After working on the tango, my partner and I decided to try our toes at salsa. Like the sauce, salsa is red-hot and spicy, a mélange of quick twists and turns, hips and hands. It’s fun and flirtatious, but even after a couple months of practice, I still haven’t gotten the Cuban motion, the foundational movement and feel of salsa, right.
Here, at least in theory, is how to do the basic figure:
Start with your feet together, toes pointing slightly outward. For followers: Step back with your right foot, step in place with your left, then step forward with your right foot, returning to where you started. After that, step forward with your left foot, step in place with your right, and finally, return your left foot to where you started. Got it? Leaders, you just do the natural opposite—step forward first with your left, then backwards with your right.
Knowing when and where to place your feet is one thing, but stepping the right way—with Cuban motion—is another. I’ve been told it’s all in the knees: if you bend one knee and dig your opposite heel into the ground, the hip connected to the digging heel will pop. Keep this up by alternatively bending each knee and digging in each opposite heel, and you’ll have your derrière swaying nicely in no time. To turn this into dancing, the leaders have to keep in time with the music, which is too quick to think of anything but the next step, and the followers have to keep up with their leader’s wordless cues to spin or crossover or whatever.
Salsa doesn’t only focus on what goes on from the waist down, though. To prevent yourself from looking like a hardly-enthused rag doll, you should style when one or both hands are free. (This is especially important for the followers, who, I’ve been told, are the pictures to their leaders’ frames. The dance tends to feature them, so they have to look as good as possible.) If you have the space, you can shoot your arm up or out, fingers fanned and taut. Or play with your hair. (Which doesn’t look as dumb as it sounds.) Or swish your skirt—A LOT—if you’re wearing one. And, if you’re a leader, you’d better learn to shimmy.
You have to use your whole body when you salsa: heels and hips, knees and updos, eyes and fingertips. Dance from the inside out, wearing your heart on your sleeve (or skirt). Followers, captivate your leaders’ attentions. Highlight yourselves—curves, legs, hands. Leaders, show your followers that you want to dance with them. All of this is hard for me because the only part of myself I’m really comfortable using is my head. I don’t like letting go, letting my feet and fingers do the thinking for me. It’s awkward, and I’m self-conscious: am I doing it right? Do I look, ok?
Yet, salsa seduces me. When the music comes on and my partner pulls me onto the dance floor, my world is suddenly all open-breaks, windmill turns, and peek-a-boos, perfectly timed. If I’m feeling brave, I’ll add a flourish or two, especially if we’re dancing a familiar routine; the arm-styling frees me from my habitual reservation. In that moment, I get to be someone I’m usually not and revel in a world I hesitate to enter. Salsa fosters a Sabrina I want to be more like—one who lives in her body, who cares less what other people think, who focuses on the present, and who enters a dance with trust and confidence, tuned to cues that only let her see a half-step in advance.
Photo credit Will Caldwell
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.