6 Salsa Dancing Secrets

Handsome Dominican man

There was a time when I couldn’t salsa dance. At all. And I lived in Ecuador for 1.5 years–a country where there are plenty of opportunities to learn and practice. Loco, no? As hard as I tried, I felt like I had two left feet.

And it bothered me as I watched others dancing the night away. Why can’t I do it, I wondered.

And then, about 10 years ago, it came together. And now, I can dance with most Latinos (not just salsa, but merengue, cumbia and bachata). And whether I’m here in NJ or traveling somewhere in Latin America, I have a great time dancing!

I do especially well with Colombians and other South Americans since I learned from them–but I also do fine with Central Americans and Dominicans. (Unfortunately, because of differing styles, I sometimes struggle with Cubans and Puerto Ricans.)

Here are the two things that helped me get the basics. Below, you’ll see the tips that you can use to make it happen.

What I Did to Learn Salsa

First, I Used a Video

Remember videos–as in, VHS tapes? I bought one many years ago called “The Secrets of Salsa” I remember laughing at it–at first. The teacher was a skinny Cuban dude who keep saying, “Mueva su cadera.” Move your hips. As silly as it was, it did teach me how to count and where my feet were supposed to go, thanks to animated footsteps on a screen.

I practiced with the video and then in front of the mirror, figuring it was best to do it at home. I wouldn’t embarrass myself. No one would get hurt.

Then, I Went Out…Dancing

Then, after a month or so of doing this–and listening to salsa music daily–I went out dancing. With some former students of mine I knew in Elizabeth, NJ. They were Colombian mostly with a few Peruvians in the group. One guy was Mexican. All were patient.

We spoke English, Spanish and Spanglish and a laughed a lot as they stood next to me and at times, in front of me, showing me the basic moves and the counting. It was similar to what I saw in the video, but not exactly the same. What was different? Their footwork was tighter; they didn’t move their feet so far apart.

Despite their excellent teaching, I still struggled. My progress was slow. I asked for a drink. It helped. A little. I improved a bit.

And Then, I Met Diego–a Dominican Man Who Really Showed Me How to Dance

One night, after one of these lessons, I was sitting with my friends listening to an amazing salsa song the DJ had just put on. I was tapping on the table, counting 1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7…practicing with my fingers, using them like a hyperactive stick man of sorts. Out of nowhere, a very guapo Dominican man (named Diego as I later found out) approached me and said:

“Quieres bailar?” Want to dance?

He was several inches taller than me, was wearing a white button-down shirt and a dark vest over it and some cool-looking jeans. He was wearing some yummy smelling cologne, too.

PS: This is not Diego, but someone named Ricky who I found over on Flickr. I figured he was cute enough and close enough to the real thing. :)

“Sí,” I said. “Como no?’ Yes, of course. I knew that the dance of choice for most Dominicans was merengue, but that didn’t matter. Many Latinos do all the Latin dances, regardless of which country they come from.

He took my hand and led me out to the dance floor. He stood close to me. Not too close and not too far away. It was just right. We then starting dancing. I counted the beat in my head and checked to see if my feet were doing what they were supposed to be doing. It seemed they were.

Then, in the middle of the dance, things felt awkward. We stopped. Diego looked at me and said:

“Stop looking at your feet. Just feel the music.”

And I did. And all of sudden, by being in the moment with the music, it came together. I was salsa dancing!

There’s more to it, of course. I went out dancing many more times, danced with many more men and over time, got to a point where I felt confident. Now, I feel I could dance the entire night away. That’s how much I love it!

So, if you’re a beginner or someone who’s curious about the very basic steps, check out this list of tips–and these videos I found on YouTube that break it down for you. I think it will help you.

6 Secrets of Super Salsa Dancing

Salsa Secret #1: Hear/Listen to/Count the Beat…1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7

Although there are technically 8 beats, you need to ignore (or pause/do nothing) during two of them. Those are 4 and 8. You’re moving your feet on 1, 2, 3 and 5, 6 and 7 only.

Let’s try it right now. Turn on a salsa song. Listen closely. Now count all 8 beats. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Then, do it again, but drop 4 and 8. 1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7…

Salsa Secret #2: Have a Drink

I know this isn’t necessary, but I must admit it loosened my inhibitions and got me into the groove. When Diego told me to feel the music, being slightly buzzed prevented me from feeling embarrassed. If you don’t drink, no problema! Have some herbal tea with Kava or Valerian root to relax you. It might work.

Bonus tip: Because I used to dance with Colombians, we tended to drink Aguardiente (Cristal brand), an anise-flavored liqueur that packs a punch. We chased it with seltzer and lime. I highly recommend it.

Coco Loco!

Salsa Secret #3: Don’t Look at Your Feet

At first, you might need to–as I did. (I’ll admit that, depending on whom I’m dancing with, I might take a peek–especially during the first minute or two when we’re acclimating to each other.) But eventually, you won’t need to.

