What To Do When You Mess Up While Dancing

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You’re never so good that you don’t mess up every now and then!

While perfection is a wonderful goal to aim at, helping us aim higher, it is “addictively” unattainable (an important point to keep clear at all times lest you drive yourself mad pursuing something you’ll never have).

However, even though you’ll never be perfect, with practice, you might get pretty damn close (like my ability to put off writing for this blog, I’m getting better but thankfully I haven’t perfected it). This applies to everything  from dance, to languages to professional air-hockey.

So, even if you consider yourself “hot shit”, YOU’RE GOING TO MESS UP SOONER OR LATER!!! How you deal with those little mishaps will play a pretty big role in how you approach your activities in the future.

Make a mistake… You suck… Quit!

If Bill Murray says so, it must be true!

If Bill Murray says so, it must be true!

When I used to teach salsa in Cali, I had one student in particular whom I had to “talk down from the ledge” of quitting salsa on more than a few occasions.

He had some major confidence issues but he was a dedicated student and learned well. His main problems stemmed from his lack of confidence; he was afraid to try new things on the dance floor (especially anything to do with body-movement) and whenever he made a mistake or a dance didn’t go well for him he would pretty much decide to NEVER dance again. On more than one occasion I got text messages from him at 2 or 3am announcing his resignation from the world of salsa, all due to a bad dance. I’m pretty sure I spent about 15% of our time together trying to convince him to get back out dancing and that everyone makes mistakes now and then.

For him, every mistake was a screaming symbol of his incompetence (which he wasn’t) and those beliefs really held him back. It was especially hard to see him like that because I could see both how much he wanted to improve and how much he was sabotaging himself.

Suffice is to say, this is not a good mentality to have when dancing. If everyone gave up when they made a mistake we’d have some pretty empty dance-floors!

It just looks so sad without people dancing on it.

It just looks so sad without people dancing on it.

Learning to laugh at yourself!

I remember one particularly eventful night of dancing in Cali. I was out with a big group of people and we decided to go somewhere different. The place had a huge dance floor, full of people. Near the end of the night the floor started to thin out and I invited my friend Francy out for a dance.

Francy is a professional dancer and she was one of the few people I could dance LA style salsa with in Cali so we used to have a ball together whenever we got to dance. Now for those who don’t know, typical “social” Cali-style dancing is a pretty simple affair, lots of sabor (hopefully) but simple. So when two people start dancing something a little more involved than Cali style, the people nearby tend to notice. Especially when one of those people is white enough for everyone to safely assume that he’s not Colombian.

We were tearing it up. We had loads of space and the night was coming to an end so we pulled out all the stops. At one point I noticed that we had garnered the attention of quite a number of the people sitting at tables around the dance-floor. For some reason that really got my adrenaline flowing so I may have started throwing caution to the wind. I could hear the music nearing it’s final few beats so I decided to finish it all off with a dip. I thought it would look great as Francy (as a pro) was all about the show and would have struck a great pose at the end.

I heard the final beats, lead her into a cross body lead with turn and as she was turning realized that there were still a couple of beats left in the song… it threw me completely and what happened next involved various flailing arms and legs and a sudden drop in altitude accompanied by a loud “Rrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiip”!

As soon as I came to my senses I realized I was lying on top of Francy, sprawled out on the dance-floor with a decent crowd of people looking at us. I looked at her and she looked at me… and we both burst into laughter!

Seriously, in the milliseconds I had to process everything, I decided that it would be far better to take what had happened in my stride and laugh it off together with one of my good friends, than to run off the floor crying and moaning about how awful a dancer I am.

We dusted ourselves off and skipped off the dance-floor together… at which point I realized that I had ripped a gigantic hole in the seat of my jeans when I did my belly flop. Oh well, at least it was the end of the night! (additional lesson to be learned: always wear dark solid color underwear when dancing… pink hearts on a white background tend to be a little to0 visible in the event of ripped pants!!!)

