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Learning Salsa from the Beginning: A Male Perspective


  • Learning Salsa from the Beginning: A Male Perspective

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    By Russel Longo

    Let me preface what I'm writing here by saying that I am not the greatest Salsa dancer in the world, and never will be (even among the greatest of dancers that’s a disputed title I suppose). No, I’m part of the large crowd of folks who’ve fallen in love with Salsa music and all that it serves to the human spirit. The following discussion assumes that you are a member of this lively group as well.

    My first experience with Salsa dancing was strictly as a spectator only. I was completely taken in by the music and dance; it left a lasting impression to be sure. Judging by the number of men taking classes ( in the last three group classes I’ve taken, the men outnumbered the women 2 to 1) it’s impacted your life as well. I did grab a friend of mine to teach me the basic step; that was all she knew actually. But it was enough. So I decided, like many of the you fellows, to test the waters with a group class - what an ego deflator! Many of the women in the class looked and felt like they had been dancing this for years, and some even seemed annoyed by my lack of skill in leading them. Even worse, I was flanked by guys who looked like they already knew what they were doing.

    It’s easy to get excited about a new interest, but the reality of learning the new skills can be hard to swallow. Realizing it takes more than one lesson to be a good Salsero, I had a decision to make. Do I really want to invest the time, and ego bruising, to learn this well? All right, it took 2 seconds for me to answer that question, but the thought of quitting did streak across my mind. This is the pivotal moment for a novice in any field. The ones that forge ahead get results, the others get discouraged and fall away. Don’t be part of the second group!

    Private lessons proved to be crucial in breaking through the first confidence barrier. I strongly recommend at least two or three privates in the beginning if you want to accelerate your learning. I ended up taking a dozen or so of these before visiting a group lesson again. Big difference. You’ll definitely be more relaxed and focused coming back from private instruction from a good teacher. New steps come to you faster, you retain more, and you start to develop a feel for how to move a women around your frame. I still have a long way to go, I’m a perfectionist by nature, but taking enough classes provides a clear path for your future progress.


    As in anything, there are Great Salsa dancers and there are Good Salsa dancers. Great dancers can command the floor anywhere, and few reach this level. However, even good dancers can be impressive to the casual spectator; this is a fact that should make the beginning practitioner of Salsa very happy. Why, you ask? Because I believe that becoming a good dancer, Salsa included, is a VERY realistic goal for 98% of the general population. It means that with good teaching, some mental focus, and practice, one can attain a level of dancing that’s fun to participate in and fun to those watching.

    Its the effort of moving from, let’s face it, a poor partner dancer to a good one that sidelines most who quit. As I’ve stated in my Salsa story, a confident and strong lead becomes a must for the man. A good male lead can often improve the appearance of an average female; the reverse is less common however. I’ve heard several good teachers say that this puts the male dancer several months behind the female at the very beginning (I’m assuming a man who has had no prior partner training at all, Salsa or otherwise). This is unsettling for the beginner who goes to his first group lesson and finds the women kicking his tail around the floor with the intermediate movements! Just a friendly warning.

    That’s the bad news. Now for some good news. It usually takes just a few lessons, private preferred, before a man gains enough experience to attain a beginning feel for leading a partner. At this point you are way ahead of the man who never partner dances, and never takes a chance to try. A few weeks of practicing and you could probably lead a female dancer quite well. Nothing impressive just yet, but enough to really start to enjoy the Salsa sounds . A worthwhile beginning goal I believe. Which leads us into the next topic.


    What do you expect from your dance experience? How good a dancer do you want to be? Are there dancers that inspire you ( if so, talk to them. If they’re friendly, they might give you some valuable advice and instruction)? How much time are you willing to invest to make your dancing better?

    Someone once told me there are two types of dancers: those that dance for how it makes them feel, and those who dance because they like to perform around others. The first type likes to dance for what it brings to themselves and their partner, while the second type is just as concerned with how others view their dancing. Of course, in the real world no one is solely one type or the other. But even still, be true to your own personality. If you want glitz and flash, then find instructors who add this to what they teach. If you’re more conservative( is there such as thing as a conservative Salsa dancer?), find an instructor that better suites this perspective in their teaching style. The goal here is to build a realistic mental image of what you want to become with your dancing.

    Finally, determine what amount of time you can and will invest to learn Salsa. Forget people who brag that they are naturals. ALL GOOD DANCERS PRACTICE. They practice with their partners, with other partners, by themselves, and at different clubs and venues. This is exactly what makes them so good. So taking the time to practice is a must if you are going to improve.

    How much time you spend depends on how quickly you want to learn. Some dancers spend several hours practicing for every hour of instruction they receive. At this rate, it won’t take but a few months before you’re in an intermediate group class leading the women quite nicely. I wouldn’t take less than one group lesson per week for the first two months to attain this, and at least two or three privates to tighten things up. If you can’t manage this kind of time investment, do what you can, but set the time goal nonetheless.


    Find a regular one! That’s the best advice I can give. It’s unsettling at times to come back from a lesson, excited about the dancing you’ve done, and find yourself practicing with coat racks and upright lamp fixtures. You need a female to make the mistakes along with you, challenge your lead, tell you when you’re applying to much pressure, compliment you when your "doing it right", and learn along side you. If she can accompany you to the lessons, even better. Else, at least find the time to practice with her.

    The partner doesn’t have to be a significant other. Although girlfriends and wives are natural choices, some of us single unattached fellows have to consider other options. Sisters are good choices if you have one, as long as you don’t become abusive with each another. Family can be that way. Else, there are always female friends; if you’re shy about this, get over it! You’re going to have to ask women at the clubs to dance, so you might as well start with the women you do know. If all else fails, well, you always have those women you meet at lesson time. Ask them if they’d like to practice before or after the lesson for a few minutes. It’s actually easier than at a club because they’re obviously there to learn just like you.


    A brief word on confidence. Your confidence grows with your experience and skill. The first time I visited the Mayan you couldn’t get me to ask a woman to dance; I was not comfortable with my ability to dance Salsa well. So I had to wait for the high energy, top 40 "intermission". After I had the opportunity to practice and dance with enough partners, the apprehension goes away. There’s a saying in the military- you don’t rise to the occasion, you always default to the level of your training. In other words, you’re only as good as the practice you bring to the dance floor already. So, once again, practice what you’ve learned. Sorry to beat a dead horse.


    Let’s face it guys, women don’t take the time to dress to impress and go to clubs just to be lead by novices. I know this isn’t always fair to the men, considering the time it takes to develop leading skills, but that’s the breaks. It isn’t easy on the women either to sit around waiting for confident male dancers to ask them to dance either. This isn’t anything new to dancing. The male Tango dancers of the early twentieth century would dance for hours upon hours with each other before attending the clubs to dance with the women. I’ve been to events with other ballroom style dancing and observed the same phenomenon. Why should Salsa dancing be any different? I’m know I’m in way near where I’d like to be, but learning and growing is part of the fun. So don’t get discouraged, put the time in, and reap the benefits!

    By Russel Longo
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