Thursday, October 23, 2014

Zouk dancer's challenge: Learning salsa!

A while back I decided to take on a new dance challenge: I signed up for salsa classes for this autumn season.

In other words: Salseros, beware! :D

So starting early August I've been learning cross-body salsa with a simple intention of becoming a fluent social salsera. I committed myself to this project for four months -  it will be exciting to see how much I improve during that time and how I'll feel about salsa then!

So where did I start off in August? I'm not a complete beginner in salsa or social dancing in general, as you might know. Which is a double-edged sword: I have both the luxury and the complications of not starting from scratch. While most of my knowledge in social dancing I derive from Brazilian zouk, during the past couple years I have also ventured on the salsa floors around the world a couple times. Remember when I was salsa dancing in Mexico, Bolivia, New ZealandAustralia, JapanEstonia..? Basically I've just used the little I know of the on 1 basic step and count myself to death with 123 567 while I dance. Every time I've danced salsa I've discovered something new... and realised yet again I have no idea what I should do. But now I'm learning to dance salsa, for real.

Below I talk about the challenges and rewards of learning salsa during my first two months of training!

Is this how I will look like dancing salsa... way way in the future? 

The Challenges


Every dance has its own particular ABCs. It's quite easy to learn the basic steps of salsa and to recognize the basic rhythm. But the devil is in the details: how to hold your body, how to move your feet, how to place your steps and what is the spot-on timing of each step in each particular song. Once you're starting to absorb and manage all these details you're also wondering about your hips, shoulders, arms, hands... And perhaps you lost the basic step and the rhythm by this point. Then you go back to the beginning and start everything all over again.

During some of the classes I've noticed I get a bit overwhelmed when we are perfecting the basic moves. In the end I'm losing my balance even in a simple turn and make the most mundane of moves the hardest way possible. At that point I can only laugh at myself, try to gather all the threads and see where I'm losing it. Then when we add a dance partner into the equation, I really have to put that "super-focus" mode on; to be able to do my basic step perfectly AND follow at the same time! It all boils down to most common lesson of them all: Sometimes the simplest things can really be the most challenging ones.

Keep it together

During my zouk years I've accumulated a lot of knowledge about leading & following - especially the latter. But now I'm learning a new set of rules. I'm in particular at lost with the way I should hold my frame. I'm still relying more on my instincts than on pure knowledge or an acquired "salsa muscle memory". And that's where it can go wrong.

Holding my frame and following are both proving to be more tricky than I thought. Many of the salsa leads are so subtle... to me, even ambiguous. It feels the leading lacks the kind of direction, intention and communication I'm used to. In salsa, they say you should keep your arms basically relaxed and follow by holding your frame together. In essence you're connecting the leaders signals from the hands (palms or fingertips) in a basically relaxed, yet somehow firm way to the muscles on the back of the shoulder blades. Ok, this will take some learning.

The problems I've faced are fairly irrational. There are certain moments I refuse to follow a move - either I don't trust my following or the leading. At times I relax my frame too much. Or I hold it too stiff, resist even. Ever so often, when a guy is leading me to complete new move (in the socials) I think to myself "what are you doing, nothing good will come out of me going that way". I just ignore the signal, or even come to a complete stop. Sometimes, my body goes in some weird zouk-automatic-mode and does its own thing. But I'm getting better at it.

Hear that beat?

For me, the most mysterious part of salsa dancing is perhaps the timing and musicality. I have no clue about salsa music. I have no idea what is "Cuban song" or a "cross-body song" or "more suitable for on2", even though people have tried to explain it to me now. I even remember the first time a guy showed me one and two fingers at the start of a dance (this was in 2012). I had no idea what he meant by it. Thinking back on it now, I feel sorry for the guy for having to dance with me! I still hate it when I get those questions at the start of the dance; "On1 or on2?" "Do you mind if we dance Cuban/cross-body?" To me, it's still all salsa. Yes, I'm starting to understand the differences and the nuances, but I have no preference for one style over the other and I feel I can dance all styles just as well, or: just as bad.

Salsa music is littered with complex rhythmic patters that are interesting - and confusing. Some songs I really have to focus to find the 1 - but luckily, in most I find it quite naturally. Once I have the 1, then I still need to keep up with the 23 567. Sometimes, while the 123 (or quick quick slow) of the music travels from my ear to my feet, I somehow seem to be a tiny bit off.... Timing and musicality are definitely some of the most fundamental parts of salsa and I still have a long way to go to master, or even to understand the concepts I should master. I guess I'll learn eventually - can't learn everything at once! (dammit!)

Like a speeding train (about to derail)

One thing I've learned during this first couple months is that salsa is fast. I knew it was fast-ish, but boy it can be FAST. While I am fairly proficient in lambazouk, which is the fastest zouk style there is, I'm clearly not fast (or proficient) enough yet!

While we train I initially feel that many of the moves are more or less manageable, even simple or easy at times. But they become substantially less simple and less easy when they put on a salsa song. "Holy cr*p! I should do this in that timing? Forget about it!!" is what you may hear me saying a lot. And while we learn these simple moves - and all the layers and layers of technique that go along with them - combined with the speed... It is truly a challenge. And the point where even the basic moves you felt you mastered fall apart.

But I've promised not to be too hard on myself. Some of the moves (such as double++ spins) I really need to put more work on; lots of hours and incremental training to put it all into my muscle memory. I'm sure some day a thing that now seems insurmountable will be "just another move" on the salsa floor.

My favourite moments on any dance and what we all work for: having fun on the dance floor! Recognise these places?

The Rewards

It's especially nice to start a new hobby and feel the rewards of learning something new all the time! The more I learn, the more challenges I encounter. But it's not only hardships and despair right now - there are plenty of positive notes on my learning curve. So far, I'm not becoming burdened by all the learning. Especially since I feel I've actually moved light-years ahead in salsa during the past two months!

I love it that my teachers are super-meticulous, master all the techniques and know how to teach them. They also give each student constructive feedback on every class. The courses I'm taking (salsa technique and CBS improvers on 1) mainly focus on technique and how to apply it to social dancing. The figures or routines we do are not too long. For what I feel, the main idea is to be able to dance (lead and follow) as clearly as possible; not to memorize a certain number of figures by heart but to learn the basics so well that you can easily lead or follow any figure. Boy am I lucky since in my opinion this is the best way to learn the moves correctly and to be able to execute them perfect in every situation - even with the fastest of songs.

So what are the rewards I've been reaping so far on the dance floors? Honestly, I haven't had time to go out salsa dancing as much as I've wanted to. If there's a zouk party or a zouk dance floor somewhere, that's where I am and probably that's the way it will be in the future as well... or who knows!? But those times I've been dancing salsa I feel great... Well, most of times. My styling is still pretty much non-existent. Every time I encounter some leads I cannot follow. Sometimes I get caught up thinking about the one million things I've learned on the classes and get lost somewhere in between... But I do get a lot smiles and feel good about myself - and I'm happy about that! And for the first time, I'm able to walk on the salsa dance floor with (even some bit of) confidence!

I've also noticed a lot of the dance technique I've learned in salsa is helpful in my other dance training. Even if the move or the technique is slightly different there are many things that help me to understand my movement better and even learn new ways to move!

A side note on the rewards of learning salsa: I am lucky to be training with a superb group of people, I have to say. Teachers who simply love their job, students that love learning... it's hard not to notice it and the positive vibe catches on quickly!

Curious to see how the salsa training goes and if I'll continue with it? Or what's my take on salsa vs. zouk so far? Stay tuned!


Are you also learning something new? I'd love to hear your thoughts! Comment on this post or interact on:

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