On Learning the Passion of Salsa: Social Dancing Vs. Performance

The passion of the salsa dancer is unparalleled; rich, overflowing, mad -- and quickly becoming one of the most organized & professional street dances in the world.  This is the kind of dance that is both internalized and externalized. Salsa is nothing without a least a little wow factor, but salsa is also nothing if you can’t just lose yourself in the music and dance like nobody’s watching.

Spanish Heat by Trish BiddleThe Salsa Congresses and professional dance companies continue to raise the bar in terms of technical skill, creativity and that wow factor. At the same time, salsa began and continues to simmer its own subtle variations in style and personalities in the night-clubs. The average salsero or salsera can go to any major city in the world and find a salsa club or community adding to this dance’s international appeal.

In this article, we ask the question: how does social dancing compare to performance for the student looking to tap into the unique passion of salsa?  

The night-clubs challenge the student dancer differently than dancing a choreographed routine before an audience. Ideally, a good salsa dancer should be capable in both social dancing and performance, but each dancer will build, or prefer to build, their foundation differently.  

Alexandra Sell of Mambo Productions (Calgary, CANADA), commented, “Social dancing allows you to develop lead & follow skills, strengthen reflexes, improvise and increase attentiveness to the music.  Choreography, on the other hand, trains stage presence, sharpness, technique, ability to handle pressure, etc.”

It is arguable, however, that dancers who mainly reserve their dancing to performance or choreographed classes lack spontaneity and adaptability, whereas, dancers who mainly reserve their dancing to the social floor never learn any new moves, lack growth – and are often there for other reasons than salsa. 

Randy Atlas from International Hustle and Salsa Competition, (Miami, USA), believes that salsa should be primarily danced as a social dance. “Social dancing is where the real roots of the music and dance are. The performances are for the instructors and exhibitionists. They reflect only 5% of the actual dance population.” 

According to Alexandra Sell, “From my own experience, performing has definitely forced me out of my comfort zone. Had it not been for performing, I would have never had the opportunity to grow as a dancer. The stage made me want to get better, invest in my training, costumes, and the like.”  

“However,” she added, “I never lose sight of what salsa really is: a street dance. Social dancing is unquestionably better at feeling the music and connecting with your dance partner. I don’t see how choreography can do that. After all, that is what it is – choreography, so the moves do not have to be lead-able. As with everything else, repeatedly training the same routine and music is bound to become monotonous, tedious and lose its spontaneity.” 

Arif Maherali of Latin Soul Dance Company (Calgary, Canada) commented, "I have both performed and danced socially, and I can definitely say that social dancing is what has increased my skill level bar none. A true street dancer will be able to pick any girl or guy and be able to create a story, without predetermined moves.” 

Everybody learns differently, according to
Erika Sanchez from Grupo America (Vancouver, Canada ). Some people learn to feel the music better in choreography because the timing and execution has to be perfect. “These dancers not only follow a routine based on counts but on the changes and highlights of a song, plus they learn the feeling of each piece when the choreographer explains it.” 

“Performance and choreography is taking what you learned to the next level and treating salsa as more than a past-time or hobby,” according to Arthur Ga of Salsa Picante Dance Company (Toronto, Canada). “Performance is an accomplishment for the student and a test of confidence. It has more drama and showmanship; an opportunity to really shine in ways that may not be appropriate on a social floor, for example: doing flips and lifts and dramatic dips." 

But he added that he had seen many great dancers get to the same level or better just by dancing socially. “It all depends on the individual.” 

“Those truly gifted can both perform & social dance like they are on fire,” Erika Sanchez said. “If he/she is a great performer, they will never lack spontaneity; it’s in their genes. Those that are fantastic social dancers practice like crazy on their own time, meaning they will never lack growth or new moves. But whether they do this for other reasons than Salsa, that is another issue; everyone has their own reasons.” 

Francisco De La Calleja of San Tropez Dance School & Company (Montreal, Canada), responded, “Absolutely everyone is in it for reasons other than salsa. Some are there to show off and feel superior, some are there to find a mate, some are there to get a feeling of belonging to a community, some are there as a personal challenge, some are there to please their spouse.”  

Arthur Ga said, “In the social scene, people can be rude. This makes learning especially difficult for beginner students. Classes and performance groups that are dedicated to salsa are safer in this respect. Students who want to perform are less likely to be in salsa for other reasons.”  

“The best opportunity to enjoy social dancing, however, is when you can dance with the person you are in love with,” he added. “With this partner you can create a stronger connection with or without a lot of technical skill. This is when the true pleasure of salsa comes alive.   If you can’t get that yet, the next best thing is a dance partner that is ready and able to work with all your moves.”

Natalie Reis of AusLatin Productions, (Australia) responded,”Salsa is first and foremost meant to be enjoyed between two people moving with the music. There is nothing quite like the almost universal language of dancing salsa socially with a friend or complete stranger from across the globe, and knowing that you are both so in tune with one another that you have, in fact, become the music. It is true magic.” 

“I feel strongly that one should develop social dance skills to a fairly competent level before moving into choreography,” she added.  

