Street salsa: why this is my choice of salsa styles

My salsa roots

Dances that attract me MUST have an element of improvisation. However, I'm not a big freestyle dancer: if you put music on and ask folks to just hang out and dance, I end up doing strange versions of the dance forms I've studied, mixed together any way that seems interesting to me. I need form, but I also need to have ways to play with that form, or even break the rules on purpose. I like: Argentine tango, Balkan line dances, West African styles, Brazilian street samba, funk in my native Philadelphia, Moroccan and Middle Eastern belly dance styles, Lindy hop, and . . . salsa.

I learned salsa by dancing in bars: I danced with the mix of Latinos who came out to hear music, see each other, and dance: Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Colombians. They taught me salsa, merengue, cumbia, bachata, norteno dances, etc. Most of them had never had a dance class, but they had learned from aunts, from older cousins, and from dancing at family parties or dance clubs before moving to the U.S. 

Going to a new club, I have to wait until some brave soul asks the newcomer to dance, but after that, I dance all night. The guys can't believe that I learned to salsa here, because I have my own style. My years of African dance training and the Afro-Cuban workshops I've attended blend into my salsa. I have street salsa, despite having taught ballroom dance for twenty plus years and a M.A. in modern dance.

After starting like that, salsa dance classes held little interest for me. All the folks looked so white-bread, form-perfect and lacking in groove. I started teaching salsa, trying to reconcile the idea of teaching in a class with the styles that I had learned on the fly. How could I make my students look like salseros, not ballroom students dancing salsa?

I focus on the element of lead and follow, of finding a common groove in the music. There are basic salsa moves that I teach, and harder, more flashy ones, but the point is to learn to move your body in a way that feels good and connects with your partner. You don't have to be the best. You don't have to be flashy. You have to FEEL GOOD! If you use your body correctly and learn the basic concepts of salsa movement, you can enjoy yourself and look good at the same time.

Friday night at Mississippi Pizza Pub: Toto, I don't think we're in tangoland anymore

My tango friends say things like, "Well, I don't think I'd like salsa.  It's so, so, well, it looks like it would be BORING, not enough improvisation." They wouldn't think that if they'd gone to the Mississippi Pizza Pub with me on Friday night. I walked in with my sweetie (who doesn't dance much), did one cha cha, and was literally pounced on by a dancer who said, "I know you! You taught me tango at the University of Oregon!" and proceeded to salsa my brains out.

He wasn't a schooled dancer, which was why I enjoyed dancing with him so much. He did a bit of salsa, some hip-hop-like moves, and some awesome traditional rumba moves, all combined into one grooving dance. I pulled out my Afro-Cuban religious dance training, my funky breaks, and my Philly a** and met him head-on. We cleared the floor. I haven't felt that happy on a dance floor for a long time.

When, sweating profusely, he thanked me for the dance, I told him how much I liked his traditional rumba moves and he looked at me and said, "My what?" Sometimes I forget exactly how big a dance geek I am: probably no one else in the room has studied the history of salsa in terms of dance anthropology (a lot of the older Cuban dancers in the place have LIVED part of that history and you can see it in their dancing). My dance partner wasn't following a form, or breaking rules on purpose; he was just dancing.

THAT is what I try to teach my students.

The opposite of street salsa

I have a huge bias against L.A. style salsa (sorry, L.A. salseros, it's just me, it's not you). There's so much waving of hands, cute poses and careful footwork. Yeah, I guess it looks nice, but it doesn't move me the way the old Cuban ladies with their basic salsa move me. There's cool in their moves, and grace, but the sexiness comes out of the groove, not out of engineered salsa parts. The whole idea of salsa congresses doesn't excite me; the idea of a great Cuban neighborhood band excites me.

I'm trained in choreography, in technique, in creating sequences that blow the mind, but what I prefer to teach is social dancing, for fun.