Salsa Steps


Dance (Photo credit: Nuno Duarte)

It’s been quite a while since my partner and I danced the Salsa. I miss making a fool of myself. My partner had an injury (not inflicted by my two left feet) that made dancing with me even more painful than usual so we’ve had to give it a rest for a few months. But I miss it – the music is so invigorating and the folk at the club so friendly (and forgiving).

But as I’ve been setting about learning lots of new pieces on the kit I realise that Salsa has actually taught me alot about how to learn new things. As I’m working through new songs I find myself going back to the days of Salsa and reflecting on how I went about learning the new steps. It seems to me that there is a strong paralell connecting the two – and any kind of physical learning I suppose.

I’ve tried to work out the stages and thought I’d share them with you, whether you’re a dancer or not, you may find them useful or helpful. I hope so.

Stage One: “Cool! That looks like fun!”

This, folks, is also known as the ‘Era Of Blissful Ignorance.’  In this honeymoon period you have just been introduced to the idea of what you are about to learn. It may be that you have been ‘wowed’ by something you’ve seen or heard (and so this stage may also be known as the ‘How on Earth Did They Do That?’ phase.) But, bless you, in your enthusiasm you see this as something that can be easily mastered, if you just learn the steps, or licks, or chops or whatever.

This is especially dangerous, because if the person you have been enthused by is any good at all, they would have made the whole thing look seriously relaxed, easy and natural, which is partly what draws you in.

In Drumspeak: “How hard can it be? You’re just hitting things after all.”

But beware, for next comes…

Stage Two: “What the Hell Is This?”

The ‘This’ in the title refers to you. Or your body. Your feet. Your hands. ‘What is it doing?’ ‘It’s not supposed to do that!’ ‘Why won’t it just do that?!’ All these utterances come about because you’ve just had your first go at actually recreating or following the instructions you’ve been given. But something strange has happened to your body, and, like a computer when you’re in a hurry, it’s response is sluggish and random. A common thought at this point is “I’m completely lost.” Followed by “I’m still completely lost,” and “Where the hell am I?” Patience. The shock of this stage is a way of preparing you for the next level, so don’t give up!

In Drumspeak: (Note left by neighbour, nailed to your cat and signed in blood) STop wiTh tHe bLoody nOise alrEaDy

Stage Three: “How On Earth Am I Supposed To?”

From those first hesitant, crazily wild and completely unexplainable movements you will, if you keep going, begin to recognise a little of the basic structure. In Salsa, you may find you begin to see certain moves reappear. When learning a new drum part this is when I begin to get an idea of the basic structure of a song/ piece, even though I still feel hopelessly lost when I pick up sticks to play it. This stage brings with it a modicum of progress. It’s no longer random flailing around – it’s just slightly structured epilepsy.

In Drumspeak: All quiet because you’re listening and playing very carefully. (And you’re scared of your neighbour.)

Next comes the hard part…and one of the most rewarding.

Stage Four: “So This Goes There and That…Hey, Just What is That?”

This is where I am grateful for all those patient people at Salsa who never tired of being helpful. (Or at least, never showed their irritation at my request to “Show me again.”) By a combination of looking and listening really carefully you can begin to see how things are done. This stage can be quite exciting and really builds your confidence. In both arenas it is also about working out exactly which bit of your body does what and where and for how long. It can be a good idea to slow things down and take each move one step (boom boom) at a time. However you do it, you’re sure to use brain and body in some new way.

In Drumspeak: I still remember the elation when someone explained to me that in a basic single stroke roll – RLRLRLRL – If you put a triplet in there it will end on the other hand – so RLR – LRLRL – Very useful when you wonder why your hand cannot find the cymbal at the end of a fill.

WARNING: This stage often results in compulsive behaviour. For my poor family this was the CONSTANT TAPPING that drove them crazy. (Sorry folks.)For me, I just had to nail that fill or chop.

There’s still a long way to go, your moves are, well, clanky and awkward would be being kind, but there is some structure to what you are doing.

Stage Five: “Sorry, What Did You Say Dear?”

This is the where the real hard work comes in – and, some would say – where we seperate the ‘maybe’s’ from the ‘will be’s’ – the practice stage. Now you know what it is you are working for but it’s off in the distance. And I’m afraid the only way to get nearer to it is…practice. Over and over again. It makes no matter how gifted you are (see stage 6) you won’t get anywhere without this pesky stage. For those of us who really enjoy what we are doing (aka obsessive compulsives) this is our world. This is where we push our own boundaries, make mistakes and pick ourselves up and try again. And again. And again. And again. So much so that those around us may feel we are a little…um…preoccupied…sorry…you were saying?

(Yes, that old saying about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration is true.)

In Drumspeak: This is where it gets really interesting. You’ve got rolls. You’ve got paradiddles, double paradiddles, split sticking, time changes, quadruplets….if only you had more time! (And hey, if you put in two triplets you can get back to the hand you startd on – RLR LRL R…are you tapping yet?)

Stage Six: “Oh Yeah Baby!”

Although by no means a mean dancer I must confess I was very encouraged when the Salsa teacher invited me to join the ‘Finishing Class.’ This was where we would learn, to coin her phrase to ‘Put some moves on.’ In other words I knew the basic parts, but needed some help in actually presenting the steps in a relaxed and confident manner. Now this is where real talent comes to the fore. I’ll be honest. There were men there who had started with me but who, once they’d learnt what I had learnt, managed to turn the moves into something really special.

There’s no right or wrong, but at this stage of the game (or dance, or piece) it’s up to you to make it your own. Be yourself. Play it or dance it with all you’ve got, and let your own voice come out. Don’t be satisfied with sounding or dancing like someone else. Be yourself. And be proud of the journey you’ve made.

In Drumspeak: It’s all about the feel. Chops and fills are nice, but without a feel, you’re sunk. (Now make those triplets groove!)

And who knows, maybe someone will be watching you and will think “Cool! That Looks Fun!”


About Stuart Dyer

Stuart Dyer, Christian Writer and Musician living in West Sussex, England. Works in the hope of producing the worthy novel or solo; giggles at Oliver Hardy, Peter Sellers and Spike Jones; admires Hudson Taylor, Dickens, Salinger, Bill Bailey and Neil Peart; listens from Wagner to Miles with lots of stops in between; dances to motown and aims to achieve balance in all things.
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