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Frequently Asked Questions about Salsa Lessons/Classes in Harpenden

When ever one starts something new, there are usually a few question marks making adventures in your head, then they meet up and have babies! So, don't worry if you have lots of questions, and don't worry if you think they sound silly or not assured and be confident that these have all been asked many times before!

Below I have listed a few of the more common ones, but just contact me if you can't find the answer, or simply want more information, and I will be only too happy to help.

Do I need to come with a partner?


It doesn't matter if you come with a partner or not. In the lessons we move everyone round every few minutes so everyone gets a go with everyone else. We do this because salsa is a social dance and we are teaching you to dance so that you can go to any salsa club and dance with anyone there. Moving round is also a good way of getting acquainted with the other people in the class.

Do I need to book in advance?


We don't take bookings for a Thursday night - there are 6 levels of class, and each stage covers a band of material. The first two beginners stages are the same each week, so you just drop in and do these classes as many times as necessary - you won't miss out if you can't make it every week. The other four levels are different each week, but over the course of a few months all the content for that band is covered - this keeps it exciting: and, again, you won't miss out if you can't make it one week as the material is repeated.

I really want to start, but I am feeling shy about coming along on my own?


Every person who has started salsa has felt shy to some degree. The instructors are very friendly and won't let you get behind, or embarrass you. All the people at the club have the same thing in their mind - they want to have fun and learn to dance salsa... just like you. In the first class (Absolute Beginner) all we assume is that you can walk, so you won't be forced to dance with someone until you gain a little confidence and  feel comfortable with the basics.

When can I start?


The initial classes of Absolute Beginner and BeginnerPlus are run the same every week so there is no need to book - just turn up. In these two classes you dictate your own pace. If you miss a week it won't affect your tuition - you won't miss out. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll be burning up the dance floor with some cool moves.

What about age?


Our club consists of a broad spectrum of ages, sizes, and personalities. The one thing in common between them all is that they are all friendly and want to dance - and that's all that matters. We have young adults still in education through to mature dancers who are retired. Everyone is welcomed by instructors and students alike. Age is certainly no guide to ability or enthusiasm.

What shoes should I wear?

Something well fitting & comfortable that turns easily.

Dance trainers are recommended. Personally I don't get on with them too well, but if you are doing a lot of dancing they help protect your knee joints from both impact and twisting stresses (so I force myself to wear them most of the time). Don't wear normal trainers - these are way too sticky and will hamper you, and could cause injury. Lots of men and women wear leather soled shoes, which are fine. Ladies usually prefer something with a slight heel, which is also fine. If you are a beginner it's good to start in something that you'll continue using for while - don't be tempted to make the heel too high until you have gained some experience. I see girls dancing in 3 inch heels, but it takes a bit of practice and I don't recommend it for anyone below intermediate level. Make sure the shoe is firmly secured to your foot, so for open heeled shoes make sure the strap keeps your heel in contact with the sole when you lift your foot - loose shoes are dangerous and will cause you to turn your ankle. If you're a girl then it's probably good advice not to have open toed shoes as this can leave your pinkies a bit vulnerable right where there's lot of busy foot activity.

Wellington boots and sandals are a definite no-no: wellies because they are just not salsa! and sandals because they will just make you incredibly clumsy with your feet and are therefore dangerous. Never dance in bare feet at a club: the floors are invariably wooden, and some are in not-so-good condition. Bare feet will also leave you open to friction burns, especially if you are a woman as you tend to be spun a lot - and, bare feet offer no impact protection for your knee joints, or armour against stray stomping.

The most important thing is to make sure your footwear is comfortable as you will be moving your feet quite a lot!

What clothes should I wear?


It doesn't really matter what you wear to dance in as long as you can move your limbs easily. Most people wear smart-casual. Very baggy upper clothing can get in the way of arm and hand coordination, and can get caught by fingers as you move through turn patterns. Skirts that drag on the floor are a total nightmare for the guys! Above all wear something light as you can get quite warm dancing.

