Beat-Train Your Brain

by Ana Gherasim

“Feel” the music, they say. “Just let it move you”, they say.

Musicians, or those with musical training, have a great advantage when starting to learn salsa (or any other dance, really): their brains have been trained to understand, hear and follow the beat structure of a song.

Before I started dancing, my musical training consisted mainly of failed attempts, so at first, that damn “one” beat was the bane of my existence. It took over a year (and much patience from Jeff and his 22 years of music education) for me to start “hearing” the beat, and even longer before I started “feeling” it.

But it did come, in time. Listening to loads of salsa music does help, but there are also some great beat-training tools to help speed up your learning process. So, for those who neither are musically trained, nor have a built-in metronome in their brain, here are some great tools to give you a beat-training boost:

Understanding the Salsa Rhythm
I was doing a bit of light research for this article, thinking I knew all the best resources to recommend, and came across a YouTube video that changed my world. It’s the perfect explanation of how salsa music is constructed, why it sounds so different from the (pop) music we’re used to hearing, and how to go about looking for the salsa beat. If “Getting on Beat” were a course, this would be mandatory reading viewing.

 

Salsa Beat Machine
This great little tool comes as a web app and a mobile app (so you can jam to this on the bus on your way to class!). You can find it at www.salsabeatmachine.org and it lets you manipulate the most commonly-used instruments in a salsa band, slow down and speed up the tempo, change the melody and key of the music. It even includes an “instructor” who can count out the beat for you – in 5 languages! This is by far the most interactive tool on this list, and I encourage you to play with it – single out each instrument, get used to how it relates to the instructor’s count; then see how it combines with a second instrument. Turn off the instructor’s count, and count the beat for yourself. The listen to a salsa song and listen for the one or two instruments you were just playing with – does the beat make more sense now? Rinse and repeat!

Salsa Timing Exercises
If you take to the Internet, you can also find CDs of salsa timing practice. There are the ones that break down the beat structure of each instrument, then put them together (much like you can do yourself with the Salsa Beat Machine). There are also salsa practice music CDs consisting of simple melodies at various speeds, which can be looped easily for simplified practice (because switching songs is *such* a hassle). Have a browse, and see what you like and find useful. My favourite in this category is Alex Wilson’s Salsa con Soul Timing Workout – just one 5-minute track that breaks down the beat of each instrument within an overall melody:


(I have no idea what Luigi is doing here, but I guess it beats putting up a blank video for the sake of the audio track?)

Listen to Salsa Music
As awesome as these tools are, they by no means replace listening and dancing to lots of salsa music. The variety of salsa music alone is more than can be explained by any single tool. So once you’ve bookmarked your favourite resources, go back to your music library and play a few salsa songs!

Buying dance shoes online

Let’s be honest: we don’t just buy dance shoes for their function – the more you dance, the more you want your shoes to show off both your skill and your style. And in a city with a somewhat limited dance shoe supply, online shopping provides the variety – and, often, affordability – that we’re missing.

Here are a few tips for making the most out online dance shoe purchases:

Quality check
Buying dance shoes online can be a great bargain, but make sure you don’t sacrifice quality for a low price tag. Make sure the shoes have suede (or chrome leather) soles, and have a steel shank up the heel and through the centre of the sole, up to the ball of the foot. Reputable online retailers will list these features in the product description.

Sizing chart
You want your dance shoes to fit like a glove. Nothing can replace actually trying the shoes on before you buy them, but a good size chart will help ensure you get the proper size. Different brands use different sizing methods, so rather than relying on your street shoe size, make sure you find their sizing chart and measure your foot according to their instructions.

Customization
Some sites will have endless customization options, from heel height and the material and pattern of the shoes, to fit options like “narrow” and “wide” widths. In some cases, they also offer a “street sole” option in addition to a suede sole. Make sure to check out all these options and select the ones you want. Also make sure these customization options don’t affect the return policy (see below).

Shipping costs
It’s all too common to get seduced by a low price tag, then be hit with high shipping and handling fees, taxes, customs duties and other hidden costs. Make sure you get a complete price breakdown (including all taxes as well as shipping and handling fees) before ordering your shoes, and shop around for web stores with lower shipping costs.

Return policy
Even with a good sizing chart, you might get shoes that don’t fit quite right, or looked better online than on your feet. Since nothing can really replace trying a shoe on in person, make sure the site you’re buying from has a good return/exchange policy. Things to look for in a return policy are:

  • time limits – will they take the shoes back at any time or do you have a limited number of days to make a return?
  • fees associated with returns – many sites will charge you a postage fee for any returns; make sure they are reasonable.
  • do they offer refunds, or only exchange/credit? And if it is exchange only, is there something else on the site that you’d be happy with, if the shoes you want don’t work out?

