Sunday, December 28, 2008

The mechanics of a good lead.

When I was first learning salsa I wished that the teachers would explain how to lead and how to follow. I felt like the girls were always ahead of me but for some reason they would do the next move in the pattern. I thought that maybe they were back-leading but I didn't know enough to call them out on it. Now I know. They were backleading. One reason why I dislike patterns. It encourages women to take charge of their own moves when the guy is supposed to do it. Women learn to backlead and men never learn how to lead properly, or if they do, they learn to be too strong, too rough, too fast, or at best after a very long time.

Now I can control my follower with my connection. By tensing up certain muscles and loosening up others she can really feel my intention. And when she starts to back lead I understand how to use those various muscles to influence her to do what I want rather than what she thinks I want. But this takes a lot of experience.

While that level of detail might be next to impossible to explain, I think I can at explain the mechanics of my own leading style. That seems to be a good step to begin with so you can start to develop some sense of the muscles you'll use to lead, and how the follower feels when she responds. It would probably also be beneficial for the follower to practice responding to the guy.

Maybe one day I'll add some illustrations but for now I'll try to make it as clear as possible without them.

First let me explain what a good lead is not: A strong lead.
Repeat after me... Men and Women:

A strong lead is NOT a good lead!

I know a lot of ladies like a strong lead. But I've been told that, as long as it's very clear and well timed, a SOFT lead feels like you are floating on a cloud. It also gives the girl something much more pragmatic, room to express herself. A soft lead is less controlling. It lets her be a part of the team... a partner, not a puppet. She wants to be a part of the dance, not the object of the dance.

A lot of guys at first think that they have to maintain constant pressure on the girl. Don't do that. She will feel controlled and you'll actually be pushing the girl to dance faster than she would otherwise. My technique enables me to slow her down if I need to.

Another thing a lot of guys do, especially the strong leaders, is they use a lot of muscle. The girls don't need you to force them through the moves. All they need is for you to let them know what you want them to do. You lead and after you recognize that she has started to do the move you asked her to do, you follow her movement. You maintain connection, but you don't need to lead any more until it's time to resolve the current move and to set up for the next one.

So what makes a good lead?

A good lead begins with connection. Connection is not a lead. I'll describe that later. We have to cover connection first. Basically the connection is the minimum force of touch that it takes to keep you from slipping off of your partner. Metaphorically speaking, it is like a line of communication. Think of it like two cups held together with a piece of string. You aren't talking to each other yet. That would be the leading and following. You are just keeping the line of communication open. Now when you pull your cup all you want is to maintain enough tension on the line so it vibrates when you talk into the cup, right? You aren't playing tug of war. If you try to pull the guy on the other end of the line he has to react by pulling back. You might break the string and sever communication. So if you can apply that metaphor to your connection with your dance partner, you can imagine that if you apply too much tension or compression, you can actually hinder communication. You want just the right amount of connection. This is one thing that improver/intermediate level dancers should work on.

Leading and following is a conversation, with the guy leading the conversation. He asks a question, she responds. He responds to that and so forth. When the topic resolves itself, he asks another question and they begin another exchange. When you have a good connection, you enable communication with your partner. She can hear the leader with her sense of touch. And he can hear the follower's movements with his sense of touch. It is just as important for him to feel her through his hands as it is for her to feel him through her hands.

Two kinds of connection

There are two kinds of connection: compression and tension... or in other words, pushing and pulling. I don't like to use the words push and pull though because they imply a strong force, and that is not appropriate for a good lead. Compression and tension are much better words. You apply the appropriate form of touch with your fingers to maintain the connection with your partner.

I generally teach that maintaining the connection is the woman's responsibility. (After all, dance mimics life and Women are much better at maintaining interpersonal connections than men are.) Of course the guy's not completely off the hook, but typically he is spending his time doing things to break the connection and she responds by attempting to strengthen it. This action sets the woman up to follow.

Then there is Lead.

