The language of Salsa: A conversation between two equals

20 Aug

I’ve had some interesting conversations with several people over the last few weeks regarding the leading and following dynamic in Salsa dancing, so I want to address it here. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about the interplay of two dancers on the floor that need to be cleared up.

A good friend of mine said he got this comment on the dance floor: “This isn’t 1950—guys don’t control girls.”


No, guys don’t control girls in Salsa dancing. Follows (typically ladies, though not always) control themselves. The lead protects and respects the follow’s space, inviting the follow to engage in the dialogue of the dance. The lead communicates clearly what step comes next. The lead isn’t domineering or controlling in a way that puts the follow down—instead, the lead is the canvas on which the follow can do the painting. Both are integral to creating a piece of art.

Following is a skill that must be acquired, just as is leading. Follows, listen to me: you aren’t losing your autonomy and blindly following the leader. You are so in control of your own body that you can respond appropriately to the cues that the lead gives you. It’s about being observant, aware, responsive, and confident.

Let’s think about it like this: If you’re having a conversation with someone and they ask you a question, usually you’re in control of your thoughts and your mouth enough that you can respond almost immediately.

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You ask, I answer. You talk, I listen. I say something, you respond. Salsa dancing is a conversation, a poem in motion, a connection. Good leads and good follows know that the dance is not about just one person—it’s two people coming together to work as a unit. What you do affects me, what I do affects you. It’s the ultimate exercise in cause and effect, in what you give is what you get. And it’s supposed to be fun.

In a weird way, I see following like being on the show “Jeopardy.” Contestants on “Jeopardy” are ready for anything that Alex Trebek throws at them. Being a follow in Salsa is kind of the same thing—you are so incredibly prepared that you can respond to anything at a moment’s notice. You have no idea what’s coming a minute from now—but whatever it is, you are prepped. You’re aware enough of where your feet are that you can place them where they should go as soon as you get a cue from your lead.

For me, there’s a sense of empowerment in that feeling. There’s an “in the moment-ness” that comes only from following. It’s you, your partner, and the music. You have to be fully alert and focused on just those three things, or you will get confused, miss the cues, stumble. I love dancing with leads who are so much better than I could ever dream to be. It’s hard, it’s scary, but it totally clears my mind and turns the dance into a moving meditation. And then I learn. How to respond faster. How to pay closer attention. How to be more in control of myself.

I think about two particularly memorable leads I’ve danced with in the last few months. I danced with my friend Michael from Augusta at Orlando Salsa Congress. Throughout the entire dance, I felt like a princess. I was floating on a cloud. He was smooth, confident, compassionate, and fun. He’s a fantastic dancer in his own right, but the dance wasn’t about him or about me. It was about us enjoying the music and the dance for a few minutes. I missed plenty of steps, but that was because I would stop paying attention to what I was doing for a moment.

Another phenomenal lead is my friend Bader from Kuwait. He was in Charleston for a few weeks for work and came out dancing. He’s a seasoned pro—he’s been dancing and teaching for at least two decades and I am certain has seen it all at this point. He’s strong, but not forceful, confident but not cocky, and makes you feel like you are the best and only dancer in the room.

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I want to mention a few caveats to this whole leading/following dynamic discussion: Some people simply do not have good chemistry dancing with one another. Two amazing dancers may come together and have a sort of “blah” dance. It’s the same way that there are some people you can talk to for hours on end and others with whom you struggle to make small talk.

Leading and following are also not gender specific. I know some ladies who are incredible leads (Yaenette and Briana, what’s up) and some gents who can follow (and style) better than many ladies. Often, the best dancers can do both.

So, at the end of the day, Salsa dancing (or any social dancing) is about engaging someone in a meaningful connection, however fleeting. And if that’s not equalizing and empowering (and enjoyable), I don’t know what is.

Respect that…bow down b*******. JUST KIDDING!!!! That totally defeats the purpose of the whole post. I just couldn't resist!

Respect that…bow down b******….
JUST KIDDING!!!! That totally defeats the purpose of the whole post. I just couldn’t resist!


2 Responses to “The language of Salsa: A conversation between two equals”

  1. Stacey August 23, 2014 at 12:39 am #

    This is a wonderful way of explaining the magic of the lead-follow relationship. This is exactly why I’d much rather be a great social dancer than a great performer.

    • gschrubbe August 27, 2014 at 11:50 am #

      Thank you Stacey! Thanks for reading and commenting! The lead-follow relationship is magical and social dancing is such a beautiful thing. Keep dancing!

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