Salsa

There are many different kinds of social dancers. I like to categorize them into different groups.

One of my favorite categorizations concerns the amount of listening, freedom, and cooperation that goes into a dance.This applies primarily to leaders, but it can also apply to followers, as different followers will react to and prioritize these types of leads differently. I simplify the concept by breaking it down into two different categories, though in reality it is more of a spectrum.

The two types of leaders I want to talk about today are 1) Partnerwork Technicians (thank Toan Hoang for the term) and 2) what I’ll be calling for now Co-creators.

I have made a graph:

dance graph 1

First are the partnerwork technicians. The partnerwork technicians are rather quite traditional. In their perspective, leaders play the traditional masculine role: they are dominant, and they are in charge of making the dance proceed apace. Follows simply follow them, and want to be given clear instructions on what to be doing at all times. These leaders have a very specific idea in mind for the moves that will be executed and how the dance will turn out. They focus on learning moves and patterns, and they tend to think that the hallmark of a good leader is figuring out precisely how to get a follower to successfully execute the moves they lead. They can be quite musical and extremely talented and beautiful dancers. The quality of their lead can also feel very nice. They can also sometimes appreciate a good “hijack,” if executed well. It just so happens that these things happen within the context of their more traditional leading style, in which they simply determine the course of the dance.

On the other hand are the co-creators. Co-creators are less traditional. These dancers prioritize turn patterns much less than the partnerwork technicians do. They use turn patterns as a part of their dance, certainly, but the patterns constitute a less significant portion of the dancing. What then takes up the rest of the time? Plenty of things, some of which are: simple movements that give the follower space to play, pauses, moments of suspension, emotionally connected shines. This kind of leading gives space to the follower to play and contribute to the shape of the dance. This doesn’t mean that the follower leads–they don’t. But it means that the follower has time to play, and the leader responds to that play. The leader integrates it into what happens next. This is why this category is called “co-creating.” They can be highly technical or they can be less so. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to be a greatly technical dancer to be a great co-creator.  I’ve danced with beginners who are extremely enjoyable because they take this approach. These leaders tend to exert concerted efforts to be “musical” and to interpret the music in a way that joins with their partner, rather than controls them. There is often a lot of communication between the two partners, whether by touch or with simple eye contact.

By now it should be clear that dancers can be great experiences or they  can be terrible experiences at either end of the spectrum. It ends up looking something like this:

dance graph 2

So what’s the point? Why bother bringing this up?

First, I want to encourage us all to try to understand the other perspective as well as learn from it.

Many people are tempted – as I admittedly sometimes am – to paint the two camps with broad and unfair brush strokes. I sometimes want to call the partnerwork technicians old-fashioned, patriarchal, bad at listening, selfish. It does feel that way to me, sometimes. But as a generalization it is wrong. Often I really enjoy these kinds of dancers. Often, they are very good listeners. Often, they are very present with me on the dancefloor. Often, they have delightful musicality. People who focus on the technique of partnerwork and turn patterns have the capacity to be extraordinary dancers whom I enjoy a lot.

I have, conversely, heard many people accuse the co-creators of being “bad” dancers, messing with the lead-follow dynamic, and hurting the integrity of the dance. I understand this perspective. I can see how someone who really values the electric pace of advanced turn patterns would see co-creation as a possible devaluation of their approach to the dance, or, at the very least, a poor bastardization of it. But they’re, I believe, quite wrong. Leaders do not have to control every aspect of the dance. It’s okay for people to choose to dance differently. It doesn’t mean they’re worse than anyone else.

In fact, I think we would all be served by taking a hard look at ourselves and identifying where we fall on the spectrum. There are things we can definitely learn from the other camp. Co-creators can learn interesting moves, can learn about the physics of dance execution, and can learn technique from partnerwork technicians. Partnerwork technicians, on the other hand, may be well served by taking some moments to more seriously listen their partners and experiment with making their leading more open-ended and reactive. It never hurts to be self-critical or experiment with new styles.

Second:

I would like to go on the record and say that Co-creators are brilliant, and not nearly as abundant as they could or should be (except in west coast swing, where it’s practically a given nowadays).

I love co-creators because I value being seen. I value being heard. I value being in conversation about the music, instead of just following my partner’s interpretation of the music. I value having some space. I value being able to play. I value the ways in which my leader and I can constantly be in dialogue, the flirtation and joy and love I can express with my body.  With a hard and fast partnerwork technician, and especially one who  doesn’t particularly try to listen or be present with me, it’s not always easy to connect in that way. With a co-creator, it is a given, woven into the very fabric of the dance.

