by Jessica Wilson
I was very flattered when Edie asked me to submit my letter to her newsletter. I hope that what I have written here doesn’t offend too many people and that they can see beyond any poorly-worded phrases and not misinterpret me too severely. According to Edie’s reaction to my original letter, it seems there are others out there who will be able to relate to my story. I look forward (I think) to hearing what people have to say about my experiences. Here goes…
Edie, I couldn’t agree more with your article about people not following the music when they dance; it inspired me to finally write to you. I’m a huge fan of yours and I admire your attitude and enthusiasm about Salsa dancing. Finding your website by accident about a year or so ago was a godsend for me because I was having some bad experiences with the Salsa scene here in the New York Metro area. (I’m from New Jersey, near the city.) You focus on the real issues about Salsa and the people who dance it. So many of your articles have been right on target with my own frustrations about “the scene” and some people who just don’t get it. I wanted to share my own story,
I learned to dance Salsa on my own—a quickie two-hour lesson in an Adult Ed ballroom dance class where I also learned merengue, foxtrot, and waltz—and then I just practiced in my kitchen how to move my hips and get the 1-2-3 of the rhythm. I had danced as a child, so it wasn’t hard for me to learn the steps, but improving was the challenge. I didn’t know anything about the Salsa scene, I didn’t know much about the music, and I didn’t know where to go or who to go dancing with. Also, even though I could move my feet, I didn’t have the “feel” of Salsa. But something about it was calling me, and I wanted to know more, do more, really be able to dance Salsa.
A few years later, I had a Costa Rican boyfriend, and he really got me moving. It was the first time I’d ever danced Salsa or merengue with a partner, and it turns out I was a natural. Not only did my Tico dance in the kitchen with me, he also got me into the music of Salsa and merengue. I started learning the names of the singers and bands; I even started going to concerts. My Spanish wasn’t so great at the time, but even though I didn’t understand the lyrics well without a dictionary, I got hooked on the rhythms and intricacies of the music and began to listen to it non-stop. I started to notice the incredible layering of the sounds and rhythms on top of each other, how these songs used the piano, horns, and drums in ways that contemporary pop and hip-hop just don’t. I loved how the motion transformed as the stanzas moved into a new phrase and the rhythm increased or the key changed. Long-bored with the annoyingly generic New York radio stations, I automatically chose Salsa whenever I needed to hear music.
Inspired by my Tico, I traveled to San José to improve my Spanish. The language school offered dance classes in the afternoon, so I jumped at the chance to learn more Salsa, merengue, even cumbia (Costa Rican swing). My friends and I had a blast trying out what we’d learned in the nightclubs. When I returned to the U.S., I wanted to keep up my new-found dance skills, so I looked online for lessons in the area. I found a class in my town and called them right up. When the guy I spoke to asked me if I already knew how to dance, of course I said yes. I went down and joined in with the beginners’ class…and didn’t know what the heck was going on! That’s when I learned about Mambo On-2.
At first, I thought it was interesting—apparently I’d been dancing “On-1”, which I’ve come to realize is a loose translation of “What everyone in Latin America dances because they’ve never heard of ‘On-Anything’ before, they just like to dance.” (Later, I also learned from mis amigos Latinos who accompanied me to the Copa that “On-2” translates as “What the heck are they doing? I’ve never seen that before! I can’t dance with him/her. I’m going to get a drink!”)