Salsa Secret 4: Save the Hips…for Later

It’s tempting to try to do everything all at once, but it’s best to master your feet first. Once you’re comfortable, then you can bring the hips into the mix. Bring in the arms whenever you feel comfortable.

Salsa Secret #5: Dance with Real Latinos–if Possible

Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. But for the most part, I find it best to dance with real Latinos. Because it’s a big part of the culture, most start dancing at an early age, so it’s natural for them. And they’re passionate about it, too.

I recall going dancing in Barcelona once at a place run by Catalans. They had a class earlier in the evening, before opening up the dance floor, and it was awful. Looked stiff and artificial. Too formulaic for my taste.  I walked out and went to a real Latino club and had the best time!

 

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Salsa Secret #6: Be in the Moment

When you’re a beginner, you need to be in the moment in order to focus–to listen to/count the beat. If not, you’ll get lost. Once you can hear it and count it, then you’ll feel it. And then, you can be in the moment while dancing and you won’t have to think about it. That’s when you know you’re dancing for real.

Instructional Salsa Videos That Can Help

Basic Side Step

This breaks it down to the most basic step of all–a side step of sorts–and focuses on the 1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7. Note: When you dance with real Latinos, they won’t move their feet so far apart. Try to do this by moving only several inches in either direction. I think it’ll be better for you in the long run.

PS: I’ve never heard of this being called “la cucuracha.”

 

Forward and Back

This is really just an expansion of the side step. You’re doing the same exact thing, but moving forward and back. Start the video at 0:35 to get right to the lesson.

Note: The dancer is showing the woman’s steps. The man will be going in the opposite direction–ie, when the woman goes back (right foot, left, right), the man moves forward (left foot, right, left) and vice versa.

 

Putting It All Together

What happens when two people dance salsa together? Something really cool–if they’re in sync. Of course, there’s more to it than just moving side to side and forward and back. Here’s a video that shows how to do that with two dancers and how to incorporate a simple turn. Start at 1:14 to watch the basic steps and the turn.

Obviously, dancing along with a video is no replacement for the real thing, but it’s a good place to start–especially if you’re not comfortable enough or ready for the real thing. I say–try this out, then go out dancing. Maybe take a class.

Whatever you do, best of luck and happy dancing. It’s truly wonderful to know how to and I hope you love it as much as I do!

 

 

Note: There are several salsa styles to choose from–some of which start on a different beat. It can get complicated and so, I recommend choosing and sticking with one. Here’s a link that might help you decide:

Which Style of Salsa Should You Learn?

Your Experiences

Have you ever tried salsa dancing? If so, how did you do? Have you struggled at all? What’s the hardest part for you?

If you’re experienced at salsa, can you tell us how you got to that point? What are some of your “salsa secrets”? :)

If you’re not a salsa dancer, then what do you like? Merengue? Cumbia? Bachata? Or something entirely different?

*****

Photo credit: Thanks to all of the photographers whose photos I borrowed from Flickr via Creative Commons. To see who took them, click on the photo. The one photo this does not work for is the one of the “handsome Dominican guy.” That was taken by Kulyka whose profile page can be found here. Gracias to everyone!

20 Responses to 6 Salsa Dancing Secrets
  1. Global Traveler
    February 7, 2012 | 4:51 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll need them when I go to Margarita Island.
    Global Traveler recently posted..Top Spring Break DestinationsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      February 8, 2012 | 9:35 am

      You’re very welcome! Have a great time on your trip…

  2. Lindsay Hartfiel
    February 7, 2012 | 5:39 pm

    I love latin music but have a hard time learning how to dance with the beat. I admit that I too often look down at my feet…I think it’s a natural reaction! Have you ever tried Zumba? I absolutely love it!

    • CB Driver
      February 8, 2012 | 9:34 am

      Hi, Lindsay! If you count out the 1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7, it might help. And looking at your feet is natural in the beginning. Eventually, you’ll stop. Meanwhile, Zumba is a great place to start! Although some of the moves are not exactly salsa, the foot work is close. And if you have a Latina teacher, it may be very close to the real thing. I love Zumba!

      Good luck!

  3. Melvin
    February 8, 2012 | 6:34 am

    Out of a joke I was telling my wife that we could do salsa instead of walzer on our wedding… She said yes! :(
    So we had to go for some lessons & I happier driving home then getting there. It’s a fantastic dance, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just not a dance school rocker. I prefer free style rock or electronic. :)
    But we still had some good fun! Maybe I should try to learn salsa in Havana next time? 😉
    Melvin recently posted..Skybar at Intercontinental Marine DriveMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      February 8, 2012 | 9:33 am

      Hi, Melvin. Salsa vs walzer? Good one! Happier driving home than taking lessons–he, he, he! LOL I think your wife must have fallen in love with your sense of humor–it’s great!

