Smile Politely

Salsa in CU, Part IV: Learn before you leap

That all people can dance is true regardless of age, gender, body build or dance experience. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that freeform nightclub dancing and codified dance techniques are different animals – and that they each come with their own set of social rules. 

In writing about the salsa dance community in Champaign-Urbana (C-U), it became clear to me that the local scene is geared toward the technical advancement and enjoyment of new dancers; for those who have been around the metaphorical block a few times, the emphasis falls less on personal enjoyment and more on showing young salsa dancers the ropes. But it should not have to be that way.

For advanced salsa dancers, or salseros, going out dancing should be a time to truly enjoy themselves; it should be a time to practice the skills that they have spent so long perfecting, and a time to connect with those in their social circles. But in a salsa community where skilled dancers leave every four years, and where amateur salseros attempt to learn the form on the nightclub dance floors, those same advanced salseros may find themselves unchallenged and frustrated.  

In an effort to keep the C-U salsa community fully inclusive and to respect all of its participants, I suggest that beginners take a salsa class or two before springing on the social scene.

Salsa dancing has a distinct form and movement vocabulary; for new dancers to learn that form before occupying the limited nightclub dance floors shows respect for the trained and cultural dancers with whom they are sharing the spaces. It should be noted that most people would think twice before jumping into a boxing ring without having had some boxing training, but that inexperienced salsa dancers in C-U often do just that. So what is it about salsa dancing that causes this phenomenon?

One possible cause is the amount of ballroom dancing that is now seen on commercial television, as shows like Dancing with the Stars and Dance Your A** Off have made salsa dancing much more visible, and therefore accessible, to a broad audience of people. These shows can give the illusion that it is easy to pick up ballroom styles of dance in a short period of time; it is important to remember that the dancers on such shows train for many hours a day with professional dancers, and that they do most of their learning one-on-one.

The more likely cause for the aforementioned phenomenon is that may citizens encounter salsa dancing in a nightclub setting – a setting where they are traditionally used to drinking alcohol and dancing with abandon; it is very rare that people who are bumping and grinding are concerned with getting their technique correct, or with respecting the other people in their immediate vicinity.  To approach salsa dancing with a similar mindset is disrespectful to the form.

Though CUATSALSA Teacher Mügé Dizén and salsa jack-of-all-trades Bris Mueller Garcés noted that women have a much easier time than men do when attempting to learn to salsa on the fly, diving in blind is still not a preferred approach to salsa dancing; a dancer who is spatially unaware or who does not understand the traditional roles of lead and follow can drastically disrupt the flow of what should be a smooth, enjoyable experience for all salseros involved. By taking responsibility for his or her role in the salsa community through taking salsa lessons, a person can ward against such a situation.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Alumna Kim McCarthy spoke about a man who claimed that everyone can salsa. The man was not wrong, but his statement could use some amending: Everyone can salsa – with a little practice.

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