“The hardest thing to learn is to think about our partner at all times. Sure, rhythm, posture, styling, footwork and moves are all important, but we all have to remember that without our partner there is no dance!” said Francisco De La Calleja. 

Arif Maherali believes, “Being taught is one thing, but adapting to your partner and making it look like a performance is another. Social dancing puts you to limits that you cannot control. What I mean is, in a performance you know the timing, song, partner and moves, but in social dancing, you may not know the song or partner and may have to adapt on the spot to those elements. How does the girl move? How fast is the song?  What are the conditions like? Can I try a certain move?  Remember the roots of salsa. It is about the music, people and energy. Learning moves can be done in a classroom or workshops.  To put those moves to the test, it is beneficial to practice them on a social level.”
Simona Boucek of  Rumbanana Salsa Group (Oregon, USA) responded, “I consider myself more a social dancer than a performer. However, I did not truly understand the music and how it connects to the dance until I started to choreograph to the music. I think through choreography, you get many of the technical aspects of this dance that you don't always pick up on just as a social dancer.” 

Performance gives dancers opportunities that social dancing does not. The performances and organized Salsa Congresses not only create moments that stand out in the dancer’s mind, but also provide places where salsa communities can gather and strengthen.

“My favourite performance was on our first dance tour in 2001 dancing in small remote towns to school children in BC’s interior,” Erika Sanchez recounted. “The school board told us for years that they would not hire us because apparently kids do not like dancing in BC.  By 2001, they relented and gave us a go. In Clearwater, the children gave us a standing ovation and the entire school lined up for autographs. The principle told us it was the best show in 30 years of teaching that he had ever seen. The grade 7 BOYS, I repeat BOYS, came to us at the end to sign their baseball gloves.” 

“My favourite memory social dancing was when I went to Cuba for the first time and danced all night with the Tropicana male dancers at an after party.” 

“I would venture that I’ve had the most fun at the Montreal Salsa Convention in April 2005,” said Francisco De La Calleja. “My favourite memory in performance was the first time I performed with the San Tropez Dance Troupe at the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress in 1999.  The performance was spot on and the Puerto Rican audience was incredibly welcoming.  I also believe that they did not expect Canadians to dance as well as we did.” 

Arif Maherali said, “My favourite memories when social dancing are at the congresses in different parts of the world -- dancing with the best in the world like Edie the Salsa Freak, Liz Lira and random girls.  It really allows me to appreciate the universality of Salsa. Locally I love heading up to Edmonton. We have made some awesome friends down there and they spin the baddest salsa grooves (shout out to Jen and DJ Spice Julian). Calgary is still working very hard to have that one "hot" spot. Other than that, Vancouver and Cuba are my favourites. I plan on hitting up a couple more places this year so check back.” 

Natalie Reis commented, “Nothing compares to that moment on a Saturday morning while doing chores in my living room, when the music suddenly grips me and I can no more stop my body moving than fly over the moon!  At this special time I feel truly surreal – like I’m having a higher experience. I listen to and learn Salsa because I hope to and fervently seek to feel that feeling.  Everyone should try it!” 

“I’ll dance everywhere,” from Alexandra Sell. 

“Until a student truly learns to listen to the music both with their ears and with their soul, it really is just physical movement, not salsa,” Natalie Reis said. “It’s really all about the music – when you get inside the music and hear the harmony of the musicians ‘for real’ it moves you.” 

“The most important thing that I figured out about Salsa is that it's all in the basics,” Simona Boucek said. “Each style of Salsa has a few fundamental basic patterns, after that it's all combinations of those patterns. When I first started out, I tried to memorize all these different combinations how they started, how they ended, what they were called. It was silly. Once you learn the basic patterns, you can do just about anything because it's just a variation or combination of the basics. 

Francisco De La Calleja believes a student must have a  good teacher and a clear objective when starting salsa. “So many people come to our school and state that they “want to be good dancers”. They are always reminded that “being good” means nothing until they have established what good means for them. The answers are always different.  And the way they must be taught is different. An amateur teacher, more often than not, is just a terrific dancer who will try to impose his/her definition of “being good” on the student and will end up frustrating the efforts of the learner, not from lack of prowess, but for lack of focus.  Professional teachers, on the other hand, are able to adapt their teaching style to the needs, objectives and abilities of their student.” 

“There is no such thing as a “natural” dancer.  As easy as it is to learn to dance, it will take some time, just like everyone takes time to learn to walk or to speak or to swim or to drive a car.  Sure, some people have been dancing for so long that they already forgot when they learned but having a clear expectation will make the student more patient towards him / her self.”

According to Arthur Ga, “If you learn just from friends in a social scene, they can’t always give you the whole picture. Students must find the right teacher for them, above anything else. I have personally learned from many teachers: some of you are bad and you know who you are. And some of you are good, and I thank you for that.”

From Arif Maherali. “Key elements to becoming a good salsa dancer are attitude and love. If you are going into it to show off, your time is numbered. If you are going into it to have fun and love the art, you will be amazing.” 

November 2005
© lyw