Please understand that the lead is different than the connection. I'm trying to be very deliberate with my language so pay attention when I say lead or connection. I was talking about connection. Now I am talking about Lead. Lead is essentially connection with a follow through. But the timing is extremely important. If you do not learn appropriate timing, you will either give a false or confusing lead, or you will be too rough or strong. This is something that the leader must work on until he masters it.

Before we discuss the mechanics of the lead, we must cover the third state. The period of time in which there is absolutely no lead. This happens when you switch from compression to tension, and vice versa. The period of time when you are neither leading with compression nor with tension is this neutral state.

If the leader does not embrace the state of neutrality he will feel like a strong lead, and even worse he will actually push the girl to dance faster than she would otherwise. This is the reason why I believe so many leaders dance too fast. The guys try to maintain the connection instead of giving the responsibility to the girl. More on this later.

It's also important to realize that you cannot lead the girl in the neutral state. You must move from the neutral state to a compression or tension in order to lead her. You want the change from neutral to compression or tension to be gradual. It should never be abrupt. Of course if you make it abrupt, you will feel rough to the girl. Also, do not change your grip in the middle of a neutral state. You need a good connection when you change grips or you risk losing connection.

Most of the time, maybe 90% of the time, you need to be in a "connective" state, either compression or tension. But NOT actively leading. You aren't leading and you aren't in the neutral state. What are you doing when you are in the connective state? Are you leading? Not yet.

There are two times when you'll be in a connective state. One is before a lead. In this period of time, you do nothing. You just maintain the connection. The other time you are just connecting is when you are in the midst of a move, for example a turn. In this case, you follow. Yep. I said YOU FOLLOW. You follow the girl in the middle of her turn. Of course she isn't leading you, and you do eventually pick the lead back up, but when you aren't actively leading her, you are still following her.

Now, since you set up the lead you know where she is going. It's like you sent her on a trail and let her walk in front of you. You know the trail so you know where the tricky spots are. You are also ready to respond in case something unexpected comes up, like a snake on the trail. But for the time being, you let the girl go in front. Of course during the state in which you are following, you must maintain the connection. Imagine that you are holding the girl's hand on the trail.

Let's get on to the meat of this post. The actual mechanics of the lead.

Okay, so you have a good connection and you are tired of not leading. So you want to execute a move. What do you do?

We communicate our lead by bouncing from tension to compression and back again. Back and forth. Please understand the word bounce here doesn't mean jerking or dancing swing style or pushing then pulling. I know the word bounce has a lot of baggage attached to it. You think rubber ball bouncing. But rubber balls only respond with compression. They don't experience tension. So when I use the word bounce, I mean shifting from one to the other, compression to tension or from tension to compression. I use the word bounce because if we examine a ball bouncing in slow motion we know that there is a lot going on. So in this description of the mechanics of a good lead, I am describing things in super duper oober looper slow motion.

Ok. The entire dance is bouncing from tension to compression. When we move from one to the other, we enter the neutral state. Since we can not lead without a connection, it's important to try to minimize the time in which you are in a neutral state. It is the girl's responsibility to seek the connection. It is the guy's responsibility to set up the bounce.

Let me explain.

Let's begin assuming we have a compression connection. You extend the compression, or follow through with the compression until she begins to respond by moving, let's say, back. Now that you can feel through your sense of touch that she is moving back you let off the lead and start to follow her. You do not let off enough so you lose the connection though. This would be a good time to change grips if necessary. You don't have to change grips though. It depends on the move. At the appropriate moment you will stop following her. Inertia will cause the girl to continue and when she does, you will lose connection, for a moment. You will enter the neutral state. But, since you have slowed down your following she will begin to settle into a... tension. You let her gradually settle into the tension until she stops. And you continue the tension, follow through with it, and she will respond by following, probably by reversing her direction. You let off the lead, follow, change grips if necessary, then back off to enter the neutral state, then set up for the compression connection. And so on and so forth.

Reaction time is important here girls. The faster you react to the changes between compression and tension and vice versa, the shorter the period of time you'll be in the neutral state, the easier it will be for the guy to lead you, the easier it will be for you to follow him. This is something that women need to work on right from the beginning. Following this way engages your mind. You can strengthen your mind by dancing. Who woulda thought?

