Salsa: A flavour dance with music at its heart.- Corie Harnett

The momentum most certainly is palpable. St. John’s is on the fast track to joining the ranks of other Canadian and international cities that boast vibrant salsa social dance scenes. The recent launch of The Sunday Salsa Social at Mexicali Rosa’s has drawn this city’s multicultural melange of dancers out of the mid-winter woodwork. Students and seasoned salseros alike are braving the elements, venturing down to the Latin-themed restaurant on George Street to get their weekly salsa fix, moving their bodies to the feisty, fiery rhythms inside despite the backdrop of less than tropical weather conditions outside. After all, Canadian winter is no match for a salsero.

Having been bitten by the bug, many have confessed that salsa is the vice that gets them through the work week. Beyond this, and besides the obvious “Hey! It’s exercise, it’s good for you!” drawing card, the benefits of salsa are many. For instance, upon arrival in a new city, people will often hunt for an underground salsa scene to anchor themselves in—a community of fellow Latin dance aficionados from around the globe with whom to dance the night away, making salsa a celebration of cultural diversity as well as unity, giving folks from all over the world the opportunity to express themselves in the universal language of dance.

As veterans of this dance form will tell you, salsa can be addictive. If you’ve ever experienced the rush, that pure exhilaration that results from an amazing dance in which you shared a fabulous connection with your partner and the mutual feeling that the two of you just participated in a never before created and never to be created again masterpiece in motion on the dance floor, then you’ll know it’s true. The thrill of the moment-to-moment movement through an awesome social dance really does leave you wanting more. And more. And more!

But what is it that makes an awesome salsa social dance, compared to a “meh, that was okay”, or worse, a “oh dear lord, please let this song end so I can get away from this person” kind of salsa social dance? Well, I suppose it’s in some measure a different-strokes-for-different-folks type deal. But, in my opinion, a couple of steadfast dance fundamentals are also at play here, and they are important prerequisites to the type of salsa magic I’ve described above.

The first is connection. This is a partner dance after all, and two dancers are functioning as a single dance unit, therefore the connection between these two individuals is of utmost importance. I should note here that this “connection” I speak of does have an ethereal component to it that is best chalked up as chemistry. In life, you’re going to click better with some folks than with others, and the same holds true on the social dance floor. But fear not, we’re not totally at the mercy of our dance pheromones or other such agents of salsa chemistry here. Good salsa instruction (or, if you are Latino, attending many family functions and social engagements in the early years of your life) will cover the important elements of a solid lead-follow connection, which umpteen hours, days, months, years of practice will lay down in the muscle memory.

And the second steadfast dance fundamental key to a shared experience of salsa social dance bliss falls under the umbrella of what I like to call “Respecting the Music (RTM)”. RTM encompasses facets such as Rhythm, Timing and Musicality, which are outgrowths of a firm foundation in “feeling” any given song you are dancing to. Alas, this “feeling” business does come more naturally to some than others. But if you do happen to fall in the “others” category, don’t worry, don’t panic, devoting a little time and practice to taking notice of the counts or beats in a song (and finding that ever so elusive “1”!) will pay out in salsa social dance magic dividends.

Newsflash, leads: There is a strong onus on you here! Whether you dance L.A. Style, New York Style, Cuban Style, Cumbia, Cali or anything in between, you must really observe the music, and have awareness of the rhythm and timing you’re catering to in a given song in order to stand any chance of your follow riding the same wavelength as you. Utter disregard of the song that’s being played in favour of dancing to the beat of your own drum will not take you very far in a partner dance such as this. You and your partner are a team, so if your rhythm and timing are too erratic and random** for your follow to….well…follow, your wires are going to get crossed, I assure you. Setting her up with a bad pass will only cause her to fumble the ball (I am not a very sporty girl, folks; ergo I am doing my best here with the team sports analogies).

Relax, fellas! No need to bust out every move you ever learned in a single social dance; there’s plenty of time for that later on down the road once you’ve gotten the steadfast dance fundamentals down pat. That’s the beauty of salsa, it’s got so many layers to it, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls, one inside the other, going from smallest to largest. The big flashy intricate turn patterns are kind of like the biggest doll, the one on the outside that everyone sees first. Then you open ‘er up to find that there are sequentially smaller and smaller dolls inside, until you get to the last, tiniest un-openable doll, and, well, that’s like the aforementioned steadfast dance fundamentals, for they’re at the core and not visible to an unsuspecting eye.

Dancing with a lead who prioritizes big flashy moves and intricate patterns without giving due diligence to the fundamentals is akin to opening up those sequential layers of Russian nesting dolls only to discover a wet noodle at the core instead of that tiny little solid doll you were expecting to find there. Confusing and disappointing. And the feeling is quite unanimous, folks, every gal I’ve ever talked to about this agrees: We’d rather dance a whole song of basic steps to the music with our partner than trample over top of the music as though it wasn’t even playing at all, trying to keep up with a partner who is sprinting to an imaginary salsa finish line, leaving a trail of poorly executed (and at times hazardous) turn patterns and figures in his wake.

**Note that playing with rhythms is different than haphazardly switching between rhythms—in order to break the rules, you must first know what they are!!**

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when learning to lead. After all, it’s quite a steep learning curve, and certainly frustrating at times to master the art of being in the present moment’s moves while setting up the next sequence of moves in the dance. Keep the faith, it just needs a pinch of time–and a heaping tablespoon of RTM!

In conclusion, salsa is a flavour dance with the music at its heart. And this music is so rich, interesting, dynamic and polyrhythmic, encouraging a sense of play and inviting of one’s own personal styling within the framework established by the steadfast fundamentals. Worth getting to know more intimately, wouldn’t you say? And definitely worth exploring anew each time you step out on to the dance floor. Each new song is an open horizon, a new opportunity for an awesome social dance. Explore it, play with it, enjoy it. Bring yourself fully to the moment, to the dance. So go on St. John’s salseros, get out there and make some salsa magic! Savour the flavour! Bailamos con sabor!

🙂 Corie

Corie Harnett, our Salsa in St. John’s blogger, is a “Corie o’grapher,” Dance Theatre Artist, Arts Educator, and Writer. She’s one of the hosts of the Sunday Salsa Socials at Mexicali Rosa’s. You can also learn from Corie at LADIES’ LATIN STYLING DANCE CLASSES WITH CORIE, which starts Sun Mar 4th, 1012 at Wild Lily Dance Centre. COST: $12 per class on a drop-in basis or $80 for the full 8 week session, payable in full on the first class. Please email Corie at for more info and to pre-register.

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