What Makes a Salsa Champion

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I recently returned home to my city of Brisbane, Australia, after spending six months on holiday in London. This break gave me ample time to reflect on my life and future direction. Dancing is an integral part of my life, so I spent a lot of time thinking about dancing. Being away from the dance scene in Brisbane, and spending time dancing in another city clarified my perspective a lot. When we are deeply immersed in something, which often happens with the things we are most passionate about, we can get too close to see things for what they really are. This was the case for me.

There are times when I get frustrated with the dancing scene at home, and I’m always thinking about ways to facilitate positive change. I often talk with my friends about the scene, and what we’d like to see happen. Unfortunately, most attempts to change the scene manifest themselves as a small section of the community creating a new social event that ostensibly offers something different. However, all too often, these social events end up being more or less the same as most of the other socials around town. They don’t really add any value to the scene, and in a couple of months, these events die out, only to appear again in another few months time, under a new name, before dying out again, and the cycle repeats itself.

I’m not saying that this is the only reason that social events fail, but it’s a contributing factor. After observing the dance scenes in a number of cities around the world, I’ve come to some conclusions about what it takes to affect change. To affect change, you have to start by changing the culture. It’s not enough to simply introduce a new event. Culture can be thought of as the sum of the people in a community, as well as the relationships between those people, and dance community culture is no different to any other community in this respect.

In any scene, there are some people who have more influence than others over how the scene changes over time. I will call these people “champions”. This article is not about people who compete at salsa championships. In fact, I personally feel that the competitive aspect of dancing can (and does) have negative effects on how we think about dancing, but there are some positives as well. However, this article is not about the pros and cons of competitive dancing. I could write another whole article on this topic alone. This article is about people who have a major influence on the scene. Think of “champion” as a verb, rather than as a noun.

So what makes a salsa champion? Champions win people over to their cause by providing inspiration. They are leaders. They are the role models in the scene who lead by example, and others sit up and take notice and think to themselves “I want to be like them”. They might be the social dancer on the floor that you can’t take your eyes off. They might be the performer on the stage that makes you want to get up out of your seat and start dancing. They might be the dancer you have fascinating discussions with over dinner, coffee or at congresses who make you want to be part of something bigger than just you and your dancing.

I believe that there are three essential traits that make a person champion material.

They are:

  1. Talent.
  2. A love of what they do.
  3. A love of people.

Talent:

Champions separate themselves from other people in the dance community because they are able to contribute in a way that not many others can. They might be an exceptionally talented social dancer. The lead that all the ladies cross the floor dance with, or the follow that leads are sitting out dance after dance for, just to get one shot to ask her to dance. They might be an exceptionally talented performer, who is constantly flown around the world to perform at salsa congresses. However, champions are not always the people who are centre stage. There might be teachers, promoters and organisers who work tirelessly behind the scenes, with relatively little recognition, in order to host events and grow the scene. You don’t have to be well known, or in the spotlight, to be a champion and make a huge difference to the scene. Champions play to their strengths, whatever they may be, and use them to influence the scene in a positive way.

A love of what they do:

Champions do what they do because they love it, whether they are compensated for it or not. Sometimes after years of work, there is some sort of financial reward, or social recognition, but I doubt, from a purely financial point of view, that most champions ever get a true return on investment for the hours they invest into doing what they love. Even the most famous salsa icons are not rich, or, if they are, they didn’t make their riches solely through dancing. Dancers are artists, and there is definitely a “starving artist” element to being a salsa dancer, even a famous one. Salsa dancers are not rock stars, and do not earn rock star dollars. They do it, because they love it. You can’t fake passion, not over the long term anyway.

A love of people:

This should not be confused with being a “people person”. I don’t believe that champions are necessarily extroverts. In this context, I define “love” as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing another human being’s personal growth. Champions have a genuine interest in seeing others realise their full potential and become the strongest version of themselves, even if it does not directly benefit the champion. In my opinion, that’s real love, not the Hollywood schmaltz that is so often referred to as love, which could more accurately be defined as lust and/or attachment.

