Cuban Salsa: Why open up and tap?

Open op and tap on 8 is sometimes presented as the only way to start many moves, as if indispensable to the move. It is like it must be done exactly like that. Not explaining why in some detail, mystifies what is going on.

It took me several years to realize that “open up and tap” is just an option one can use or not use, that it is simply a method to make leading and following more clear and explicit.

In addition, “open up and tap” is a training device, when new moves are presented. It makes it easier for the instructor to control the crowd: “Every one open up and tap on 8 and be ready to start the new move on one”. Open up and tap makes it easier to make sure that all the dance students are synchronized on the same page.

Vacilala with tap

The first move where we learn to open up and tap as part of the preparation for a move is likely to be Vacilala. And it makes sense: by opening up and tapping on 8, the Follow really is put in attentive mode, she is instantly aware that something new is going to happen.

Most often new moves in class and workshop are started from Guapea, Cuban Basic Steps. The Follow should step back with her right foot on one unless redirected by the Lead to step forward.

For Vacilala, between eight and one, the Lead should pull the Follow’s arm slightly forward to indicate to step forward, and on one the Follow’s right arm must be tossed to her right in a circular motion at the appropriate hight and with exactly measured speed indicating for the Vacilala steps to start.

The video from “dancepapi.com”, presents the traditional arguments for why to open up and tap. In this case starting from Dile Que No, but the argumentation is as for stating from Guapea:

Same video at YouTube: Dancepapi: Vacilala.

In he second video “Avinciia-Dance.com” presents the traditional rationale for open up and tap (in French):

Same video at YouTube: Avinciia: Vacilala.

Vacilala without a tap

Vacilala is the prototype of how to open up and tap as preparation for the start of a move. But many instructors don’t use that method. They only use the arm movement and maybe the tap. They might start pulling slightly to make the Follow step forward but the arm toss is more or less enough for doing the move. Opening up and tapping is not considered a prerequisite.

Doing Vacilala seemingly without or only with little preparation works well in class, workshops and in Rueda de Casino, because the Follow knows what move is coming. She can hear the instructor calling it. But it also works well in social dancing at advanced level because the Follow is so used to Vacilala and to when it is likely to be started that she most often will do just fine with very little or no preparation, the hand and arm movement is enough, when interpreted in the context.

This does not mean that one should not open up and tap in social dancing. I always do it with Follows at beginner and intermediate level. With Follows at advanced level it depends on the situation. Often I don’t, sometimes I do. When I do, it is not necessarily because I sense that the Follow needs more explicit preparation, but because opening up and a tap can be a very elegant way to start a move.

Push arm Vacilala

In the following video, a third method to start Vacilala is presented, and I use that method a lot. The Lead starts walking without the hand toss, but instead pushes the Follow’s arm on 5. Very elegant.

Note that the video first shows the “pushing her arm” method, then it shows the traditional Vacilala opening up with a tap, and when the instructions begin, the “pushing her arm” method is shown one more time:

Fabian Vallejos and Nicolina (Malmö, Sweeden):

Same video at YouTube: Vacilala. Two versions: arm push or open up and tap.

Vacilala out of the blue

In social dancing at advanced level a Follow knows by instinct and muscle memory, from listening to the music, from reading the dance so far and the level and body language and facial expression of the Lead that a Vacilala is up. She doesn’t need specific preparation. The slightest touch of her shoulder or hips, push or pulling, or the slightest hand toss motion is more than enough. Sometimes the Follow knows by magic to start her Vacilala steps because that is the only or most logical or natural way to proceed a dance at a given moment.

Talking nonsense?

I like the explicit opening up and tapping for very many moves like Vacilala. And I like the explanation, that we need to pull her hand a little forward to redirect her movement, to force her to step forward or to prevent her from stepping back on one. Sounds so nice.

But in reality, no Follow being led into an “opening up” and a tap, would ever step back on one, because it is much more natural to step forward. Even without opening up and without the tap, just by sensing the beginning of the hand toss, no Follow could dream of stepping back. Even if the Follow does not sense a small pull, she would still step forward as the most natural, when she senses a Vacilala is up.

So all this redirection of movement, when talking about Vacilala, has not that much to do with Vacilala, when we think of it. Except for Guapea, Basic Steps, both Lead and Follow should most often step forward in Cuban Salsa, except that the Follow often has her back to the forward direction.

Open up and a tap is simply a good way to explain an important principle of leading/following, that do apply to certain moves where the Follow is likely to be in doubt about what to do, and sometimes it even applies to Vacilala.

