by Shaka Brown
You want to be a better social dancer. I want you to be a better social dancer. Other dancers want you to be a better social dancer. Now that we are all on the same page, why is it so hard to accomplish this goal? I’ll tell you why, it’s because you haven’t taken the 5 necessary steps to become a better social dancer. I’m here to help. No matter where you are or what type of dance you want to improve at. This article is specific to partner dancing, but it can apply to just about any type of dancing. Let’s get into it!
If I had a quarter for every time I was asked how to improve one’s level of social dancing, I would be able to plug a lot of parking meters. The standard answer (“Don’t worry about it, just keep doing it and you will be better with time.”) is usually used to avoid giving an answer that might conflict with what the person has been told from other instructors. It’s the safe answer.
Rumor is that a pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street, Manhattan, stopped world-renowned violinist, Jascha Heifetz, and inquired,
“Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Yes,” said Heifetz. “Practice!”
While this gets a chuckle, what advice do you give to the person that really wants to ultimately play at Carnegie Hall? “Keep practicing” is not a path, it’s an order without direction. What if they are practicing the wrong pieces? What if they are practicing without proper posture? Any teacher that just says “Do it again” is not going to create a painter, musician, writer, athlete or dancer. There must be goals, guidelines, points to improve, and measurable improvement. So your goal is to be a better social dancer? Here’s how to do it.
1. Social dance
While this may seem obvious to some, I’ve heard many developing dancers say “I’ll go social dancing after I get better at it” without understanding why I give them a quizzical look. To be fair, I’ve also heard people say “I will practice speaking more Spanish after I get more comfortable doing it.”
The only way to get good at social dancing is to social dance. You can take 10 years of classes, and you will not be as good a social dancer as someone who has been social dancing every night for 4 months. You may know more moves. You may be a better lead. You might be able to follow more spins. But the art of social dancing comes from the experience of social dancing. It’s the only way you learn how to adapt to different floor conditions. To spontaneously create moves. You have to immerse yourself into the social dance scene to improve as a social dancer.
Leads, you need to dance with dancers that are not necessarily good. Find the opportunities and take them. In doing so you will learn what it takes to lead, how to make adjustments to your partner, and the difference between a move learned in class and a move executed on the dance floor. See every dancer as someone that can teach you something by trying to understand what you are trying to do for the next 3-5 minutes. Understand that what makes someone a good lead is not how many moves they lead, but how clearly they lead them, so that the follower doesn’t need to guess what’s going on.
Followers, you need to dance with people that are recognized as accomplished leaders. I’m not talking about the leads that talk about how great they are, but the ones that other followers clamor to dance with. The leads that make every follower look spectacular; they can do the same for you. Don’t hide from them. You will learn that the lead doesn’t have to be strong to be effective. You will see how quickly they adapt to your level, and help you to feel that you can do no wrong. That’s what a good leader has spent years developing. You don’t have to tell them your level, they will figure it out in the first few seconds. You don’t have to tell them not to lead you through double turns; they can tell if you’re ready for that after leading you through a single. All you need to do is relax and enjoy it.
Dance with many, dance often, and between dances…
It’s been said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we talk. Listen to what people say about other dancers, and then see how that can apply to you. Very few people will say “You are a really heavy follower, I don’t like dancing with you.” Or “I don’t like the way you lead, I’m going to avoid dancing with you.” What they will say is:
“I’m going to take a break for a while, we will dance later.”
“Not right now, I’m not feeling this song.”
“I promised someone else this dance”
Or a thousand other ways to weasel out of a dance. Don’t worry about that. Don’t take it personally. That’s not what I actually want you to listen to. I want you to listen to what people say about other people. If you are a leader, then listen to what followers say after they finish dancing with someone. Just wait on the side of the dance floor. You will overhear conversations like:
“So how was it?”
“It wasn’t bad, he was a little rough, I hate when guys do that move where they put your hand on their chest every time they hear the word ‘corazon’. He also has greasy fingers, and his breath smelled like garlic”
Now, this can give you 3 tangible things to check up on immediately. How’s your breath? Do you do that move too? Should you wash your hands after eating chicken wings? You might also hear:
“I can’t believe he kept spinning me, when it’s obvious I can’t turn on this sticky floor. He also kept leading me way too close to that chainsaw juggler…”
Now you have a learning opportunity. Consideration for your partner’s ability. You know that the floor is sticky, had you thought about how that affects the moves that you are doing? There’s a chainsaw juggler on the side of the dance floor. You grew up in the circus, and are comfortable with that, but maybe your partner isn’t. Next dance you will stay closer to the bearded lady.
My point is that you can learn how others are critiqued behind their backs, and look to see if the critiques that are made can apply to you. Learn from other’s mistakes. You don’t have to worry about the good things, they will tell you that to your face. Appreciate the compliments, but once again, listen to what they are not saying about your dancing. If you want to be a top follower and every time you dance with someone you hear:
“You really enjoy dancing.”
“Hey, I see you like doing your thing, go ahead girl!”
“That’s a nice haircut.”
But you don’t hear “I really enjoyed that dance with you, you are an awesome follower! I hope we can dance again tonight.” Then read between the lines. If your goal is to be a great spinner then you want to hear “Wow, you’re a great spinner!” anything else may be a compliment, but it indicates that you haven’t reached the goal…yet. Pursue your goal fanatically. This doesn’t mean that you should kick yourself because you wanted to do 4 spins and you always fall after the 3rd. You can enjoy social dancing while at the same time improving. In fact, I can’t promise you that hitting a specific goal will make you suddenly enjoy dancing. But what we are discussing is how to make measurable improvements. No one says that reaching the top of Mt Everest will solve all of your problems while bringing you deep internal peace and satisfaction. They will say that you should dress warmly. And bring some oxygen.