Jewelry: Well I've had some interesting mishaps, but nothing serious. For the guys, please make sure your watch strap is secured properly - a dangling buckle can easily get caught in a girls hair during a turn and bring the dance to and unceremonious halt. I have had the odd button caught in a lacey top - which is highly amusing for onlookers - but easily remedied with deft digital manipulation. Loop ear-rings are fine, but when Maria wears them they are always the pull-apart type and not the clasp type - just in case a stray finger threads one (I think Maria has lost 2 ear-rings like this, but has never noticed until she got home!). Long (girls) hair looks fab in spins and turns, but for the guy there is the extra challenge of avoiding it flaying you eyes - Maria has very long hair, so I have developed some nifty reflexes to avoid eye distress. The worst eye attack I had was with a very competent girl who had 3 foot hair, in dreadlocks, and with beads. The first time she went around I bore the full birching across the eyes, of course I gallantly continued to dance, a smile through the tears streaming down my face... I thought I was ready the second time, but alas no - I wonder if she ever wondered why every guy she danced with left the floor crying. Seriously though, I have never heard of anyone sustaining a serious injury because of clothing or jewelry, but it's always best to be cautious to start with.

Do I need to bring anything?

A smile :-)

You don't really need to bring anything, except enthusiasm and a smile. There is a bar that serves all manner of drinks from coffee to beer, and snacks. Some people bring a shoe bag so they can change their shoes (and keep their favorite dancing shoes for the dance floor).

How long will it take me to learn salsa?


Learning to dance is like learning a language. All our instructors are widely regarded as top dancers, however, we all still go to lessons by other top teachers, who in turn go other lessons.. etc. One beauty of salsa is that it stays exciting because there is always new stuff to learn and old stuff to perfect. Learning the language of dance means that there are rules to learn to start with, and the pace at which students progress depends on the quality of the instructors, the amount of time the student practices, and how much the student pays attention in the class. People's busy life styles means that every one learns at a different rate. If you've had dance experience, then you'll probably do well in the beginning stages: but those that haven't had any dance experience often start slow and then accelerate beyond the others (maybe because they pay closer attention). Women often move through the first stages more quickly than men because men have the added complication of learning to lead - this is rather like trying master an arcane game based on patting one's head whilst rubbing one's stomach. Once men have reached their "ah-ha" moment in leading the first moves, then they start to accelerate. Later on men often progress more quickly and ultimately become more accomplished than the women who left them standing in the first stages.

Beginners usually spend anywhere between 1 and 5 dance hours learning the basic step. It's a bit longer for the Improvers' steps. Intermediate is longer still because in the Beginner classes you are learning foundations, whereas in Intermediate upwards you are learning move-patterns. When I learnt I spent 1 year in the Intermediate, but most people spend less. Generally the longer a student spends in a class before they move up, the better the dancer they become in the end. In any case though, you will start to have fun and enjoy dancing what you have been taught right from the very beginning.

The three rules to learning to dance are: 1) PRACTICE. 2) PRACTICE. 3)PRACTICE.

Do you do private salsa lessons?

Yes - they are the best way to get really good really fast...

Private lessons are an excellent way of starting or accelerating your salsa dancing ability. Some people like to have a course of private lessons to boost their confidence before they start attending a club, and they are an excellent way of sorting out following or leading problems or learning correct techniques for core movement, spinning, style or particular moves. One-off lessons are available, but courses are more cost effective, and will focus learning in a much better way. See the Private Salsa Lesson page for detailed information.

How do I progress through the classes?

It varies.