Remember, you must WAIT for the connection. If you do not wait and start "leading" when the compression or tension is not there then you are going to be rough. If you try to create the compression or tension yourself, then you are being too domineering, too strong. Just wait for her to come to you.

It's really not that difficult, once you understand the technique. Of course all of this happens in the blink of an eye, but you'll get the hang of it. The key is embracing the connective state. In fact, if you watch very advanced dancers you will find that they play with the connective state.

There is of course a LOOOOOT more to it than bouncing right from compression to tension and back. You will use tension and compression in combination. If you compress with one side and tense with the other side, you will cause the girl to twist. You might combine them to encourage the girl to turn, or to turn faster. You will use both in turns. You will use them to guide the girl down the slot. You will apply connection without a lead to communicate to the girl, saying in effect "pay attention." Or you might use a connection without a lead to encourage the girl to move and not turn. You will compress or tense with the sides of your hands. Or you'll compress with your shoulder, or tense with your forearm. There is a lot to all of this. It takes a long time to master all of the nuances, but as long as you practice the timing of moving from compression to neutral to tension to neutral to compression, etc. you will begin to make progress. Learn to maintain connection without giving confusing leads.

One benefit of dancing this way is that it gives both partners the ability to influence the timing of their partner. Both partners have the ability to extend the period of time in which you are in the neutral state. And that will cause your partner to slow down or to speed up.

One final thought. Lead tangentially. If you don't lead tangentially you will feel jerky to the girl. You know what tangent means? Remember geometry? It's a line or an arc that intersects an arc or a circle at only one point. As you are following the girl in that connective state, when it comes time to apply a lead you apply that force tangent to her natural movement. You should NEVER apply a force across her natural body motion. Your lead should NEVER create a corner. To do so will jerk her around.

You don't want the girls to call you a jerk, do you?

Okay. I hope this makes the mechanics of a lead more understandable to all of you.

Good luck and God bless!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

Men's rules for dancing

Women have a lot of rules that they must follow in order to be the best follower. Men do not. I will go into the reasons for this in more detail later but suffice it to say that one person has to know what to expect from the other partner. Since the guy makes the decisions he is the one that has to know what the other person will do. The girl has to be predictable. The less predictable the girl is the harder (forceful) of a lead the guy has to be. He can't trust her to follow him so he has to take away some of her freedom and lead her with more force than finesse. Ironically, it is by following more rules that gives the girl more freedom.

But this isn't about the girls' rules. I want to cover the rules that men have.
Here they are in order of priority:

Keep the girl safe
Make the girl shine
Entertain the girl
Follow the secondary rules of dance.

That's it. Rules 2 and 3 might be interchangeable depending on the girl but rules 1 and 4 are concrete. (Actually, I've since realized that Entertain the girl is number 3. More below...)In essence, a good leader will always put his follower first. And if the girl truly believes that he will follow these rules to the letter then she will follow more easily. She wants to be led by a man who will put her first.

This isn't only true in dance. It's true in life too.

Why is "entertain the girl" less important than "make her shine?" Well, as the leader, you do not know what will entertain her, unless she communicates it to you. Even then, she will keep much of her emotions inside. We all do. So, while it's a mystery if she is being entertained, you can easily see if she looks good dancing. And what's more is that if you satisfy rules 1 and 2, she will be entertained. You don't need to worry about doing a lot of crazy moves to entertain her if she looks good. If you prioritize entertaining her over making her look good, you might lose focus and choose to do moves that are fun for you, but that you don't lead quite well enough. But if instead you focus on moves that make her look good, you have to lead them well. She will by default have a much better time.

About rule 4. This is an overarching rule that encompasses the secondary rules that guide the way a guy dances. Rules like Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right. Guys' rules, except for the first 3 are not set in stone. They are flexible and the guy can break them when he needs to. It's kind of like life. A lot of Women just HAVE to wake up in the morning and make the bed. But men? Pfft. They don't have to. Well, if they have a woman (or want one) they do, but if they are on their own it's not important to them. Dancing is even more black and white. Sometimes men HAVE to break their rules to make it possible for the girl to follow hers and for him to follow his top 3.