Even if you mess up and it results in the dance equivalent of this pile-up... just dust yourself off and laugh (or run away quickly)

Even if you mess up and it results in the dance equivalent of this pile-up… just dust yourself off and laugh (or run away quickly)

Laugh it off

At the end of the day, laughing off our mishaps really is the best way to deal with them.

I’m notorious for obsessing over my shortcomings but I always make sure I don’t let that bad attitude get the best of me. If I did I certainly wouldn’t be dancing salsa or doing much else  for that matter.

So, the next time you make a mistake (which if you’re anything like me should be pretty soon) be it missing the beat in the music, forgetting a combination or doing a bellyflop on top of your partner, remember you have two options:

1. Give up right there and then because you’ve made a mistake and no one who has ever become great at salsa ever made any mistakes


2. Laugh it off and get back to doing what you love

Keep dancing folks


  • Fred says:

    “Mistakes” in salsa or other ballroom dances are more of a dance “studio” creation! When people learn salsa, say, at home or the “kitchen” there are no such things as “mistakes!” It’s about fun! Not about getting it “right” or “wrong.”
    Most of us learn salsa in studios today, where, unfortunately, “teachers” and “masters” or the multitudes of “maestros” today have told us there’s a “right way” or a “wrong way!” And, where most of us have no access to the history of salsa, we take their word like mana from heaven!
    In truth, these steps and so on have not only been made up or even borrowed from other dances, but this has only recently happened in the last few decades or even years!!
    Salsa is for fun, period!!! Studios and commercialization have almost destroyed it for many learners who don’t realize that these places don’t “own” and copyright a way it must be done!!!
    We go to parties where when one places a foot wrong, a follow or lead walks away, and one partner is left in misery! We need to understand that all this “salsa snobbery” is really nonsense from the commercialization of a previously fun, free, and rule-less expression of dance to mambo music or “salsa!!!”
    The precursors of salsa, the old mambo dancers in their 80s and 90s today laugh at today’s and later generations of dancers who get all caught up in doing it “right” or “wrong” as a result of all these “teachers” and studios! We’ve allowed a lot of teachers and others to really lead some of us into misery!
    In the mambo Era in the 50s o 60s, they improvised, did all sorts of things!! There were fewer “mistakes” then! They went to no studios, had no “teachers” but simply watched and improvised!
    One can still find this tradition in many dances around the world, say, in Africa with Lingala or other popular dancing! There’re no such things as “mistakes!”
    We need to sit back, look at the forest, not the trees, and remember it’s for fun, and people express themselves differently, and its ok!!
    I’ve been on the receiving end of salsa snobs a few times as a learner over the years. I recall one particular snob, a local “teacher” or “expert” in my region of the US, who walked away during a dance! Funny thing is she is Hispanic!! So, this snobbery is by all sorts of folks! But it is especially by people who learn it in studios because we forget that at the end of the day it’s about fun, not getting it “right” or “wrong!”
    Salsa snobs get all caught up in “turns” and “shines” etc, and forget to enjoy and express themselves to the music cause they’re too busy trying to get it “right!!”
    Salsa snobs actually betray their ignorance of the point of the dance, and its history!!!!!!
    If anybody reading this ever sees anybody tell them about a “right” or “wrong” way, sure, get technically better, turn better etc, do more complex turns etc, but remember, in the larger scheme of the dance these things are creations of studios and teachers as a result of the commercialization of the dance!!
    Don’t let these things destroy your love of the dance or the music!!
    A great contemporary example is zouk and kizomba or Lingala, as mentioned earlier! Youtube a Lingala dance video! These dances are danced very freely and liberally in most of Africa! But, they’re already taking on “rules” and “steps” in studios and so on in the west!
    There’s “pros” now “teaching” and touring and suggesting how they’re to be danced or not dancedetc etc! And students are stressing over getting them right or wrong!! Haha!!!
    In Africa a lot of these rules look so so absurd, which is why studios or “teaching” these dances in a place like Africa is so difficult! Cause people there are simply like “really??!! You telling us there are ‘rules’ to dance Lingala!!?? Haha!!” People there just move to the music, improvise have fun etc!
    We need to remember this when we go to studios and “congresses” today!! Yes, let’s get “good” “technique,” do more “turns” etc, but remember, these things are merely creations, and its ok when some people don’t subscribe to these creations!! If we forget and enslave ourselves to these “teachers” and “studios” and “experts,” too much, we chase our own tails and fail to have fun!!!

