How to Salsa

When I was in graduate school, my friend Paula invited me to a salsa club. “But I’ll have no idea what I’m doing!” I protested, but went anyway, as I’m usually game to try anything once. In the back of the club, Paula broke down the basic salsa step for me, and before I knew it, I was getting pulled onto the dance floor but a random guy that I did not know. For each dance that night, I would start each new partner with an apology that I had no idea what I was doing. However, I was having so much fun that I resolved to keep coming back until I had mastered the steps.

Six years later, I look back on that day as the beginning of an important new chapter in my life. Salsa has brought me much happiness by introducing me to a style of dance that brings out my confidence and femininity, not to mention the health benefits of an increased level of exercise. Salsa has also brought me many friendships; with the dance and music come a subculture with its own strong sense of community. I have grown to love and appreciate the music of salsa, which is every bit as important as the dance. Finally, salsa has opened the door for me to many other styles of dance, now that I have discovered a love of moving to the music. Were it not for salsa, I would not have begun studying ballet, jazz, and modern dance a few years ago.

Maybe you yourself are in the same place I was six years ago; maybe you’ve thought about trying a salsa club but don’t know where to start. Here are some considerations as you start your salsa journey:

-Just Go!-

Grab a friend and head out to your local salsa club. A google search for salsa + the name of your city should tell you where you can go each night of the week. The first time you go, know that it’s perfectly okay to just be an observer if you are not ready to give the dance a try. As much as I love to get out there and dance, I find watching salseros dance almost as entertaining. You’ll find that everyone has their own style. Some folks like to show off with crazy dips and tricks, while others have a smoother, more subtle style. Order yourself a mojito and enjoy the show.

-Get Your Free Lesson-

That’s right: just about every salsa club has free lessons available. Come early and take advantage of the professional lesson before the DJ starts up. This is a good way to meet people and there is no need to bring a partner. Even if you did come with a partner, you will find that the teacher asks you to rotate between partners every few minutes. This is a good thing; everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and frequently changing partners makes you a better dancer. Call the club or do a web search for free salsa classes in your area to find out when and where they are offered.

-Listen!-

To the music, that is. Figuring out how to hear the rhythm in salsa is half the battle of mastering the steps. The basic step in salsa is structured around an eight-count beat. Followers rock back onto the right leg on one, rock back onto the left leg on two, and bring the right leg back to the middle on three. Hold on four, then rock forward on the left leg on five, rock back to the right on six, and bring the left leg back to the middle on seven. Hold at eight, and start the pattern again on one. It’s exactly the opposite for the leader, rocking to the front on the left, and then back on your right. Once you have mastered the mechanics of the basic step (and don’t rely on my description- try that free class or search for basic salsa instruction videos on YouTube), you’ll want to try to synchronize it with the proper rhythm. If you were just clapping the rhythm that your feet will make with your hands, you clap 1-2-3, 5-6-7, 1-2-3, 5-6-7 within the counts of eight. After you master this pattern, ask your teacher about clave (pronounced CLAH-vay). This is the rhythm that all salsa music is based on, and understanding clave will make you a better dancer as you become aware of the syncopated rhythm that your feet make in contrast to the music.

-Practice the Basics-

You can never practice your basic step too often or listen to salsa music too much. You know that scene in The Full Monty when Hot Stuff by Donna Summer comes on when the guys are standing in the unemployment line, and they cannot help but dance along with it? That should be you with your basic step, rocking subtly back and forth as you wait in line at the grocery store, the bank, and at red lights. Download some salsa, but skip those salsa compilations you find next to the cash register at The Sharper Image (et al.). Some excellent soneros to start with include Hector Lavoe, Oscar D’Leon, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The more you listen, the more you will feel the music on the dance floor.

-Don’t Be Afraid-

Remember, everyone was a beginner at one time. We all improved by the grace of dancers that were better than us that had the patience to dance with us despite our shortcomings. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to dance if you like their style- this goes for the women, too! Salseros go to the club because they want to DANCE, so chances are they are going to say yes. If they say no, don’t take it personally. Chances are, they’re tired or already promised dances to other people. Or maybe they’re not feeling confident about their own dancing. As a beginner, you are going to have to take a lot of the initiative to get as much time on the dance floor as possible. Remember what I said about building confidence? This is part of that process!

If you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you are thinking about trying salsa. I couldn’t be more pleased because I know from personal experience that you are doing a wonderful thing for your physical, social, and emotional well-being. Get out there, keep trying, and don’t forget to relax and have fun!