you'll look in control.  A salsa expert once told me that when you dance on one, you dance with the music.  When you dance on two, you dance in the music.  Find out which one you prefer, and do that.  And finally, don't be sucky.
    Try to be aware of the location of your center of gravity as you dance.   In Swing, your center of gravity should stay in your shoulders. Your feet should never touch the floor, you should seem to glide, not step, as you dance. In salsa, your center of gravity remains your hips and legs. You push the floor with your feet.  You will improve your salsa if you can keep your center of gravity low.

    My 5 Move Guideline for learning patterns:  I find that I cannot remember a new pattern that contains more than five individual moves.  Fives moves this week, five moves next week, and I've got a ten move pattern.  Many instructors believe they have to cram a hour class full of new moves.  I find that less becomes more in trying to acquire new techniques.  However, learning patterns is not enough.  I watched a lead at Dallas last night, and while he had learned many moves, he hadn't learned to dance.  He looked manufactured instead of organic.  Expressing your inner joy of movement defines dance, so listen to the music, and and let it control your body. And always remember leaders, it's not about you, it's about her.  

I always tell a new follow: "I want you to help me make you look good."  

Keep that attitude, and you'll have many willing partners.

     Final hint: Pay attention to the salsa clubs on the Full Moon.