In the beginning, learning the new steps for On-2 was fun and exciting. I was meeting nice people and getting my rump moving, so I was happy. But as my On-2 lessons continued, I discovered that there were many things I wasn’t happy about with this style. For one, all the shines and styling. Now I admit, learning the ladies’ styling really helped me learn to loosen up my body when I danced. American girls are not encouraged to really move their bodies from the waist down, so my first breakthrough with that was monumental. I learned how to feel the music from inside and how to let go of some deeply-ingrained inhibitions about my body and its sensuality. Finally learning how to shimmy my shoulders while I moved my feet was revolutionary! I even became comfortable dressing “sexier”, which at first mostly meant fitted jeans and v-neck shirts, but now translates as sexy dresses and high heels with plenty of leg showing—and not just for the clubs…. But the hands flings, the hair tosses, the precise placement of the free arm (I was advised to throw my arm out at an angle because it “looks better” than putting it straight up like another woman might)—all these things started to feel false to me. It was too distracting to worry about wrapping my arm around my head as I was spinning, and it felt unnatural bringing my arms up for the spin and then slinking them down my body as I turned back out.
My revelation of how much I disliked all this styling came when I was out dancing one night with some people from dance class and I flung my arm out as I’d been taught…and smacked another woman really hard in the face with the back of my hand! I was mortified, and although she was wonderfully forgiving, I felt like a total idiot. I never did another hand fling again; it wasn’t worth hurting someone else just so I’d look fancy.
As time went on, another thing I noticed about the On-2 dancers from my class and their friends in the clubs was their smugness. When I joined the class, everyone told me that even though I danced On-1, I would learn to prefer On-2 because it was “so much better”. I didn’t understand why they would say that. I figured dancing was dancing, and what did they mean by “better”? From what I could see, they only danced with their On-2 friends from the classes and socials. They couldn’t, and wouldn’t, dance with people outside the group or style, and I started to see how limited they were by insisting on dancing only one style while rejecting all others as inferior. I started to wonder what they would do if they ever went to another country. Would they even be able to dance with Latin Americans in Latin America? I wanted to know that no matter where I was in the world, I could dance with any partner that asked me. But their inflexibility in style was reflected in their rigid mindset that they were dancing the only “real” style of Salsa. And they certainly let you know it at all times!
I also saw what happened when I went to clubs and was asked to dance by men who didn’t know “On-2” from “On-1” from any style. Even though you can see a lot of nationalities in the New York and New Jersey Salsa clubs, the men asking me to dance were Latinos, many of whom didn’t even speak English, They had no idea what I was talking about when I asked them “El Uno o El Dos?” as we walked to the floor. (For anyone who answered “Huh?” or “Perdón?” when I asked them which style, I knew to just step back when the music began so I wouldn’t crush their toes.)
I started living a schizophrenic Salsa life.
I’d go to class and learn the shines and some routines that the instructor put together, and then go to clubs and dance On-1 or “Whatever” with my partners. Between all the pressure to perform routines in each dance class and my class partners showing their annoyance with me when I didn’t perfectly execute the choreography, I started to really hate On-2. It wasn’t practical for my dance lifestyle in the clubs, and the men I was dancing “no style” with were far more flattering about my proficiency. They seemed thrilled that a gringa could keep up with them, and they made me feel sexy, beautiful, and talented. But it was too distracting having to dance differently depending on where I was, and On-2 quickly fell out of my favor. I eventually stopped going to the classes because the people in the class were too wrapped up in going dancing to show off their moves, not just being friends who hung out and danced with more than their immediate cliques. I started going to clubs alone and the more I danced, the more “On-1” it became.
I am now able to spot an On-2 dancer from a mile away because I recognize all the moves from class, which are apparently taught from school to school with little or no variety. The women all make the same arm and hand movements, body undulations, shine combinations; the guys all do the same foot lifts and hops, and that little pant-leg tug accompanied by a lift and shake of the heels. They dance as though every move is a performance for the other dancers and observers, and they don’t share the floor well. They spin zealously without regard for the others around them, and their eagerness to do shines often impinges on the less extravagant dancers who don’t require the space Suzy-Q/grapevines combos take up on a crowded floor. I don’t know if that is the way throughout the country, but here in the New York Metro area the scene is all about being seen, and some of these people are very eager to be looked at. It shows in their dancing—all glitz and no heart.
