A Mental Model For Learning Salsa

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Have you ever heard the term “mental model”? A mental model is any concept used to understand the world around you.

One example is the Navy SEALs “40 Percent Rule”. When your mind is saying you’re done (in a race, project, etc) you’re actually only 40% done. Ever run a marathon? You hit a wall at mile 6 but somehow keep going. How is that possible? 40 percent rule.

Mental models exist for every discipline. They help you to do more, faster. One of my favorite mental models for salsa dancing is Salsa Hell. Salsa Hell explains why leaders are more likely than followers to quit dancing. It also explains why new followers prefer more experienced leaders.

I’ve created a mental model of my own based upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My model which I’m coining the “Salsa Growth Pyramid” explains the progression of macro skills one must learn to become a great salsa dancer.

Salsa Growth Pyramid

When I learned to dance, I was drowning in information. Timing, music, steps, tension, patterns, body language, shines, etc. I didn’t understand where the dependencies existed and which elements to tackle first.

With 7 years of dancing and instruction under my belt, I’ve got some perspective on how students learn. Learning is a progression up the pyramid. You may go back and forth between levels, however it is impossible to reach a high level of performance on any given level without reaching a high level of performance on all preceding levels.

 

Beat identification

Salseros dance to, wait for it…salsa music! Everything starts with understanding where the counts and beats hide within a salsa track. This is where most of my students struggle. It’s called ‘salsa’ for a reason. There are lots of instruments and vocals playing at once. It is a challenge to pick out the ‘1’ count. But without this skill, you can’t do anything else.

 

Basic shines

After consistently identifying the beat, work to connect mind and body. As a leader, when the mind identifies the ‘1’, the body needs to step forward with the left foot (assuming you are dancing LA style). The basic step, right turn, left turn and suzie q are examples of basic shines that reinforce mind body connection.

 

Turn Patterns

Those who dance alone are not salseros. Turn patterns introduce the 3rd level of progression. The beat, the steps, the partner. Turn patterns do not just map new footwork to music on the correct counts. Leaders and followers must interact and communicate physically through their bodies and non-verbal cues. Communication is critical for providing the correct lead strength and tension.

 

Social Dancing

This is the critical step. Because honestly, what is the point of all this practice if you don’t social dance? We all know those students who look great in class and lost in social dancing. To be an effective social dancer, a follower must learn not to backlead and a leader must learn to gauge the follower’s skill and comfort level.

The leader should progressively increase the difficulty of his patterns, paying attention to the follower’s execution and facial cues. If she’s obviously uncomfortable while doing a single outside turn, don’t do a double spin! As a follower, you have to react, not act. This is to say, don’t backlead by assuming you know what your leader will do. Respond to their lead.

Bad social dancers (men and women) also lack ‘court awareness’. They take big steps, flail their arms and dance in lines from every angle. The result is plenty of mid-dance collisions and unhappy toes.

 

Musicality

The holy grail of salsa dancing is musicality. This is when a dancer expresses themselves and the music through dance, and enables their partner to do the same. It’s tough to get here consistently. I can’t do it yet but there are skills to get there.

Body isolation puts  dancers in fine tune control of their body movements. It gives them a larger toolbox of movements to express themselves. Improvisation based on active listening leaves dancers open to suggestions made by the music.

By listening to the music, I mean the vocals, too. If you don’t speak Spanish, you are missing out on a huge part of the meaning behind the music. Now is a great time to hop on DuoLingo 🙂

 

At every level of the pyramid, feedback loops are critical. You should be asking dance partners and instructors for honest feedback. Each round of feedback pushes you closer towards leveling up.

Speaking of leveling up, when do you know that you are ready for the next level? As a teacher, I see students all the time who want to stay in lower level classes longer than they should. They don’t want to step into the more advanced techniques for fear of looking stupid. But that is the only way to grow as a dancer.

The same goes for the Salsa Growth Pyramid. You will never feel completely comfortable with any level until you move onto the next. By trying to pick up the beat (level 1) while dancing the basic step (level 2), the mind uses your beat knowledge in a new context. It moves a dancer from conceptually understanding “I have to step on this beat” to “I stepped on this beat” and that is a big step (pun intended).

