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MUSIC CONNECTION 101 (for Salseros)

 

By Maya, Return to SalsaCrazy.Com Features

You don't need to be a choreographer to express your passion for music in your dancing. This unique on-line workshop, first of its kind, presented by a Bay Area jazz singer, pianist and an avid salsera, Maya Salsaloca, is a unique attempt to introduce musicality to social salsa dancing.

 

MUSIC CONNECTION 101

(for Salseros)


 

What do you think that is? I've tried to raise the subject on several occasions, but was stonewalled every time. Some time ago, my comment on a salsa discussion list comparing swing and salsa dancers (many swingers being masters of music connection) produced a volcanic debate touching on everything from dancing on 1 or 2 to personal attacks. Only a few replies actually commented on the topic I raised. Since then I mentioned it again in several articles and reviews.  Salsafix.com even quoted 2 paragraphs on the subject from my review of the SF Salsa Congress asking readers for comments. Again, nothing. Someone once mentioned people don't understand what I mean. So here is a detailed explanation.

 

Lisa King in her great article on leading and following (located here, on SalsaCrazy.com) listed 5 levels of accomplishment for dancers. Here are the top three:

 

"3. Transition when the music does, e.g., Hit the breaks, react to tempo changes, nail the last note of the song, etc.

4. Interpret the melody and/or lyrics with your spontaneous choreography.

5. Achieve that rare Zen state, where after the dance you will honestly be able to say "The music MADE me do it."

 

Could not have said it better myself. Finally, my own aspirations were validated. Juan Matos and Ismael Otero knew what I was talking about and their answer was quoted in my San Francisco Congress review (SaborMagazine.com and ToSalsa.com). Those Bay Area salseros who saw a solo performance by Felipe Polanco at the Metronome Ballroom some time ago witnessed the ultimate music connection: Felipe danced out almost every note in a Tito Puente arrangement. So far I don't know anybody in the SF salsa community who teaches music connection nor do I see many salseros responding to music on the dance floor.

 

My own attempts at improvisation are not always welcomed (some leaders prefer you do what you're "told" - nothing more, nothing less). We all like watching well choreographed performances with music breaks accentuated by "corresponding" dance steps. Impossible on the dance floor?  So I thought until I saw occasional top-notch salseros and many swing dancers. If they can do it so can we. How?

 

Before you read on, you should decide how important the music is for you, because it "ain't gonna happen overnight". If you want to achieve that euphoric level of unity with the music and feel like your body is just another instrument in the orquestra, go ahead and try. I don't guarantee  success, after all, this is my first attempt to bring you this free on-line  workshop. Most likely, practical face-to-face will be needed. But if any of these suggestions prove to be useful, I won't regret the time spent writing it, even if only to make you think about it, listen closely to the music and try.

 

The 3 most important rules for developing music connection:

1. Listen!

2. Listen!!

3. Listen!!!

 

If you have hard time finding the beat (don't try locating 2 until you're sure of 1) - listen! Listen to salsa 24 hours a day, get used to the music. It'll help even if you go about your day without paying too much attention to it. And try using this trick: instead of counting the dancers' count 1 to 8, count the music beat 1 to 4. That way, once you found 1, you'll always know where the second beat is. (Basic salsa patterns take 8 beats or 2 music bars to complete so dance instruction is based on 8 counts). Don't worry about clave for now. A lot of dancers do a great job without even knowing what it is.

 

Evan the SalsaCrazy (of SalsaCrazy.com fame), a reborn salsa instructor, suggests the following exercises to familiarize yourself with salsa beats and achieve the non-counting level of dancing: "Start counting out 1-8 during 2 measures of salsa music. 1) Step in place on all 8 counts, 2) Hold 8 counts, do basic, hold 8, do basic, 3) Step once every two beats. Same thing while doing a slow turn (8 beat-turn), using other parts of your body to accentuate other instruments - beyond the 8 beats. 4) Try doing the basic on 1, then on 2, then on 3, then on 4, etc . . ."