(Just after you asked me to submit this for you, Edie, I had an experience at a Mambo social in the city that I went to with an On-2 friend who wanted company. I noticed many people didn’t want to dance with people who weren’t as “good” as they were, also that they danced the same moves over and over with every partner with little variation from one song to another. My first dance of the night was with one guy whom I told to go easy on me because I hadn’t danced On-2 in a while. Not only did he ignore my request to ease up, he seemed annoyed with me because I couldn’t keep up his non-stop spin, step, spin, step, spin, spin, spin for the entire song. He was not capable of or willing to adjust his style or moves to my level or style, and he danced faster than the rhythm of the music, apparently trying to break some sort of record with how many fancy moves he could fit into each 1-2-3/5-6-7 measure. I was eventually able to figure out his moves and follow him because he repeated the same steps over and over, but it wasn’t fun. I was annoyed, and so was he—though for very different reasons. He didn’t ask me to dance again, but made sure to dance in front of me the rest of the night with another partner who was just as speed-happy. I guess he was trying to show me what I was missing. The thing is, this type of incident is not isolated to one person; I’ve seen it over and over in the clubs. Anyone who’s been “dissed” by this kind of dancer knows what I’m talking about.)
As I read through this revision of the original letter I sent you, Edie, I realize it all sounds rather negative, and I admit I’m airing much of my personal distaste with what is really a problem with individual people (and teachers who encourage or don’t discourage such behavior and attitudes). In fact, my gripes are more over the attitudes I’ve seen, not the style itself. The truth is, learning On-2 put me more in touch with the rhythm of Salsa music. Even now when I dance “On-1”, or whatever style I have now, I always step on the first beat of the measure, even though it’s heading backward, not forward. Although I never really understood how On-2 was explained to me—about “breaking” on the clave, etc.—I do like starting on the first beat of the measure; it helps you to keep your place better within the music. But I don’t think it should matter whether you start forward or backward as long as you are in step with your partner. Furthermore, On-2 helped me learn to feel the beat with my body and move in sync with the rhythm. But based on what you can see on the dance floors around here, it seems teaching dancers to keep the rhythm and steps for combos is favored over teaching them to feel the music.
So to bring this story around to the point you made in your article about feeling the music, Edie, one of the things I see a lot of here in the Tri-State area is that many of the people dancing a certain style are very clinical and exact about their moves, but they have no passion or sensitivity for the music. I see too many people dancing so methodically, soullessly, and my Latin friends comment that they have no heart—it’s that visible! But why is this the case? I think it has a lot to do with how they are taught On-2, not the style itself. From my own experience in Mambo class, people are encouraged to do lots of turns and shines, and choreography is done to the beat, not to the lyrics, phrasing, or changes. Truth is, those routines my girlfriends and I made up in the living room during junior high were more interpretive than the theatrics you can see on the Latin club dance floors.
Most anyone can be taught how to “break on two” and apply arm moves and spins to a set 4/4 measure, but a great majority of people don’t seem to really know much about music in general, much less Salsa. They can learn to find the first beat in a song, but they can’t feel the underlying movement of the song, distinguish the highs and lows or ups and downs in the meter, the changes in the pace. They can only break on the proper beat, performing well-practiced steps mechanically and not connecting them to the phrasing or the lyrics. They don’t have a sense of the “music” of the music.
Of course it’s not practical to say that every Salsero or Salsera should study music theory, but what if instructors made more of an effort to teach people about the mechanics of the music, not just the beat? Certainly, people in other dance styles study and understand their music as stories and use their bodies to convey just that. Ballet, jazz, modern, etc.—the steps are meant to be an interpretation of the song, not merely a set of choreographed movements that fit the rhythm and have nothing else to say about the passion behind the notes. Why shouldn’t Salsa be taught the same way, instead of being solely about steps and routines?
One instructor in the On-2 class told us to always look front and smile for the audience.
Why didn’t she tell us to dance with our partners, instead of for onlookers?
