"Who should I dance like?"
This question came up over drinks after Toan's Sunday afternoon class, Tagbo asked everyone around the table, who do you have as a role model, who do you aspire to look like, and what would you say to a beginner who asks you who should I dance like. I had been thinking about similar questions for the last two weeks, sparked by comments from friends, and my answer was I don't have a role model any more, and I don't aspire to look like anyone.
I used to, of course. When I started learning, just like my friends, I was looking at how other people do it and who looked good doing it. There was this amazing female follower in the club I started in Nottingham, she looked so elegant and graceful regardless of what she did, the way she moved her arms and using her legs to step and move seamlessly across the floor, I really wanted to look like her, she was my benchmark. Then London, YouTube and congresses happened, and after endless amassed material, I settled on Irene Miguel, Karel Flores from Yamulee and Ahtoy Juliana from Baila Society. Now the people who know me can certify I am a healthy size 14 despite of endless attempts to drop down to the long forgotten 10. To look like Irene it was achievable and it happened, comments from fellow students in class and friends who watched us perform at GBSex verified it, and it took a lot of work. Ahtoy and Karel? ahem, yeah.....nope, it didn't happen. Why not though? Was it the size? Partly yes, Irene was bigger at the time, and bigger bodies move differently, at slower speeds, a fluid quality in movement suits them more and is more achievable. But it was also much more than that, and I had to come into contact with different movement disciplines, pilates, professional dancers, physios and osteopaths and have conversations with them as well as observe dancers move from up close to understand that, in the end it had a lot to do with how bodies are built and not just what they are doing. My injuries and how my body was coping with them, my short arms and wide torso, stiffness and tension, restricted range of movement in many joints at the time, and also the moves the stylists were performing because of their abilities meant that even though I spent a lot of my days training determined to look like the dancers I admired, I was also feeling very frustrated because it wasn't happening as I wanted it to.
In the meantime, I was also taking courses in Contemporary and Tribal Fusion Bellydance, was watching a lot of dance shows from all kinds of dance, and realised that Salsa as I was experiencing it, the things I could do with it and the way I could use it, was satisfying only part of the emotional range I would identify as myself, and Contemporary and Tribal Fusion seem to contribute immensely to filling the gap. After all, I was dancing to express myself, I was raised in Greece and not in the Latin world, not in New York, did not grow up listening to salsa music, and by nature I am very tom-boyish. How could I fit in, really, and be happy about it?
"Today, I fuse my salsa with all these elements I picked up on the way"
In hindsight, there were questions I could have asked that might have helped to approach things differently. What was it I was really looking at when I was looking at those stylists? What was I really attracted to? Why them and not someone else? What was I hoping to achieve by coping them? Would that make me more content as a dancer and if so why? And why did I have to fit in?
Today I fuse my salsa with all these elements I picked up on the way, all the little things that musically and physically make sense to me. I use arm patterns from the stylists I took lessons from, body isolations from Bellydancing, and I play with movement dynamics and gestures as I experienced them in contemporary dance classes and dance shows I've witnessed. I constantly, constantly improvise, constantly try to find different ways to combine steps and body movement as I play with timing, and my most precious dances are with dance partners who respond to what I throw at them and who enjoy the way I respond to what they throw at me. That's when for me it truly becomes a partnership and an exchange, and turns into communication, play, a bit of drama, outside the strictly defined boundaries of what a dance 'should look like'. After all, just like art and music, dance is constantly mutating and evolving because people constantly question, explore and experiment, improvise to discover what they already contain and keep what they feel is best to keep. Would you have it any other way? I certainly wouldn't.
So what would I say to a beginner?
Work on your Fundamentals. You master your fundamentals, when the time comes to add to what you have learned, it will be a piece of cake. Think about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what effect it creates. Experiment with what you're learning at the time - you hear your teacher saying 'freestyle!'? time to explore and play! The more you dance, you move your body, the more you understand how your body moves and what it can do.
The heart of Salsa is in Leading and Following. You need to master it.
Body alignment and conditioning is a massive contributor. A lot of spinning techniques are very heavily depended on body alignment and conditioning. Consider topping up your salsa with a conditioning regime that makes sense to you. I very highly recommend Pilates, it specifically works on posture, alignment, and strength supporting your body from within and it can support ANY movement discipline. There is also yoga, gyrotonics, martial arts, weight training, contemporary, ballet to give a try, different ways of training produce different effects, so do explore and find what suits you best.
"Start watching how different people dance and try to understand what it is you are looking at"
Observe. As you're working on your fundamentals, start watching how different people dance and try to understand what it is you are looking at. What sort of effect are they creating, what do you like about it, how do you feel about it, why do you prefer one of the things they do over the other? This is not to learn to criticise someone else, but to help you understand what you are attracted to, and what, if anything, you would like to add to your dance.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
And enjoy the process.