Shines & styling

by Ana Gherasim

When you first start salsa classes, you learn the basic footwork it takes to dance with a partner – which is pretty awesome in itself, of course. However, as you progress, there comes a point where just doing pattern after pattern becomes a little repetitive – and for ladies, once you learn how to follow most moves, you wish there were more to dancing than going where you’re led. Luckily, that’s where shines come in!

Shines are freestyle sections of a dance where you let go of your partner and do your own thing for a few bars. They usually happen during instrumental solos or improvisational sections of the music, but can also happen any time the lead decides to take a break from turn patterns. Shines are a chance for creative self-expression, for playing with the music, and of course, for showing off to your partner.

So why are so many beginners, especially ladies, terrified of shines?
Maybe it’s because we spend so much class time worrying about technique and form that we forget how to let go of that and be ourselves. Maybe we’re so used to being told what to do that we forget how to dance without direction. Maybe we rely on our partner to set the beat and get lost when we’re left to fend for ourselves. And then there’s the ever-popular “I don’t know what to do”.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by being let go and made to shine, here’s my little secret: there are only 3 rules to shines: (1) try not to hurt anyone, (2) don’t abandon your partner, and (3) get back on beat when your partner takes you back. Everything else is optional.

There’s a common misconception that you HAVE to abide by salsa timing (1-2-3, 5-6-7) when doing shines. While being aware of the beat is important, nothing dictates you need to step on every beat – in fact, the more you play with the music rather than strictly with the counts, the better you will look.

A shine cheat-sheet?
Here are a few things you can try to amp up your styling:

–          Focus on body movement. If crazy footwork is not your cup of tea, fill your shine time with basic steps and side-steps, and throw in some body waves, shoulder rolls and shimmies, and you’re good to go.

–          Pick one move and play with it. You don’t need a huge repertoire of moves – pick one or two, and mix them up. Make your Suzy-Qs travel and turn or throw in some arm styling. Vary the tempo of your move or add different kinds of body movement, and each one will look different even if your footwork is the same.

–          Borrow moves from other dances. If you do any other type of dance, don’t be afraid to draw from that repertoire. I see dancers integrate dance elements form tango to hip hop to swing to dancehall, and it’s always a welcome breath of fresh air!

–          Listen to the music. Some songs are smooth and jazzy. Others are brass-heavy and have a big band feel. Others have pop and dance influences. Listen to the song you’re dancing to, and let it inspire you. You’ll be surprised by your body’s own creative powers!

–          Own it. Confidence and attitude are what makes a lot of simple moves stand out. If you shine reluctantly, because you have to, it will show. On the other hand, if you look like you’re having the time of your life, you’ll also look like a better dancer! I’m a big fan of “fake it ‘til you make it” in this area.

How do you “learn” styling?
Here’s another secret: basic styling elements are learned in class, but your style is individual, and you get to develop it over time. If you see dancers whose style you admire, go tell them, ask them for tips, or see if they give private classes. But whenever you’re being taught styling, strive not to imitate your teacher, but to adapt each move to yourself. Dance is all about self-expression, and you get to create your own vocabulary – so take advantage of it!

Got a styling tip or question? Leave a comment!

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