 

Get used to finding beats other than 1 (assuming you already hit one with your ears closed). Again, if you have trouble with 8 counts, try 4 instead. Once you're comfortable with counts, you can start paying attention to breaks. Do you get confused and lose count when the band stops for a second or two? Or when there is a solo without a pronounced beat? No sweat. Just remember that musicians cannot disrupt the beat - solo or no solo, if you keep dancing and counting you'll see that the music will catch up with you (provided you didn't lose the beat) Better yet, use that break, you don't have to dance continuously, you can always pick up the beat when the music returns. Practice the breaks before going further. Choose a song with a lot of "interruptions" or breaks (Tito Puente and many other instrumentalists have a wide variety of interesting arrangements, but even your favorite non-jazzy songs might have plenty of opportunities for play) Listen to the tune and memorize where the accents are. Try clapping them out first with the musicians, then start dancing and hit the breaks with a pattern you learn, your own personalized footwork or a body move. Make sure your moves CORRESPOND to the music as if you're playing that break with your feet or your body. Repeat many times and vary your creations. Catching all the breaks you want?

 

Now you can start listening to actual musical arrangements. Listen to what various instruments do, try to discern different band sections and instruments - horns, drums, percussions, piano, flute etc. Try following one instrument at a time, it's easier when it's playing a solo. With practice you'll be able to hear the instrument you want even when it's in the background, but not always. Don't get discouraged, you can hit only the most prominent sounds and everybody will be at awe watching you. Again the 3 basic rules apply before you go on.

 

Now that you're so attuned to the music, you feel your body is ready to play, load all the steps you learned or created in the "computer" on top of your shoulders and pull out one at a time. Turn the music on. First, a song that you know inside out, that you listened to so many times you can almost "play" every instrument in it. Here's a fast drum beat. What step in your repertoire matches this sound? Probably some footwork that reflects every beat (if you can pull it off) or every second beat. Here's a long lazy note or cord. That's probably a good time to relax and do a fancy stretch or dip. Use your imagination, if you don't have anything in your repertoire of moves that feels right for the music at hand, create something. You can practice at home if you're too shy on the dance floor. At first, when you start reflecting the music on the dance floor it'll be with tunes you know very well. But with time and practice you'll be able to do it even with unfamiliar songs - music arrangements have so many repetitions.

 

Another quote from Evan: "With enough listening, you can guess the arrangements in salsa music that are coming next. This is a hit and miss proposition, sometimes you'll be right on with a "hit", sometimes you'll expect something in the music that doesn't come to pass - that's part of the fun! The best, most playful people, have an understanding of the music beyond just knowing some specific song, but like in swing, they understand the arrangements, and how the typical songs progress. Heart, fun, passion - that's what's so fun about the music and the dance,  which is why, regardless of how technical salsa dancing becomes, it will always be a social dance for me. To get the most out of it, you have to let go, and let the music take you where it will!"

 

Yes, LETTING GO is a necessity for many salseros striving for perfection.. The important thing to remember is that everybody feels the music differently and there's no right or wrong move here. However, when you and your partner are well attuned to the music, you'll find that your responses coincide most of the times and that's the ultimate thrill. A word of caution to the followers. Salsa is a restrictive dance. Unlike many free swing steps allowing partners to do their own thing, salsa moves do not provide a lot of opportunities for followers to improvise. Does it mean you do your own thing if you want to? Sure, if you never want to dance with that guy again. I hate to say this, but partner connection is more important  than music connection. You do not break his lead even if he doesn't follow the music accents. However, you can do your own thing within the limits of his patterns. The basic step doesn't always have to be the basic step, you can vary it and still follow; your styling can often reflect those music accents you just cannot miss. A head turn, a shoulder lift, a hip wave etc.  done to the music can be very impressive regardless of their simplicity.

 

Leaders are in control of the dance, so they can express themselves freely: catch breaks, play with music accents etc. Leaders should not be afraid to express themselves even if the follower is not responding in kind. Given enough opportunities and practice, she will catch up and do her thing. This is an equal opportunity: if both leaders and followers work on their musicality we will all advance in our enjoyment of salsa. Even your taste in music might change. You will be eager to dance to tunes with interesting arrangements providing you with ample opportunities "to play along".

 

I know, I know, a lot of salseros will be intimidated even to try. But as this trend gradually spreads, most, if not all, of us will jump on the bandwagon and let our creativity loose just like we do with our intricate "arm-twisting" patterns. The beauty of the music connection is that the moves don't have to be complicated, even a wink might do, as long as they are  done to the music.

 

Please, remember, this short article only scratches the surface. It's impossible to follow every necessary step in its natural progression and foresee the problems that may arise. Your feedback will show if a face-to-face workshop is needed or desired. Shall we dance?

 

Maya/Salsaloca

 

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