Monday, July 12, 2010

What I learned from Salsa

The basic rules for dancing in the tango community seem like a different universe when one goes out salsa dancing.  In salsa communities:

  • 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.


tangocherie said...

Mark, I love the new format!

And BTW, in BsAs, it's the men who look at themselves in the mirrors of the salon! :)

(And the ladies have their eyes closed.)

Tango Therapist said...

@Tangocherie... isn't that weird that there is a gender reversal with the mirrors? Hmmm. Some sociologist could use this as a doctoral paper.

Mark said...

Nah, at El Beso in the corner furthest from the door virtually all the tangueras check themselves out in the mirror. It's amusing to watch them dance up that side of the room with their eyes closed until they get to the corner, open them for a quick self-appraisal, and then shut them after they dance off down the next side.

Mark Word said...

@Mark... Well, at least we know that "TangoCherie" doesn't do that. Again, this would be a good sociological study! :-)

El Ingeniero said...

LOVE THIS POST!! I left salsa for tango for similar reasons. Mostly because I couldn't stomach the fact that in salsa, becoming a better dancer seemed to just involve memorizing more sequences, and there wasn't much in terms of musicality or expressing the song. In tango, you really have to feel it to dance it. That, and the fact that you really don't need fancy steps if you have a nice embrace and can achieve a nice connection, got me totally hooked.

BTW, I didn't realize there is no cabeceo at salsa clubs. Haha, that would explain why ladies look at me in confusion when i make eye contact and nod toward the dance floor!

Tango Therapist said...

Señor Ingeniero... try going back and dancing salsa again and just listen to the music, and dance simply. Tango will make you the best salsero ever. Re: Cabeceo in salsa... only works with women who know you well. Some salseros grab the ladies by the hands and pull them out on the dance floor. A very different culture, but that has to do with how old the patrons are at a salsa club too.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I loved this post. It should be given to those who inspire to be become a true Tanguero(a). These are my opinions and comments (Not to be taken as criticism in any way shape or form! Because I loved it!)

Number 1, you may be aware that a tangero hurt my back with a volcada he didn't know how to execute. It should apply to women on the dance floor also. I
got scratched with heels twice in Chicago at a couple of Milongas. Women should also take care of their dance partner by watching his back.
#2, Ladies are inadvertently training men incorrectly! #3, men look at the mirror too! and don't forget looking at the floor ;o)
#4 Goes both ways, doesn't only apply to men asking women, but women asking men. You and I have had these discussions and it is about respect, good
manners, acknowledgement, and consideration, NOT permission.
#5 will be really helpful for all men :o( I still feel really bad for you guys asking and being publicly rejected.
#6, YES! Jeans banned from Milongas for both men and women!

Mari Johnson said...

I loved this post, Mark! I want to echo BK's comment re: #1 watching out for your partner. This is something that isn't stressed because the idea that "safety is always the leader's sole responsibility on the floor" *is* stressed. I can tell when my leader is having to do some "defensive driving" - I can feel it in his embrace and even hear it in his breathing. When I get those signals (assuming I didn't notice the floor situation as soon as I got up to dance), my eyes snap open and stay open. I watch my partner's back. It's not a reflection on my partner's leading ability, it's simply acknowledging that we both need to participate in keeping each other safe of the floor. I also keep my heels on the floor - another thing that seems to get left out of classes. When our (followers') embellishments hurt someone, everyone still blames the leader, even though they weren't led.

sorry for the hijack of the post (and comments) but that's something that's been coming up a lot recently.