Open up for Hammerlock?

A discussion of how to do the hammerlock, the first eight-count of the Setenta family of moves, one of the biggest groups of moves, is useful to put “open up and tap” into perspective.

Some dancers lead and walk Setenta like Vacilala, but most dancers regard Hammerlock as a right turn plus walking or as walking plus a right turn, and they prep it and lead it like a right turn.

A right turn is stepped on 1-2-3 as is the most common for the Lead’s right turn or on 5-6-7 as is the most common for a Follow’s right turn. A right turn is a count of three done with or without preparation.

Vacilala steps are just a one and a half right turn done walking. A right turn plus three steps of walking or three steps of walking followed by a right turn, pretty much looks like or is more or less exactly like Vacilala steps when done walking a small circle in closed position as is most often the case for Hammerlock.

First let us watch a beautiful video of Setenta from “Dolce Dance” (Hungary), opening up and tapping like for Vacilala steps:

Same video at YouTube: Setenta.

Next the Russian “Danceliker” school, featuring Adonis Santiago and Svetlana Ovchinina. They have several videos for Setenta moves, and they are not just opening up (but without the tap) Vacilala style, but they are clearly interpreting Hammerlock not as a right turn but as Vacilala steps and they dance walking a big circle to make Vacilala steps meaningful:

Same video at YouTube: Setenta por de bajo.

We now know that opening up with or without a tap can be done for the Hammerlock part of Setenta moves, and that the Hammerlock can be regarded as Vacilala steps. Nevertheless, I will argue in the following that this is not best practice and should be avoided, as least when teaching the move on lower levels.

Hammerlock is a right turn

Hammerlock is or should be regarded as a right turn because that makes it possible to do the Hammerlock on the spot walking in place. A stationary Hammerlock is ten times easier at improver level, it is many times easier at advanced level to very fast music, and it is a handy way to start Setenta figures in close quarters on a crowded dance floor or if you for some other reason want to start less dynamic.

In the many videos from “dancepapi.com”, we always see them opening up and tapping for moves using Vacilala steps. We have already seen their video for Vacilala. In all their videos showing Setenta moves, they clearly regard Hammerlock as a right turn, and they show the moves done with a stationary Hammerlock, being the most appropriate way to do Hammerlock at improver-intermediate level:

Same video at YouTube: Dancepapi: Setenta with Hammerlock done as a right turn.

Since very many Cuban Salsa figures do start with Vacilala steps, where we are likely to open up and tap, one could argue that it is nice that we don’t do that for Setenta moves. If we like to tap as much as possible, we can still do the tapping part. It broadens the variation of how to start figures, if we have different ways of doing it: Like Enchufla, like right turn, like Vacilala. If “right turn” includes all the Setenta moves it becomes a big group.

The second video showing Hammerlock done as a right turn, features Frank E, one of my Cuban Salsa teachers in Copenhagen:

Same video at YouTube: Frank E: Vacilala with Hammerlock done as a right turn.

Regarding the Hammerlock as a right turn and starting it front against front as a right turn has one additional benefit. If the music is fast and we need to complete a 360 degree walk in Rueda de Casino, we can charge forward and turn right a way and rush it a little less than if we start opening up with both Lead and Follow standing side by side facing the center of the Rueda circle. Dancers at advanced level will do fine no matter what, but why make common and otherwise easy Rueda moves unnecessary difficult to complete in time and correctly positioned for the rest of us?

The third video showing Hammerlock as a right turn is from the French “Avinciia.com”. Note that for moves starting with Vacilala steps, these people always open up and tap, but not for the Setenta family of moves:

Same video at YouTube: Avinciia: Setenta with Hammerlock done as a right turn.

Opening up and tap summery

It is only an option one can use to make leading and following more explicit but becomes less and less necessary the better the dancers. Even at advanced level where we often don’t need explicit leading, open up and tapping can be nice as an elegant way to start moves.

Opening up and tapping is more that anything else an educational device for instructors: good for crowd control when teaching many people.

The Hammerlock should be regarded as a right turn plus stepping or as stepping plus a right turn that can be done more or less dynamic stepping forward on the partner circle, and it should be started just like any other right turn.

It gives us the benefit of also doing it on the spot, when that is beneficial, it save us precious time to do it properly when dynamic with 360 degree stepping, and it brings more variation into how we start figures.

But as an exception to the rule, we can of cause also start Hammerlock as a Vacilala, opening up with or without a tap, and we can even at times use proper Vacilala steps and make room for them, if we prefer that in the situation.

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