I think that many of us, entering the Afro-latin dance space, assume a particular dynamic: leads tell follows what to do. But if that’s not particularly appealing to you, there is another way. You can think about your leading in terms of suggestions. You can pause to get input from your partner. You can pay attention to the way your follower breathes through the music, and integrate it into the steps that you suggest.

This brings me to my quick third point:

We might give most of our money to and spend most of our youtube time ogling performers and many of the world’s famous partnerwork technicians. But the dancers I’ve placed in the upper right hand quadrant, the “less known highly sought” co-creators who focus on conversation and communication, are seriously amazing artists. At congresses, it might not be as obvious that they have fans as for the other artists, but you can tell from the way they never get to sit down that these people are extraordinary. They are certainly the ones that I always keep my eye on, and I believe they should be sought after teachers every bit as much as the often more flashy partnerwork dancers.


And this brings me to the end of the post. In sum, what I have tried to say is this:

a distinction exists, and we should pay attention to it. I really enjoy dancing with dancers on all ends of the spectrum, though the chances you’ll catch me with a shit eating grin on my face are greater with the co-creators than partnerwork technicians. Relatively speaking there aren’t that many co-creators in the world, famous or otherwise, but I hope that we develop more of an appreciation for this style of leading and following over time.

I had salsa in mind while writing the post, but it applies also pretty well to lambada and bachata. It probably applies less well to kizomba, and as I stated, west coast has already moved quite firmly in the direction of co-creation.

As ever, I welcome your thoughts, comments, concerns, and etc.

 

 

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castle-

There is a problem with cha cha. But the problem isn’t the dance itself. Cha cha, actually, is my favorite dance. I like it even more than bachata. 

The real problem with cha cha is that many people do not have the desire to dance it. 

Cha cha (typically) takes courage; it takes personal expression; it takes patience, and connection. Not many people feel particularly compelled by those ideas, or up to the task.

The thing about mambo is that it’s got familiar patterns we can all rely on. Leaders can get away with doing turn patterns the whole dance. You can go seamlessly from one familiar move to another, tossing a follow this way and that, and pretty much everybody will think that you’re ‘dancing.’

While I do agree that this is ‘dancing’ and that people who dance this way are quite good at it, shuffling through partnerwork in various 1 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 patterns that you’ve learned and drilled doesn’t necessarily fly in cha cha.

Why not?

The distinctive – and glorious – thing about cha cha is that it slows you down. The basic for cha cha takes nearly twice as much time as a basic in mambo (generally speaking). You have a lot  more time to simply take your steps; therefore you have a lot more suspension, and a lot more empty space to fill. A whole library full of instructions or youtube channels of “moves” will help you, but not all that much.

All of this extra time does two really great things:  for one, you can better dial into your partner and connect with them. To me, one of the best things about cha cha is that it helps foster an emotional bond between partners. With a slower basic, I find that in cha cha my partners and I have more time to just be present with and listen to one another. We settle into each other’s embrace, we make eye contact, we feel the counter of each other’s bodies and movement. Plus, with typically killer tracks, I find that my partners and I get much more in tune with what the other person is thinking and feeling. I feel my dance intensely, while at the same time I feel their dance intensely. Cha chas have a really great potential to be deeply shared experiences (though this not untrue of mambo as well, given the right partner).

The other great thing the slowness of cha cha does is give space for expression and play. This you can do both with your partner and by yourself. With your partner you can change the speed of your steps, be very precise and connected through slow movements, keep an eye on each other and intertwine your shines, and in general really play and connect with each other as you dance. By yourself, you rather have the opportunity to go wild and do as you please. People often take their sweet time about shining throughout a cha cha. Cha chas tend to be fairly dynamic songs, and they provide ample opportunity to really experience and express your feelings.

This means that, in a sense, cha cha is a much more vulnerable dance than mambo. With all of the space that it provides, it gives you more room to dance and to express yourself. It opens you up to your partner, then, in a way that may not be typical and may feel scary. It also opens you up to everyone else in the room who may catch a glimpse of your dance. Cha cha challenges you to dance at the edges of what you have been taught and what you have learned. It gives you space to be yourself and express that, and to do so in a way that is connective. It is vulnerable. 

For many people, this is a turn off.

For me, it feels passionate and alive and connected and the perfect combination of my own expression intertwined with my partner’s.

