From L to R - Gabriel Perez, Jai Catalano, Desiree Dicupe, & Melanie Torres
Whether I was working as a commentator for ESPN’s World Salsa Championships, performing salsa routines around the world, or teaching classes at Dance on 2 in NYC, I would always get asked the same question. How long does it take to be a great salsa dancer? First let’s define great. There is Babe Ruth Michael Jordan Mikhail Baryshnikov Muhammad Ali Michael Jackson GREAT and then there is great. You have to first be great before you can even think about GREAT so let’s just deal with great. Great I am glad we settled that. How long will it take for YOU to be a great salsa dancer? Who knows but if you follow these 10 steps you will see greater results faster.
1) Go to class.
Duh! This one seems like a no brainer but way too many times people stop taking class on a regular basis for various reasons and still ask why they aren’t advancing. Do you remember when you learned how to walk? Of course you don’t but trust me it took several months of practice before you even crawled let alone walked. At the minimum you should be taking class 2 times per week so you can build a strong foundation and keep current with the latest dance moves.
Tip. Are you having money issues? Take a free class. Check your local paper, Internet or community center.
2) Go out dancing.
DANCE DANCE DANCE… at least once a week. Unless you have serious knee pain, go to a club, salsa social or a practice party and put these moves to the test. Many times I ask my students if they went out dancing? 99 out of 100 times they say yes. Then I ask if they actually danced. Huh? Dance with the beginners, intermediates, and advanced dancers. Being a great salsa dancer isn’t about looking good with the GREAT dancers, it’s about creating a dance journey in the moment. Keep your journey simple and when you are ready... step it up.
Tip. Are you shy? Have a glass of wine.
3) Watch people dance.
Some people are born with natural talent. Remember Ruth Jordan Baryshnikov Ali Jackson? Everyone else has to work at it. So while you are taking a 5-minute break to catch a breath from all of the dancing you just did, watch people dance. Being a spectator allows you to form an opinion on what you like and what you don’t like as you develop yourself as a dancer. Use what you see to help guide the direction you want your dancing to go in.
Tip. If you see something you don’t like while observing, keep your opinion to yourself. Trust me someone has a strong opinion about your dancing as well.
Jai Catalano & Desiree Dicupe
4) Get a dance partner?
Having a dance partner is a great way to practice regularly with very little extra expense. Most people who are interested in being great salsa dancers eventually want to have a partner to practice with. Ask around but make sure you keep your intentions on the dance. Crossing boundaries can make it extremely awkward when attending class or social events. Trust me :).
Tip. When going out dancing with your partner dance with other people as well. It’s great to have a partner but dancing with just one person can have an adverse effect if you get too comfortable.
5) Take private lessons.
Private lessons? I can’t afford private lessons. Well it actually works out to be cheaper in many ways in the long run. Private lessons can save you time, money, and a whole lot of headache. What you can learn in just a few private lessons might take you months or even years to learn in class or in a club. Think of it this way... 20 people in a class are 20 reasons why you won’t get full un-divided teaching attention specific to your needs.
Tip. Record yourself in a private lesson. A camera never lies. If the instructor doesn’t allow it then write everything down.
6) Do your basics.
When I was coming up the ranks of the salsa world I found myself doing my basic moves wherever I found a moment. Too many people say they don’t have any free time but if we really look we will find plenty of free time to put a basic in. Try doing the basic while taking a shower, brushing your teeth, preparing your breakfast, or while you are waiting for the elevator. And guess what? It’s not even 9am yet.
Tip. Get off of Facebook and do your basics.
Role-play is fun. It helps to lighten the mood and puts you in direct experience of what your partner is feeling or not feeling. It will help you strengthen your skills and give you a more empathetic technical approach to your personal role in the dance. Following and leading both have their challenges but if you don’t know what the other person is going through, then you will spend less time dancing and more time discussing, arguing, and eventually fighting about it.
Tip. Switch dance roles 1 song each time you practice with your partner.
8) Walk the count.
Walking. Almost everybody does it. A great way to master the count with the step is to walk to the beat of the music. Listen to salsa music while walking to and from work and step your salsa basic all the way to your destination. Each stride you take, count to yourself 1 2 3 5 6 7 and repeat until you get to where you are going. Counting to yourself will engrain the counts of the steps and the music in you. Eventually you will think less about your footwork while you are dancing on the dance floor.
You have to learn to use your imagination in this one. I used to dance with someone who HATED to rehearse so I learned how to shadow dance. Shadow dancing is just dancing the moves you want to practice with your invisible partner. A great thing about shadow dancing is that you will reinforce the moves without any lip from anyone. You can even go a bit further. I used to hear a standing ovation after every shadow dance I ever did. Hey it’s my imagination.
Tip. Don’t shadow dance in public places.
10) Teach people.
Teach your mom, dad, brother, sister, dog, cat, or even goldfish how to salsa dance. This technique gives you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the technical part of the dance in a more thought provoking way. By listening to yourself speak you will reinforce what you have truly learned in class as well as figure out those little things that you might not have remembered. Questions you don't know the answers to, should be written down and discussed in a follow up private class.
Tip. Teaching people what you have learned doesn’t mean open up a salsa school.