Connecting to the music is one thing I strive to do when I dance. I think we all should. I always say to people, “Dance to the music, not because the music is playing.” Indeed, if all you need is music to dance casino or son, well, you really don’t need Cuban music. Michael Jackson does the job just fine. But if we’re going to dance to Cuban music, specifically to son montuno (what we call “salsa” or “timba”), the least thing we could do is have a little bit of an understanding of how it is structured, of how it works, so that we might enjoy it better.
When dancing son or casino, therefore, understanding what is happening in the music and adjusting your dancing to that understanding, creates a completely different level of approach to how you dance, and a different level of enjoyment.
So let’s talk about the tornillo, what it is, and how to incorporate it into the dancing.
Tornillo, which in Spanish means “screw,” is a dance move which comes from son, a predecessor to casino. The move consists of either the leader or the follower standing/sitting in place while the other partner walks around, in a clockwise or counterclockwise manner, and rotates the person—like a screw—in place.
To date, this is the best demonstration of the many ways one can do a tornillo:
Now, tornillos are part of son dancing. That’s where you’ll see them a lot. In casino, however, they are not as common. One could argue that this is due to how the structure of son music has developed throughout the decades, which I will talk about a little more below. One could also argue that it is due to the fact that not a lot of Cubans know how to actually dance son and, by extent, do a tornillo. Both would be, more or less, correct.
But I really want to focus on the music here. So let’s do that.
We’ve already seen the typical structure of a son song. It has an introduction, and a montuno. That’s, at its very core, what happens. (You can find a more detail explanation about what that means here.) However, in the montuno, many things can happen. One of these things is a solo from either the tres player (if it’s more traditional son), piano, timbal, tumbadora, etc. During this solo, pretty much all instruments quiet down (you’ll specially notice that the cowbell doesn’t play), letting the sound of a single instrument take over. The song becomes calmer, loses the upbeat tempo characteristic of the montuno. In the following son by Septeto Santiaguero, you can see that happening from 2:46 to 3:10:
It is during these solos that the tornillo should happen. Notice that I am not saying that you have to do a tornillo during the solo section only. People will—and do—whatever they want, when they want. All I’m saying is, if you want to be more musically inclined when you dance, the solos are the sections where you should insert your tonillos.
Why? Well, musically, during this section most of the instrumentation quiets down. So, trying to do turn pattern combinations at this point, much like during the introduction, looks out of place. The tornillo provides the opportunity to also “quiet down” our dancing—what can be “quieter” than standing in place? In other words, the tornillo allows us to respond to what is happening in the music.
Take, for instance, these two videos. You will notice that the tornillos happen only during the solos.
With this in mind, let’s reconsider one of the most popular songs from Los Van Van’s repertoire, “Sandunguera”. I’d argue that, to modern casino dancers, this song can turn out to be very boring to dance to, especially from 3:36 to 4:57. And with reason: there are not one, but two solos in this song:
From what I’ve seen personally, if people had to dance to a song like “Sandunguera”, during the solos, many would try to do what they have seen people do in the salsa dance community: shines. That’s how salsa dancers approach solos: they break off and do shines. But shines are not that popular for Cuban dancers. I mean, you can certainly see people doing some cool footwork, but breaking off from the partner and doing shines? That’s not a common sight among casineros.
Then again, tornillos aren’t a common sight, either, mostly because, like I explained, tornillos belong more in the dance of son than in casino due to the fact that solos are more common in traditional son music. Indeed, there aren’t many modern Cuban songs which have solo sections.
But at least now you know what to do if you do find yourself dancing to a song with a solo section. Now, tornillos are not that easy to do. So, if you do not know how to do them, that’s fine. My recommendation is to stick to closed position, move around the room with your partner. Don’t do any crazy turn pattern. That’s what I personally do (start the video at 2:04):
(What I am actually dancing in the above video is son montuno. If you want to know more / are curious about this dance, check out this earlier post.)
All this said, there are times where doing a tornillo with more modern songs feels fine, in the absence of a solo. This one is more of an intuitive thing for me, so I don’t have an explicit explanation as to how to know when the “right” time to do a tornillo comes around. I just “feel” it (gee, thanks!).
