There are two main styles of salsa dancing (ignoring the 'latin ballroom' manifestations!) - they are Cuban and Cross Body (also referred to as 'New York' style).
What's the difference?
Cuban style salsa has an earthy, organic feel. It tends to be strongly 'led' (moves can be led quite early - so there may be little or no set-up with the move itself starting within the first three beats of the eight-count). The dancers tend to move in a circular motion on the dance floor with the follower tending to rotate around the lead. Cuban style dance moves are also used in the dance form called 'La Rueda' (Spanish for 'The Wheel'). This is a dance performed by more than one couple (it can involve an unlimited number of couples depending on the available floor space). The women are danced around the wheel via a range of simple turn pattern moves - when La Rueda is working as it should it's a very dynamic and exciting way to dance salsa.
Cross Body style salsa, said to originate in New York but danced across the US, is a much more linear dance form. A characteristic of the Cross Body style is that the couple will dance their turn patterns so they always end up on the same orientation - imagine that the couple are dancing together and the guy is facing North and the girl is facing South - they may change places during the pattern but one of them will always end the pattern facing North and the other facing South. This means that the dancers begin with an implicit understanding of how they will tend to move on the dance floor (which allows time for more complex leads than in Cuban style salsa). The dance looks crisp, smart and exciting. With experience, the cross body style salsa dancer will tend to dance turn patterns that are more complex than those found in Cuban salsa.
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LEADING AND FOLLOWING
In salsa someone has to lead and someone has to follow - you simply can't have two leaders or two followers! It tends to be the way that men lead and ladies follow (in contrast with normal living...!). We also refer to 'leaders' and 'followers' because the salsa 'roles' work well regardless of gender. Does this mean that the follower (usually the lady) mutely dances under the direct control of the leader (usually the man)? Well, yes and no... the leader has to be in charge of the pattern of the dance - deciding when to lead a cross body move, or when to turn the follower, or lead into a crucifix or whatever - so the leaders job as a student is to learn to lead these sometimes complicated moves clearly and with style - developing a repetoire of 'turn patterns' which can be used to make the dance exciting and satisfying for both partners. There is a also a school of thought (which we tend to adhere to) which argues that the leaders job is to show off the follower.
For the follower, the challenge is very different. There is no requirement to learn a single turn pattern - but there is a need to learn how to recognise and respond to the leaders lead. This becomes intuitive but the learning process takes a little time. Somehow, the follower has to learn how to dance 'in the moment' to be ready for any move the follower may introduce. The follower can't anticipate what is coming next because, whilst there are 'core' moves these can be varied to such an extent that nothing can be entirely predicted (especially when the follower is dancing with an unfamiliar or more experienced partner).
So one of the great things about salsa is that both partners have to learn a very different skill set and approach to the dance - they then have to bring these two angles together to make something magical happen when they dance as a couple.
And it doesn't have to be complicated and hard. It's possible to get a lot out of the dance by dancing something simple but well. I remember a few years back as a beginner at my first dance night asking a girl to dance - I knew she was a competent dancer and well above my standard so I explained at the outset that I could only cope with the basic step and that I could manage a cross body lead - but that was about as far as I'd come. Her response was just what I needed to hear - she said 'that's fine, just dance the basic step and lead the cross body and don't do anything else - but when you do those things do them as well as you can'. More recently, when working hard to improve my core dance skills and getting back to the basics in relation to weight shift and smoothness I've been reminded that you can dance nothing but the basic step and still get a high from the dance - just by doing it well (or at least doing your best to do it well!).
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ABOUT THE DANCE CLASS
There is a pattern to the structure of salsa classes that you will find repeated most places you go:
If it's a beginners class then after a light warm-up the teacher will introduce the basic footwork with and without music. You will then practice that footwork without a partner for awhile. This practice will evolve into a simpler version of the shines warm-up described below. In the early beginners classes more time is spent dancing solo whilst your footwork skills are developed.
Shines/warm-up - the class tends to start with all the students standing in rows behind the teacher. He/she will then introduce and/or lead a number of set-piece footwork steps and simple upper-body moves to the 8-beat structure of the music. As a general rule, each set-piece fits exactly within the standard 8-beat section of the music being played (sometimes extending over 16 beats). These set-piece moves (including 'Suzi Q', 'toe tap', 'cross step', 'cord step' etc) are referred to as 'shines' and sometimes appear in partner dancing when the couple break apart. They are also a great way to develop co-ordination, practice styling and music awareness - and a set of shines to a piece of salsa music is a really good warm up!
Partner work - students will partner up and form a circle around the room with the teachers in the centre (or sometimes up on stage). If there is a gender imbalance (it happens...) then some people will be without a partner. This is ok because the teacher will keep moving the leaders from one follower to another so that no-one spends too long unattached. At the beginner level the partner work focuses on the basics of leading and following, with core moves like the cross body lead introduced along the way. For Improvers there will also be instruction in relation to core moves relevant to that level. Improvers will also learn a turn pattern that incorporates the core moves that have been taught (this format is similar to that taught when dancing at Intermediate level and above - only the level of difficulty changes).
