After seven years of consistent dancing, I guess I am now seen by beginners and onlookers as someone who “knows what he’s doing out there.”
I want to emphasize that this is still surprising to me––I still haven’t completely come to terms with “dancer” as part my identity. But it’s happening.
Last night a young man at a dance event asked me if I had any advice for new dancers. I gave the guy a couple of pointers, but his question rattled around my head afterward. In retrospect my answer was pitifully incomplete. With the benefit of rumination, hindsight, and a delete key, I’ve taken another stab at it.
This essay, by the way, is aimed at men. (Perhaps the title clued you in.) The male experience in dance is much different from the female experience, and I can’t very well speak to the latter. Female readers, however, may still find it relatable, enjoyable, or enlightening. Let’s get on with it.
Take a Choreography / Salsa Suelta Class ASAP
Let’s be real: Most guys show up to their first dance classes with some idea that they might meet a woman (or two!) sometime in the future.* Hell, maybe even at their first class! And that means partner dancing.
Partner dancing is, of course, social. Maybe romantic. It can be sexy. And gosh, during those first partner dancing classes you will talk to a lot of women. Probably more than you’ve ever talked to before in your life––how exciting!
The thing about partner dancing, though, is that you don’t really learn the basics of dancing. If I were to design a college-level curriculum of Latin dance, partner dancing would not be included in the first semester. Learning to partner dance right off the bat is kind of like a beginning boxer learning jabs, crosses, and uppercuts, but neglecting breathing, footwork, and head movement.
The consequence of doing so for a boxer would be getting punched in the nose a lot. For dancers, the consequence of this––which is very apparent on dance floors in North America––is a lot of men who can lead complicated figures but can’t actually dance very well, a condition Son y Casino cutely calls turnpatternitis.
If I could go back in time, I would have started with a salsa suelta or men’s styling class like the class I took with Yismari. Of course back when I was just getting started you couldn’t have paid me to attend a class that was essentially indistinguishable from Zumba for me.** But doing so would have been wise.
This leads me to the idea that…
Yo Perreo Sola: Dance at Home
Real exponential growth in information technology only began once Bill Gates put personal computers in every home in America. Once every nerd in America could tinker with software from the comfort of his mom’s basement, the world started to change.
Cross Bill Gates with Bad Bunny and you get the idea: To get better at dance you have to take it home with you. It can’t stop at the end of class (or it can––but you won’t improve as fast).
I feel kind of silly putting this in writing, but these days I’m always dancing around my apartment. If I’m cleaning, cooking, putzing around, hell––I’ve been dancing while writing this. A friend of mine coined the term “perreo en silla,” to describe the low-key reggaeton grooving she did at work. No partner needed, by the way.
Learn to enjoy dancing by yourself as soon as possible so that you can take it home with you. And again, this is something a salsa suelta class helps with.
It’s cool to “just chill” for a few eight counts. In fact, it’s good dancing.
Upon visiting a dance club, someone who doesn’t dance is likely to be cowed by the dancing couples’ complicated figures. Some see it, turn on their heel, leave, and never come back. Others say to themselves, “I want to learn to do that,” and begin to do so.
My point here is that the impetus to learn––insofar as there is one beyond just meeting women––is often those beautiful, complicated figures. And so the dance student attends class after class, commits figures to memory, and maxes out his mental hard drive.
The result is frequently turnpatternitis. I was once a sufferer myself. I still cringe at the memory of a woman once telling me to “dance the music” mid-song.
A dancer exhibiting symptoms of turnpatternitis as I was must go through a period of unlearning: Less is more; it’s OK to just do nothing.
I have a theory that this is an especially difficult concept for culturally North American dancers. The same way that meditation is a struggle for the unquiet mind, an easy two-step is fear-inducing for the insecure dancer. We want to move move move, turn turn turn, figure figure figure. But brother, chill out.
If you look at great Latin dancers, you consistently see tempered, quiet moments in their dances. (And I should distinguish, here, between big and gaudy “Dancing with the Stars” TV dancing and the kind of easy improvisation you’ll see at a dance club. I speak here to the latter.)
When the music slows down, great dancers slow down with it. It’s time to relax. It’s time to enjoy the moment, or your follow’s beauty, or the music, or the lighting, or whatever.
Some of the most enjoyable moments of a night of dancing are a few eight counts of just feeling yourself.
Oh––and by the way––I promise your dance partner will appreciate it. After a night of being yanked around through figures on figures on figures, a little chill is welcome.
A final note on this: There’s probably an aesthetic argument to be made here. It may be that the quiet moments of a dance highlight the complex figures. Perhaps a yin and yang dynamic creates a truly brilliant dance.
Don’t forget to bring a towel!
Seriously, though. When you’re super sweaty nobody wants to touch you.
