On the Importance of Song Choice for Beginner Dancers During Lessons 

 

It is easy sometimes, once you have advanced beyond the beginner stages, to forget how much you actually struggled to learn when you first stared dancing casino; how hard it was to be able to replicate the steps your instructor was teaching on that first week of classes; how lost, clueless, you felt at times; how sloppy you were with the steps; how much practice it took for you to do a simple Dile Que No.

Indeed, it is easy to forget these things, once you are no longer going through them anymore. For those who have not been dancing for too long, but have moved beyond a beginner level, these memories may be easier to retrieve. For those who have been dancing for longer, the task of remembering may be an arduous one. For some, it may even be impossible. In my case, I have been dancing casino for six years now, and although it has not been that long, I know it is hard for me to remember what it felt like on those first lessons I took. In fact, all I can really remember from that time is the feeling of utter and complete excitement I felt at the prospect of every lesson, and how much I looked forward to the next one, once the one I had just attended had ended.

So where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with music?

Well, here is the thing: because for many people, going back to that place in memory lane where they got their start is no easy task, especially if some time has passed, I have come to realize, upon observing other instructors teach casino, that some of us—and I am including myself here as well—tend to forget what it feels like to be a beginner.

More to the point, some instructors—again, myself included—sometimes forget how hard it was for themselves at the beginning to not only do the things their respective instructors were teaching them, but to also do them at the speed of the music to which they eventually had to dance during the lesson.

To begin making my case, let me first give you a description of a basic casino dance class, as I have observed countless times and as I am sure you will identity with. A turn pattern, or turn patterns, are taught. As they are taught, they are broken down into counts of eight, and that count of eight itself gets broken down into four counts—or three, if your instructor doesn’t like to use the 4th and 8th counts (which exist, by the way; the fact that some people say “One, two, three; five, six, seven” doesn’t mean that “four” and “eight” are not there). These four counts receive a step-by-step explanation and demonstration. Then you try to replicate the foot-work, and the instructors make you practice it, again and again, until they think the class as a whole grasped that eight-count section. Then each remaining eight-count section of the turn pattern gets the same treatment. Finally, you put it all together, and you get to do the whole turn pattern without stopping.

What happens next, almost without exception, is the following: a song gets played so that you get to practice the turn pattern to actual music. As a beginner, chances are you do not know how to find the one in this type of music; that is, you do not know where to begin dancing. But instructors—usually—solve this by actually calling the one out loud (sometimes they will call out the one and the five, or simply call every count in the usual “One, two, three; five, six, seven” that you probably know too well).

The instructors, then, direct the beginners on when to start dancing. Yet the more the important aspect of all of this, and the one thing that I want to emphasize and focus on for the remainder of this piece, is that, in counting out loud, the instructors also tell their students how fast they have to dance.

Now, how fast—or slow—the students have to dance does not really depend on the instructor. Rather, it depends on the music which the instructor has chosen for the lesson. By counting out loud, the instructor is not making a conscious decision to make you dance either fast or slow; he or she is simply conveying to you, the beginner dancer who at this point does not know much about the music, how fast the music is going.

What ends up happening most of the time, as I have observed on several occasions, is that the music that gets played does not correspond to the speed to which the turn pattern was practiced as it was being taught; that is, the song will be faster. This means that, by extent, the counts being called out by the instructors, the same counts which previously had been somewhat manageable at a somewhat slow speed, are now being called out at a faster pace, a pace to which you had not practiced, and now this has become an additional—and, quite frankly, unnecessary—challenge to a task that is already taxing as it is: trying to get the turn patter to “come out” without messing up.

A good example of what I have just explained can be found in this video from Salsa Lovers, whose DVD sets on what they call “casino” are arguably the most-watched online and around the globe. As you watch this video, notice that the speed at which they are showing the turn patterns—they actually don’t do a breakdown of each turn pattern here because they already did that in other clips, so what they are showing you here is the end result)—notice that the speed, once the music comes in at minute 9:00, drastically changes. That is, once the music starts playing, the dancing happens faster.

