Do Choreography-Groups make Better Salsa Dancers?

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This is it.

Months of practice have culminated in this moment. Your heart is racing. Your palms are sweaty (blah, blah, mom’s spaghetti etc.). You run through what you need to do in your mind. No backing out now. You hear the announcement followed by the cheers of the audience. Your heart stops for a split second with the surge of adrenaline (if you needed to lift a car off someone right now you could probably do it). You grab your partner and strut out. You see lights and camera flashes but you don’t see a single person in the audience, you have more important things to focus on. You move into position and grasp your partner as you’ve done what seems like a thousand times before… but this time is different! This time is real!

Everything goes quiet. Ominously so. You center yourself. Take one last, deep breath and… the music begins.

The next thing you know, you’re holding your partner in the final pose, breathing heavily, the audience  is roaring, applauding and whistling. You line up, smile, bow, smile again, turn and walk away.

Once off stage, you finally snap out of the trance you’ve been in. You realize that it’s all over and you don’t remember anything from the last 3 minutes. Post-Traumatic Amnesia. You don’t care… you did it!

Choreos
A lot of people who dance have experienced exactly this. When people start dancing, be it Salsa, bachata, tango, swing or whatever, inevitably they’ll be presented with the chance to join a choreography group or maybe even asked to do a pair presentation.

I’ve done a few myself over the years; Salsa in Miyazaki, Japan (when I was just taking my first steps in Salsa), Bachatango (I know, I know) in Dublin, Salsa caleña in Cali, Colombia (wearing the most flamboyant costume you can visualize) and Bachata back on home turf at a few events in Ireland and most recently here in Spain too (hence the inspiration for this article).

Let's not forget the real reason people do performances... Flamboyant Costumes!!!

Let’s not forget the real reason people do performances… Flamboyant Costumes!!!

I’ve always been reluctant to get involved in choreos (I’m a pretty shy guy and despite all my experience with public speaking, shaking my booty in front of large groups of people still freaks me out a little). Despite the initial unease though, I usually feel pretty happy with myself once a performance is over. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment that anyone who has done a choreography will attest to. More than likely it’s the satisfaction of seeing what you’ve been working so hard on for the past however many months, all come together in one big, (hopefully successful) show. Whatever it is, it feels damn good.

Worthwhile… just not in the way you’d think
Specifically for that feeling of accomplishment , and for a few other reasons I would happily recommend people give choreos a try.

However, I’ve noticed that there are quite a few people that may be under the wrong impression as to what being part of a choreography group will do for their social dance ability. Worse yet, I’ve met way too many people that feel that doing a choreo makes them a dance superstar. Some folks (thankfully a minority) feel that simply having done a choreography makes them advanced dancers. I think everyone reading this will agree that that simply isn’t the case.

We've all met them!

We’ve all met them!

Choreos and Social Dancing
I think a major assumption that some people have is that skill in a choreography translates directly to skill in social dancing. This isn’t necessarily the case.

Practicing a choreography will make you very good at one thing in particular: doing that choreography! Usually you practice with the same partner who knows exactly what to expect from you. They know what they have to do and they do it, probably even if you make a little mistake here or there. That’s what a good choreography partner does and we should be grateful for it (however, this is definitely not an excuse for the dreaded back-leading in a class setting) .

However, try to do some of the moves you’ve learned in a choreography, when social dancing in the real world , and you may end up pretty frustrated.

Bruce Lee, often compared practicing martial arts without actual sparring practice to “dry land swimming” and left us this quote:

“If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you”

You can compare a performance to practicing to swim on dry land; you may learn the movements but I wouldn’t rely on it to save your ass if you fall into a lake. I’ve said it many times before that the best practice for social dancing is… social dancing. It teaches you how to adapt what you’ve learned in class to other dancers in real life, to react to their idiosyncrasies. There is no substitute for social dancing! (and appropriate practice).

So why join a choreo-group?
Choreography practice and the performances themselves do, however, have benefits to offer that can improve your social dancing.

