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A Guide for Salsa Competitors
12-22-2002 - By
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Many salsa dancers
decide to take their dancing to the next level by entering competitions. Some
do it for fun, others for promotion, and still others for profit. Whatever your
motivation, competing in salsa contests can be a rewarding and worthwhile
experience. But before you sign up for the next competition, here are some
things to consider.
1) Your purpose:
Why do you want to compete? If you’re not sure, let me suggest some reasons.
First of all, it’s fun. There’s nothing like the exhilaration of having all
eyes on you as you strut your salsa stuff. But even more than that, it’s
rewarding. You will improve your dancing by having a goal that motivates you to
work on your choreography, partnering and performance ability. It can also be
financially rewarding if you win. But even more valuable than the prize money,
are the recognition and credibility that may result. If you are thinking of
beginning or furthering a salsa “career,” it is crucial that you become known in
the salsa scene. Competing can do just that for you. Think of all the
well-known dancers in the West Coast salsa scene: Joby and Luis Vazquez,
Gabriel Romero, Josie Neglia, Alex da Silva, etc. They all competed at one time
or another, establishing themselves as performers and instructors. But once you
have established yourself, you may not want to compete anymore. While it can’t
hurt you to do poorly in a competition if you’re just starting out, it can
tarnish your already established reputation if you compete and don’t do well.
2) Your partner:
If you already have a set partner, decide together if you want to compete. It
is important that you both have the same purpose in mind and are willing to put
in the same amount of effort. Taking a competition seriously requires hours of
preparation and practice. It is frustrating to one partner if the other is not
as committed. If you don’t yet have a partner, try to find someone who
complements your level and style. You should choose someone who you can get
along with. You should be at a comparable ability level. It’s OK if one of you
is “better” or more experienced than the other, but it shouldn’t be glaringly
unbalanced. In terms of style, it’s fine if one of you is “flashier” than the
other, for instance, as long as you feel a good connection.
3) Music: Some
competitions have qualifying rounds where you must dance to music chosen by
someone else, but most finals allow you to choose your own music. Choose
something you like. While the spectators may enjoy a familiar song, judges
might be put off by songs that are “overused” in routines. Also, pick something
that you can dance to. If the music is too fast for the complicated moves you
would like to execute, it just won’t work. You may want to cut together more
than one piece of music. Software to cut music, like “Sound Forge” is
affordable and user-friendly and there are other software programs that allow
you to slow down or speed up music and add special effects. Many DJs know how
to do these things if you don’t want to try it on your own. Your routine should
be between 2 and 3 minutes long. That’s just enough time to do what you need to
do without getting boring.
Work with the music. Try to choreograph moves that hit the breaks in the
music. Weave a combination of partnering patterns, footwork sections and a few
tricks. You may choose to insert some sort of “acting,” especially if you
choose a theme. Ronnie and Dinorah of Los Rumberos have had a lot of success
using themes in competitions. They have used “The Matrix,” “Zorro,” and even
Elvis as themes. Their choreography always weaves in some acting and moves
related to the theme. You may even choose to use props. However a theme is not
necessary. It is important, however, that your choreography be varied and
dynamic. Be sure to include plenty of styling and engagement with the audience
and judges. You can come up with your own choreography, enlist the assistance
of someone more experienced or get ideas from watching others. Be careful not
to copy someone’s choreography, measure for measure, without permission. This
is illegal and unethical. And while no one holds the copyright on the cross
body lead, you don’t want to have the reputation of “stealing” other people’s
moves. My best success has come from creating moves out of “mistakes” and
creating “variations” of moves I’ve seen in other routines.
5) Timing, timing,
timing: Work on your timing. While it may not seem like a big deal to the
average spectator, timing has become the most important category for judges.