Payment options
Any time you make an online purchase, you want to make sure your payment is secure, and your personal details will remain private. Check out PC Mag’s 11 Tips for Safe Online Shopping for some practical advice on keeping your purchases secure.

Have you bought dance shoes online? Do you have a go-to dance shoe site? Tell us about your experience below!

Surviving Fast Songs

by Jeff Huang

We’ve all been there before – sitting on the side of the dance floor, waiting for a good song, and secretly cursing the DJ for playing nothing but crazy-fast salsa.

Even worse is when a song starts out slow, lulls you into grabbing a partner, then subtly (or… not so subtly, maybe about 1 minute and 20 seconds in?) turning into another salsa sprint. Surprise! You are now trapped in a fast song! What do you do?

Fast Song Survival Tips:

Small steps
You’ve heard it in class a million times: the faster the music, the smaller the move. The key here is to eliminate unnecessary motion and be more efficient. Taking small steps will make you look sharper, react faster, and make it look less like you are having a cardiac arrest on the dance floor.

Be aware of your surroundings
In science class, we all learned that when molecules are heated, they become more volatile and more prone to colliding with one another. Fast songs do the same thing to dancers. As people start to move faster, the chance of bumping into each other also increases. Now would be a good time to take a close look at your surroundings, and make sure that you have enough space to safely lead your partner. If you can, try maneuvering yourself and your partner towards the sides of the dance floor, where there are fewer obstacles to look out for.

Stick to moves you can do in your sleep
Avoid using challenging patterns, or patterns you are still working on. Slow songs are more forgiving of imperfect leads, whereas rushing a lead you’re not comfortable with may end up hurting your partner. Stick with simple moves that you can execute well. Maintain a solid and clear lead, and your partner will thank you.

Be playful
A faster song does not mean the end of having fun. In fact, fast songs are often charged with emotion, and as dancers, we should embrace and interpret it accordingly. Try playing with more styling – move your shoulders, roll your hips, do a few body waves. In fact, try to take this opportunity to let your partner go and shine!

ADVANCED OPTION – Switch to dancing on 2
For those familiar with dancing on 2, what you may not know is that it actually has a small advantage over on 1 when dancing to faster songs. When you break down a lady’s single right turn beat by beat, you’ll find that the lady will have an extra beat to execute her turns! This adds an extra dimension to how you are able to handle faster music, because you have additional time to prep the moves. You can find a more detailed comparison between on1 and on2 courtesy of our friends at Addicted2Salsa.

Beware of pattern monkeys, and avoid becoming one!

by Jeff Huang

If you’ve been to at least one of my classes, you’ve probably heard me say that dancing is all about communication with your partner. After all, the reason dancing exists is to help people socialize, to entertain, and to foster self-expression.

Unfortunately, there is a particular niche of dancers labeled “pattern monkeys”, whose sole purpose on the dance floor is to execute/follow combinations after combinations, moves after moves; never blinking, never smiling, almost as if he or she has reached a deep zen state of other-worldly detachment. These are what most dancers’ worst nightmares are made of, and a chance encounter with one could turn a healthy, well-adjusted person into a broken pile of self-doubt and regret before the song is half over.

*deep breath* Alright, full disclosure: I was once *gasp* a pattern monkey. I was often so deeply entranced in making a particular combination work that I completely forgot that there is another human being in front of me. In the meantime, my partners (including Ana) were wondering where I have been for the last five minutes, and why in the world are they dancing with me, when I’m not really dancing with them. It has been a traumatizing experience, but after multiple interventions (read: getting yelled at by people), and confrontations (read: getting yelled at loudly by people), I’ve finally come out the other side of the tunnel. Never again!