As a rule of thumb, when you feel 75% comfortable with the current level, begin moving up to the next level. If you goof up then revisit the material in a lower level context. In our previous example, if you have trouble stepping to the beat then go back and listen to more music and identify more beats. Then get right back to practicing your basic step!

I hope you find this mental model helpful. I would love to hear your feedback and ideas for improvement on this, so don’t be shy 🙂

11 Comments

  • David Sander says:

    One of the things my teachers seemed to miss was that I learned gradually. I would take a basic movement and then improve it through practice. So I progressed at multiple points which is not well understood when the instructor wants you to address a particular fault. So advancement is dependent on physical skill development along a number of paths and the whole makes one able to dance at a higher level. One is movement coordination we don’t normally learn in sedentary life, another is precision of movement, good movement timing ad the ability to start and stop movements. This last skill is often lacking in performance trained dancers because they focus on making large, elegant movements that look good to viewers. Social dance requires well timed, communicative movements, being done for the pleasure of the two dancers and it is not intended to be seen artistically by others. You also need social dancing experience to be able to connect together a variety of movements that can then be improvised to suit the follow and situation. You might get the best out of two different follows but dance completely different dances with each one.
    Probably the best long term teacher is your own motivation for dance.

  • DancerInLearning says:

    Your breakdown of the individual skills is interesting but I do not fully agree, I am missing some elements.

    Also, there is a discrepancy in the order in which these skills are taught and in which they should be learned. Another aspect is that leads and follows has slightly different needs for skillsets.

    Laura Riva has another breakdown at The Dancing Grapevine for leads (http://grapevine.dzouk.com/basics-vs-creative-complexity-what-follows-really-mean/) and follows (http://grapevine.dzouk.com/super-glamorous-or-super-connected-what-do-leads-really-want-from-a-dance/) that I like.

    I like the emphasis on connection as the base in a partner dance. If you don’t have connection you cannot lead and follow, respectively. In essence making it a awkward solo performance with two people holding hands. After this you need to know the basics of the dance. If you don’t do salsa steps to salsa music, you are not dancing salsa. A very simple fact.

    After that it differs between leads and follows. Ms Rivas breakdown is in my opinion good since it gives you a sense of what you should master before the next level can be built on a solid foundation. Skip something and you will have a shaky build.

    Of course, this is not the order in which dance is taught. As a teacher you have to get people started to discover the joy of dance and the students do not really know what would be best for them, but they still have demands. So often they learn basics first, then connection, then cool moves/patterns and musicality often later when they discover that there is more to the dancing than just doing stuff to the beat.

    In fairness, you have listed beat detection as the fundamental step, something missing from her model. And I do agree that if you are not dancing to the beat, it makes everything so much harder and less enjoyable.

    As for social dancing, it is something that can be done on many levels and IMHO should be started as soon as possible, but at the level where you currently are. At classes where you are taught new patterns, the follows risk dancing to a choreography, not following a lead. So it is only in social dancing where you can hone your skills in leading since the follow cannot expect you to do exactly what the teacher told you to, and the follow polish the skills to follow, if the lead is leading 🙂

    Often I think beginners are too afraid to dance socially, they think they are not good enough. But I think everyone is good enough, they just have to dance at their level and be comfortable with staying there for a while.

    • Rob Castellucci says:

      Thanks for the thorough feedback! Consider this a V1 and still refining a lot of my thinking on this. To address your specific points:

      Should have clarified that this model was not meant to be the order in which teachers should teach, but the order in which students should become 100% confident in each skill. I think instructors can modify their teaching but realistically you can’t teach an introductory class exclusively on music and the beat and expect many students to return. So you are going to be thrown into level 2 and level 3 in class 1 before you are confident in beat identification. My point is that it’s impossible to be 100% proficient in basic shines or patterns into you are 100% proficient with beat identification.

      You are right, leads and follows are different. This model is rather general and I should go deeper with separate approaches for each.

      Very interesting read from Laura. I like her thinking. Am I correct that her list is what she and other follows prefer in a lead as opposed to what a lead should learn first? There is overlap here of course. But I don’t see connection as being the first step in learning salsa. Like the old saying goes “To love someone else, you have to learn to love yourself first” 😉 What I mean by this is if I can’t dance by myself effectively first (beat recognition & basic shines), I have no hope of meaningful connection with someone else. There’s room for debate here of course, but that’s my belief.