As I said before the rate you learn at depends on several factors. However, the classes are structured thus. The first three levels are essentially the same each week, and when you feel you've learned all you can from that level then you move up to the next and so on. In Beginners and BeginnerPlus there is no partner work - here we are laying the all important foundations. In Improvers you learn how to dance with a partner - leading and following and other technicalities. From Intermediate upwards the classes are move based and are different each week. Students spend longer in these classes until they have mastered the repertoire of that particular level, and then they move on. Typically a dedicated student will achieve the Advanced level in two years, and Intermediate within 8 to 10 weeks. Not all clubs are the same in their levels - we have six levels because there is a big difference between Beginner and Advanced at Salsa Machine.

What is Salsa?


Salsa originated in the Latin-American countries. There are now two basic styles: Cuban salsa, and the more modern "Cross-body" salsa. Cross-body salsa isn't where you dance with an angry body... it's a loose term describing the continual exchange of places by partners on an imaginary line on the dance floor: the girl crosses the man by travelling along the line, and the man moves off the line and back on again after an exchange. The step sequence is substantially the same in both Cuban and Cross-body, though the moves are significantly different and also looks quite different. The main difference in the basic step is that with Cuban salsa the feet mark 4 beats in the bar with a transfer of weight on 3 of the beats, and a tap or pause on the fourth, whereas in cross-body salsa only 3 beats are marked by a transfer of weight and a slow step over the fourth - in fact this why most people initially struggle with the basic step in cross-body salsa: the slow step is initially quite difficult to time correctly. I started with Cuban salsa, and then discovered Cross-body. For me and my personal interpretation of the music it allowed me to be much more expressive and suited me style better (It feels better for me - but that is purely personal preference). There is a massive move repertoire in Cross-body salsa, which appeals to the blokes, and from the women that I know who prefer Cross-body they say that it gives them fantastic opportunities to incorporate loads of styling and express themselves through the music. Salsa Machine exclusively teaches Cross-body salsa, though both styles are danced in the free-style social dancing after the lessons.

Salsa is basically a partner dance. It started to have a significant impact in the UK in about 1990, and through the 90s it rapidly gained popularity. Since 2000 it seems to have gone wild, and there are now many clubs where you can just pop along and have a good night dancing with total strangers all night. Sounds a bit strange, but its because dancing is a fantastic social way of having fun without having to drink copious amounts of alcohol, or tax your brain on a deep conversation - plus there's a dancer in all of us: it probably originates from dancing round the camp fire, where you were safe from hungry tigers - i.e. evolution has probably programmed us to love dancing because it quite literally saved our lives. Personally if think dancing satisfies an intrinsic need inside all of us - some of us just don't know it yet...

Here's one for the men: In salsa the man leads, and the woman follows - this is about the the only time in a man's life that he gets control of his woman and it's not an illusion!! Actually, leading and following are both arts, and it's about 50-50 on effort between good dancers, but leading is quite difficult and lots of men get put off early on because it's so hard. The reason is that they have to signal at the correct time, whilst keeping their feet going in time to the music - at first its like rubbing your stomach whilst patting you head - but with practice it becomes second nature. Following is a different problem, its more to do with "listening" with your body, especially hands and arms. Anyway it always causes a lot of hilarity when it all goes belly-up - that's part of the fun: learning. It is completely normal for women to ask guys to dance, and a dance consists partners exchanging places in a large variety of ways called "moves". The moves can be from a simple cross-body exchange all the way up to double turns and syncopated spins where both partners are turning at the same time. Learning this stuff is all part of the rich pageant that is Salsa.

Do I have to be fit to dance Salsa?