  • Fred says:

    In addition these studios and “teachers” are really creating a sort of learned helplessness and lack of creativity amongst dancers. Students go to learn, more accurately, “cram,” “patterns.”
    It’s quite a strange set up, compared to regular schooling! The teachers create the patterns, and students simply go to the studios or “congresses” to essentially “sponge off” the “teachers!” Students aren’t being taught to create their own moves or patterns, but to cram their teachers’ patterns! And the system is done day in day out all over the world!! It’s so strange that we continue to let it be done that way!! No math teacher would teach students to solve equations by teaching all the equations there is in the world! It’s impossible!! Students are taught the basic idea of equations and allowed to apply those fundamental ideas to different maths equations and in the end more complex problems! Yet, in salsa, one goes to a studio or bar each evening and a pattern is taught and one tries to cram it! It’s purely for commercial reasons! Students take a year to learn what can be learned in two weeks!! So, instead of learning the basic fundamental ideas of creating and being creative with turn patterns, or body motion, or counting and understanding shines so they can create their own shines, people are stressing over cramming patterns of turns or shines! So, it’s not only creating miserable dancers who seek “perfect” turns or shines, but also un creative robots, who are nothing but the often cited “pattern monkeys.” Any old school mambo dancer looking across a ballroom at a congress today will tell one too many people look the same! And the ladies are all but zonked after endless turns and twists! I am yet to find a teacher who teaches the basic foundations so that their students can be creative, and not turn patterns so they can keep coming back. I think if students are taught to be independently creative they would still come back, plus, they would spread the word to friends and through their dancing! Yet, teachers continue to feed students pre-made “patterns” one after another day in day out!

  • David Sander says:

    One of the great hidden educations in social dance is how to connect various figures so that an opening or position can be seen as an entry point for several moves. This leads both to a creative spark in making more combinations possible but also leads to alternative moves for those followers who dance at a higher or lower level. The key idea is to make the follower feel good about the dance and for them to be encouraged to come back for more.

    I also tell new followers not to worry if they make any mistakes, I’ll turn them into new moves! That was matched by an experienced follower who said if you didn’t make any mistakes, then you were not trying hard enough. On occasion I construct new moves when a follower gets into an unusual position and I have to improvise a way out. Its not planned, but it is welcome!

    At my first ever lesson the teacher memorably said there was no right or wrong way to dance Salsa. Are we excluding potential dancers from Salsa by working too hard on Studio trained forms as opposed to engaging in a broader view of Salsa as a fun way to move to music limited only by rules of cooperation of lead and follow?
    Just to explore the potential of Cumbia style steps to the back, I took the Cumbia step and tried to reinvent it in all forms such as stepping forward, stepping across, changing the rotational directions and everything. This was gradually developed into a combination of quarter turns that I use for entry into cross body leads in both directions and for combining a broad variety of follower moves while being able to move about the follower nearly at will.
    Followers generally understand this movement well, but its nothing that I’ve ever seen taught in class.

  • Mick says:

    Hi Ritchie, your articles are always enjoyed, and you tell the tales of an adventurer in the salsa jungle with gusto. No doubt this up-beat style extends onto the dance floor.

    Now, forgive me please, but . . . your choice of multiple fonts nearly ruined this story. You are both interesting and informative using your words alone. We get it. No need to drown them.

    Please keep enlivening our breakfasts with your cheery salsa life.

    • Hey Mick,
      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, looking back over it, how it appears out of the text editor, it is a little all over the place. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll restrain myself with the fonts in the future ;)
      Have a good one lad.

  • lily says:

    haha i have a dance comp tomorrow!

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