For example, in the following song, I could do a tornillo from 4:09 to to 4:36 (but I could do other things, too). It feels right to me:
Now, I do want to make clear that if you like doing tornillos that much, you can do a tornillo whenever you want, just like you can go crazy with the turn patterns as soon as this song starts. I’m simply advocating for what makes more sense to do, based on what is happening in the song.
Stay tuned for other musicality-related articles coming soon!
Great post! I agree/like your philosophy of doing something “quiet” or “not doing much” in the more tranquil solo sections of songs … I do think that many casineros have the opposite philosophy. Not much is going on in the song … so they pull out all the tricks: nudos, complicated figures, etc etc right up to the coda.
Indeed, though I’d argue that you can’t really blame them for doing that. As most lessons are turn-pattern centered and pay little to no attention to the music, nudos and complicated figures are the one tool they really have when having to deal with musically-challenging songs. Hence the need for a more robust musicality approach, too.
Thanks for reading and the feedback. Welcomed, as always.
Nice article and rare to see people focusing on music while dancing. You should add an article on “floreos”; maybe people would have that sense of “style”
I have seen too many people executing routines and not paying any attention to what is really going on in the music.
A little tackle to DJs though as they do not always advantage the quality of the song over the popularity of the band; sometimes preferring following the “new” to the bailable: EX: very rarely these days I hear Adalberto Alvarez or Jovenes Classics del Son (to mention only these 2). anyway..keep the good work
Hi Daybert, I find this article a bit male-centric: you say that a tornillo is a way to quiet down and “stay in place” but, since most tornillos are done by men, that is really only what the man is doing, while the woman is doing all the work of walking around him and pulling him around (and depending on the man’s tornillo skill, this can be an easy or a very hard task for the woman if she ends up having to pull almost his entire weight, as it often happens). Just a different perspective — I have always disliked Cuban male dancers who throw themselves in tornillos for show, letting the woman carry almost their entire weight, whether she likes it or not.
I think Daybert would agree, since he explicitly analyses tornillos as a choreographic practice suffused with machismo in his post on that topic. A potential solution is to even out the practice to be more evenly and equally distributed, with a leader-centred tornillo alternating or immediately preceding/following a follower-centred tornillo. That said, the is some possible issue concerning the exact semantic interpretation of metaphorical “quietness” in the dance, corresponding to literal “quietness” in the music. Daybert seems to take as its prototypical meaning, a reduction in the complexity of dynamic steps, including, a reduction in body-centre shifting sequences (think turns/spins in general but also setenta a lo cubano, where partners perform a significant reorientation of their trajectories at least every 4 counts beyond the main and secondary turns and spins that are inbuilt there), a reduction in position swapping steps (think dile que no, setenta, enchufa, where partners swap relative position every 3-4 counts), and a reduction in the overall motion of the dancer’s torso/hands (think all sorts of turns, hand-based leads and floreos). If I understand Daybert’s metaphorical usage of quietness in dance, based on this and other posts, one can think of closed position dancing patterns (paso de son, de rosca, etc) as the quietest of all, followed by tornillos, which have minimal trajectory changing, torso and hand dynamism, and no relative-position shifting, finally, perhaps followed by saloneos and paseos, where there is an important degree of trajectory reorientation and some relative-position swapping, but crucially less pronounced (and taking more counts to complete) than in other open hold patterns like setenta or enchufa. Since this is a metaphorical mapping of a concept from one domain across onto another domain (with which it overlaps only imperfectly at best), we can only hope for partial links and connections which will be by definition open-ended and subject to reinterpretation, like the one you have implicitly suggested, in what you have, I believe, correctly identified as a problematic point in the metaphoric projection embraced by Daybert, namely that the overall reduced intensity of a song during a solo section represents a potential mismatch with the increased workload/burden placed on the follower in accompanying a leader’s tornillo. In a sense, however, one can think that that increased intensity is actually comparable to the very focused nature of a solo, where a single instrument is doing a lot of work. Thus, increased workload on one focused unidirectional line of music might actually correspond to increased workload concentrated on a single more focused task on the dancers during tornillo. Be that as it may, analogies and metaphors are good and useful because they are open-ended and imperfect. Daybert’s work is opening up amazing and beautiful avenues of research, discussion, and exploration, and critical looks onto specific points of discussion like Cristina has offered can only enrich the debate.