So how do we avoid becoming slaves to our patterns? Here are some of my suggestions, from a guy’s perspective:
  1. Do not treat your partner as a mere dummy to try moves on – you are, in fact, dancing with another human being. This is VERY important, it means that you should pay attention to your partner and observe what she is doing. Is she enjoying the dance? Is she having trouble following you? Is she even paying attention to you? By establishing a connection with your partner, you’ve just made the first big step towards making the dance enjoyable.
  2. Adjust your lead – every dance partner is different, like a beautiful and unique snowflake *cough*, whether it be height, size, arm length, or dance experience. Make sure that your partner is comfortable following the more basic moves before you start throwing around advanced patterns and combinations! Remember, in the majority of cases, if the pattern does not work, the lead is to blame.
  3. Be musical – no matter no many fancy patterns you are able to throw around, if you don’t express them with music, you are not dancing well. A good lead is able to identify what the music is trying to say (romantic? fun? cheeky?) and dance accordingly. If the music is fast and exciting, don’t start leading long and complex moves because you’ll pretzel your partner; instead, stick to simple turns and cross-body leads, do some shines and goof off. If the music is slow and sensual, be bold, jump into the hard stuff and impress her with the depth of your repertoire.
I guess it all comes down to this – dancing is never just patterns; it’s about enjoying the music, and each other’s company! So the next time you’re out dancing, take a look at what your partner is up to, and don’t forget to smile!

Is your Halloween costume dance-ready?

It’s October, and those of us who are excited about Halloween are looking forward to Salsaria’s Masqu’oween Gala, and to Rahim’s Halloween Salsa Bash!

Picking a costume for these events is always a fun challenge – not only does your costume have to be awesome, it also has to be easy (or at least possible) to dance in, otherwise you might be in for a pretty miserable night.

If you’re ready to make a bit of an investment, an actual themed dance costume might be the best way to go; dance costumes are built for the stage, so they are often showy and fun, but they are also made with comfort and range of motion in mind, so they will be dance-friendly.

However, if you are buying a ready-made, non-dance costume, or making your own, here are a few tips for making sure your costume is dance-ready:

  1. Leave yourself room to move
    Costumes that are too tight to move in, or too heavy or unwieldy to dance in will probably have you sitting all night. Try to pick something that gives you enough range of movement to dance the way you would normally, and will also stay on through multiple spins. Layers you can put on for, say, a costume contest, but take off for social dancing are also your friends.
  2. Choose breathable fabrics
    Most of the affordable all-in-one costumes you will find at costume shops will be made of cheap polyester that’s only a couple of steps removed from wearing a plastic bag, in terms of breathability and heat dissipation. Try going for more breathable, more natural fabrics to avoid overheating. Heavily layered costumes, wigs and other props can also get very warm very fast, so choose carefully.
  3. Pick masks wisely
    Masks that cover your entire face can limit your field of vision, which can make you a threat to others on the floor if you can’t see where you’re going or if your peripheral vision is gone. (Dear pirates, your eye patches will affect your depth perception!) Also be mindful of how well you can breathe in your mask – you will need much more oxygen while dancing than while standing in the store picking out your mask. Try to opt for something that doesn’t cover your nose, and has wide eye holes; if you want a full-face mask, try getting the look with make-up rather than plastic.
  4. Accessorize with safety in mind
    Animal tails will whip those around you when you spin, but you can still have your tail if you, for instance, secure it to your pant leg while dancing (velcro, double-sided tape, and safety pins all work). Long, heavy earrings will whip you in the face while you spin (trust me), and wigs/crowns/anything else that goes on your head can move around or even fly off if they are not well secured.
  5. When in doubt, dance-test it!
    There’s nothing like a live test, so when you’re shopping or digging through your closet, try to dance in full attire (preferably for a full song) before committing to a costume.

Are you dressing up for Halloween this year? Who/what will you be, and how are you dance-proofing your costume?

Who Do You Dance With? Learning from every dance

The more dancers we see develop their skills, the more we’ve been noticing a pattern: a lot of dancers tend to stick to dancing with partners around their same level. While this might seem like a natural progression, it can make for a segmented dance community, and it also limits not just your social circle, but also your ability to learn.

I believe we can all learn something from every person we dance with, regardless of their relative level. Dancing with someone more advanced challenges you to get better. Dancing with someone around the same level and whom you know well lets you enjoy the comfort of a familiar dance. Dancing with someone less experienced tests your leading/following and makes you more adaptable. I’m a firm believer in making sure every social dance night has a bit of all 3.

Challenge Yourself
No doubt about it: dancing with someone who is (or who you THINK is) a better dancer than you can be intimidating. “What if he tries to make me do some crazy move I can’t follow?” “What if she gets bored after 20 seconds?”. We’ve all been there, and it’s not an easy thing to deal with, but once you break that barrier, you’ll be amazed by how quickly you will progress.

DO:
Ask more advanced dancers to dance
. I don’t care that you just learned how to do one turn and they’re spinning like a top. There are no prerequisites to asking someone to dance.

