Many of us use the number of moves we know (turns and the like) as the stick against which we measure our dancing skill. If we know a lot of moves, we're "good", and if we don't we're "bad". This is a mistake which allows us to overlook many of the fundamentals of good dancing and, even worse, gets in the way of having a good time.
It's understandable why we would make this mistake: Fundamental aspects of good dancing such as balance, rythm, and maintaining connection with one's partner are harder to measure when we dance. It's much easier to measure our progress by noting how many more moves we know now compared to when we started. We take classes that teach us some of those turn combinations, and the basics often fall by the wayside in our race to add more moves to our repertoire.
The most egregious example of this can be seen in those of us who have actually skipped learning how to properly do the basic step or to dance on rythm. You'll see us doing lots of turns and moves on the floor, but woefully offbeat and often with a severely broken connection to our follow/lead.
So what are these things that good dancers do that are easy to miss? Here is a list (by no means complete) of important things to pay attention to:
- Smooth steps: Salsa dancing is different from many other dances many of us have done, including both ballroom and popular dancing, in that there is limited "up and down" movement when one does the basic step. Not to say you can't put sabor into your upper body, in fact the best salsa dancers do exactly that, but there is no bouncing (except in perhaps a few Casino Rueda moves) when you step. No bouncing. Did I mention there is no bouncing?
- Rythm: Unless they happen to be musicians, most of the time beginning salsa dancers' eyes glaze over when teachers start talking about the technical aspects of rythm. It's not as hard to understand as it first may appear, so, here's a quick and dirty recap:
Salsa music has a regular tempo, and is normally counted as 4 beats per musical measure . If we number the beats in the measure 1 through 4, then (for L.A. style) it is the odd beats (1 and 3) which are heavily stressed. Leads break forward on the 1 and follows back on the 1. Measures are grouped into phrases of 2 measures or 8 beats each.
Learn to hear where the 1 beat is (it's often marked by a significant change in the music) and how to step with the beats in the music. You don't need to be an expert in differentiating the 1 beat from the 3 beat or knowing when the phrases change to be able to dance salsa well. It is safe to say, however, that if you don't take the time to learn to hear where the stressed beats are and step to them, learning turns or combinations is like learning how to stunt drive before you know how to operate the gas and the brakes.
- Weight transfer: Avoid the "Pointing Toe Syndrome". When stepping forward with your left foot on the 1 beat (L.A. style), make sure to transfer your weight to that foot before shifting weight back to your right foot on the 2 beat. If you don't do this and you just move your leg forward without putting weight on it, you won't fully feel the rythm of the music and you'll look stiff. The same goes for your step backwards on your right foot. Lastly, the "cuban motion" of one's hips depends on this weight transfer.
- Cuban Motion: As I mentioned above, cuban motion is about weight transfer between your legs. It's also about the way you combine that weight transfer with straightening and bending of your knees as you step. It has nothing to do with actually forcing motion into your hips. If you are trying to get the cuban motion by concentrating on swaying your hips, you will appear to be sashaying, which has a decidedly un-salsa look to it. Ask your local salsa teacher how to do it if you are having trouble, they'll be able to quickly show you the proper technique. It's not hard, it just takes some practice.
- Arm Tension: Between the lead and the follow there should be a slight pressure towards each other. This means if the lead were to push forward, he would meet with enough resistance so that the follow would feel her body moving in that direction, not just her arms. If her arm is pushed and her elbow easily moves back to break the plane formed by her back, the follow needs to tighten up a bit. If the lead pulls away, her arm should not straighten out, it should remain bent at the elbow at least somewhat to maintain the tension. Leads: First, do no harm. Follows are expecting that you use their sensitivity to your lead to guide them properly, not muscle them around the dance floor. Second, maintain a slight, consistent pressure that allows the follower to sense where you want her to go.
So there's a list, albeit limited, of things to pay attention to in trying to be a good salsa dancer. Keep learning those moves & combinations, by all means, but don't forget what Yoda says: If forget about these principles you do not, good salsa dancer you will become.