Cuban Salsa: right and wrong
Some dancers don’t care about keeping different dance styles apart, pure and original. They like to mix it all together and make up their own unique fusion style of anything they find interesting. Such “cherry picking” is ok and a valid approach for anyone to follow but I don’t like that approach personally. It is nice that we have both a tiger and a lion, a Grand Danois and a bulldog, many species of birds and flowers. I love a world full of uniqueness and optimized different solutions.
In other words, I like the idea that Cuban Salsa is something special, something apart and unique, something we can discuss, analyze, refine, improve on and make better in its own right, based on a long dance tradition.
I am not a fundamentalista. Any dance is likely to evolve and change over time, for better or worse. There is nothing to do about it except that we, the social dancers, are all part of and contribute to an ongoing evolution and transition to how a social dance is danced today.
1 Weakly defined social dances
In non-Cuban Salsa like in most other social dance styles, there is no higher authority, no rule of law, no standard textbook or answer book that can tell us what is right and what is wrong.
Every dance school, every instructor, any dancer has a wide margin for exactly how to dance and still call it the same name. Often there are alternative ways to do things more or less equally good.
There is no dance police out there to fine you if you do anything wrong or to give you a thumbs up when you dance close to somebody’s perceived norm.
In most social dance styles, it really is up to each individual to set up your own rules or to make your own interpretation of a dance tradition. The exception is of cause in standard dance competitions, then you must adhere to some common rules in order to compete.
2 Cuban Salsa is partly well defined
In Cuban Salsa we have an authority, a mathematical system and framework called Rueda de Casino that organizes and determines how we dance and from which we can derive a lot of guidance and rules of thumbs also for dancing socially 1-on-1 without the Rueda.
For that reason Cuban Salsa really is unique and special among social dances. It depends much less on the interpretation of individual dance schools, dance gurus and instructors.
But even in Cuban Salsa there is plenty of room for interpretation and alternative approaches. Rueda de Casino is not one and the same everywhere but has many local variations and in social dancing we like to brake loose of the constraints of the Rueda and strike out on our own, chasing the inspiration of the moment.
But and this is important: even in social dancing Cuban Salsa dancers cannot but be heavily influenced by Rueda de Casino. If we are used to stepping forward in the Rueda in a circular clock wise motion, we are likely to do the same in social dancing. If not all of the time, at least some of the time.
3 How is Rueda an authority?
The most common form of Rueda de Casino is several couples dancing on each their own partner circle inside a bigger Rueda circle. A Rueda caller, typically a dance instructor or just one of the better dancers, calls the moves.
The idea is that all the couples execute the move in unison, as one body of dancers completely syncronized. A move is typically done walking the small partner circle. At the end of a move the Leads are normally called to walk to the next Follow in the next partner circle.
Everything must be done 100% synchronized. That is why the Rueda becomes a mathematical framework, the big authority (but only for a subset of issues), that is missing in other styles of social dancing.
The Rueda teaches us how to walk, how long our steps must be, how many degrees we must walk on the partner circles for each count for all of the dancers to move the same and be exactly back at start for doing Dile Que No or Dame (walk to the next partner circle).
Also, in order to call a move, there must be many well known moves having a name. In Cuban Salsa there is a relatively uniform body of more than 100 common moves, developed and tested in Ruedas all over the world over a long time. And when dancers make up new named moves, they normally construct them in such a way that they follow the pattern of other Rueda moves.
In social dancing a Lead is supposed to make up his own moves but, and this is unique for Cuban Salsa, he has a huge archive of the very best moves from DVDs and YouTube, he can use for training and inspiration. We have something similar in other social dances but on a much smaller scale.
4 When we teach Cuban Salsa
In Cuban Salsa we care about our dance. We believe it is unique and special. I am going to elaborate on that in many coming blog posts. We want to protect it from corruption and bad influence from other Salsa styles and Latin Ball Room.
How you dance socially is no one else’s business. What you do on your own is always fine, if it works for you and your partner and you have a good time.
When we teach Cuban Salsa other rules apply. It is like handing someone a cup of coffee. If it is not coffee you must accept that someone calls you out.
If you teach Cuban Salsa you must be prepared to defend what you are doing, to come up with arguments for the choices you have made, for why you are within the natural wide variation of what is Cuban Salsa.
There should be some logic and consistency to what you are doing, some system and overall picture that could be called Cuban Salsa.
5 Cuban Salsa yes or no
When I don’t like what a dance instructor is doing, let us say in some video promoted as Cuban Salsa, I use it as an opportunity to question and rethink why I do it differently and I try to analyze why I don’t like what I see.
Most often I conclude, no big surprise, that there are many more or less equally good approaches and ways to do a lot of things, like how to hold hands or exactly how to do certain moves, or how to style yourself. Most arguments are a matter of preferences and personal taste.
The rule of thumb is that diversity is natural, unavoidable and even desirable.
As an exception to the rule, “if one opinion is good then two opinions must be even better”, all of us have the right to fight for what we believe is best practice.