It’s not enough to rely on one or two of the above traits. A champion really has to possess all three. I was recently talking to an extremely talented dancer, whom I’m not going to name, and I asked her about her goals, and where she wanted to take her dancing. She told me that she wanted to attend congresses for free as a teacher, like another famous dancer before her. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed by her response to my question. Essentially she viewed teaching at congresses as a sort of stepping stone that will enable her to do what she really loves, which is social dancing with the best dancers in the world. If that is indeed her ambition, then I doubt she’ll ever achieve it, not because she lacks talent, but she doesn’t love teaching. She loves social dancing. From my observation, she viewed teaching as simply as a means to an end in order to facilitate her social dancing dreams. Unfortunately, that is not what inspires people. My invitation to anyone who believes that they might have the making of a champion is to do what you love and do not compromise.

In conclusion, from my observations, one of the most critical, and most overlooked parts of implementing positive change in the dance scene, or any culture, is the identification and engagement of champions. I also believe that it takes a team of people, which includes multiple champions with a range of talents, as well as other committed individuals, to affect wide-scale cultural change. However, it all comes back to people at the end of the day. Remember that a culture is only as strong as its people and the relationships between them. I also encourage people to remember that you don’t have to be in a position of authority to display leadership. Simply lead (or champion) by example and with integrity, and, if what you’re doing has any merit, people will come around eventually. It will take faith and persistence, but it will happen.

See you on the dance floor!

7 Comments

  • Evans says:

    I must admit I thought this was gonna be an article about what it takes to be a salsa champion in terms of dance skill. However, I really enjoyed it and I think that the three essential traits you mention are key.

    I recognize a few people in my salsa community that bear those traits.. The most interesting one of the three for me was ‘Love of people’. That’s given me a fresh perspective.

    Aside: I love your website’s look. Wish you the best.

  • JJ says:

    Hey Brisbane Salsero I really enjoyed this article and I love your emphasis on culture.

    It’s got a lot of parallels to the world of entrepreneurship and startups and reminds me a lot of the concepts in the book “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in your City – by Brad Feld” which I highly recommend (that book is more about the tech scene but the emphasis is on how to build an amazing ecosystem and culture of people (in any field/passion/hobby) who “give before you get” and build each other up through a mutual cooperative framework emphasizing leadership through example and humility in that all people involved are equally important despite their supposed “authority” or “title”.

    Thanks for sharing and have an amazing day!

    -JJ

  • Mai Zharvvorsi says:

    Really enjoyed this piece. Thank you so much for the thoughtfulness of it. 2 comments:

    1. I especially love what you say about “champions” and add one facet: “They might be teachers, promoters and organisers who work tirelessly behind the scenes, with relatively little recognition, in order to host events and grow the scene. THEY MAY ALSO BE “JUST DANCERS” WHO LOVE IT SO MUCH THAT THEY ARE PIED PIPERS WHO CONSTANTLY ATTRACT AND ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO JOIN IN THE FUN. Champions play to their strengths, whatever they may be, and use them to influence the scene in a positive way.

    2. About being “disappointed by her response to my question. Essentially she viewed teaching at congresses as a sort of stepping stone that will enable her to do what she really loves, which is social dancing with the best dancers in the world.” I suggest you NOT be disappointed in her. Her ambition is exactly that, hers. She may not be who you wanted her to be, but that’s no sin; she’s walking her own road. By your definition she’s not a “champion.” That’s ok. Not everyone gets to be a champion. Being a champion of anything requires a certain altruism; not everyone is cut out for it.

    I really love your site and your thinking. I am so grateful I found it.
    Keep us thinking! Keep us getting better! Keep us dancin’!

    • I wasn’t necessarily disappointed in her, more disappointed for her. It’s not about who I wanted her to be, it’s more about her not being who she wanted be, and owning that and going for it with everything she’s got. However, everybody’s journey is different…

  • Maria (la Salsera) says:

    This topic is near and dear to my heart. I am in northern California…no, not the bay area. I have been trying to build salsa here for so long after having moved here from the big city. It is exactly how you have explained, start -ups everywhere that simply dwindle down and end. I have seen it come an go so many times and am saddened so much. Unfortunately we have tried all the above. I am set to throw my hands in the air. I was the pied piper for some time till I had 2 little kids and as soon as I left the scene, so did everyone else!! now when I make it out of the house to the only little salsa night left, the same 5 people show up with no new faces. I have put so much work into this community is is just silly, yet no one shows up anymore. Disheartening.

  • Your best article to date … Well done 🙂 I couldnt agree more!

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