Some competitions weigh timing more than any other category. Whether you are
dancing on the “1” or the “2,” make sure you stay on beat throughout your
routine. There have been many times that I’ve heard people wonder aloud why a
certain couple didn’t qualify in a competition even though they were real crowd
pleasures. Usually, it’s because they had poor timing. If you haven’t been
trained, or are not sure about your timing, consult with a professional dance
6) Clean up your
routine: While I myself have been guilty of finishing up the choreography on
the same day of a competition, it is best if you have plenty of time to practice
once you put a routine together. This will also give you time to work out the
kinks and make any necessary changes and improvements. Doing full out
run-throughs will also help you build up your endurance. The trick is to have a
difficult routine, but make it look easy. You also want to have the
choreography so well memorized that you can do it without thinking, especially
if you get nervous when performing. You also want to be prepared for what to do
if one or both of you makes a mistake while performing. Practice will help you
be ready to “jump back in” if you “mess up.”
7) Work on your
presentation: Your presentation and showmanship can make or break even a great
routine. Remember that you are dancing for someone else. Smile. Exude
confidence. Be sexy. If you act like you look good, people will believe you.
Practice in front of a mirror. Video-tape yourselves and practice in front of a
live audience. Don’t be afraid to make eye contact with your partner and with
the audience and judges.
8) Get feedback:
Find some experienced dancers to give you feedback on all aspects of your
dancing and your routine. If you’re really serious, it’s worth it to pay an
instructor to “coach” you. Many successful competitors have worked with a pro
for help with choreography, presentation and technique. It is best to choose
someone who you have already taken lessons from and whose style you admire.
This is a topic not to be ignored. While your dancing is more important than
what you’re wearing, your physical appearance will affect how you’re judged,
even if it is only subconsciously. We all dress up for interviews and important
occasions. A competition should not be an exception. You don’t need to invest
a lot of money in costumes, but you should carefully consider what you’ll wear.
If you have a theme, your costume choice will be more obvious. If you don’t
have a theme, choose something that is both flattering and practical. You don’t
need to have matching outfits, but the colors and styles should complement each
other. Choose your outfits and shoes wisely, especially if you’re doing tricks
and moves that require a lot of flexibility in movement. It is imperative that
you practice in your costume to be sure that it won’t inhibit your dancing.
There’s nothing worse than watching a woman continually tugging to pull down her
dress or continuously adjusting a loose shoulder strap. Don’t forget about
hair, make-up and jewelry. Women should wear their hair in a style that holds
through all the spins and tricks and doesn’t whip the man in the face. Jewelry
should not interfere with the dancing: nothing on the hands and wrists and no
hoop earrings that can get caught and pulled out (it’s happened to me). Make-up
should be heavier than normal, but not gaudy.
competition: Find out as much as you can about the particular competition.
Find out what the specific requirements are and how you’ll be judged. Some
competitions require that you pre-qualify or sign up in advance. Most
competitions have a website where you can get all the information. If not,
investigate. Try to familiarize yourself with the floor you’ll be dancing on.
Don’t over-practice on the day of the competition, but make sure you’ve warmed
up and stretched. Be on time and check in with the person in charge. You may
choose to come in your costume or change at the last minute. Don’t let yourself
become un-nerved by the other competitors. Try to exude confidence, but be
careful not to come across as cocky. Be friendly with everyone. Most of all,
remember to have fun. Be proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished, even
if you don’t win. Forgive yourself and your partner for any mistakes, and don’t
be discouraged. Very few dancers are finalists in their first competition.
Learn from the experience and try to reflect and improve for the next time
About the author:
Stephanie Palmeri is the assistant director of Son Bravisimo of Salsa Brava
Productions. Check out the website at
http://www.sonbravisimo.com . She and her dance partner, Danny Zepeda, have
been performing, competing and choreographing together for almost three years.
They have also judged amateur and professional salsa competitions. They
currently teach all levels of salsa dancing at the Mexican Heritage Plaza and
Club Miami, both in San Jose. Stephanie is a regular feature contributor for
the Salsacrazy website. Contact her at (408) 806-0787 or
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