We weren’t there to be a dance troupe. The instruction should have focused on social Salsa, not performance. But even for social dancers, there needs to be more instruction on how to dance to a song for its music. Dance is about hearing the lyrics, feeling the story in the song, and communicating and sharing it with your partner. It’s so disappointing and frustrating to see “performers” on the floor, counting in their heads, mentally cursing themselves over a flubbed move, and being more concerned with taking up space on a crowded floor than sharing it with other lovers of Salsa who just want to have a good time because the music is filling them with the need to move and touch and sweat.
I was almost thirty when I found Salsa, and I’ve only been in the scene for a few years now. Maybe I don’t have the proper credentials to support my observations in this whole matter, but I must be doing something right because the men I dance with are always very complimentary. They ask me, “Where did you learn how to dance? Are you sure you’re not Cuban, or Dominican, or Puerto Rican?” I’ve had women come up to me in club bathrooms and tell me they like my dancing, and how they were telling their friends to “Look at the white girl…she can move!” (And you and I both know that women do not compliment other women easily…) And learning On-2 was responsible for a lot of that. I know that because I dance to the measure, even though I step backward to begin, they can feel that when we dance, and it makes a difference in the partner experience. It’s the something I give my partner, while he gives me chances to spin and shimmy.
But I also think my rejection of the over-stylized, methodical style that is encouraged by many of the dance studios in New York and New Jersey is what gets me these compliments and looks of astonishment. I have gotten past the repetitive choreography, the arm flings, the attitude; now I can feel the music, feel the passion, have fun, fall down, get up, and not care what I look like to people watching. I still have a lot to learn—I step too wide and far, my spins aren’t always fast and smooth, I misread hand signals and turn the wrong way; there’s a lot I could improve (and will, given time). But when I’m dancing with a man, I don’t care how old, young, cute, or ugly, he is, he is my focus, and together we are dancing a song, hearing a story, and we are moving together, nobody else in that little party for 4-5 minutes but us. And that’s what Salsa should be about. But can such a thing be taught?
Edie, I know you warned me that my story might tick some people off,
but that isn’t my intent. Following the example you have set in your website, I only want to help you open people’s eyes to what’s going on around them. Some people need to be aware that their attitudes make it difficult for others to enjoy what should be just plain fun. My negative experiences in Salsa come from those who don’t want to share a love of the music and dance with others, preferring just to be looked at and adored. It is not all On-2 dancers who are like this, and I don’t mean to perpetuate the clichéd “battle” between styles. I don’t want to stereotype Mambo dancers; that’s just not my point. Salsa has become something very special to me, but what I see coming out of the city and surrounding metro area really bothers me. What I’m trying to learn now is how to shrug it off and just go out on that floor, do what I love to do, and not pay any mind to others.
I love how you say that On-1, On-2, or whatever, you should “respond to the music” rather than be “wedded to a particular style or break pattern”. That is the epitome of why I love Salsa—the fantastic music, the passion, the images in my head when I listen to a song even when I’m not dancing. And if I’m “On” anything, I’m on high. Learning to dance Salsa has been an uplifting and wonderful adventure that I would wish upon anyone who wants to experience the thrill, the rush, the “mm-mmm” (You know what I mean!), no matter what their style.
Thank you for indulging me and encouraging me to write this. You are a real inspiration and your passion is contagious. Keep up the great work!
Comments from readers…
Thank you for that fantastic article by Jessica….it will tick a lot of ppl off…i know plenty that would be but it is individuals who are making the scenes around the world feel like high school again….i don’t want to look like everyone else…i want to look like me….i will borrow and adapt what i see to make it mine…yes it may look like edie or jessica in certain moves but it’s my expression and experience that give it a different look…better or worse……
i don’t hate on 1 or on 2….i just am sad that something so beautiful can be ruined by pettiness….
Thank you for having the guts to publish it as well….those who are open will find its truth….
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