The mismatch between the overall speed at which turn patterns get taught during the lesson, and that the speed of the music once the instruction is over and it is time to practice to the music is something that gets overlooked a great deal. To tie it back to the beginning of the piece, I think this happens mostly because, as instructors, we have forgotten what it feels like to be a beginner. Indeed, dancing to music of any speed, at our level, comes easy for us. And because it does, sometimes we project that onto our students. We play the music we like to listen and dance to, often without thinking about the fact that some of the songs we love are actually pretty fast for beginners who are just beginning to grasp how to do, at a relatively slow speed, a Dile Que No—for instance.

My dear instructors, there is a difference between, on one hand, “getting the move”, and, on the other, being able to reproduce it at any speed from a song. There is a big, big difference. Students will “get the move” because you have broken it down slowly for them and then practiced it at a relatively slow speed. But getting the move at that speed does not mean that they are now ready to do it at a drastically faster speed immediately afterwards.

As an example of this, I will cite myself. For the past six months, I have been trying to teach myself to play the piano. For this, I go to YouTube a lot, so I learn from videos that show and break down how to play a certain melody or rhythmic pattern. First, the person demonstrates, and then he or she will break down, very slowly, what he or she has just played. Once that is done, instead of jumping to the regular, original speed with which the video started, the person will play the pattern at a slower speed and advise to get comfortable with that speed first and then, little by little practice and build up the speed until you get to the actual speed of the pattern.

Sadly, this basic concept is absent in many casino workshops and lessons conducted everywhere. Instead of a gradual easement into the speed of the songs to which the instructors want their students to eventually dance, what beginner students get is a drastic change of pace that is, at times, detrimental to their learning and can serve to confuse or discourage them from wanting to continue.

Some instructors may argue that they want to expose their students to the speed of the songs to which they will have to dance once they go out to a dance social or club. I would offer the following counter argument: while definitely having the best intentions in mind, this should be a concern directed more toward intermediate students. A beginner student does not know how fast or slow songs are. They cannot tell. Not yet. They do not know how to “find the one” or how to keep a beat. That’s why the instructors have to count for them when the music plays during lessons. Also, a good thing to do would be to tell your students the music to which they are dancing during lessons has been specifically tailored to their needs and that it does not necessarily reflect the speed of the music to which they will have to dance once they go out; but that, with practice, they eventually will be able to dance to that speed. Then tell them that, for pedagogical reasons, you have to start with music that has a different tempo than the music that gets played at clubs and dance socials.

The song selection during workshops and lessons, therefore, should be considered more carefully. I have a few suggestions you may want to try and see if they work for you (they have for me). Instead of playing Elio Revé’s “Fresquecito” or Alexander Abreu’s “Me dicen Cuba” or even “Pasaporte”—which, as an advanced dancer, could be considered as a slow song—try some older son montuno songs like the three examples I am about to give you. (Mind you, my examples are not confined to only Cuba. The reason for this is because, to me, this music is all son, no matter where it is produced). Anyhow, these are just examples to get you thinking about what types of songs you could use:

If you are an instructor, these songs may not be what you are used to grooving to, but, remember, during lessons, it is not about you; it is about the student and what is best for them. It is not about you playing music you want to dance to; it is about playing music to which they can dance, at a speed with which they are comfortable. (Of course, there is a way to circumvent all this: get one of those programs that slow songs down. That way it’s a win-win situation: you get to dance and teach to music you prefer, and your students get to dance at a pace that is similar to the pace to which they learned the turn pattern.)

If you are a student, and this is happening to you in your classes, let your instructors know that you would like something slower while practicing to music. I am sure they have something on their playlist.

So let us all try to be more aware of this. Figuring out what songs to play during lessons is as important as figuring out what turn patterns are more adequate for different levels of dancers.

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