      As a teacher, I grapple with a question. Do I teach someone in a method that will get them to the top the fastest or to a level where they are “hooked” the fastest? The answer to this question will inform your teaching style. For me, it’s all about getting them to that hook point with my beginners. I believe motivation trumps knowledge.

      I completely agree on the social dancing. Getting them started as soon as possible AT THEIR SKILL LEVEL is important. But like throwing a 4 year old in a pool when he can’t swim, throwing a student into an uncomfortable social dancing situation too early will make them terrified of dancing and never come back. Gotta put them in the right context, at the start that means right before/after class when it’s obvious we are in a teaching/learning mode.

  • Bazz says:

    Your break down would be the hierarchy of how people struggle to learn dance. Also basic shine should be replaced with core movements. As you can be a great social dancer without even caring about shines.
    But if you replaced the words dance with LA salsa then the hierarchy I guess would fit better as LA focuses more on performance (shines) than they do social.

    This hierarchy also doesn’t apply to other dance styles and is not the order if you want to optimise and speed your learning.

    Instead just the order most people focus on when they learn which is why it takes so long.

    • Rob Castellucci says:

      I agree you can be a great social dancer without even caring about shines. However watching thousands of salsa dancers, I have never seen a competent social dancer who doesn’t know how to perform these basic shines.

      Can you give some examples of core movements? I’m not crazy about the term ‘basic shines’. I’m trying to say the footwork done in time with the music without your partner, but not to the level of advanced shines. This is to prove that you can connect mind and body (before introducing another body).

      What’s the order to optimize for speed in learning?

  • Derek says:

    Miss your podcast… all time great salsa analysis

    • Rob Castellucci says:

      Thanks, Derek. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back on it someday 🙂 In the meantime, just posted a new episode there done by one of the LDC contributors if you want to check it out!

  • DancerInLearning says:

    As you pointed out there are many types of models, these are just the ones of the top of my head.

    1 – In what order to teach a dance.
    2 – In what order it would be best to build someone elses dance competence.
    3 – In what order you should build someone elses dance confidence so that they keep dancing. (This is what I imagine your model is about)
    4 – In what order you need to aquire skills to be appreciated as a good lead/follow. (More what Laura Rivas model is about)

    And you are completely correct, most of these models differ slightly between follows and leads, this is the cause of “Salsa hell”, and the continued root of the gender imbalance in dance. It might be so that ladies are mostly follows and begin to dance in greater numbers, but the discrepancy can make leads drop out in greater numbers, increasing the difference.

    Also, not one model works with all dances equally well. Shines for example might be non-existent in some dances.

    Another aspect is that some skills are not as level dependent as others. Shines and turn patterns for example exist on many different difficulty levels, whereas beat detection, musicality and social dancing skills (for example connection, how to behave etc) are less tied to a dancers level and more generic.

    So another model would be to layer different difficulty levels and interleave shines and turnpatterns. You don’t learn to do ALL the shine patterns in the world before you go on to learning ALL the turn patterns in the world before trying to master musicality. But it is a hard nut to crack. These skills are interdependent and how do you elevate them all at once so that a dancer at a certain level have a good enough balance to be confident enough to be able to dance and not quit?

    Yet another aspect is what the model is supposed to achieve. Are you training someone to be a show dancer, a social dancer, a choreographer, etc? In my world view all generic dance teaching should be focused on social dance. By building a solid community of social dancers other will find fertile ground to explore their paths. But if you only focus on for example teaching dancers to perform, you will most likely have a small group of people performing shows for themselves. Some might not agree with my view, but I think of couples dances as a social activity. I know that some people like to put on music and dance around by themselves in their home. For me, this is ok, but do you really need to take classes to do that? For me classes are there to serve the need for you to be able to confidently dance socially.

    I completely agree with your tough question; optimize the path to mastery or get them hooked as soon as possible. And in my eyes there is no question about it, get them hooked. This is what made me choose between two rivaling dance schools, one that is all about having fun and one that has a bit more elitist touch (“this is where you learn to DANCE properly, unlike those other schools”). You can either look at this from a purely economic viewpoint, as a teacher you need to get a lot of beginners to like the dance to be able to teach higher levels. If they don’t get hooked, you can find yourself in a situation where you have exhausted all available beginners and no one continues.