Speaking of the tools of the trade, time for the next step:
Video cameras used to be very expensive items. If you had one it’s because you also happened to own a movie studio. Over time they got cheaper & smaller (the cameras, not the movie studios). Nowadays it’s pretty much the standard for everyone to have at least one video camera in his pocket at all times. This camera also takes pictures, allows him to update his twitter accounts, like fan pages, and occasionally make phone calls. The prevalence of video cameras means that people spend more time taking pictures and updating the status of their babies than they actually do playing with the baby. You would think that everyone would have a video timeline of their dancing from their first steps all the way to their latest performance. But that’s not the case.
When giving private lessons, one of the first things I ask clients is “Have you ever watched yourself dance?”
Most have not. They may have some videos of themselves doing the sequence from class, or after a workshop. But very few have gotten to see themselves social dance. You can’t blame them, there is a certain stigma attached to being recorded in public. It makes people look at you. It puts you in the spotlight, and gives people the impression that you are about to do something spectacular, when you aren’t doing anything but the same dancing you were doing the night before. Then they get disappointed and then stop looking at you. You have failed them. Who do you think you are for bringing that camera into the club and calling all that attention to yourself? OK, now that we’ve gotten over that you can go back to what your goal is; which is improve your social dancing.
You have to record yourself. Find someone that has a similar goal and you guys both share the task of recording each other social dancing. It doesn’t have to be all night. You need to tape at least 3 dances, with different people. Get permission from the people you dance with, in case they don’t want to be recorded. The first dance you will most likely be very self-conscious about, and feel like an idiot. That feeling goes down some with the second dance. By the 3rd dance you shouldn’t even be thinking about it. Now the purpose of recording yourself isn’t to be more comfortable in front of the camera, though that’s a positive side effect. You have to take the next step and watch the video.
I can guarantee you that the first time that you watch yourself dance you will feel somewhat nauseated. You will look like the people you always laughed at internally (if you’re polite). You will wonder why anyone ever danced with you. You will see mistakes that you only thought other people made. You will see how moves look, and how your partner really feels. You will be your hardest critic. You may decide to join a gym. But you will also find things that you can correct. There’s no inspiration like the desire to look at least as good as you thought you looked.
I had a student who had a specific issue that was driving me nuts. Every time that he turned his partner, he would cock his head to the left. I mentioned it to him in passing, though not making it the focus of the private lesson. As he continued to do it, I addressed it directly, and he promised to work on it. As I noticed him social dancing, and continuing to do it. I finally recorded him on the sly, and in the next lesson I showed him the video. The first thing he said was:
“Oh man, what’s wrong with my head?! Do I do that all the time?”
After that he was much more particular about correcting this problem. He became proactive, asking me if he was still cocking his head, and internalized the proper posture that he needed to maintain, because he had seen how he looked and he wanted to improve. While looking good doesn’t necessarily mean that you are dancing well, aligning your self perception with your actual appearance helps to ensure that you are taking both your mind and body in the same direction. Which takes us to our next tip…
4. Be Goal Oriented
The Pyramids weren’t built in a day. They Ancient Egyptians didn’t say “Well, we have a bunch of rocks, lets see what happens when we stack them up…” Instead the plans were laid, the end result was detailed on papyrus, there were meetings, approvals, recommendations, revisions, and re-submittals. Only after a final design was blessed by the Pharaoh did the actual physical labor begin. At least that’s how I like to think it went. It’s OK to take 10 years to plan the building process for something that you want to last for centuries. While the exact approach will not be the same when it comes to improving your social dancing, it remains important that you have a goal. While you may say:
“I want to be awesome!”
“I want to be as good as <insert your role model here>”
That can help to inspire, but it will not let you know what you need to do to get there. Do you want to improve your musicality? Do you want to know 6 different copas? Do you want 4 options for following a cross body lead with an open break? Do you want to be able to do at least eight 8-counts of open footwork (shines)? Specify your goals, check them off and continue to develop. When you practice these things to the point that you don’t think about them anymore, then you can break them out on the dance floor and it will feel natural. Now that you have established your goals, it’s time for the next step…
5. Seek professional help
A quality instructor can be the difference between you doing the wrong thing for 2 years and learning the right thing in less than 2 hours. It’s unfortunate, but the Salsa scene is overwhelmed with dancers that want to be “self-taught”, so they shun the traditional approach, which is finding an instructor that can teach them to reach their goal. They insist on trying to figure it all out on their own. Would you try to cook a thanksgiving dinner on your own? Or would you rather have someone stand there and tell you how to time baking a turkey so that it’s ready at the same time as the macaroni & cheese? Would you like to rebuild a car engine without a mechanic alongside? Or even worse, without the manual that tells you how much to tighten the bolts, what size washers to use, and how to time the crankcase? Or course not.
Dance is a language, and there is a methodology to learning it. A quality instructor will be able to quickly identify your weaknesses, strengths, and help you to create a blueprint towards your goal. If you want to win a competition, seek a coach that has created competition winners. Notice that I did not say “Find dancers that have won competitions and have them coach you.” Just because someone has done what you want to do, does not mean that they are qualified to teach you how to do the same.
Imagine that you need to find a great barber in town. You ask people who have a great haircut. If you want to be an olympic swimmer, do you ask for Michael Phelps as a coach, or do you think you would do better with Michael Phelps’ coach?
A more extreme example: if you find yourself in a situation that you need to relearn the ability to walk, would you hire someone on the basis that they can walk, run, skip, and even dance? Or would you look for someone that has the qualifications of a rehabilitative specialist? Now apply the same requirements to improving in your dance, and you will find it much easier to select a quality instructor.
So there you have it, 5 ways to improve as a social dancer. Feel free to leave your questions, comments, and thoughts. See you on the dance floor!