The beauty of the top 3 rules is that they don't take a long time to learn. It's all attitude. If he believes it he will do it. What's more difficult for the beginning leader is communicating that he will follow the 3 main rules. He communicates this with confidence. A lot of beginning leaders look like they don't know what's going on. They seem hesitant. The beginning girls pick up on this and they naturally start to back lead. They don't believe that the guys will follow the top 3 rules.

Ironically, unless you are naturally confident in everything you do, you have to start to learn rule 4 before you can show confidence in your dance. You don't need to learn all of the secondary rules, but you do need to learn your steps: Basic, Turns, Cross Body Lead, hook turn, etc. And you have to start to train your mind to prepare yourself for the next move. You have to think ahead. Once you start to think ahead, something will click in your brain. A light bulb will illuminate over your head and almost instantly you will start to display confidence. The sooner you get this the better for you and for the girls. Girls back lead and teach the guys to be bad leaders. But at the same time guys teach the girls to be back leaders because they have so much to learn and women learn their parts of the dance quicker. It's easier for girls to just wait for the lead than it is for the guys to learn to lead, but the girls have to shift their mindset and it's difficult for them to shift to letting a guy lead them if they don't have confidence in him.

So how do you obtain confidence? When I teach beginning I see a lot of guys who do the steps properly. They know the steps. They do them, but they have a sort of hesitance about their steps. They don't move with authority. They don't OWN the steps. So whenever you are taught a new move, as immediately as you can, recognize the point at which you understand how the step works. You may not master it, but you know enough to practice it on your own, or better yet with a girl. You might rotate to a girl and she might ask you, "how are you doing with the move?" You should say, "I'm getting it," or "I almost have it." You are telling her that you are only fine tuning. She will relax and if you do it right, she will enjoy being part of the process in your education.

Once you get to this point you don't need to look back. You have it. Own it. Play with it. Experiment with it. Women enjoy being a part of the process. They want to be taken on a journey and if they know that they are instrumental in your success, it gives them a real boost. You don't have to know all of these crazy moves to entertain a girl. Engage her. Include her in your education.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Did you ever feel like you are witnessing life rather than living it? Like you are on the outside looking in, just watching and not participating.

Boy how I wish my brain was wired differently. It seems that the people who are most successful, most happy are those who are naturally outgoing and talkative. Lord, why must I clam up when I am with talkative people? I can contribute too doggonit. I know things. I have opinions. I'm pretty smart. I'm a philosopher by nature. Why must my thoughts and opinions disappear from my mind while I watch others have a conversation? Can't I participate too?

Do all philosophers suffer so? No. I doubt that. Many like to talk. I like others to listen. Maybe that's why I have this blog. I can write whatever I can't say. But is anyone listening?

I don't want to sound so arrogant, but what good is it to know so much if you can't share your wisdom.

Like take salsa. I have spent the last 5 years of my life studying it. Learning its intricacies, examining how it relates to life. Learning about people and relationships through the dance.

My understanding of women has flipped on its head since I took up partner dancing. I used to think that all women want to be in charge. I was ready to submit to a girl. I wanted to be whipped and to be wrapped around a beautiful girl's finger. I was hypnotized by the media into thinking that this was the way things are and should be. I actually wondered if the women I danced with felt oppressed because a man was telling them what to do. I thought I was enlightened. In fact, I was proud of it. I still think I'm enlightened. I don't tell any woman to do anything. But I recognize that many women want a take charge man. And that is what salsa taught me.

I don't just "believe" in equality. I celebrate it. I teach it. Other teachers tell the girls, "You are in charge off the dance floor, but on the dance floor the guy is in charge." Ridiculous and completely outdated. And really, it wasn't even accurate 100 years ago when Men ruled the world, and it sure wasn't accurate 20 or 30 years ago when Women started to put their feet down. Dance partners, like life partners, are truly equal. We have different roles, but we are completely equal. One is a diamond worth a million bucks, and the other is a lump of gold worth a million bucks. They are both different, but equal in value. No one is the boss. It's just that someone has to make the decisions, and only one person can make those decisions on the dance floor. But the person who does make the decisions had better make those decisions for the benefit of the person who does not get to make the decisions.

