I Never Set Out to be a Dance Teacher!
Originally I was more interested in helping people with their fitness and exercise needs – I used to be a highly qualified personal fitness trainer and specialised in helping people with chronic pain.
Initially it seemed enough for me to just go social dancing for fun and teach the odd class at a friend’s Salsa club now and again.
But what I found was that so many people were frustrated because they didn’t feel like they were really getting anywhere.
They could do something in class but it fell apart in freestyle.
They couldn’t seem to “get” even the simplest basic steps.
They had frequent moments of panic when social dancing…far from the fun they signed up for.
And worse, they thought it was their fault – that they were just rubbish or “not cut out for this”.
Why I Created Salsa Intoxica Dance School
When I asked my clients what they thought the sticking point was they told me often they couldn’t make their bodies do what the instructors were showing them, and even if they could they couldn’t remember it or use it on the dance floor.
This made them feel stupid, inadequate, and question what they were even doing there.
This is when I KNEW I had to help so I set up my studio, and not listen to anyone who tried to talk me out of it.
I made it my mission to find out why so many novice dancers were struggling.
I suspected it was for many of the same reasons I had in the early days.
Newbie Salsa Dancer Struggles
One of the biggest problems was that adults coming into Salsa with little or no dance experience tend to be stiff, inflexible, and lack the mobility and fine motor control needed for intricate dance movements. They lack the movement and reaction speed to keep up with fast music.
They explain this with stock phrases: “I have no rhythm” or “I have two left feet”.
The truth is that everyone has rhythm, but there are other reasons people find Salsa difficult.
A big part of Salsa is the Afro-Cuban body isolations – hips, shoulders and ribcage all moving freely and independently, and full articulation of the spine.
Without this, people aren’t dancing – they’re stepping.
But most people want the quick win – they can’t do it without a LOT of practice, so instructors don’t teach it in the clubs.
For me, solving this was easy. I took the knowledge I already had about teaching movement from my 16 year fitness career and applied principles from physiology, rehab and exercise science.
And the results were great – students were loosening up, moving better and looking more coordinated.
But people still couldn’t remember moves – guys were going blank mid dance and ladies were confused about what the lead wanted them to do.
I realised there were so many inconsistencies between teachers – they gave names to some things but not others. Different teachers (even in the same club) called the same move by a different name. They called different moves by the same name. Everything was contradictory and it was no wonder people were confused and didn’t have a clue what they were learning from one week to the next.
So I studied more about how the brain actually learns and organises complex information.
I named all the moves and combinations that didn’t already have universally accepted names, all the techniques and made sure it was all consistent and from this I created my syllabus.
I got great results but I still felt there was something important I was missing.
The Real Elephant in the Room
I finally realised that the skills you need for copying a pre-set routine are totally different from leading or following an improvised dance in real time. The human brain handles these two tasks in a completely different way.
Therefore, the traditional Salsa class format of teaching a routine to counts was never going to work…it was just turning people into robots. And people don’t have memory banks that work like computers.
So then I knew I had to come up with a new methodology that taught people how to improvise from day 1.
And this brought me to another problem.
When you put people on the spot with a “blank canvas”, without anything to copy, it created fear.
Fear of messing up, fear of looking stupid, and fear of not being “good enough”.
And ultimately fear of failure – of yet another example of starting something and not seeing it through.
This fear led to resistance.
It led to many people dropping out way before they had given Salsa – and themselves – a fair chance.
So I had to manage this process very carefully.
It was the prompt for me to start teaching students how to manage their own emotional states both in the studio and on the dance floor. One even started calling me his “Salsa Shrink” when he realised that so much of what was holding him back was his own self-doubt and insecurity, and nothing to do with lack of ability.
It was then I became a “coach” and not just a teacher.
There was one other big problem I noticed, however.
How Can You Feel Music When You Can’t Even Hear It?
People were struggling to hear and connect emotionally to Salsa music and they certainly weren’t “feeling it”.
This is because it’s way more complex than the pop and rock us Brits were all brought up on.
At this point I had been collecting Latin music for 15 years and listened to it constantly – in the car, in the supermarket and at home. I loved it that much I had even made trips to Leeds to see contemporary superstar Salsa bands La Maxima 79 and Tromboranga play live gigs. The rhythms literally ran through my veins.
In fact I’m sure if Salsa music was available on an intravenous drip, I would hook myself straight up!
So I came up with simple practical exercises to help them hear and understand the rhythms and instruments as they went along, rather than waiting until they were “advanced” enough to ask me if we could have that conversation.
I matched the exercises with Salsa songs that perfectly demonstrated the musical concepts I wanted them to understand.
I knew I was getting close but I still wasn’t quite there – it all felt messy in my head.
Finally I realised I needed to combine everything I’d discovered and present it as a complete, fully integrated and unified syllabus that people could journey through at a pace that felt right for them.
I sat down with a sketch pad and coloured pens and drew diagram after diagram including every single thing that a person needs to learn to go from beginner to advanced Salsero.
The True Journey of a Salsa Dancer
I realised that everyone follows the same process, more or less:
INSPIRATION – that thing that made you want to dance above all else. Without this we will never find that fire in our belly.
IMITATION – we all start learning by copying others, but eventually we have to move past this stage. Unfortunately many don’t.
IMMERSION – nothing happens without actually doing the work…without living and breathing the music and regular practice.
INVESTMENT – of time, effort, and money. Like everything you get what you pay for. Weekly club based classes are relatively inexpensive but many dancers pay more to attend congresses, festivals and train with high profile international performers once they get serious.
INSIGHT – immersion and investment will give you those lightbulb moments…you will start to take ownership of what you learn and gain new realisations.
INTERPRETATION – you will find your own way of connecting with and expressing the music that fit your personality.
IMPROVISATION – you will become more skillful in creating a unique shared experience with your partner in real time.
INNOVATION – you will develop your own style and signature material – those things you choose because they work, look good, and feel right with the music FOR YOU.
Unfortunately relatively few people get past the imitation stage and reach a point where they are able to freely create to the music in real time.
A Logical System For the Geeks and Nerds Out There
This is how my Salsa-Logica system was born.
I realised that using science to teach art wasn’t a contradiction – in fact it made perfect sense.
Since I’ve been using this system, explaining and demonstrating this dance is so much simpler.
There’s much less confusion and a lot less stress for students in the studio which saves a lot of time.
Students get things much quicker.
And if they don’t, I can immediately classify it as either a “map” problem (to do with the spatial and mechanical aspects of the dance), or a technique deficit. If it’s something that can’t be solved immediately through those lenses then we can address the exact body limitations with a longer term strategy.
This takes out all the “banging heads against a brick wall” scenarios that so many people experience in Salsa classes – doing the same thing over and over but never actually getting where they want to go.
You Can Learn Salsa Too!
My clients have progressed faster and further than they ever believed possible – they look like real dancers with technique, body movement and musicality.
I’m happy that giving them great foundations has enabled them to take responsibility for their own progress and believe more in their own potential.
This directly translates into more wins in everyday life – and even the shittiest problems never seem as bad if you can go and just dance them off.
What I love most about coaching Salsa is seeing people arrive in my studio feeling uncoordinated and ungainly and knowing within a few months they will be feeling like they had always been dancing – at which point I remind them about how they were on that very first day.
I love it when I visit other Salsa clubs and the teachers tell me how well my students are dancing.
And the thing that makes me most proud is being able to take them to big party nights, Salsa congresses and festivals and seeing them getting asked to dance all night and having amazing dances with top level dancers.