Salsa is a bit like energetic ballroom dancing in that its no walk in the park, but on the other hand I have never really got out of breath salsaring. It's more like a steady elevated rise in in metabolism. I've heard it said from several sources that salsa burns 16Kcal a minute, which I can believe. Lots of people lose weight when they first start: I eat a mountain of food when I get back at night from salsaring. One thing it is definitely good for is making you agile. The increased endorphin levels from the enjoyment tend to suppress feelings of fatigue, so it always seems easy to dance - as opposed to painful when doing the washing-up! Warm-ups are important because they increase the fluid in the joints which in turn protects the joints. You'll gain control over upper body muscles, and in your feet and legs - this will be good for overall balance, posture, poise and upper body composure. If you have any joint, neck or back problems then of course it's always wise to consult your doctor beforehand. Most people have some ailment, but in general dancing is good for the soul and thus has a beneficial effect on the physical body. One of our instructors has a fused spine, but she is a totally superb dancer (I would have never known had she not told me). Maria has such a supple spine that I bang her head on the floor if I dip her!! I guess you should always be careful at any physical activity, but at the end of the day you can't expect to have perfect physical fitness before you start anything, or expect not to sustain the odd minor bruise, because if you did you'd have to sit in front of the telly 24 hours a day in a suit of armour! 

Tell me about the music?

4:4 ~200bpm.

The music varies enormously, but it all has the same basic rhythm in common. Although there are various rhythms within rhythms salsa is danced to a strong pattern of 8 beats comprising 2 bars. The first bar we label 1,2,3,4 - logically enough, and the second 5,6,7,8. The basic step is made on 1,2,3 and 5,6,7. The speed various about +-20% from 200bpm depending on the piece. There is a gargantuan repertoire of renditions from very percussion based music to very melody based music, and the instruments vary enormously, as do the singing styles. The vast majority of salsa music is not English, but the stupendous spectrum of available salsa music means that there is always something to please almost anyone. There must be hundreds of salsa bands around the globe - the music seems to cut across all cultures. The dancing definitely inspires your own interpretation of each piece and is why so many people get a kick out of expressing themselves on the dance floor. When a piece of music "does it" for you, then it just carries the dance. I quite often catch myself sing along to lyrics to which I have no conception of their foreign meaning!

For a more technical definition salsa music is defined as containing certain percussion instruments. The purist defines salsa as containing the clave, though most salsa dances would say the Conga, played on the Tumbao, (pronounced Tumbow - the "bow" as in a bending forward salutation) gives them the rich timing that makes them dance well. The clave is an instrument and a percussive pattern - basically two hard short thick sticks banged together on 2, 3, 5, 6.5 and 8. It contains all the timing information required to dance perfect salsa, though on it's own is a little tedious! The Tumbao is a bit like a tall bongo, and the Conga rhythm is 16 hand-hit "beats" over 2 bars: 8 hits are marked for each bar (i.e. 16 hits in a full basic step) - though it still only marks 4 beats of music in each bar, it's just that it supplies extra rich timing information in the half beats. As a side note, this is why when one gets better at salsa dancing, the preference is "proper" salsa music as opposed to R&B for example (R&B doesn't have the same rich timing content). The Conga is played with sequence of 4 different sounds made by different hand positions when hitting the hide. There are a number of Conga rhythms, but the vast majority naturally mark 8 (or 4) and 2 (or 6). A 2-drum Conga more easily identifies the difference between bar 1 and bar 2 (the 2 drums being tuned differently), so this sort of pattern is easy to follow and stay in time with. The 8 (or 4) [and commonly the 8(4) and 8.5(4.5)] get an "open" hit, which sounds like a "bong", an the 2 and 6 get a "pop" which is a loud popping sound, but dead with no resonance. When the pop is dominant in the music, salsa feels nice danced on the 2 [same as 1, but with the break on 2 - the sequence of weight transfers is identical, it's just a different spatial pattern]. There are other instruments like the cow-bell, which marks 8, 8.5, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 4.5, 5... etc, and some variations, and a washboard sound (which I can't remember the correct name for). Listening to proper salsa music, and identifying 1 by using the melody is usually enough to the retrofit that on to the percussion and use that for your timing in the dance. Of course the lovely melodies, breaks, transitions, bridges and phrases in the music is what drives your style and attitude whilst dancing, and this is expression of your inner interpretation when dancing salsa.

What's the etiquette?


