Thursday, August 19, 2010

What does it mean to be light on your feet?

You might think that being light on your feet means your feet are off the ground a lot. But that's not true. In fact, being light on your feet goes hand in hand with being grounded. You need to actually spend MORE time with your feet on the ground to be light on your feet.

Huh? How is that possible? Doesn't being grounded mean you are stable on the ground like a strong foundation? Yes, but you aren't immovable. Being grounded actually gives you the ability to switch your weight from one foot to the next with very little effort and time. And that is what being light on your feet really means. Being able to change your weight in an instant.

Well, there is more to it than that. You also have to be able to check your momentum in an instant. You are in control of your balance, your weight and your momentum. That is what makes you light on your feet.

How do you get light on your feet? Well, first off, you have to forget your feet. LOL. Seriously. Too many beginning dancers think everything about dance centers on the feet. While we do use our feet to dance, the feet can't do anything if our bodies aren't moving. Beginning dancers have difficulty turning because their bodies turn so slowly.

So the first thing you have to do to become light on your feet is to conquer this inevitable difficulty: make your body lead your feet. You learned how to do that when you learned to walk at 2 years old. Everyone on the planet moves not by moving their feet but by moving their body. Don't believe me? Watch yourself walk in a mirror.

Still not convinced? Record yourself and play the video in slow motion. You will notice that you actually move your body first, not your feet. One foot pushes your body forward and the other foot keeps you from falling down. That foot catches up to your body, then the momentum/inertia of your body moving allows the first foot (the one that originally pushed the body forward) to catch up to the next step. Meanwhile the second foot pushes your body forward. Well, it can't very well push you forward if it's moving, can it? See? Your feet move last! In fact the foot that starts the pushing motion is the foot that moves at the very end!

So, when you dance don't forget how to walk. Move your body. When you turn or spin, get your body around first. Your feet will follow. Consequently, you'll be lighter on your feet.

Now when I say get your body around, I don't mean push yourself off. I don't mean wind up like a spring and explode yourself into a spin. Forget that. That is BAAAD technique. Turns and spins don't happen that way. I'll cover spinning later but certainly turns are done slowly, changing your weight fully with each step, as your body TURNS, not spins.

(Read the article on the difference between turning and spinning.)

So, turn properly. Change your weight with every step. Now you can't be in control if you are doing this while taking large steps. So the simple answer is to take small steps. Well, teachers have been trying to drill that mantra into students noggins forever, but it doesn't change things but only slowly. The students still take big steps. So how do you make yourself take smaller steps? Clearly there is something causing you to take big steps. What could it be? Your momentum. You aren't in control. So you have to put less energy into your movement. Make each step deliberate, the same as when you walk. So, don't just take smaller steps. Move slower. Yep, moving slower can actually help you to get around your turns FASTER!!!! HAHAHAH!!!

It seems so illogical doesn't it! But not if you think about it this way. If you push yourself off, you're more likely to be off balance more often. You are more likely to step wrong. You are more likely to get off time. And you are more likely to tire. But if you make your movements more relaxed, then you will be in more control. And THAT is where speed comes from. Speed doesn't come from energy. It comes from control. You need to be in control of your body and your feet. YOU. Not the other way around.

So, how do you know how big of a step to take? Well, if you move your body instead of your feet, the answer becomes very simple. Keep your feet under your body. Just move your feet to where your body is. Easy. Keep the time. In LA Style salsa the guy's steps are Left, Right, Left; Right, Left, Right. And the girls steps are opposite. Maintain that rhythm. You might need to count. Keep your feet under your body, and move your body first. It's that simple. Do that and you'll be grounded and light on your feet too.


  1. This is all wrong. Why would a beginner dancer suddenly magically "forget" how to walk? They just panic when they hear music and lose the ability to walk?

  2. Now you said that this is ALL wrong. Is every bit of it wrong? Or just the one thing you said?

    Beginners do forget how to walk. Well, of course they know how to walk, but they have to switch their brain from "dance mode" to "walking mode" before they can do it. They don't use their walking ability when they dance. Do they? No. They don't. Music doesn't even have to come on. They just think about the word "dance" and they disconnect their movement with walking. They think what they are about to learn is something new, so they don't use their walking ability. Not all beginners of course. In face most beginners do use their walking ability, but I'm talking to the few who do not. As an instructor, I don't like to ignore people who have trouble. I honestly believe that you can teach everyone how to dance. At least the basics. And I think everyone can learn how to do the basics fairly well. After all, it IS just walking. So my articles are written for everyone.

    I understand what you mean but I really said to forget the feet to emphasize that when people think about dancing they ONLY think about their feet. They forget about moving their body. A lot of beginners just tap their feet, right? They "dip their toes into the pool," right? Why? Because they think dancing is all about the feet.

    There is something about that word "dance" that gets some beginning salsa dancers confused. The word "dance" has a lot of baggage associated with it, especially with the popular TV shows. Now they are dancing and they have to do all of these crazy things and they stop doing what they know how to do. They don't think dancing has anything to do with walking. They think that dancing is some mysterious ability you have to dedicate tens of thousands of hours to conquer but if they realize that dancing begins with walking, the mountain of learning to dance can be turned into a molehill.

    By the way. I wrote this article in about 10 minutes and didn't spend too much time editing it. I'll probably edit it sometime in the future and my edit might make your comment moot. Just a heads up.

  3. Walking is a mode of transportation optimized for energy efficiency over long distance, very different from dancing where the you optimize your movements for other criterias, mainly balance and the ability to change speed and direction at all times.

    I stopped reading after this initial popular mistake. You are giving inaccurate information to your students and the public.

    You underestimate your students in an absurd way when you actually think they have this little control over their emotions, when the problem is you actually ask them to do something extremely complex.

    You can probably show it to them, but you have no idea about the differences between dance steps and walking steps. If you can't explain things, at least don't pretend to and spread complete misinformation. Showing can be good enough.

  4. You didn't read the entire post and you say it's "all wrong." How can you say that I'm giving inaccurate information if you won't read the explanation?

    You can't have a discussion with someone if you don't listen.

  5. You say I underestimate my students then you say they are doing something complex, all in the same sentence. Believe me. Very little of the fundamental moves in salsa are complex and if you think they are then you missed the entire point of the article. Oh, I forget. You didn't read the article.

    How long have you been dancing? How long have you been teaching? I can and do explain things in my classes. I explain so well my group classes are capable of executing the most difficult non-spinning move (the cross body lead with left turn) in one hour with confidence, balance and control when other instructors can't teach their private students the same movement in a month.

    Showing is quite often NOT good enough. If you are incapable of explaining the what and why of the dancing movement then a very large portion of the general population can't learn from you. Showing without explanation only works for gifted students. Most people learn with the ear as well as the eye.

    If you think that the act of turning is an "extremely complex" movement then it's no wonder you think the way you do. Every 8 year old girl is capable of executing traveling turns all the way down the street to the bus stop but put her on the dance floor 20 years later and she forgets.

    Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. If you understand the mechanics behind the simple act of walking (99% of people do not), you will realize just how much easier... er... less complex it is to "balance" and "change speed and direction" while you dance. It's really not as complex as you want to think.

    The fundamental salsa moves only become complex when you add flavor, when you spice them up with Latin motion and styling. Non-fundamental moves shouldn't be learned until the fundamental moves are mastered.

    Now if you please, read the entire article.

  6. Well explained! There is an art and science to everything; those folks obviously left their artistic hats at the front door.

  7. I know this is old but this is an excellent article, many good points. I’m gonna remember this in my class tomorrow, many things about body movement and control I need to be mindful of, thank you.