    From my (non-teaching) standpoint, a dance community needs to have a critical mass to be viable. Beginners make up the base of that dance community. So I, as a more experienced dancer, see it as my responsibility to make beginners feel welcome. I can do this as a taxi dancer at social events, making sure that they don’t sit watching all night never getting to dance, or I can volunteer as a support dancer at classes so they feel that they don’t have to wait to long before the next rotation and also get to experience how it can feel to dance with someone that has mastered that particular level, encouraging them to continue to dance. Unless the community is thriving, we wont get good teachers traveling here and it might fade out.

    As for finding the right context to allow them to dance socially, having socials after a class is great. But even purely social events can work out if they have a inclusive and forgiving atmosphere. A friend of mind had a vision to create such an event and for half a year now I have been helping him organize it. In this event lots of beginners attend, far more than other similar events. Yet, the more advanced dancers come too, so it is not a beginners-only-event, but rather an all-levels-event, that is very appreciated. I think one key aspect is that he has tied a number of more experienced dancers to him that help out and share his vision. They are not condescending when someone isn’t “good enough”, but instead supportive and encouraging. Finding these “good ambassadors” for a dance will really help.

    Sorry for digressing a bit. I do want to emphasize connection though. When I cracked the code on connection, it was like I was seeing the real world for the first time. Of course, I still have to dance to the beat and do the basic steps of the dance I am dancing, but suddenly I didn’t have to do cool shines or try impressive turn patterns to be appreciated as a dancer. And suddenly I could play with and explore musicality. Without connection, I could be musical as hell, but if my follow didn’t feel it, it was all for naught. Also, I could learn new things easier, since I was always thinking on how to lead this with the connection I had made with my dance partner. The way to make connection is very different in salsa, bachata and kizomba, yet on a deeper level they all share the same principles. Also, for me connection is the way I communicate with a dance partner. It is not only about the frame and even if I only hold one hand of my dance partner, the way I hold it influences the way I can lead.

    I know how hard it is to learn as a beginner, it is a very diffuse subject, but the sooner you learn connection, the sooner you can dance socially well and focus on other things.

    Unfortunately, it is easier to make someone get hooked than to learn to get a good connection so, I will settle for getting them hooked first 🙂

    • Rob Castellucci says:

      My friend, there are at least a dozen followup posts in these comments, great feedback! Keying in on one of your points, I agree connection is crucial. In my model, connection falls within ‘social dancing’ because you can technically achieve all 3 levels below it without knowing connection. This is because the follower already knows what move you are doing and therefore connection is not critical. Unfortunately not building connection earlier on results in bad habits like backleading and misunderstanding what connection really is.

      Another model brought in from tech product management is the Kano Model. In this model, every user facing product feature falls into 1 of 4 categories: Must-Have, Performance Benefit, Delighter or Indifferent. For example, in a cell phone:

      • Must-Have: the ability to make a call. It’s expected to be there and you won’t be satisfied if it’s there, only dissatisfied if it’s not.
      • Performance Benefit: Amount of hard drive storage. The more it has, the more satisfied the user is.
      • Delighter: I can play Pokemon GO on my phone!!!! It’s not expected so if it’s not there, the user isn’t dissatisfied. But when it’s there, they are satisfied.
      • Indifferent: I can use Apple Pay to buy stuff with my phone. Ok, don’t care.

      This model maps well to salsa. Let’s try the same exercise and assume the user is the follower and the product is the 4 minute dance experience with the follower:

    • Must-Haves: Stay on count. Keep me safe from other couples. Don’t drop me. Be respectful.
    • Performance Benefit: # of correctly executed turn patterns, # of shines. Level of connection.
    • Delighters: Doing some move in coordination with musical hit, surprise follower in a pleasant way with certain lead. Be friendly and have fun. Dress nicely.
    • Indifferent: Singing to the music
    • The connection I put as a performance benefit because as you have greater connection, there is higher satisfaction of the dance by the follower.

  • Melissa West-Koistila says:

    This is an unusually intellectual breakdown of salsa dancing. I love the concept of a mental model and I am definitely going to apply this idea to all aspects of my life. Awesome, thought-provoking article!

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