Most people who hesitate to try learning salsa dancing think that they have two left feet. No matter how hopeless you think you may be, you can learn salsa dancing. I see salsa dancing as a science, not in the sense that it is complicated, but in the sense that it is something that can be learned in a very systematic and structured manner.
When it comes to natural ability, I started out as a hopeless case myself. I grew up in northern Norway, far away from that energetic music and cool dance moves. I had never even heard about salsa until I was 30. My friends and even my parents had made me believe that dancing was just not something for me. I had spent more than a decade behind a desk, was extremely uncoordinated and had zero talent for music. When I tried to copy the steps of the instructors in my first salsa class I looked and felt like a fish out of water.
Although I had a extremely slow start, my experience as a beginner gave me a lot of insight about what could have been done different to make me learn faster.
As a complete outsider to this dance over several years I realized that all teachers can demonstrate the dance, but only a few can make their students understand the mechanics of it. I had to figure out all the “why”s myself and when that happened I thought to myself: What a difference it would have made if my instructors had told me that in the beginning! So that’s why I decided to stop teaching business economics and start teaching salsa dancing instead.
Mastering the mechanics of dance
Although I initially wanted to learn salsa because I knew it was a brilliant way to meet girls, it was my fascination for the learning process that made me want to become a dance teacher.
Teaching is: helping somebody connect what they don’t know to something they know
What made it interesting was that each time I managed to learn a new step or move, it did not happen because I finally understood what the instructor was saying, but because I managed to translate the movement into something that I had experienced before that had nothing to do with dance.
For example, to execute a right turn, the movement does not come from where or how you place the feet, it comes from the upper body, just like when somebody behind you taps your shoulder and you turn to see who it is. It’s a natural movement. Each such understanding was a aha-moment and I wanted more! I found it amazing that something that looked so easy could be so difficult to teach me and I knew I would become a dance teacher one day.
Most children use their intuition to learn. They don’t try to analyze, they just do it! They mimic what they see and shortly after they just get it. Many dance instructors come from this category and they tend to use this method: The instructor demonstrating and you repeat until you get it.
The regular adults that we see in our classes are more analytical and thus need analytical teaching. They learn in the same manner as making a puzzle.
The analytical learner prefers to be given one piece at a time and will be confused if the second piece is not related to the first. The learning slows down when there is confusion but accelerate as soon as the learner begin to see a system.
Why repeat something to death when a clean when a crisp explanation could do the job and have you moving forward?
All movements in salsa dancing can be related to something that is not salsa such as running bare foot in ice cold water, carrying a pizza tray, maneuvering a shopping cart, wearing a jacket that is too small, etc.
Words can never replace dancing because dancing does not consist of words. This is what I like about dancing – words are unnecessary and useless once you know how to do it.
This is why dance is so easy to do but not so easy to teach.
It may take a while before you understand the salsa dance figure called cross body lead. Once you understand the movement, you understand it’s label (name).
My job as a teacher is to help you and your dance partner get to that movement effectively and to make sure you enjoy the process.
Learning salsa dancing in a systematic way
Salsa dancing may look complicated for the untrained eye because it is possible to do so many different figures. In the beginning I was amazed by how many cool dance figures exist in salsa and I tried to learn and remember as many as possible.
Then I found out that there were so many moves because there were so many variations of each technique.
So in 2003 Consuelo and I started to analyze all we knew about salsa to make it more easy to understand what salsa is all about. Over the years we came up with a system consisting of 4 elements that covers all partner dancing: Understanding the music, basic steps, solo technique and partner technique.
Salsa dancing consist of 10 techniques. You only need to master 2-3 of these techniques to be able to dance comfortably, but once you know them all, you will be able to do anything you may see on the dance floor.
To be able to see the dance as one simple system became a massive shortcut for us and our students. It is why we were asked to create the instructor training program for the dance federation of Norway.
Getting the experience
A salsa dancer is somebody who can dance at parties and in the night clubs. It is not enough to learn the mechanics of the dance, you must also learn the social aspect of the game. At some point you must take the step from dance class to the clubs. That is where you will meet ton’s of people from all walks of life – and you can do it in most cities all over the world.
Going to the clubs will give you the opportunity to practice your moves a lot while having fun, it will help you become adaptive and confident in your skills. You will become a lot better just by dancing all that you know for one night out.
At Impulso we don’t just teach dance, we create salsa dancers. In class we simulate situations that are equivalent to a real salsa party and we invite all our students to join us in real salsa parties.
The end result is that it all becomes intuitive. Once you have learned and understood, dance becomes natural and you don’t need to remember a million details. So now, if somebody like myself from the past comes to learn dance, they will be in safe hands and will be thriving on the dance floor in record time.
So, is salsa dancing easy to learn?
I did not fall in love with it because it was easy. It is challenging, but I can assure that you will have fun, feel progress and you will increase your social wealth as well as knowledge and interest about your body. If you are like me, I think that you will become more confident, you will learn fast and once you start going out, you will never want to stop. I don’t know of any better way to meet and get to know other people.