I think that a lot of women would just rather not bother with leadership. It's just too much hassle. As long as their interest is taken care of, and they have a say, an input. As long as they are not ignored and the task gets done, they are willing to let someone else take the reigns.

This is why beginning followers back lead. They believe that someone has to lead, and the guy's sure not going to do it. Then the guys prove that they aren't going to lead, so they take charge, as they do in life. Because if they are with a guy in life and he doesn't take charge, she takes charge. Maybe she would like for him to take charge, but he is untrustworthy, so she just feels better off if she takes over.

But what if he was trustworthy? What if he could be counted on not to screw things up? What if she knew that his first priority was her and that in the end, the important things got done. Would she be willing to sit back, relax, and let him do his thing?

When these followers don't give the guy a chance to lead, they don't realize the beginning leaders never got the chance to lead because the women were so used to leading in life that they naturally took it up in dance. I don't think this is natural though. I think the men in the class are so used to living under the thumb of the modern woman that they look for permission to take the lead. You can actually see the sheepishness in the faces of the beginning guys. They seem so doubtful. They don't realize that they are meant to lead. Even in life, if they took charge and let their Woman know that they could take care of her, if they really convinced her of that fact, then the Women would follow.

I am all for the goals behind the feminist movement: Sufferage. Equal rights. Equal pay. Equal treatment. But sometimes I think it went too far. Men and Women aren't equal as they should be. Women are in charge. They take care of themselves and they expect their men to take care of them too. Not all women of course. But many Women do. What does that make the Men? Slaves. Really, if the Men don't get to lead, are told what to do, and the Women are supposed to be treated like Princesses or Queens, what is in it for the Men? Sex? Sure, but only on her terms and only when she wants it. That makes him a man-whore, not an equal partner in life.

Men are totally emasculated today. They are wimps. They should all learn to dance. And teachers that tell women that they are in charge off of the dance floor need to shut up. Tell men that they should try to take ownership and lead wherever they are able, even off the dance floor.

I honestly believe that whoever is most capable should lead. If I had a wife who was a good planner and highly organized, maybe she would be better than me at packing for the camping trip. Maybe my knowledge and skills in the outdoors would just be advisory. Or it could be the other way around. Maybe I would be better with the kids, so I might take on the role of the nurturer. Whatever. The point is that whoever is better at the task should take charge. But men are so used to following these days that they let the woman take over everything, even over things that he is expert in, and especially in things that are given to him by "right" or by "tradition" as in dancing, or even in proposing marriage!

But what do I know? I can't even talk to talkative people.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Be a team player.

I helped with some classes last week and came upon a realization. At the end of every movement each dancer needs to be secure, balanced and in control. If a girl is in closed position with a guy and she does not feel that way after a turn and just continues on from an unbalanced state, she will fall into her steps instead of deliberately placing her steps. She will go too fast and end up ahead of the guy's lead and he will be incapable of leading her. A leader who doesn't want to over control his partner will be forced to ignore the music and follow his follower's timing.

To lead means to come before. You cannot lead someone down a trail if they are 100 feet ahead of you. The lady needs to stay behind the guy. The guy needs to stay ahead.

How does she stay balanced then? Use the guy. It's up to the guy to provide what she needs to gain that security. But the girl also needs to recognize the team and use her man. She is not on her own. It's not entirely up to her to find the balance. Ideally she won't need him, but if she does lose her balance, then he is there for her. If she has to choose between falling into her steps and using her leader for support, then she needs to use her leader for support. She has to be willing to look to the guy for help when she needs it.

I know that for today's modern independent woman this might feel like a step backward, but this is a partner dance. We are a team. We help each other. This is especially true for the guy since he is the leader and the dance is literally and figuratively about the girl. (See my past posts for more explanation.)

The first priority for the guy is to help the girl. But he can only be there for her if she uses him.

#1 Guys: Be there for the girl. Be a team player.
#2 Girls: Use the guy. Be a team player.