There are people around the world who are born with a natural talent or rather an advantage in a particular activity. If you combine natural talent with work ethic and you end up with an amazing result. I personally do not believe that I was born with any particular talent and although I have done a variety of activities to a high level it was always down to hours of hard work.
I have often heard this natural talent referred to as “The Right Stuff“. In Salsa what is the right stuff?
With this question in mind I would like to share with you my experience with a new student and how this article came about.
DISCLAIMER: Salsa is a dance for all people and people participate for different reasons. People learn in different ways and at their own personal pace. It is always important to enjoy what you are doing. This article does not state that you must have the right stuff to learn, but to share my perspective on what attributes a dancer must have to really thrive in a rapid fashion.
About two weeks ago I get a phone call from a women who wants to learn to dance – I get around 10 of these a day and the responses are almost automatic. Our conversation starts with the normal fact finding mission and questions like have you danced other dances before? Do you like the music? She responded by saying that she has been not dance Salsa before or trained in other dances but she loves Salsa music and bands like New Swing Sextet really move her. This rang a bell in my head as most beginners (in London) do not know Salsa bands but more aware of the commercial variety of Latin music such as Shakira or Ricky Martin.
The conversation then goes into a completely surprising direction after I ask her why she wants to dance – I always like to understand motives. Her response was that she loves Salsa music and she wanted a way to express herself to it so therefore started to watch social dancing videos on YouTube and fell in love dancers like Magna Gopal and Shani Talmor. She had to find out more about how they danced and then came across On2 which eventually led her to TNT and the phone call to me. I was a bit surprised as I have never had a complete beginner who had loved the music, spent time doing research and knowing exactly what she wants.
The conversations lasted about 30 minutes in total and ended with me requesting her to come to classes at the Boston. She tells me that she cannot make it and instead would like some private lessons. I do not give private lessons and normally forward the request to my other instructors but I had to make an exception in this case. I was just too intrigued. So she did come down to the Boston for a quick chat and we arranged a three hour session.
The first 30 minutes we covered the some theory about Salsa, understanding the music, On2 fundamentals, Partnerwork rules and the steps she must take to reach her goal. She listened attentively and asked some good and complex questions which were a sign that she was engaged. The next 30 minutes was spent stepping, how to engage with the floor and how to create organic movement through your feet. We also covered basic body isolations as I wanted to see her body range and control – both were pretty good. But what struck me was that she was self-correcting and paid an extreme amount of attention to details – she was really intent on getting things right. We spent an hour on Partnerwork afterwards and we covered material from beginners to higher intermediates – again she was self-correcting and extremely eager to learn.
I will keep working on her but I have not seen this much potential in a beginner before and personally believe that if she keeps this up she will be a standout dancer in London within 6 months and more scarily will reach a level that most people after 5 years would not have reached and she would have both solid technique and musical expression.
THE RIGHT STUFF
After this experience I reflected on the experience dancers that I have talked to and started to think about what “The Right Stuff” for learning and thriving at Salsa. I came up with the following:
1) A passion for the Music – I heard a statement that in NYC most people go from the music to the dance whereas in other places most people go from the dance to the music. This is a statement that I generally agree with but the implications are that most dancers are disconnected from the music until a very late stage in the dancer’s development. Dancers will start to move, learn several techniques but not connect this to the music. This means that dancers would have trained a habit of “Disconnecting with Music” which takes years to break. From what I have been told and heard one of the main goals for most advanced dancers is to become more musically in tune i.e. remove the robotic 123 567 and express more in the music. The student in my earlier story is in love with the music and applying herself to it from day one. Listening to the timbales, congas, bongos, piano which means that all of her movements will be learnt and trained depending on what she hears – imagine a beginner trying to fit a Suzy Q to a cascara rhythm.
2) A passion for Dance – Switch on a radio and most people will listen to the music standing stock still. No movement from the head, no finger tapping, completely still. Music has the power to compel people to move but for the majority it does not. Dancing is a life style and there are people who cannot stop dancing and cannot stop moving. The student in the earlier story was bopping around with a smile on her face as she was listening and moving to the music. She did not have any idea of what she was doing but the music was compelling her.
3) Knowing what you want – Knowing what you want is important as it gives a sense of direction and drive. A lot of people head into a Salsa club expecting the unexpected. They are just there for the ride. Even after years most people have no idea of what Salsa could be and stay happily in the confines of their local club. But this has a result of setting a low ceiling and therefore does not give you the drive required to really excel. The student in question has a very clear idea of how she wants to dance, how she wants to control her movements and how she wants to feel when dancing. She also chose two of the world’s top dancers as her Salsa role models.
4) Determination and Discipline – If you want to thrive in any activity you need to have both determination and discipline. There was a debate a little while ago about Martial Artist thriving in Salsa because of their mentality. The student in question paid very close attention, asked questions and was doing everything I asked and auto corrected. She wanted to really learn. I have sent her some reading homework and videos to watch for next time and I have no doubt that she will do it.
Now as with most activities the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the journey. Pushing and reaching is not for everyone and it is important that you understand your own reasons for taking up Salsa.
In this article I have presented what I see as the perfect combination for the future world beaters in Salsa. I see “The Right Stuff” in a Salsa student as one having a passion for the music, a passion for dancing, knowing what they want and the determination and discipline to achieve.