Have you ever heard the term “mental model”? A mental model is any concept used to understand the world around you.
One example is the Navy SEALs “40 Percent Rule”. When your mind is saying you’re done (in a race, project, etc) you’re actually only 40% done. Ever run a marathon? You hit a wall at mile 6 but somehow keep going. How is that possible? 40 percent rule.
Mental models exist for every discipline. They help you to do more, faster. One of my favorite mental models for salsa dancing is Salsa Hell. Salsa Hell explains why leaders are more likely than followers to quit dancing. It also explains why new followers prefer more experienced leaders.
I’ve created a mental model of my own based upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My model which I’m coining the “Salsa Growth Pyramid” explains the progression of macro skills one must learn to become a great salsa dancer.
When I learned to dance, I was drowning in information. Timing, music, steps, tension, patterns, body language, shines, etc. I didn’t understand where the dependencies existed and which elements to tackle first.
With 7 years of dancing and instruction under my belt, I’ve got some perspective on how students learn. Learning is a progression up the pyramid. You may go back and forth between levels, however it is impossible to reach a high level of performance on any given level without reaching a high level of performance on all preceding levels.
Salseros dance to, wait for it…salsa music! Everything starts with understanding where the counts and beats hide within a salsa track. This is where most of my students struggle. It’s called ‘salsa’ for a reason. There are lots of instruments and vocals playing at once. It is a challenge to pick out the ‘1’ count. But without this skill, you can’t do anything else.
After consistently identifying the beat, work to connect mind and body. As a leader, when the mind identifies the ‘1’, the body needs to step forward with the left foot (assuming you are dancing LA style). The basic step, right turn, left turn and suzie q are examples of basic shines that reinforce mind body connection.
Those who dance alone are not salseros. Turn patterns introduce the 3rd level of progression. The beat, the steps, the partner. Turn patterns do not just map new footwork to music on the correct counts. Leaders and followers must interact and communicate physically through their bodies and non-verbal cues. Communication is critical for providing the correct lead strength and tension.
This is the critical step. Because honestly, what is the point of all this practice if you don’t social dance? We all know those students who look great in class and lost in social dancing. To be an effective social dancer, a follower must learn not to backlead and a leader must learn to gauge the follower’s skill and comfort level.
The leader should progressively increase the difficulty of his patterns, paying attention to the follower’s execution and facial cues. If she’s obviously uncomfortable while doing a single outside turn, don’t do a double spin! As a follower, you have to react, not act. This is to say, don’t backlead by assuming you know what your leader will do. Respond to their lead.
Bad social dancers (men and women) also lack ‘court awareness’. They take big steps, flail their arms and dance in lines from every angle. The result is plenty of mid-dance collisions and unhappy toes.
The holy grail of salsa dancing is musicality. This is when a dancer expresses themselves and the music through dance, and enables their partner to do the same. It’s tough to get here consistently. I can’t do it yet but there are skills to get there.
Body isolation puts dancers in fine tune control of their body movements. It gives them a larger toolbox of movements to express themselves. Improvisation based on active listening leaves dancers open to suggestions made by the music.
By listening to the music, I mean the vocals, too. If you don’t speak Spanish, you are missing out on a huge part of the meaning behind the music. Now is a great time to hop on DuoLingo :)
At every level of the pyramid, feedback loops are critical. You should be asking dance partners and instructors for honest feedback. Each round of feedback pushes you closer towards leveling up.
Speaking of leveling up, when do you know that you are ready for the next level? As a teacher, I see students all the time who want to stay in lower level classes longer than they should. They don’t want to step into the more advanced techniques for fear of looking stupid. But that is the only way to grow as a dancer.
The same goes for the Salsa Growth Pyramid. You will never feel completely comfortable with any level until you move onto the next. By trying to pick up the beat (level 1) while dancing the basic step (level 2), the mind uses your beat knowledge in a new context. It moves a dancer from conceptually understanding “I have to step on this beat” to “I stepped on this beat” and that is a big step (pun intended).
As a rule of thumb, when you feel 75% comfortable with the current level, begin moving up to the next level. If you goof up then revisit the material in a lower level context. In our previous example, if you have trouble stepping to the beat then go back and listen to more music and identify more beats. Then get right back to practicing your basic step!
I hope you find this mental model helpful. I would love to hear your feedback and ideas for improvement on this, so don’t be shy :)