The turn pattern (a sequence of led moves that typically fit within an 8 or 16 beat count) will be covered during the main part of the class leaving time within the class for it to be practiced. During this stage, the teachers may join the circle so that students get to experience the move danced to standard.
The class usually ends at this stage. Our classes are timed so that there is around 15 minutes of practice time before the next class starts (plus, there is practice time at the end of the evening).
We encourage people to ask questions during the class - we want people to be able to dance the turn pattern at the next dance night so it's important that we maintain sufficient informality to enable the moves to be properly understood by everyone.
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WHAT TO WEAR
For dance classes you should dress informally in clothes that are comfortable, not too tight and reasonably light in weight (a good plan if it's a hot evening...).
Jeans and a t-shirt are fine for the guys (but avoid t-shirts with no sleaves - this is a contact dance and your exposed underarm can offend!).
The right footwear will make a big difference. You need to avoid footwear that is too grippy. Leather soled shoes are better than grippy trainers. You need to be able to pivot on the ball of your foot - try it on a wooden floor - if you can move 180 degrees on one foot then the shoes will probably work - if your foot sticks and has to be lifted up to make the turn then try a different shoe!
If you are buying dance shoes then consider 'jazz' shoes - these are very soft and not all that flattering but they are great to dance in and cost around £20 - if you can, choose the type with a suede sole - there are some that have a rubber sole - avoid these as they tend to grip too much. These are available for men and women.
I tend to wear a more classical slightly Italian style dance shoe (costing around £60 - but for that price you can get them hand-made to fit your exact foot size).
For dance nights, the girls usually dance in heels (with some flats as stand-by in case the feet start to ache!). If you wear flats in classes but want to wear heels on dance nights then you need to wear heels at some of your classes and/or practice dancing in them - otherwise you'll find the dance night tough going. Ladies dance shoes with heels cost around £60 - again, that's a hand-made price.
The other option for both genders are dance trainers. These look initially like standard trainers but the toe and heel have a very loose connection and there tends to be quite a high arch. Dance trainers have more grip than the dance shoes described above - for this reason I prefer not to wear them (plus, you have to get comfortable with that heal/toe dislocation) but others wear them all the time.
You can buy dance shoes via the Internet - Heavenly Shoes are a popular supplier - and you can send the shoes back if they don't feel right. I couldn't find jazz shoes in their catalogue but search Google for 'jazz shoes' and you will find a lot of online shops selling them (just don't be too put off by the girly design of the sites and the awful poses of the models - jazz shoes can look cool, really.
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A thorny area this! But here are a few thoughts...
Good personal hygiene is important - you will be in close proximity with people who you may never have met before so have a think on this one! It's important to wear fresh clothes, be clean and all those logical things. But also - don't go overboard on perfume or aftershave, avoid eating garlic or lots of onion on the night of the class (and consider avoiding these on the night before as well!).
Take a towel...
You may not be able to avoid getting a little hot and sweaty - so bring a small towel to mop your brow!
In the class you will dance with everyone who attends (from the other gender) - so be open to people, expect some of them to strucggle with the move (remember girls, the guy has got to learn the pattern and dance it and most of us struggle with dong two new complicated things at once!). Don't be too quick to correct people - wait until you are absolutely sure you're getting it right and then offer advice or help ONLY when the other person invites it - this may be a personal hang-up but I've checked it out with others and it makes sense! Also, during a dance never stop to explain something (unless you are practising and stopping has been agreed) - if a move has gone wrong exit it in as nice a way as possible and lead into soemthing else - if you try it again and it still goes wrong stop leading it! I've never danced with someone who I couldn't get some kind of dance from - if you're a man and it's not going well simplify what you're doing - if you're a woman and it's not going well keep your hold very light so you can drop out of awkward moves (it may be necessary to ask a guy to loosen his grip if it's causing you a problem but remember to keep things positive - smile when you ask)
A light grip...
For guys and girls - the grip is supposed to be light - there's no need to grip hard - learn a light leading and following hold - apart from enhancing your dance by not interfering with your balance, if something goes wrong and a move is about to force an arm into a painful position either of you will be able to break away without injury!
On a dance night never refuse a dance from someone unless you have a very good reason to. If you have promised a dance to someone else then offer the next dance to the person asking. When you get to be a better dancer try to dance with at least a couple of beginners on a dance night.
Asking guys for a dance...
It's ok for girls to ask guys to dance! It's sometimes a necessity (if there are fewer men at the dance). I never refuse a dance with anyone regardless of skill level - hopefully other people will maintain the same atitude!
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Information on...Salsa styles
Leading and following
About the dance class
What to wear