Salsa dancing requires a nearly immobile core, held steady by a firm frame. Both leads and follows have to commit to a well-maintained frame—otherwise, the entire dance can fall apart! However, males/leads usually have a more complicated frame to hold than their follows. A proper lead’s frame includes firm shoulder blades that are rolled down the back, similar to mountain pose in yoga. This helps leads to engage the back muscles and triceps, which aids in sustaining elbows which are slightly pushed out and a firm handhold grip. Keeping ab muscles engaged is also paramount.
If a lead doesn’t have a good frame, the follow can’t read it or “listen” to non-verbal cues. Frames are the foundation for a quality salsa dance. Without it, there’s very little two people can do! Follows also need to respond to that frame by gripping hands strongly enough to allow for just a small amount of slack. A light yet sturdy hand on the shoulder allows the follow to get a heads up when the lead is about to make a move.
“Holding your frame” is a must in social dance that needs to be constantly revisited. There will be times when you really nail it, and times when you’re tired, distracted, overwhelmed and just know you could be doing better. The good news is that it’s a practice, not a skill to be mastered. Like any practice, the more you do it and the more you’re aware of best practices, the better you’ll get.
Here are some of the top tips for optimizing your frame:
- Practice complementary hobbies. It’s pretty tough to have a fantastic frame when you have weak or underdeveloped muscles. Anyone, especially a lead, who’s in their first handful of classes can tell you that holding a frame is a lot of work! You might be sore or your arms and abs can get prematurely tired. Yoga, weightlifting, and any other type of strengthening exercises that target your core and arms can work wonders for strengthening your frame. Plus, being healthier means you have more endurance to dance longer.
- Use the mirrors. Mirrors are in a dance studio for a reason, and it’s not to check your hair. Keep an eye on yourself—it’s not vain. Some of the most common “frame problems” for dancers is a tendency to hunch, especially if their follow is a lot shorter than them. Instead, focus on keeping your core tight and your back straight. If you do need to lean down, which is common (such as when you’re leading a spin for a petite partner), do so while keeping your back straight and not rounded.
- Ask for feedback. Both your instructors and your partner are going to have the best insight on your frame. A reputable instructor will emphasize frame importance, but you can ask them to keep a closer eye on yours as you develop it. Ask your partners for feedback on how your frame feels to them. Could it be firmer, or does it feel too stiff? Can they intuit what you’ll lead them with what to do next? What about your frame would make salsa easier or more comfortable for them? Your partners might tell you a wide range of details, and they won’t always be in agreement, but it’s one of the best ways to better your frame.
- Aim for the navel. Where exactly should your hands be? Aim for the navel if you’re having trouble figuring out how high or low your handhold should be. Leads are often the same height or taller than follows, especially if you opt for a generous Cuban heel. It will look very strange if you hold your frame lower to suit a petite partner—but not strange at all if your partner has to raise their hands a little higher to meet yours. It’s just an excuse for them to show off a little extra flair.
- Record yourself. This is the next step up from watching the mirrors! It can be awkward and a little embarrassing at first, but if you really want to see how you move, nothing compares to video. You’ll be able to see yourself and your frame in a genuine, brand new light. Sometimes that’s all it takes to fix a strange elbow angle or a rolled over back.
The best thing you can do for your frame is to take lessons from instructors who know the importance of it. Your frame is just what it sounds like, and it holds the entire dance together. You wouldn’t put a photo in a rickety, fall-apart frame, so make sure you take the same care with your dance and make sure the frame is quality and secure.