Salsa is very social. Most people go to a salsa dance club for three reasons: 1) To learn and dance salsa. 2) To have fun. 3) They like the people there (students and instructors). The relative importance varies depending on the person. For me it was always number 1, and as I got more confident the other 2 became more important. At any salsa club it is completely okay, and expected, for the women to ask the men to dance, and is not considered in anyway forward or inappropriate. People are at a dance club to dance. I get students ask me to dance during the evening and I encourage it. If you feel that it is not appropriate for you, or you feel a little shy about asking a partner to dance, then standing near the edge of the dance floor usually gets you noticed. It's a really good idea to ask one of the instructors to dance if you are fairly new to salsa as dancing with them will boost you confidence, and of course you can be sure they are "doing it right" (although we're not saying we're arrogant enough to believe we don't make mistakes - we make plenty, we're just good at hiding them!). As far as I know, no one has ever turned anyone down for a dance at our club.

Where can I practice?

Where there's a floor!

Actually it depends on what you want to practice: For your basic step, and basic footwork patterns for the basic moves, just about anywhere will do. One of the most favourite places is in the restrooms at work - everyone who starts salsa develops a special technique of suddenly pretending to inspect the ceiling whilst in the middle of practicing a move when someone rudely bursts in to use the facilities. My advice; practice everywhere and anywhere - the more honed your basics, the better the dancer you'll become. For spinning and turning it's best to use a smooth floor (i.e. not carpet), as otherwise you may run the risk of injury. The absolute best place to practice is to dance at the club in the free-style session after the lesson, and at out monthly parties - there is absolutely no substitute for this: the atmosphere and the people and the music will tap into your dance energy and carry you along. After all, that's why we do it in the first place.

Do you do private salsa parties?

Yes. The best way to celebrate is with a Latin theme!

Lots of people like to have a private salsa party for a wedding, birthday, anniversary etc. We will provide all the equipment, music, DJing, and 2 dancers for as many party lessons as you want. Both of us will join in the dancing to set the atmosphere, and music can be a mixture of salsa and dance or pop music - basically what ever you want! SeeServices for full details. We also do demonstrations and cabarets.


Anything else I should know?

A few things...

Because salsa is such amazing fun, the endorphins flow quite easily: This has two important effects; 1) Your enjoyment, energy level, concentration and learning abilities soar. 2) Your feelings of fatigue are masked by the "feel-good" factor. Take advantage that you are on a high, but remember that your body is using energy, and loosing moisture. Complex carbohydrates before you go to salsa are a good idea. Simple sugars may just give you a quick boost followed by a quick dip before salsa, but are ideal when you are actually doing the dancing. You only have to lose 5% of your body water to start feeling quite "out of energy", so make sure you drink plenty of liquids. Water is ideal as it is quickly absorbed into the blood stream. Personally I drink 2 isotonic drinks, and a litre of fizzy water on a Thursday - but just water when I go dancing other nights.

When one does any sort of physical activity one will get warm. When the weather's warm and you've been dancing your socks off all night then one can "glow". Fresh "glow" is always more palatable to other dancers - so it's always a good idea to shower before salsaring. This is pretty much common sense! In the same vein, chewing or sucking mints is a good idea if you've just had garlic and fish curry before going to salsa!!!

It takes two to Tango. It also takes two to salsa. Whatever your level, you can be assured that your partner is there to have fun - just like you. Sometimes one is tired, or a piece of music just doesn't "do it" for you, and remember this applies to everyone. Try to give your partner confidence who ever they are and or whatever their level, smile, enjoy their efforts, and be a 50% participant in the dance. For women this means being a good follower, and for men this means being good leader: women can't be expected to know any moves - men have to lead them all; it's tough but that's our cross. Women can help a man by keeping perfect time, and encouragin

Any advice before you shut up?


Salsa dancing is about having fun in a social environment. Everyone goes through phases where they find something hard, or are getting frustrated with a move or step. However, the main thing to bare in mind is that we are all there to have fun, so let this be your mantra: Fun, dancing and friends.

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