If You Enjoy Athletics, You Will Enjoy Dance
Now that I can dance I find it absurd that so many of my friends entertain the narrative that they cannot dance or that dance is not enjoyable to them. As a rule, any guy who has ever been any kind of athlete can enjoy dance and has the potential to be a great dancer.
Joe Rogan is our cultural paragon. Despite being a famous personality, accomplished comedian, and wealthy beyond imagination, Rogan is bitterly fearful of dance. In 2019 his friends challenged him to do a “Sober October” dance challenge. Rogan would not participate. He “doesn’t dance.”
But the funnyman is an accomplished taekwondo fighter, famous in particular for spinning kicks, which he trains with the top names in MMA. Some news for Joe: Set spinning kicks to music and you’ve got capoeira.
While martial arts might be the easiest to compare with dance, all sports share some technical aspect with dance. Take the drop step in basketball for instance (a half turn). Lynn Swann, one of the greatest to ever catch a football, was a ballet dancer. Mario Lopez, Bayside High wrestling champ, is an avid salsero.
While I’ve had a bit of trouble adjusting to the music and culture of the San Diego dance scene (timba and the Cuban style are not big down here), one thing I like about San Diego dancers is that they smile. It really makes a big difference.
Start every dance with a smile. And if you mess up, smile bigger. And laugh. I know there are some self-serious dancers out there perfecting their craft with tremendous gravity, but to me this about having fun at the end of the day. So smile.
Watch People Dance (and find some favorite dancers)
One of my cousins is an absolutely incredible dancer. He’s also about 13 years old. The little man just goes on YouTube and copies what he sees.
As far as I can tell, this is how you develop a style. Once you have a base level of body control––perhaps developed in a salsa suelta class––it’s simple to mimic models on YouTube. It’ll happen subconsciously, in fact.
Don’t Start Learning with a Woman (or if you do, get a head start)
The learning curve for leads (typically men) is much steeper than it is for follows (typically women). A follow becomes a competent dancer within a month or two of consistent dancing. For leads it takes more like six months. This means that if a man starts dancing with his wife, she is going to be competent several months before he is.
I’m just going to tell it like it is: For most couples, this is a challenging dynamic. Men don’t like to be incompetent––especially in front of their partners. (“I don’t need directions.”) For their part, women can sometimes be impatient (insensitive?!) with incompetent men.
Take that uncomfortable situation and then add the fact that a couple typically takes lessons in a roomful of strangers, triggering an absurd “they’re all looking at me” (they’re not) personal dialogue. Then take that and add a lifelong narrative of “I can’t dance.”
I have never met a man who is totally cool with being obviously the least competent person in a room in front of his partner. Unless you are that perfect man, I suggest that you start learning before she does. If you are that perfect man, I’d like to shake your hand.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy / Dance Like No One is Watching / Nobody Cares if You Suck / Insert Your Favorite Cliché
During my year taking 3-5 dance classes per week in Buenos Aires I developed a substantial crush on one of my classmates, as is wont to happen. I’m not going to say I was infatuated or head-over-heels, but I was in deep enough that I was tripping over my words in conversation. Not that I’m normally silver-tongued, but that means something coming from me.
Anyway, one night she and I found ourselves at the beautiful La Viruta ballroom in Palermo attending their weekly salsa social. She looked stunning with her characteristic laid-back summer-of-love style: big hair, big earrings, a simple top, and a long flowing skirt. I asked her to dance and she accepted.
For a moment it was bliss. But then…
You see, that long, flowing skirt was truly a long, flowing skirt. And as I led her through a basic left-hand turn, my foot landed on her skirt’s hem. As she walked through the turn––ever gracefully––her skirt unravelled. She finished the turn with her skirt around her ankles, leaving her nalgas exposed to the entire ballroom.
In a flash, I let go of all romantic intention. God bless her, she pulled that thing up and finished the song, cherry red in the face.
I still cringe every time I think about that moment––I’ll never forget it. (And P––, if you read this… I’m sorry.) But I love to tell this story to beginner dancers because, look: What happened to me (and to her) will not happen to you. And even if it does, you’ll survive. There are a maximum of two people in the world who remember that moment. And let’s face it, she likely repressed the memory.
Of the thousands of dances I’ve had in my life, I have only accidentally undressed one woman. And it wasn’t so bad.
In Summary: Dance like an Old Man
For a while here in San Diego I was meeting regularly with a dance partner to practice. She was 21 at the time, and early on in our meetings she told me that she most enjoyed dancing with old men. I explained that I was only 32 and she clarified that she meant “really old” men––los viejitos. You can decide for yourself what “really old” means.
But my dance partner was really saying something. If you watch old guys dance, they do everything I’ve described in this essay.
1. They do not give a f–– if anyone is watching them dance.
2. Complicated figures make their knees hurt; they keep it simple.
3. They’re OK with “just chilling.”
4. They smile.
5. They always bring a towel.
**The irony, of course, is that there are always more women in salsa suelta classes than there are in partner dancing classes. Take note you would-be seducers.