This is an article about social salsa dancing as compared to performance salsa. This includes competitive dancing, since the vast majority of competitive dancing is assessed in performance form. I’ve wanted to write this article for a while now, but I’ve avoided it for various reasons. This post has the potential to be a controversial one. So before I begin, I will state that my personal preference when it comes to dancing salsa is as a social dancer. I am not a performer. I’m not hating on performers, and I’m not trying to be divisive. The latin dancing scene needs performers to inspire us and promote the art form that we love. However, performing is really on the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the beautiful dance of salsa. The fact is that salsa, as we know it, emerged as a social dance from the clubs of New York City. Salsa was not originally intended to be danced on stage, which makes it quite different from other dance forms, such as ballet, which have schools and formal curriculum, which go back hundreds of years. Salsa always was, and still is, a social dance, and this article is written purely from a social dancer’s point of view.
During my years as a social dancer, I’ve noticed a tendency some people have to glorify performing at the expense of social dancing. I’m not alone in this. I’ve discussed my observations with other dancers, and they have noticed the same phenomenon. Specifically, there seems to be a widely held belief that the natural progression in the evolution of a dancer is to “graduate” from social dancing to performing. The implication seems to be that performers are “better” dancers than social dancers. At congresses, I’m am quite often asked questions like, “are you a performer?” I don’t say this to boast. I see myself as a solid intermediate level (whatever that means) social dancer. However, people are often surprised when I tell them that I am purely a social dancer, and I have no desire to compete or perform, unless it might facilitate my growth as a social dancer.
I have often wondered to myself why some people award more gravitas to performing rather than social dancing. Maybe it’s because there is typically a paying audience for performances, which is seldom the case for social dancing. Maybe it’s because of the glitz and glamour of being on a stage, and wearing flashy costumes and make up that take hours to refine and apply.
Maybe it’s because of the crazy lifts and tricks that performers so often cram into their routines, which is something you’ll very rarely see on the social dance floor (for good reasons, one of them being safety). Maybe there are more basic economic reasons behind this phenomenon. For dance schools, performance routines are where the money is. Schools can charge for the initial choreography classes, private classes for dancers who want additional help getting the choreography down, as well as costumes. In addition to this, some teams are paid to perform, or are paid prize money if they win a competition. My guess is that it’s some combination of all of the above reasons.
There is a myth about social dancing that I would like to dispel, and that is the myth that social dancers are not serious about their craft. I readily acknowledge that there are plenty of social dancers who just want to become proficient enough to dance socially, have a good time, make some new friends, and/or maybe meet a new partner. However, there is another group of social dancers who take their craft very seriously.
These are the dancers who spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars a year on group and private classes in order to hone their technique. These are the dancers who travel across the world to congresses to dance to the best DJs in the world with the best social dancers in the world, and take workshops with their mentors. These are the dancers who spend every spare minute of their time listening to music, and working on their body movement and technique. There are no trophies or monetary rewards for these social dancers. Their only reward is that ever-elusive perfect dance.
There is another myth about social dancing that I would like to dispel, and that is the myth that performers can social dance. The truth is that some can, and some can’t. Performing and social dancing are two different skills. There is some overlap between the two, but proficiency in one by no means guarantees proficiency in the other. We can see this taken to the extreme in TV shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With The Stars”. If you’ve never watched these types of shows, essentially they involve unknown (or even complete novice) dancers being taken under the wing of professional dancers and trained to perform in styles they are not necessarily used to dancing in. The result is that these dancers typically produce performances that look quite polished, despite the fact their might have had absolutely no dance experience in that particular style. Given the proper instruction, time and training, just about anyone can learn a choreography to a reasonability competent level. However, if you put most of these people on a social dance floor, they’d probably be totally lost. The creators of “So You Think You Can Dance” show probably saw the title as a challenge to wannabe dancers. Serious social dancers are more likely to see the title as humourous in an ironic way, and feel that many of the contenders probably “think” they can dance, but whether they actually can or not is entirely debatable.
