- You ask someone to dance. There is no culture of the cabeceo.
- In salsa there is usually not an embrace, and many turns for the lady.
- You dance only one song, and then change partners.
- Patterns permeate the dance for most dancers.
- There are usually no stops or pauses, unless choreographed.
I love the music and the joy of salsa. But one day tango took over. For a long time I told others, "I am more of a salsero than a tanguero." And then one day, my abilities and dance "vocabulary" took over. The music and even my passion for dance exponentially grew. I believe it was because of the improvisational nature of tango. I am dancing to the bass or the violins. Or perhaps there is a powerful pause and now we are dancing on the upbeat (2/4/6/8) rather than the usual downbeat. Moreover, she may be dancing on the melody and I am with the rhythm section. This is the greatest difference for me, explaining why tango is so satisfying compared to other dances.
Of course, milongueros will say, "and the embrace is missing in salsa!" Yes, this is true to a great degree, but before tango I already was dancing with an embrace in bachata, merenge, salsa and especially rumba -- at least with a woman who trusted that it was only a dance.
Salsa was a good preparation for tango. This is what I learned:
1. Don't hurt her. Many women have hurts and pains from salsa or tango because of "man-handling." Turns in salsa are dangerous and many women are hurt. A light lead eventually had me dancing with many women who knew I would not hurt them. In tango, the same principle applies. Many women who dance a lot are pretty fragile -- not all over, but in certain places. In tango volcadas are especially dangerous to her back. She is dancing with exposed legs and feet while walking BACKWARDS. It is a man's job to do a DAMN good job in protecting her obvious and not so obvious vulnerabilities.
2. Treat her like a lady. Some men in salsa would pull a woman onto the dance floor, and then, at song's end dart off to find his next victim. The beauty of the best Latin culture is to take her by the hand to the dance floor and then escort her off the dance floor. I did NOT make this up. This is salsa/tango protocol. Anything less is not culturally savvy and not gentlemanly. Ladies who do not expect this are training men to be culturally unaware of the milieu of Latin dance.
3. Dance only with her. I learned what not to do from some less-cultured Latinos in El Paso. Too many Latinos looked so childish because they were doing some cool move and then would look around to see who saw it. Too often the hetero-Latino is looking for his next partner while dancing, and the gay Latino was watching the ceiling. (This is just an observation of my Puerto Rican partner and friend who knew all the drama in the club.) SO, dance with the woman in front of you! And whatever you do, don't look at the ceiling! (And ladies: stop looking at the mirror. We know when you are doing it because you don't dance as well.)
4. Be mindful of her regular partner. I learned from Luz, my Puerto Rican friend, that I should never ask a woman to dance without asking her male friend's "permission" in a Latin club. That still bugs me because it feels like possession of a woman or as if she is a little child, but at its best it is also merely a sensitivity to a couple you may not know. Many Latinas are offended if you do not ask him. Just two weeks ago at a milonga, I asked a Latino if I might dance with his date, and he just looked away. But the Latina Tanguera still got up and danced. I am not sure what to say about this one. I just went back to gringo culture that she was a mature woman, and could make her own decisions.
5. Don't take it personally if she rejects you. You will avoid this in tango by never asking but waiting for her cabeceo (nod of the head). Anyway, at a salsa dance I would ask many Latinas to dance and they would said "no." There are a million reasons that they may not want to salsa (or tango) with you. Let me give just a few:
- One Latina said "no" and then I saw that her partner returned to their table from the restroom. She said "no" because she was sensitive to his feelings evidently.
- Some just couldn't dance or even speak Spanish. The assumption was they could do both because of their shoes, dress and long black hair. But they just came from work! In tango this is less likely but the issue may be your skill level or lack of floorcraft.
- Some women were looking for a salsa partner with benefits, or (more likely) saw dancing with a man as a potential desire on his part to buy her drinks and pester her the rest of the night. Once women saw that I was there just to dance, I was dancing with a lot of the Latinas of all ages who just wanted to dance. When I was in El Paso, the Latinas who came down from the University of Arizona in Las Cruces sought me out because of rule 1, 2, 3 and 5 (above) -- I didn't hurt them; I treated them with respect; I danced only with my partner and eventually I watched for a the salsa "look" (like the tango cabeco) after they saw how I took care and treated of my partner on the dance floor.
6. Dress up for all latin dances: The UTEP (the University of Texas, El Paso), is called "the best-dressed campus in Texas." That is because of the Latinos and Latinas. Dressing nicely is something that is normal in Latin America and Europe. I grew up in Reno, Nevada. I wore cowboy boots to school from 7th-12th grade (not every day). Jeans were my most usual attire. I bought my own horse at 15, raised chickens. I spoke only English. That was then. Now I speak Salsa and Tango. Dressing down is not Tango or Salsa, at least to me. Many teachers from Argentina bring this up -- especially the older ones, but it falls on ears that don't speak tango. I will just speak for myself here: If all the ladies are dressed down, so am I . However if the ladies are almost all dressing nicely, I feel weird about dancing with her if she took the time to look good but I did not. I would feel insensitive to her not to dress at her level.
So salsa and other dances do have something to teach the tanguero. And as a bonus, the improvisational nature of tango has made me a much better salsero because I dance to the music more. From tango I have learned to lead stops in the many salsa tunes I know. I now can turn her at the musically appropriate time as well. Tango, however, is for me the epitome of dance improvisation for two. And its culture, its special embrace is without peer.