This week’s post is something that Jeff has wanted to write for a long time, and it’s something he’d like to be able to share with every male beginner who’s ever been intimidated at a salsa social. It’s half teacher profile and half tips for your next salsa outing. Here goes!
As a beginner in my University Days, I’d gotten used to a depressing routine when it came to social dancing; every Friday and Saturday night, I’d hop into my dad’s beat up Camry and drive 40 minutes towards downtown Vancouver in the rain, to get to the local HoJo (what the salsa veterans nicknamed the Howard Johnson Hotel) for the weekly salsa bash. I typically arrived 30 minutes before the event’s scheduled 9pm workshop, and sat on one of the creaky fold-out chairs until 9:30, when the workshop would start (‘Latin time’, they called it). I would then wade through one hour of learning how to do the basic steps and right turns for the 300th time, alongside men and women of all levels and ages.
As the workshop ended, the lights dimmed, and the first salsa song started pumping through the speakers. The disco balls began to spin, reflecting an array of patterns projected by the nearby multi-coloured lights. The guys that were lined up beside me during the workshop would approach the ladies they practiced with, asking for a dance, voices muffled by the loud music. Most of the time, the ladies would return a smile, follow the gents onto the dance floor, and away they went.
As for me, I would go back to my chair (the one closest to the entrance, always), trying to look nonchalant, while feeling my guts being twisted into balloon animals. The more I stared at the dancers, the better they looked, the more fun they seemed to be having, and the more intimidating it became for me to dance with anybody. After 30 minutes of sitting, I would take my dance shoes off, look around to check if anyone was watching me, then slowly make my way towards the exit, feeling like the biggest loser in the world.
It took me about another 6 years, when I became an instructor, for me to realize my experience was not unique. I’d see some of my students come to the workshop, sit around for a good hour or so of the socials, then quietly disappear into the night.
Social dancing, especially to beginner guys, can be an utterly intimidating experience – you have a limited number of moves, you have trouble grasping the beat in the music, and once you are on the dance floor, you are expected to deal with both issues at the same time?! Not to mention asking someone for a dance in the first place; forget about it! What if she gets bored? Is she looking at her watch? Wait, are there people staring at me?! For many beginners, social dancing is to public speaking as public speaking is to singing in the shower.
Since I’ve been down the same road as many of you, here are a few tips on how to survive your socials as beginners, from me to you:
- Listen to music, lots of music: I would recommend mainly salsa, but honestly, any genre will do, as most pop songs today are based on an 8-beat count anyways. Focus on identifying the 8 beats, and count them out until it becomes second nature. Doing so will improve your musicality, incorporating the count into your muscle memory. That way, you will have one less thing to think about as you are dancing.
- Pick your battles (songs): This is strongly related to my previous point. Once you can identify the beat, you will be able to determine whether the song is fast or slow. Choose to dance only when slow songs come up, this way you will have an easier time keeping count, as well as making sure that you don’t have sloppy technique. If you don’t think you have what it takes to dance a song from start to finish, do what I did in my early years – ask someone to dance when the song is halfway through.
- Be shameless: See that girl who just did 16 spins in two bars? I want you to march right up to her and ask her to dance. Develop a thick skin, and ask as many ladies to dance as possible. Not only will this make you a better dancer, it’s also a great opportunity to introduce yourself for more dances later on.
- Focus on the moves you have, not what you don’t remember: There is a time in every dancer’s life when he can count the number of moves he has with one hand. However, as the old saying goes, it’s not the number of moves you have; it’s how you use them. Ask any lady whether she’d rather dance with a guy with a million moves but who leads them badly, or a guy with 2 moves, but who dances comfortably, she’d most likely pick two-move Johnny time and time again. Focus on how to make the best of the situation, and enjoy what you can do!
- Bring a friend: In any social setting, having a friend with you can make your time out much less intimidating; this is the same in salsa outings. Establishing rapport with someone is a great way to ward off intimidation.
It took me a long time to realize that I am not a unique case, and from then on I’ve been trying my hardest make sure that everyone’s transition onto the dance floor is a fun and stress-free experience. That is why at Azúcar!, we hold a weekly practice sessions for beginners to get used to the dance floor, and we also hold regular outings as a group to introduce new students to social events. If you need help and support out there, we will always be around! So dance, and have fun!
Finally, a note to all the ladies: ask the guys to dance. It’s allowed, and they’ll thank you!