Thursday, April 9, 2009

How to Follow in Salsa

Hi there!

In this post, I have given all the notes that I wrote up to help a couple of girls who were learning salsa but were having trouble following. Sure, they could have spent heaps of money on private lessons (my preferred approach!), but I thought I would share some advice with them as well (being the geek that I am!).

I hope these tips help you out!!

Basic step

Focus on doing your basic over and over - to slow groovy music, where there is no pause in the middle, only a smooth transition from moving forwards to moving backwards. From there, also practice cross body lead footwork all by yourself, and if you can, then build up to pivot turns all by yourself, and keeping your legs together during the pivot. Also focus on remaining on the line at all times, and small steps. Also focus on the foot placement... i.e. from inside foot to outside foot - rolling the foot to get a smooth placement and nice hip movement (it comes from the feet and knees, not hips directly).

Oh, and make sure that you don't lift your feet up like you are marching... they should just glide. Remember that on 2 and 6, it is just a weight transfer, not a step. So yeah, you are just gradually moving weight from one foot to the other, then back again. Six times in a full basic step. From there - i.e. once that is sorted - you can work on making the hips move in a figure eight, moving the ribcage, adding in the arms, and rolling the shoulders. But first of all, get the very basic sorted.

Body position

Slightly bent knees. Always leaning forward slightly. Well balanced. Dance on your toes more than anything else… i.e. never have your weight fully on your heels… ever. Keep the posture straight, and always have the chin up (very important) and chest out. This confident stance will make the single biggest difference to the appearance of your dancing.

Less is more. Styling needs to be sharp and short. Never style for more than one or two beats, and only style with a hand that you are certain will not be needed for those two beats. And only style if you are certain that your hand can return to a reachable position after the styling has taken place.

With arm movement… again, small circles. Don’t do anything that affects your basic or your ability to follow.

Hand position

Forearms fairly level with the floor. Wrists bent, with palm facing partner. Fingers from first to second knuckle level with the floor, rest of finger joints parallel with palm, allowing leader to slot in fingers between palm and fingertips. Thumbs free and facing inwards.

When dancing with one or both hands free, always have hands very close to side of ribcage, ready to catch the guys hand again. Also, always have hand in hooked position so that connection can be re-established. Never attempt to grab for the guys hand with your thumb…. Always connection through connection pressure, not grasping for a hand. That won’t work.


Active hands: The follower’s hands react to changes in direction (forward vs back). So, they must switch on when the leader applies pressure… i.e. resist the pressure, and then allow the pressure to direct your whole body in the given direction. In other words, do not let the leader pull your arm out of the “W” formation, or push your arm so that your elbow goes beyond the back of your torso. Just follow the direction of pressure, keeping your arms in a neutral position.

Do not allow hands to move (i.e. fingers to get pulled out of position). If pressure is applied to the palm of your hands, apply same pressure back. Same for fingers. The shape of the hand position never changes.

Never change your hand position during a move. Changing from hooked to flat will effectively release the guys hand, which will destroy the move. This is effectively the same as leading the move. If the guy wants the hand released for the next bit of the move, he will release the connection at the right time.

Try leaning forward (slightly) at all times (with slightly bent knees). This means that your energy is always forward, and you are able to react quickly to moves/signals that come. This means that at the end of a move, you need to be well balanced in order to remain in the forward-leaning position.


Always dance on the main track

Never finish a bar (4 beats) at a 45 angle (unless forced to by a leader’s pressure)… always stop facing the line or exactly perpendicular to it

For any move… stay on the line. After a free spin, after a crossbody lead, after a turn, anything. Always stay on that line.


When the arm runs out of length, stop. Don’t over rotate.

Never let your elbows go beyond your torso in either direction. Always keep the “W” form of the arms between partners.

When your arms are moved upwards, power your arms yourself. In other words, don’t let the leader move your arms/hands up with his own strength. Instead, as soon as you feel your arms being signalled to go upwards, move them upwards until the leader has reached the desired arm height. Not doing this is often referred to as “having heavy arms”, or arms that are not relaxed.

Try following “on the way in” (or on the second beat). So, for a copa, don’t read the copa on beat one (by detecting pressure on your hand towards your right hip). This might not be a copa at all… it could be a 360, a send-back… or many other moves. A copa is best detected on the second beat… i.e. the pull in (as here you can figure out if it is a copa – the lead in will be diagonally across the line, whereas for other moves – on the second beat the guy might walk behind you, etc).

For the cross body lead, don’t wait for pressure on the back to complete the move. Just stick to your own timing. Travel on 5, turn on 6, back on 7. Resist the temptation to pause on 4, waiting for the guy to push you through the move.

As soon as the move is complete, get the body and hands back into a position where connection can be re-established and a new move can be started. This means getting your body weight correct, not being off-balance, not being off the main line, etc.

Never be a heavy follower. Always be ready to stop, change direction. In other words, be light on your feet, and very very responsive to changes in signals. For example, you might be doing a wrap, and be thinking that you will just get wrapped up for an eight count before being unwrapped. However, the guy might be wanting to quickly give you a grasp on the shoulder and check turn out of the wrap. This will only work if you are ready to change direction at any point in the move (within reason).

The key to following (and leading) is to be exceptionally light. Regardless of the move, there should be basically no pressure or forcefulness. It should just be about holding your own weight, and taking responsibility for your own movement. Do not rely on the guy to move you around, spin you, keep you on the track, etc. It is dancing – by yourself – but lead/signalled by a second person who is connected to you. And you can from time to time take the liberty of not following a signal – i.e. hijacking or blocking… just to prove the point.


This is lead as:

Single turn prep – only ever a single turn. Don’t pivot… step the turn through

Check turn prep – prepare for at least two spins

If the spins start early (say on 3), expect at least three spins

If the spins start late (say on 5), expect no more than two spins

The final spin is lead by zero power… i.e. the final spin is done on previous momentum alone. If the current spin is not powered by the guy, expect that to be the final spin, with the arm closed down at the end of the spin. Some guys also signal with a quick hand grasp on the final spin.

Don’t spin the second the check turn signal is given (i.e. the hand is raised). Wait for the pressure to come on before spinning, and only spin at the tempo given… after all, it could be only two spins that span slowly (beats 3,4,5,6,7 and 8).

Use a cup grip… a loose cup grip… no grabbing on to fingers.

Keep your forearm straight up, your bicep parallel to the ground. Keep your body stiff and your arm in place… i.e. do not let your arm be spun first, followed by your rotated body. Your arm and body turn at the same time. Do not let your forearm rotate from your elbow (i.e. your wrist gets pulled in the direction of the spin). Keep your arm straight up… parallel with the walls and your body.

For moves that require spinning while travelling (pivot turns, outside turns, etc), keep the arm very rigid and active… i.e. be ready for potentially three or four spins, not just one. Again, this comes down to being responsive to signals, and using your own momentum to turn/spin, and not letting your hand/arm/upper body spin ahead of your upper body/lower body. If you allow this to happen, you will start to corkscrew, and end up getting “left behind”… i.e. the guy will have to stop the spinning as you will be spinning too slowly for the move to complete in time.

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