  • Confidence: getting up on stage in front of a group of your peers and performing, despite being pretty nerve-wracking usually does wonders for improving confidence, particularly for beginners. Anything that improves confidence will improve someones dancing. Just don’t become so full of yourself that you think you’re ready to give Frankie Martinez a run for his money 😉
  • Styling & Shines: This is particularly important for but not limited to female dancers. Performances are choreographed to look pretty so all the practice will usually give you a few ideas of how you can “sex-up” your own individual social dancing.
  • Socializing: Joining a small choreo-group will mean you’ll be spending a lot of time with some people you might not initially know well or at all. By the end, you’ll have probably made some great new friends and feel better connected to the salsa community. This was actually my reason for doing my latest choreo. It was an excuse for me to get away from work at home and I ended up meeting some really wonderful people 😉
  • Muscle Memory: Again, this is something that really benefits beginners but the constant practice of a choreography helps to lock certain basics into your muscle memory. I found this really handy for getting the hang of some of the fast footwork of Salsa caleña.
  • New Challenges: Sometimes we set ourselves new challenges… just because! It’s something new and different and makes us step out of our comfort zones which in my opinion is something we should try whenever we can.

Give a Choreo a try… or not!
Will doing a choreography make you an advanced dancer?… I doubt it.

Will it make you a little better?… Probably (especially if you’re a beginner)

Will it be a bit of a laugh?… Yeah, almost definitely (and you may meet some great new friends)

If you fancy the challenge, go for it. It definitely won’t do you any harm. If you don’t feel like it, don’t. It won’t hold you back from becoming a great dancer (we all know that they’re really made on the dance floor).

Either way, keep dancing folks.

4 Comments

  • David Sander says:

    Thanks for the well written report on the positives of performance dancing. There is a tendency to look at dance performances as the highest expression of dancing. This mistake is compounded by how the dance programs at many Universities are directed at entertainment dance professions, thus social dance influence is limited.

    The dividing line I’ve found is that social dance is done for the happiness of the two partners. whereas performance dancing is done to look artistic to an audience. These separate objectives lead to how performance dancing tends to have larger graceful motions that look good and expressive to a watching audience while social dancers emphasize smaller movements, complexity, collaboration, and improvisation that makes the best use of both partners skills leading to personal enjoyment. While competitions are measured on the judges stand, social dance is measured in how many people you make happy and in how dancers achieve a best collaboration.

    So a good social dancer has the experience to dance well with beginners as well as with advanced dancers. Doing this involves experience and being able to understand your partners ability and skill set so that the lead can improvise a dance at the level of the partner. Improvising means connecting a number of movements together selected for the dance. This ability to see several or a dozen possible connections to the next eight music counts is something that is generally not taught in class or choreography but it is critical to good social dancing. Often in a dance I will recognize that a follower has taken a set position and at this point I let them pursue their taught movements and exit my improvised composition and usually this is the best collaboration possible. So from knowing a few movements you get many connections to other movements in social dancing. This aspect is never a part of choreography.

    In social dance you care what you feel like to your partner, not what you look like. This leads to smaller movements that have a practical dynamics to them. A compact form is desirable and easier to execute to fast Salsa music and the social dancers form is practical and directed at handling momentum well, not at looking expressive or beautiful. Many of the social styling moves are adaptations of arm and leg movements needed to balance the dancer and manage the various dynamics of the dance, so these are basically practical too.

    Those who limit themselves too much to choreography and don’t take care of their social dance development are going to limit their larger dancing abilities.

    So performance training can be a good way to get a lot of concentrated practice and training, just don’t think its the best dancing to be had or the only path to being a great dancer.

  • JJ Wong says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and well written article Richie!

    Agree with all your points – especially the emphasis of personal achievement, community and confidence that can come with joining choreography.

    Like you, I’ve always been reluctant to perform in front of large crowds. I always thought that was for the “real dancers” (the ones hand-picked and groomed since they were 3). But being part of something greater than yourself does teach you a lot about teamwork and the joys of sharing art.

    It also makes you better appreciate the performances of other dancers, since you know much work goes into just 3 mins of choreo.

    Thanks for the post and have an amazing February.

    Cheers,
    JJ

    • Thanks JJ, Glad you liked it. Yeah, it really does teach you a lot about team work and I definitely appreciate a good choreography even more now that I know how much work goes into it.
      Keep rockin’ it up in Canada.

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