My Salsa Learning Experience and Tips for Beginners

Duarkis Salsa Dancing

Author: Duarkis Fernandez

The very beginning

I grew up in a small town in Cuba. And no, just because I grew up there doesn’t mean that salsa dancing should be easy for me. Like thousands of Cubans, I never had any formal salsa training nor did I have any background of any other type of dance, let alone musicality. I learned to dance Cuban salsa (aka casino) by forcing myself to dance in house parties, carnivals, and night clubs – that is very much the standard for an ordinary Cuban who doesn’t seek a dance career.

First encounter with the Miami salsa scene

A few years back, after being in Miami for some time, I started going out to some venues where people mostly danced casino. I must say that my street-learned casino was very rough to match the level of the trained casino dancers from Miami. So I decided to take some classes. It was then that for the first time in my life I heard the 1,2,3 – 5,6,7 count. But still, the much needed musicality was not explained. Then I continued to dance casino for about 6 months. Occasionally, I saw some dancers in those venues who danced a different style. That was when I discovered that there was another salsa style out there called LA style. I admit I didn’t have a good first impression of the LA style. I remember saying: “I will never try to dance something like that.” It appeared to be flavorless. Well, at least the dancers that were there made it look that way. It seemed to me that they focused more on the styling rather than the process of enjoying the music and adding some distinctive flavor. But soon the casino scene started turning somehow unappealing to me because it was quite small and every time I traveled out of town most people were dancing on a line. Whether they danced LA or On2 (aka mambo or NY style) I did not know because I couldn’t tell the difference. As a result, I decided to give LA a try but with a firm commitment to myself to avoid as much styling and stiffness as possible.

The LA style journey

The first month was probably the worst. I didn’t want to get out of my comfort zone so every time I went out dancing, I danced casino. Right away I realized I couldn’t continue doing that or else I was never going to get down the new style. Therefore, for the next three months that I took LA classes, I pushed myself to dance LA when I went social dancing. It took me 4 months to accomplish my goal of dancing on a line and pin down some patterns. I knew that the rest was up to a number of hours of social dancing. It was a matter of time before I could create my own style, which by the way, I don’t think you can call it LA anymore. I know that I dance it On1 and it is on a line. But that’s all I know. At the end, it is the new generations of dancers who have labeled all these different salsa styles. And it does not surprise me as it is the tendency of the human race to give meaning to everything in life. For what I heard from older dancers, years ago people would just come up to you and say: “I like your style.” Anyway, I only know that I have fun dancing whatever is the style that I dance.

Transitioning to On2

I know some people in Cuba learn to dance casino On2 (aka contra-tiempo), but I wasn’t able to tell the difference due to the lack of music knowledge. It was not until I was already dancing LA style that I heard about On2 NY style. It was appealing to me so I wanted to know more about it. Suddenly, I asked people in the salsa scene about the fundamentals of the style. And very quickly I arrived to some conclusions; I needed to learn how to listen the second beat of each phrase and adapt my body to the timing. Since then, every day I listened to salsa songs and tried to distinguish the different instruments playing on each song. After I got comfortable enough, I began to dance On2 in every social I attended. I simply asked girls to dance and let them know I was a beginner On2. I believe that worked very well because they right away lowered the expectations and most of the time would even help me improve something. I must admit the process was painful. Maybe I should had taken some classes, but anyway, now it’s too late. Today I continue to improve dancing On2 through social dancing and some occasional workshops.

My personal recommendations for learning any salsa style

Musicality: I see musicality as the most important step to learn to dance salsa. Based on my experience, most salsa schools don’t even mention anything about musicality until later in the learning process. They usually throw a beginner to do the basic steps without even teaching them why they break on 1 or on 2. If you would like to learn to dance salsa fairly quickly, you should first insist on learning musicality and listen to a lot of salsa music.

Basic training: This is crucial. You should at least have a basic understanding of most basic moves before you go to your first salsa social. Find a salsa school of your preference and don’t necessarily get married to the same school. There are many good instructors out there and each one of them has a unique style and way of teaching as well as something unique to offer.

Social dancing: I often find beginners in salsa socials sitting down almost the whole night. Trust me, it may take you years to learn if you do this. I understand the process is not comfortable because we, humans, never want to look bad in front of other people. But, aren’t you spending time and money to learn how to dance so you can go to socials and have fun? If so, you’d better go to socials and dance until you can no more. Social dancing will help you in many different ways; you will start getting confident; you will adapt to many people styles; you will create your very own style; and you will you have fun and burn some calories. It doesn’t get better than that.

At this point you should be able to have fun without injuring anyone out there. But if you want to take your dancing to the next level, maybe you should consider more advanced training, joining a performance team, and continue with lots of social dancing. Either way, dancing is fun and provides many benefits to your body and mind. Enjoy the process!