A Beginner's Guide to Dancing Salsa

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So you've been infected by the movement and the music on Strictly Come Dancing, and now you want to try it out for yourself. Fast-paced and stylish, salsa is one of the most fun dances to learn. It's popular all over the world, and there are plenty of classes around for people who've never tried any kind of dancing before. All you need is a basic level of fitness1 and some enthusiasm.

While there are dance groups who focus on choreographing spectacular dance displays, this Entry is about learning salsa as a social dance. This means dancing with a partner - who could be a friend or a complete stranger - and improvising a whole dance together. Learning how to work together to interpret the music takes some practice, but when it goes well it's an exhilarating experience.

Salsa dancing: the basics

The music and dance of salsa developed in Cuba in the mid-20th century from Son, a fusion of Spanish and African rhythms. The dance then flourished in other Latin American countries and the USA, which all added their own individual interpretations to the music and the steps. Salsa music is played in 4/4 time, with distinctive, syncopated rhythms played by different percussion instruments. The dancers step on the first three beats of each bar, pausing on the fourth. On each step, the weight transfer from foot to foot produces the Cuban hip motion.2 At the same time, the dance partners move around each other, turning and spinning with lots of intricate interlocking arm patterns.

Salsa is usually a partner dance, with one partner acting as a leader and the other as a follower.3 The leader is responsible for directing the dance; they plan moves and then dance them to the music, using their arms to guide the follower into the right positions. The follower has to be alert to the leader's movements, and interprets them into their own steps and body movement. Both dancers try to move gracefully and rhythmically and are (hopefully!) also paying attention to their partner to make the dance fun and interesting for the other person.

Getting started

Don't worry if this all sounds a bit intimidating right now. What you need is a good dance class, where you'll learn the art of leading and following, along with all the moves you can combine together.

If you don't know of any classes in your area, searching Google and Facebook is a good way to find out what's going on. Most cities in the UK and US have a salsa scene and some university dance classes are open to the public as well. Look for places that offer beginner lessons, but check whether they accept new beginners every week or if you'll have to wait until the beginning of a block of lessons.

You might see a class advertised as teaching a specific style of salsa. In the UK, the most popular styles are Cuban, Los Angeles and New York, named after the places where those styles developed. The latter two are sometimes called line style4 or cross-body5. Which one you learn isn't very important, but it's worth being aware of in case you ever swap to a different class that teaches another flavour of salsa because most of the moves will be unfamiliar.

For your first class, you might want to go with a friend if you're feeling nervous, but it's really not essential to take a partner to dance with. Most classes don't expect you to arrive as a couple (though do check with the teacher or on the class website to make sure). Instead, you'll change partners every few minutes. This gives everyone a chance to dance, even if there are unequal numbers. It also lets you practise dancing with different people who all have their own style of movement. Everyone gives a different amount of pressure and resistance with their arms, and you can learn to pick up on that and adjust your own tension to keep the dance flowing smoothly.

Daphne, you're leading again

When you go to your first class, you'll have to decide whether you want to learn how to lead or to follow. Historically, men are the leaders in salsa and women are the followers, and most people stick to those roles, especially when they're just starting out. If that's what you're comfortable with, then go with it. But please don't let the traditional gender roles stop you if you are a man who wants to try following or a woman who wants to choreograph. Most of the best dancers (especially those who teach) know how to dance both parts. Learning how to follow makes you a better leader, and vice versa - you can only really understand what someone expects from their partner by putting yourself in their place. Plus, the experience of leading and following is very different. Why would you want to give up half the fun of the dance? If you do role-reverse, you should expect some confused comments from other dancers, especially other beginners. Sadly, not everyone is comfortable with dancing with other members of their own gender, but most people are happy to try and may even admire your bravery at trying something a bit more difficult.

What to wear (and what not to)

Some people like to dress up a bit because they're going out dancing, but most wear jeans or something casual. Whatever you wear, make sure that it's comfortable to move around in. It's worth wearing a short-sleeved layer; some people can dance with minimal effort and make it look cool, but the rest of us are pretty warm after an hour or more of dancing. Take a change of shirt if you suspect you'll be very sweaty by the end of the evening. The only things to avoid are clothes that could trip you up or catch on your partner's fingers, like ankle-length skirts, long necklaces or chunky watches and bracelets. Tying back long hair is also useful, so you don't whip your partner in the face on a particularly dramatic spin.

You definitely don't need to buy expensive shoes. Specialist dance shoes have a helpfully slippery suede or leather sole, and if you succumb to the salsa bug you'll probably want to buy some eventually, but for now you should just wear shoes that are comfortable and that don't stick to the floor too much. Trainers with a strong grip will make it very difficult to turn, and you'll spend the class wondering why your feet won't do what you're asking them to. Very high heels are also a bad idea when you're just starting out. They're useful for pushing your weight forwards over the balls of your feet, helping you to balance during spins, but they're also a lethal weapon on the dance floor - one back-step onto an unwary foot and … crunch.

Baila conmigo

As clichéd as it sounds, the only way to improve is to practise. Otherwise you'll forget everything by the time you get to the next lesson and it will take forever for you to progress. Classes are often followed by a session of social dancing, where you can dance what you like to some salsa music. You'll be surrounded by people you recognise from the class and who also want to perfect the moves you've just learnt, so it's an ideal chance to review them and try out what you remember from previous weeks.

You can also look out for regular salsa nights in your area, and special events. Teachers often advertise these in their classes, but you'll be able to find out about even more online. Don't be afraid to go along to these even when you're just starting out. They're fun, and you'll learn the skills of dancing much faster.

When you're at a social evening, ask people to dance! It's easy to be shy when you're new, but everyone else is there to dance, so they're almost always happy to be asked (this goes for both men and women). Ask people you recognise from lessons, but don't be afraid to ask people you don't know, even if they're a much more experienced dancer. They were all beginners at one time, and they remember what it felt like to be new.6

Keep smiling at your partner, even if the dance goes horribly wrong. If you're really struggling to lead or follow your partner, it may just be because the two of you have learnt different styles of salsa. Or maybe the song has complex rhythms that disguise the main beat, making you or your partner dance off time.7 Keep trying anyway. The more you dance, the more you'll improve, and one day you'll be the awesome dancer who all the new beginners want to dance with.

1Beginners' classes are not too strenuous. You'll be moving around for an hour or so, but death-defying lifts won't be on the syllabus just yet.2This looks great when done well, and a bit silly when done badly. If in doubt, stop trying to wiggle and just concentrate on stepping on the right beats.3Though it can be a solo dance. There are also even more exotic versions where one person leads several followers, or when a group of couples dance together in a rueda, following the instructions of one dancer who calls out the names of moves.4because the follower dances up and down in a line, while the leader steps out of the way. This is in contrast with Cuban style, where the partners revolve around a common centre of gravity.5after one of the most common moves in both styles6If you're really nervous, explain that you're haven't been dancing for long, and you would appreciate it if they danced with you just for one song. Anyone who isn't sympathetic to that probably wouldn't be much fun to dance with anyway!7You can practise listening for the beat when you're not dancing, or by finding some salsa music on online services like Spotify or Youtube.

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