I recently attended a congress in another city where one of the top performers in the world held some workshops, during which he was breaking down some of the fundamentals of salsa for beginner to intermediate level dancers. I won’t mention this person by name, but, over the years, this dancer has consistently placed in the top three at the salsa world championships in Miami. He went on to chastise the class for not performing basic fundamentals such as a cross body lead, open break, and copa (in-and-out) “correctly”, and went on to demonstrate the “correct” way to perform these techniques. I disagreed with quite a few points that he made in that workshop. During the course of the congress, I got the chance to see this performer social dance with Sharon Pakir, who is, in my opinion, one of the best dancers in Australia, and can hold her own with the best dancers in the world. Honestly, the dance looked very sloppy and rough for the follow. A couple of songs later, I saw Sharon dance with Super Mario, who is known for having one of the best leads in the salsa world. It was a completely different dance, smooth, compact, tight and musical. From my observation, it was easy to see that Super Mario is by far the superior social dancer. In fact, there were probably ten other leads around the room who I thought were better social dancers than this performer.
I wish this was an isolated incident, but, unfortunately, it’s not. My experience dancing with many performers over the years is that it’s a real mixed bag. Some of them are every bit as good as they look on stage (a few are even better), but some of them are pretty lousy on the social dance floor. Of the ones that aren’t so good, it’s usually for the same reasons.
1. Lack of frame
2. Lack of frame (sorry, but it bears repeating)
3. Steps are too big
5. They dance “at you”, not “with you”.
Social dancing is a completely different animal to performing. In social dancing the dancers must rely purely on leading and following, and this is all about frame. The most common mistake I see performers make on the social dance floor is constantly breaking frame, and it’s particularly noticeable on open breaks. If you break frame, the dance breaks down. It’s as simple as that. Frame is the bread and butter of social dancing. Without it, there is no social dance. The second most common mistake I see is that these performers take steps that are too big. Social dancing typically happens on a relatively a small section of dance floor compared to the stage, and this dance space is dynamic, because there are various hazards to contend with throughout the dance, such as other dancers encroaching on your space. It is a real struggle for leads to contain follows who are used to taking larger steps, as is often the case during performances. Leads who are used to taking larger steps can be downright dangerous on crowded dance floors, because they force the follow to also take large steps, and this can create big problems on the social dance floor. Social dancers always have to be aware of their immediate surroundings on the dance floor, and this is not something performers learn dancing on a stage. One only learns this on the social dance floor. Lastly, arguably the most important aspect of social dancing is connecting with your partner, and this is a completely different dynamic to dancing in front of an audience. Social dancing is far more intimate. It’s like dancing for an audience of one, except there’s a two way relationship. You are both dancing with and for each other. Once again, this is not a skill one learns on the stage, it can only be learned on the social dance floor.
There is another aspect of social dancing that is not focused on as part of performing, and that is how the dance feels to your partner. Performing is primarily focused on how the dance is presented to the audience. However, when you are dancing socially, making your partner feel good, in a physical, as well as an emotional sense, is every bit as important as the visual aspect of the dance. These means being a light lead or follow, as well as eliminating habits that can feel “funny” to your partner, such as fidgety fingers. These types of things are not visible to an audience, but can make all the difference to your partner during a social dance.
Ultimately, it takes countless hours of dedicated training and listening to music to become a great social dancer, and, I’ve found that I have to keep dancing regularly, otherwise I lose my edge. In the same way that professional athletes need to keep match fit, social dancers have to keep “dance-fit”. Personally, I notice a difference in my dancing after only a couple of weeks of time away from the social dance floor.
The minimum number of socials a week I need to attend to maintain and/or improve my level is probably 2-3 nights a week. In closing, I want to say that, on the social dance floor, it doesn’t matter how many competitions you’ve won, or how times you’ve performed in front of hundreds, or even thousands, of people. On the social floor, all that matters is, can you “bring it” on any given night.
See you on the dance floor…