Try your best. No one learned to dance overnight, and even if your moves are limited, the effort to do them as well as you can will be appreciated.
Smile and have fun. So long as you’re pleasant to dance with, no one will care that you’re not nailing quintuple spins.

DON’T:
Apologize for small mistakes
. Odds are, most of your mistakes will go unnoticed. And if your partner does notice, they will likely instantly forget it; apologizing for a small mistake will make them dwell on it far more than they might otherwise. A smile is usually the best way to say “oops, sorry” and move on.

(That being said, if you step on your partner’s foot, swing them into someone else, or otherwise hurt them, then apologize like your life depends on it. And this applies to dancers of all levels).

 

Dance with a Beginner
Once you get past “beginner” status, it’s easy to stick to dancing with people you already know. All of a sudden we forget our first few dance outings when everyone seemed to know each other and we felt like the odd ones out.

Asking beginners to dance will not only make their night, it will put your leading/following to the test as well. It tests your ability to adapt, and to find pleasure in the basics again.

DO:
Ask beginners to dance
. They might get the deer-in-the-headlights look, but be nice and accommodating and they’ll thank you for it.

Adapt to their level. Every dancer can tell what their partner’s skill level is, in the first few moves. Adapt to their level, make them comfortable, and challenge them little by little.
Smile and have fun. As a beginner, I was terrified that everyone I dance with will have a lousy time – a little encouragement goes a long way!

DON’T:
Turn down a beginner who’s asking you to dance
. You are never “too good” to dance with beginners.

Coach them on the dance floor. Class is for learning, social dancing is for fun. Even teachers refrain from coaching their students out at socials. Unless you are specifically asked for help, keep it to yourself.

Comfort Dancing
Once we’ve been dancing for a while, we all have our preferred partners – the ones we’ve danced with a hundred times, whose moves we know well, who lead/follow the way we like to be led/followed, and with whom we always have a great time. These are often your best dances of the night, the people you run to every time you see them out dancing, and the ones you look forward to seeing whenever you go out.

DO:
Cultivate those relationships
. Dancing with someone you’re comfortable with is a guaranteed great time – make sure those people know you appreciate them!

Experiment. A partner you know well and are comfortable with is a great partner for experimentation – try out the move that you just learned, or some new styling, and make sure they’re comfortable to do the same.

DON’T:
Make them your only dances of the night. It’s tempting to stay in that comfort zone. It’s nice there! But if everyone did the same, we’d run out of dance partners in a hurry, and we’d have a very, very fragmented dance scene.

How many people do you typically dance with when you go out? Do you go out of your way to dance with different people, or do you stick to the same crowd? Let us know in the comments!

Improve your dancing using your smartphone

by Jeff Huang

Thanks to improvement in portable technology, an estimated 47% of Canadians today are carrying smartphones. Having a mini-computer with you can be great for salsa dancing, because it provides you with a powerful resource wherever you go. Here’s how your smartphone can improve your dancing:

As a music player
The most obvious, and a very common use for smartphone nowadays is a mp3 player replacement. Listening to music plays an important role in developing musicality, understanding the beat, and getting used to the salsa rhythm. Plus, who doesn’t love some fun Latin music to liven up their day?! So get some salsa tunes on your phone – for practice AND enjoyment.

As a music finder
Apps such as SoundhoundShazam, and Spotsearch are all popular programs for dancers to find songs during congresses and social events. Like what the DJ is playing? Just open the app of your choice, record a snippet of the music, and it will identify the title of the song, the artist, and the album. Some of the more full-featured apps can even provide lyrics in time with the music, or recognize songs by you singing or humming the tune! (Disclaimer: this function really depends on how good your humming is). I personally have found many great songs this way, and have been introduced to many amazing new artists as well.

As a rhythm/timing device
There are a number of apps that help develop musicality and rhythm for dancers. The best-known one is Salsa Rhythm, which is a port of the popular web app Salsa Beat Machine. It is a great learning tool for mastering salsa timing and instrument identification, letting you to fiddle with instruments commonly used in salsa music to become familiar with how they sound. You can use it to practice your timing On-1 and On-2!

As a video recorder
Most dancers will tell you that the best way to improve your dancing is to see yourself dancing – either in a mirror or on video. Countless times I have cringed after seeing myself on video, and it made be practice even harder to be a better dancer. Since most smartphones nowadays come with a video recording function, take full advantage of it! Set your phone up and record yourself dancing (or ask someone to do it for you). It will make you immediately aware of your bad habits, and make you swear up and down to change them as soon as you can. Because hey, we all want to look good right?

Has your phone helped your dancing? Leave a comment, and tell us how!