How I Learnt Salsa In Thirty Days (And You Can Too)

Learning Salsa
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It seems like yesterday that I had arrived in Cali, a city in south-west Colombia and also the Salsa capital of the world. The same evening I was at a salsateca or a salsa club. I watched beautiful women and smart blokes create poetry on the dance floor. But all I could feel was anxiety.
‘Will I be able to do this?’ I asked myself. I had challenged myself to get good at salsa. That in itself was a huge challenge for a non-dancing hombre like me. In what seemed like stupidity in retrospect that night, I had challenged myself to become one of the better salsa dancers in one month. This meant I had about 20 nights of actual dancing and suddenly the month seemed much shorter.
Cut to 25 days later.
My friend Tatiana seemed best suited to create a final video as proof as my salsa skills. But it wasn’t without hesitation that  I asked her. It was both a relief and delight when she agreed to the idea.
Her statement after that gave me confidence that the Salsa challenge had been successful.
‘You dance really well. Most people focus on their next steps while dancing. But you just have fun and that is important.’
Coming from a Calena(a girl from Cali) and a tango dancer at the top of her game, those words were reassuring.
We ended up creating the video together and you could watch it and diss or adore my salsa skills. I will love you nevertheless.
The video impresses most people when they realise that a month before creating this, the man featured here had no clue about salsa.
If you feel the same way, then let me now deconstruct how I managed to rock salsa within a month for you. These techniques could be applied to any skill that you like.

Number one: The right Salsa set up: 

Many talk about accelerated learning as if it completely depends on the learner. The fact is that the individual’s will power is not the only thing required to learn something fast. If you do not have the right set up, you cannot accelerate your learning.
For instance, you cannot live in a desert and think that you will get good at scuba diving. It is plain impossible. The set up is the first thing that you have to plan for.
Had I been in Mumbai(my home), I am sure that I could not have dreamt of learning so much in such a short time. With may be one or two clubs playing salsa on a wednesday, it would have taken me a good six months to get to where I did.
And I would have been at the end of my patience much before that. Like stamina, will power too runs out with time for a specific goal. In many ways you are more likely to achieve a highly challenging goal in a short period of time than a moderately challenging one over a longer time frame.
I was able to use the same set up to learn rock climbing in Thailand and you can read about the career lessons from rock climbing here.
So what is the set up? I am referring to the eco system required for accelerated adoption of a particular skill set. Railay and Tonsai in Thailand are two of the best places to learn rock climbing. The variety of rock climbing tracks, presence of rock climbers from different parts of the world and the relatively cheaper cost of living make these beaches the perfect set up for accelerated learning of this challenging sport.
Similarly, cultural and recreational life in Cali revolves around Salsa. Everyone here knows how to dance Salsa. Even the ones who say they don’t, can dance better salsa than most of us. Second factor, there are a plethora of dance schools ranging from private instructors to lessons in gyms. Third, and most important is that you can dance salsa every night if you want to. No need to wait for the weekend. This one factor in itself gives you the opportunity to put in as many hours of salsa dancing in one month that other places don’t let you to even in six.
But you could still practise on your own every day(where you currently live) and make good the lack of social dancing opportunities.
I settled for a dance school in a non-touristic neighbourhood of Siloe in Cali at an unbelievable price of 10 USD for the month.
Yes, that’s true!
Also, my teacher Gustavo’s teaching style really suited me because he would challenge students with his energy and pace. Which is exactly what I was looking for.

Number two: Strip down your Salsa: 