      Are you going to Havana? If so, wow–and lucky you! You may notice…the style is a little different than what you learned before. I tried Cuban and was a little confused when we moved beyond the basic steps! In any case, enjoy!

  4. Stephanie - The Travel Chica
    February 8, 2012 | 8:02 am

    Until I took private lessons and met a really good salsa dancer and teacher, I couldn’t dance salsa at all. Once I got it, I absolutely LOVED it! Now it’s been so long, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how :-(
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Tragedy in Torres del Paine: Stories from the ParkMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      February 8, 2012 | 9:30 am

      Hola, Stephanie! Private lessons are the best, I think–especially when one doesn’t take to it right away. There’s something about that moment when you really get it that’s so wonderful. I really get why you love it, too. There’s nothing quite like salsa!! :)

  5. Sky
    February 8, 2012 | 7:05 pm

    Oh, that sounds like so much fun! But I shudder just thinking about what would happen if I tried! I am a horrible dancer in general…but if I get the chance sometime in South America, I think I might have to try, even if it’s just to laugh at my horrible attempts!
    Sky recently posted..The Spanish ChallengeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      February 9, 2012 | 10:17 am

      Hi, Sky. That’s how I felt in the beginning. I was afraid to even try–especially salsa. You could start with merengue and bachata, which are ‘easier’ due to less complex rhythms and footwork (but are still fun). Then, you could enjoy yourself while out and take your time learning salsa behind the scenes.

      And sometimes, laughter is the way to go! Maybe I should add that to the list of tips…”Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself; it’s OK!”

      Gracias for joining the salsa chat!

  6. Gray
    February 8, 2012 | 9:38 pm

    This is very useful information, Lisa. I love salsa music and watching others dance. I took a lesson a few years ago, and I did okay with the steps (not great, but okay), but the turns killed me. I just couldn’t do them without practically falling on my face. I probably gave up too quickly, but I’m not for dancing in public to anything, unless as you say, I’m drunk. :-)
    Gray recently posted..Getting Around BarcelonaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      February 9, 2012 | 10:21 am

      Thanks, Gray! I really tried to make the post a mini lesson. I hope it helps someone, and I do think it might–if they follow the steps and keep the ‘secrets’ in mind–lol.

      You took a lesson? Very nice! I hear you re: the turns. They have been the biggest challenge for me, too. If I dance with someone from Colombia or someone who knows that style, I do well. They seem to set you up for the turn, using their left hand, and then it all falls into place. The 1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7…stays intact somehow. But…and it’s a huge but…with those who have learned other styles, the turn can be an awkward train wreck. That’s how it’s been for me anyway.

      Re: the being drunk part…yeah, I hear you there, too. It can really make a difference… :)

  7. Dena Burroughs
    February 9, 2012 | 2:39 pm

    very cute. I will share with the VidaSalsera.com readers on Facebook.

    • CB Driver
      February 9, 2012 | 10:35 pm

      Thanks so much! Maybe it will help someone who’s struggling! :)

  8. Tangokurs
    February 10, 2012 | 6:36 am

    I Love this article. I grab all the salsa secrets mentioned in this article. I really appreciate the way of expressing the information. I always look for these kind of helpful information.
    Thanks once again !

    • CB Driver
      February 10, 2012 | 10:46 pm

      Thanks–glad it was helpful!

  9. Simona
    November 20, 2013 | 7:16 pm

    the tips are great and I totally relate!

    I’m very lucky to be taking Cuban salsa lessons with a real Cuban salsa teacher who definitely knows what he’s doing! To practice, I go dancing in clubs. I try to dance with everyone, but I feel a little stuck because I notice that beginners are too easy for me and often, the male advanced dancers don’t want to try steps or figures with me because they’ll notice I might make a mistake. It’s humiliating! How do I figure out where I am in the realm of salsa dancing??

    • CB Driver
      November 30, 2013 | 5:51 pm

      Hi, Simon. You’re studying Cuban salsa? Cool. It sounds like you’re suffering from Intermediate Syndrome. :) I think they best thing to do is keep dancing with the advanced dancers (you might get bored with the beginners), but let them know that you only know the basics.

  10. James Bergman
    April 8, 2016 | 9:30 am

    I have taken a couple of ballroom dance classes so that I can dance with my wife. However, I always struggle with not looking at my feet. Honestly, I have gotten in trouble for it in every dance class I have taken. I think the only way to avoid looking down is to practice the steps. Once you know them it is easier not to look, and you can focus on everything else, like the proper tone etc.

  11. Petunia Evans
    May 9, 2016 | 7:03 pm

    I’ve always loved dancing, especially latino dancing. I think it’d be a good idea to practice with a video like you did. I’m really happy that you were able to be shown by a handsome man, hopefully I’ll get the same luxury!

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