Is it easy to learn enough to survive on the dance floor? Yes, if you have access to good teachers, it’s definitely easy! But regardless, it’s about the journey!
Many beginner salsa students think that the core of salsa dancing is about knowing certain steps and figures. This may work in a dance class where everybody knows the steps and figures, but rules are different when you go out to dance in the clubs. The good news: To be able to dance with anybody, you just need to be aware of one simple principle.
The information in this post is part of our salsa dance teacher education program, but it can be useful for anybody. Learning core principles instead of focusing on remembering steps and dance figures can be a massive shortcut to your progression.
The principle that makes you able to dance salsa with a partner
To be able to dance salsa with anybody, you need to be aware of 3 simple types of connections:
1) Connection between your body and the partner – without it, the lead cannot make the follower move.
2) Connection between your body and the ground – without it, you cannot move as a human. Fish can move in water, birds can move in the the sky. We humans need the ground to move.
3) Connection between your body and the music – without it, you cannot dance to music.
It is very easy to teach students steps and figures, but if you forget to develop their connection skills, they will leave your studio with a false sense of knowing how to dance. It happened to myself in the beginning. I went to the clubs trying to do what I learned in class, but it simply did not work.
It is essential to make it a habit to establish the connections BEFORE starting to dance, and to keep them until the song is over. If for example one of the dancers start to look down and focus on their feet, he/she have probably lost connection to the partner. Make your students see that by focusing on the partner connection, they will automatically feel the rhythm and steps of the partner. To help our students remember, we tell them that once they have connected to their partner, this connection is what we call “us”, and the goal of the dance is to keep “us” active throughout the entire song. Once “us” is lost, the partner dancing becomes solo dancing.
The longer you wait before you teach your students about these connections, the longer it will take before you see them dancing in the clubs.
As a salsa dance teacher you must realize that your students have various abilities and challenges when it comes to these types of connection.
We have seen too many teachers lose their students because they make students believe that you must have rhythm to be able to learn. This is wrong.
Do not think that just because one person cannot connect to the music, he/she cannot become a great dancer! We know countless of examples of people who could not hear/feel the music in the beginning, but were amazing when it came to connecting to a partner. Some of our own teachers at our school came from this category and became great teachers.
To keep your students happy, you should as quickly as possible identify and give them positive feedback on their strength. It is not necessary to let a student become discouraged if he/she is struggling with one type of connection when he can keep developing in another area. Remember: people love progress and don’t like to be stuck in the mud for too long.
We recommend that you as a teacher incorporates the development of all 3 connections in each and every class – in addition to body awareness.
When a certain connection needs to be developed – this is where private dance lessons or special workshops become very valuable.
After your students have learned steps and figures, it takes time for the knowledge to mature. This process of maturing is about synchronizing all connections. Remember that every time you dance with a new person, you must adapt to a unique type of connection. Regardless of body size, one person may feel very light and reactive, while another may feel heavy and slow to react.
The connection between two dancers is unique because each dancer have unique ability to connect to the floor, to their body, to the music and to their partner. This is why social dancing is so much fun. Salsa dancing is so much fun because the music has amazing variability.
In the video on this page we demonstrate connections while we dance different styles of salsa: cuban style, LA style (On1) and New York style (On2).
No activity requires as many skills at once as dance. It is easy to make a long list of things that you can learn and develop as a dancer but to achieve effective learning/teaching we need to simplify and draw the big picture.
Did you like this article? We would love to hear your comments or questions! 🙂
Learning how to dance salsa with somebody is a gradual AHA-experience. When you know it, it’s as if you have always known it. You don’t need to train your body in a particular way, it is already perfect for dance! AHA-moments are great, but this is one of the best because it is like a gift that you can share with others!
I am not a natural dancer. I started out as a extremely clumsy and uncoordinated person. Nothing came “natural” to me: When I observed my dance instructors, I never learned anything because my body was able to do what my eyes could see.
Almost every time I managed to do a dance move correct it was because something just clicked in my mind. I was able to relate dance movement to something I had already experienced. Although some movements seem new and difficult when you look at them, you have done most of them before, only in a different sequence and setting. For example, it is easier to pull a person if the person slightly resist at first (useful to remember when learning the cross body lead). It is our job as teachers to help you find an example of when you did that movement in the past.
At Impulso Dance Academy we guide you to these amazing AHA-experiences to get you on the dance floor as quickly as possible! The most effective way is through individual lessons but we stay with our principle in our group classes as well by giving individual guidance.
The least effective way to learn salsa dancing is a one-size-fits-all approach such as having everybody just try to copy the instructors. We don’t follow this approach because our goal is not to keep students confused for as long as possible.
Remember, that once you start to go out to dance your progress will gain speed like a rocket when you see that it works in another setting and on others!