No, I do not mean that literally.
Like most things in life, the 80-20 principle applies to Salsa as well. 20% of the moves are the ones you will use 80% of the time. So while as a novice, well trained salsa dancers can overwhelm you. Because when you look at Salsa as a whole, it can seem daunting(especially if you don’t consider yourself to be a good dancer). It is good to use salsa performances as motivation, but when it comes to learning it is better to strip down and get to the basics. And just focus on those aspects.
Gustavo made it clear that salsa was all about the movement of the feet and once that comes to you naturally the more fascinating looking moves are relatively easier.
And he was right.
So I focused on the basic steps in the class. I focused on the same steps after class. In discotecas. Nothing else mattered to me but just getting my feet to move naturally. Even when I was dancing with girls in the clubs, I would focus on the basic steps. I was even practising the paso basico(basic step) in the bath.
It might sound simple, but this was the most difficult part of the journey. And it was meant to be, the beginning is always the most difficult. Many times I felt like I could never dance like Colombian boys and girls.
But I just kept going despite the rejections and the painful few minutes of dancing with girls who clearly thought I was no great shakes.
Though it felt like a lifetime, in about two weeks I was getting the basics right. I was beginning to enjoy the music and in my salsa class, Gustavo, was ready to move to other steps.
So ask yourself what is the most important technique to learn. More often than not, it will be the non-sexy part of the skill. And then focus disproportionate amount of time on that. I would just look at my feet in the mirror in the dance class. I wouldn’t even look at anyone or anything else(except my instructor) for the first couple of weeks.

Number three: Play Regularly:

Place of learning is where you train. But a sportsman tests himself and makes real progress in the playground.
Much like that, you need to move beyond the comfort of your salsa class. And move beyond it quite regularly.
There were only a couple of girls in my salsa class. That worked in my favour, it meant that I had to go to the discotecas to actually get some practise. And I did that almost four to five nights a week.
Every night that I went out, I got more comfortable with the discomfort of my horrible dance skills. Slowly I made new friends who I started bumping into over and over again. Finally I reached a stage where asking a girl to dance wasn’t the real problem. What moves to try was.
I was dancing two hours at the dance class three times a week and then dancing four hours at discotecas four times a week. That meant I was dancing about twenty two hours a week. My life revolved around salsa though I was working on the blog and other writing during the same time. My evenings were about salsa. Salsa was pleasure, salsa was work and it was what I would think about all the time.
Ok, sometimes I did think of the pretty Mexican girl I met at a salsateca. But that’s a story for another day.
By the third week, I started hearing things like ‘Usted baila bien’ which in Spanish means ‘You dance well’. By then I had stopped telling girls that I was a foreigner, so their compliments were by local standards which are actually higher than the ones applied for foreigners.
The compliments and acceptance egged me further. And now I was using the more impressive moves learnt at the class more confidently in the clubs.

Number four: Challenge yourself, often:

While the journey itself was challening, in the third week I got to a stage where I could dance with most girls. And I did. I even danced with fellow backpackers who were just starting off.
However, I continued to challenge myself by dancing with girls who danced much better than I did, and had more energy. This kept me going and ensured that boredom did not set in. The more I danced with the 20% girls who were better than the rest, the more I got the feeling that my salsa was improving.
I kept doing this and learnt from my partners. Because learning does not happen only in the classroom.
By the end of the fourth week, almost none of the girls refused to dance with me. Each one of the four whom I requested to feature in a video with me, agreed. And not just that, they seemed quite enthusiastic about it.
Many times I could see that girls were noticing me while dancing. If I am not a complete disaster at reading people, many of them seemed like they wanted me to ask them for a dance.
Salsa took me to some other places too, but I’d rather let you learn salsa in Cali and discover what I mean.
And now comes the next challenge. To continue to dance and learn. Because this by no means the end of my salsa experience but rather a beginning from where I can grow further.
I am a huge fan of accelerated learning because you can get to where you want fairly quickly. But more importantly, the skill is ingrained enough that you can pick it up after a break and yet not feel like a total beginner. Traditional slow learning takes a lot more time and isn’t immersive enough. Most of the time you keep losing what you have learnt even while you are still learning. Hence many people start off as beginners even if they quit mid way.
Hope these insights inspire you to chase something that you have always wanted to. Because even if it seems it will take a lifetime to get good, the truth is that it wont. Only thing is to apply these techniques. And who knows you could win a salsa or a surfing competition within a month.
But like Tatiana said don’t forget to have fun. It makes you look much better than you actually are.

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  • Niall says:

    Awesome! I live in Medellin, but I’m thinking about visiting Cali for one month in order to focus on learning Salsa.

    Would you be able to give me the name/contact details of your Salsa School and also any information about accommodation etc would be great?



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