Especially if the issue is something we really care about, or if we feel it is a matter of vital importance for the future of our beloved Cuban Salsa.
6 Four defining issues
The Rueda is a “standardiser” but only half the way. If all dancers in a Rueda use long steps, it works well, equally true if they all use relatively small steps. If all the Follows back-rocks in certain figures like Dile Que No, synchronisation is intact. The same if all the Follows step forward all the time. If all dances with stiff upper lips in a classic upright Ball Room style, it works well. Likewise if all the dancers go full Afro Cuban.
Each one of us must decide such issues for ourselves when we dance 1-on-1 social dancing, except that we must find some compromise with our partner. I prefer extremely small steps. My Follow is supposed to follow me, but if I senses that she tends toward longer steps, I make my own steps a little longer.
I like to step as optimised as possible, to step each basic figure with perfection. But if I sense that my Follow is more loose, more raw and uneducated, more random and anarchistic in her stepping, I compromise a little in order not to embarrass her.
I strongly believe that a Follow’s constant back-rocking acts like a deadweight or anchor making a good walking flow impossible. If I dance with one of these “terrible” back-rockers, I try gently to lead her forward all the time, but it can easily become tiresome to enforce with raw power what should be the default behaviour of the Follow. I accept a little back-rocking from the Follow out of necessity. But a back-rocking Follow doesn’t have a chance with me, if there are forward-stepping Follows around, making the flow dancing I believe in much more likely.
I normally dance like they have danced Cuban Salsa in Cuba for the first 50 years of the dance, that is without as much of one pinch of Cuban Afro. But I actually like a little Afro myself, that is, if I feel that my Follow likes that too, I might go a little full “Afro” for a dance or two. But Afro Cuban Salsa is only a new sub-style of Cuban Salsa, it is not a must only an option.
7 Science doesn’t apply
Or just a little. Even though we have Rueda de Casino as a mathematical system that can guide us at least a little for how to dance Cuban Salsa also in 1-on-1 social dancing, there is no way, we can decide with science what is right a wrong, not even with “science” in a broader experimental sense.
Even if we can agree on what a move should look like, on how long steps should be, if we should back-rock or mostly step forward, etc., and even if we test a thousand times in order to find the best possible way to step the move, we almost always end up with a split decision with a big or small descending minority, or several minority positions. And majority rule simply does not make sense for the individual dancer.
Even the best technical solution from a pure optimised “scientific” point of view, might not be the one to use in actual social dancing, because we should also consider the skill level of both dancers, their mood and the music, and exactly what move they are coming from and what move they are going to. We should also consider how well positioned and prepared, how well balanced the dancers are for actually doing the move, at the exact moment of its execution. It might often be the case, that the next or third best solution to a dance problem, is actually the very best for specific dancers, in a specific dance, at a specific moment.
8 Cuban Salsa as a “catch all” dance
At the beginning of this blogpost I stated that I don’t like the concept of fusion, of mixing and blending all sorts of dance styles together into one “everything is the same” style of dancing. I like Cuban Salsa to be as pure and genuine Cuban as possible. But Cuban Salsa is still a conglomerate of mostly Cuban dance styles with a lot of borrowing from other mostly Cuban social dances, like Danzon, Bolero, Cha-Cha-Cha, Mambo, Pachanga and not the least Son, etc.
This borrowing still takes place today. Cuban Salsa, Casino, developed as a sub-style of the Cuban social dance Son, and even today many dancers still borrow moves and attitude from Son to enhance their Cuban Salsa. The last 10-20 years, Afro Cuban dances and Reggaeton have had a big influence on how many dancers dance Cuban Salsa. This is unavoidable for better or worse. Each active dancer is part of the decision making process for how the dance is danced today and in the future.
You can dance old fashioned and/or modern, and modern is mostly only modern for a while, or even soon forgotten and replaced by something else, and what is old fashioned is not necessarily on verge of extinction: it could just as well get a revival on a higher level and become the new modern craze.
I actually like “Cuban Salsa” with a very broad definition of the dance. The Cuban term “Casino” is simply too puristic, Cuban Salsa is much more. To me it is not just a party dance, or a dance School dance that requires that both partners have learned the same moves and patterns, like one more standard dance for competition. Cuban Salsa is also a peoples dance in the broadest sense of the term, everyone can sign up no matter who they are or their skill level, and I want to dance with them too.
I don’t have the time to learn all sorts of social dances and “dance alone” dances, in order to satisfy my desire for dancing and for expressing myself dancing. I want to dance Cuban Salsa with so much variation, and with so many sub-styles that I need to fulfil all my needs for dancing. To me “Cuban Salsa” is also a fitness dance, done with a partner, in order to keep me “young” and healthy, physically and mentally, no matter my age. That is, I often dance certain physically demanding moves, just because they are good for my body.
I strongly believe in “dance and let dance”, but I just as strongly believe that there is if not “right and wrong” in Cuban Salsa, then at least “good and less good”, and I believe in my right to have strong opinions about it in order to educate myself and to develop as a dancer, and that I have I right to share my own experience as I see it.