I’m a novice salsa dancer. I think I finally have the basic step down, and I’m getting better at moving my body to the beat. As someone who is used to dancing freestyle, one of the hardest things for me to get used to was to let my partner lead. Especially if I’m dancing with a novice, I still sometimes find myself wanting to pre-empt his abrupt take on twirling me with a more fluid motion.
I first learned to dance salsa in Guatemala in 2012. I’m not sure I ever got good at it, but I certainly became more comfortable with the dance as time went on. I also had some really good teachers. Now, as a twenty-something in Portland, OR, I’m trying to pick it up again.
It’s not easy to fit late-night salsa dancing into a full-time work schedule, so it feels like I have had many first classes this time around. But I think I can safely say that I have a few tips for newcomers – things I noticed that can make or break your night.
Wear Comfortable Shoes (Ladies!)
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the only high heels I owned when I began attending classes (besides my many pairs of cowboy boots) were a pair of strappy, beige, three-and-a-half-inchers. Since I bike and walk everywhere, I usually opt for flats at work, and I hadn’t really had an opportunity to wear these ones yet. On my way out the door to that first salsa class, I shrugged, threw them in my shoulder bag, and hopped on my bike to head across town to class.
Little did I know that after about five minutes wearing them, I would feel like I was walking on stilts. I tried to act natural as I took baby steps to the bar and ordered a glass of wine, leaning discreetly against the counter. It took me half a glass or so to get used to them, which was about when they called all dancers to the floor for the pre-social group lesson.
Even though I was able to stumble and sway through the rudimentary lesson without many problems, my feet were getting tired and starting to ache by the time the social began. Needless to say, Rule #1 is wear comfortable shoes!
Roll Your Foot Heel-to-Toe When Stepping
OK, so I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one: I didn’t learn it during my first salsa class. But it would have been oh-so-helpful if I had!
When you first learn the basic step, everyone will tell you not to take large steps. A common mistake of beginning salsa dancers is to exaggerate the motions. From a spectator’s eye, this looks like something between a tuba player in a marching band trying to keep up with the maestro and a donkey jumping over a mouse – not exactly the sensual salsa star you had imagined yourself becoming.
To remind yourself to take smaller steps, it is helpful to think of the contact your foot makes with the ground. Instead of tapping your feet back and forth frantically, try placing your foot in a rolling fashion, heel-to-toe. When you move backwards, you’ll do the same thing in reverse.
I know this feels like moonwalking, but it looks a lot more natural and will help you stay grounded as you add more complicated steps.
Bend Your Knees, Move Your Hips
Body fluidity is important. Without flare, movement, and energy, salsa can look similar to a stuffy post-dinner waltz. I’ve read a lot of tips that talk about keeping the lower half of the body separate from the top half of the body – with this in mind, the body fluidity I’m referring to takes place mostly in the hips. And as you’ll find with most types of dance, if you want to do anything with your hips, you start with the knees.
As I mentioned above, you don’t want to gallop back and forth, lifting your knees high and tapping your feet. But as you step, peeling your feet off the floor and rolling them back down, keep your knees bent. This will, in turn, cause you to pop your hip out. This is good! Keep your abs tight, your shoulders back, and your head up. Doesn’t this feel more like a dance?
Shift Your Weight
I’m pretty sure this is something you’ll hear a lot when you first start out — I think the teachers at all three of my “first” lessons pointed this out to us. To avoid tapping your feet (and to encourage your hips to move), shifting your weight completely onto the leg where the step ends.
Try this with the basic step. If you’re moving forward, you’ll end up with most of your weight on your left leg, and vice versa. It takes a little more effort from your core, but when you do this correctly, you’ll find that your hips start to move in a circular motion. This creates power and energy.
Stop Trying So Hard
And this one is much easier said than done. Once, I was dancing with my boyfriend — also a novice salsa dancer — at a group lesson, and I realized that we were both concentrated so hard on getting the steps right that we a) weren’t really having fun, and b) looked super awkward. So we loosened up, had a drink, and eventually found that sometime after we had stopped paying so much attention to getting the steps right, we had started actually dancing.
And after all, that’s what it’s all about.