Now, I acknowledge that there are valid alternatives reasons you may refrain from dancing cha cha. For example, some people don’t hear cha cha on2 very easily. I understand that this can pose a challenge, it did for me when I was getting started. But this period for me did not last long because I saw what the dance had to offer, so I made the effort to learn the music.

Many other people would object and say that cha cha simply isn’t played or taught enough, so they don’t know the steps very well. This is fair. I have sympathy if you consider yourself one of these people. However, I would encourage you to peer closely at your reasons for feeling hesitant anyway. Why do you feel no passion for it or desire to learn, or to at least give it a shot with a forgiving friend? Might it have something to do with the safety and comfort of mambo partnerwork?

I suppose also people might actually not like the music of cha cha, but guys seriously!

If you actually want to dance cha cha, there are people who can teach you! 🙂 Also, On2 salsa is translatable to On2 cha cha. Many people muddle through a few dances and then kind of rather get the hang of it. Plus, if you are a leader, I can assure you that no follower expects a particularly complicated cha cha. So many followers love cha cha (as evidenced by London cha cha socials always being dominated by followers) in part because of the simplicity and freedom to play that comes with cha cha. Give them a high quality basic for the whole dance, and chances are good they’ll be quite happy.

The vulnerability you’ll share with them is what is so beautiful about cha cha.

It is also why it is so hard, and why I think we should do it anyway.

 

 

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"The Spinning Dancer" by Leonid Afremov

Image: “The Spinning Dancer” by Leonid Afremov

Spinning.

An elusive skill.

Something mysterious, even.

Instructors in beginning classes will often say – ‘and then the follower turns.’

Um, no.

There’s a lot more to it than that, right?

There is. And the thing is – it’s not rocket science. Spinning well in place is actually a fairly simple, straightforward act.

All you have to do is know the basics of how it works, practice the motions untill they become habit, and you are golden, it’s smooth sailing from there on out.

In today’s video, I describe my own personal technique for how to spin in place. There are of course many different ways to think of and to describe spinning, but I personally find these techniques to work very well. They come not just from years of salsa but literal decades of dance training. That’s not to say they are foolproof and will work best for everybody, but they do do the job for me.

 

In the  video, I discuss:

-prepping for a spin in salsa (when given a “j” lead),

-foot technique,

-core technique,

-frame technique, and

-spotting.

I also include a short clip at the end that shows me first doing some travelling spins and then ending in place… where the alignment of my body and spotting are very obvious components of my ability to follow that lead.

Let me know what you think or if you have questions. I know this may seem easier said than done, but all it takes is a bit of thinking and a a regular dose of loving practice. 🙂

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Today’s video builds upon what we covered in video 001: frame basics.

 

 

First I recap what we learned from that video, then I discuss what it means to have complete physical connection. Whatever points of connection your leader gives you, you should meet as well as possible, whether it’s between your hands, over your leaders arms and shoulders, or anywhere else.

Second, I discuss “no leaks” connection. This means having a frame that is completely connected from the point of your leaders body to your center, to your entire body. This should run from the leaders body, to your fingers, through your forearm, under your triceps, into your lats, and then into your back and torso. This enables your upper body to be connected to your whole body, so you can move properly when and how your leader wants you to leave. You have to figure out how this works in different movements while you are dancing.

Third, I discuss specifically keeping your shoulders down and keeping your lats engaged to make sure you are well connected and have no leaks.

Fourth, I discuss the concepts of compression and extension. These ideas come from the American swing dances, where there is a lot of elasticity in the connection, and the leader and follower are always counter-balancing off of each other. In the Latin dance we do not have that. What we have is neutrality. Our hands are physically connected but not acting on each other, in this neutral state. We activate when the leader initiates a movement .Then compression or extension happens – then your leader will push on you or will pull on you.

Fifth, I explain this concept in terms of very simple math. When your leader pulls you, for example, with the strength of, say, 10. If you pull back with 12 you will over power your lead and you will both go backwards. That is bad. If you pull back with a 10 you stay still. If you pull back with an 8 you will follow your leader but will be super heavy. If you pull back just the tiniest amount, enough to hang on to your frame, so a 1 or perhaps a 2, your leader will be able to move you and you will be able to maintain the integrity of your frame. The same works for compression.

Sixth, I explain how this works for leading and following spins.

Seventh, I explain that high level leaders really enjoy that if they change the amount of pressure or tension or activation that they give you, that you change your response to be properly calibrated to theirs. Give and receive and spin such that you don’t overpower your leader but rather meet them with the exact level of strength that they are asking for.

That concludes the list for advanced tips and theory! Please let me know in the comments here or on youtube if you have any questions!!

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