When I was learning Salsa in the early days, one of my biggest frustrations was not being able to respond to what I was feeling in the music and translate it into body movement…
I wanted to be one of those dancers who had the music literally flowing through their body – able to mark the accents in the music with a perfectly timed flick of the head or serpent-like body roll, but I had no idea how to make it happen…or if it was even possible for someone who had no formal dance training. For many years I really believed I’d missed the boat on that.
One of the problems is that those who come to Salsa later on are very misled by the popular view of the dance – that it’s a loose, non-technical, laid back, anything goes kind of party dance. It’s simply not true, and there’s no hope of being able to develop any kind of musicality or expression until you take that on board…and realise that it comes at a cost of immense time and effort.
Others assume that it’s all about the steps and mechanics of the turn patterns…again this is a red herring. Sure, you can approximate the dance by getting everything in the right place at the right time, but you will still miss the subtle shifts which are to do with energy and force transfer back and forth between lead and follower. Learn like this, and you will end up with a dance that’s stiff and stompy.
Some will observe the melting pot of different styles on a Salsa dancefloor and think it’s just a case of “monkey see monkey do”…practice the bits you like for long enough and eventually you can make them look good. This in fact is how styling is taught in classes and congresses all over the world and unfortunately it ignores one simple fact.
Style is a product of technique, and technique is built from the floor upwards
Authentic Salsa style depends heavily on technique which in turn is wholly a product of what happens as each foot hits the floor, and the force is transmitted back through the kinetic chain and diverted, controlled or manipulated to reflect the timing, tempo and mood of the music. This relies on the body being mobile and segmentally independent…locally as well as globally.
There’s usually a price of terminal joint instability to be paid for this…trained dancers often wilfully damage ligaments in the quest for hyper mobility. In the short term they make up the slack with superior levels of muscular strength, stabilisation and endurance.
However this doesn’t mean authentic Salsa style is unavailable to those without formal dance training from a young age. The basics of body mobilisation and isolation are of benefit to everyone – not just dancers. Our sedentary lifestyles have made us asymmetric, muscularly and neurologically switched off and inhibited, and our joints compressed, locked, and unable to move through their full range.
Mobility and integrated movement form the foundations of Afro-Cuban contra body movement…it’s unfortunate that many teachers don’t introduce this much earlier in a student’s journey as it would shortcut many of the more frustrating aspects of learning Salsa technique and style.
This is because contra movement and freedom of the hips and ribcage should be as natural in the walking gait as they are in the Salsa basic of a trained dancer.
In an untrained adult dancer we have to go from activation to mobilisation to isolation and then to integration…and finally to exaggeration. That’s why the current model for teaching Salsa makes little sense. Effectively we try to teach steps and moves on a non-existent foundation – a foot and body which don’t actually have the capacity for even normal range of motion, and a muscular system which is neurologically inhibited (the nervous system isn’t firing the muscles in certain areas and joint positions.)
The kinetic chain is incapable of transferring the energy back up from the floor without resistance. There will be areas where it gets blocked or stuck, halting the flow and requiring the dancer to artificially manufacture an approximation of the desired movement which may not be noticed by casual observers, but will be instantly spotted by a trained eye.
Something as simple as mobilising a foot and decompressing an ankle – which can be done in under five minutes – can have a profound impact on a person’s foot strike and therefore their entire technique and flow. In my entire Salsa dance career, I’ve not yet been to a group class where mobility was addressed for new beginners.
In my opinion this is not only holding people back in their quest for faster progress, better partner connection, and to simply look good on the dancefloor, but is actually slowing down the journey by embedding faulty motor patterns in the muscle memory. These then have to be eradicated when the student wants to go above intermediate level – usually only tackled in a private lesson scenario with “serious” dancers, involving much repetition and mirror work.
Why not start new dancers off on an easier, faster and more enjoyable journey?
If you’ve enjoyed this article, join in the conversation in my private Facebook group “Social Salsa Made Simple”