Ruedas are boring.
If you are just getting started with dancing inside the rueda formation (or “dancing rueda,” as some people incorrectly say), you might be saying, “What is this guy talking about? Ruedas are fun!” I’ll concede: for a beginner, the novelty of the rueda, the excitement of dancing with a group of people in cohesion for the first time, of trying to keep up with the calls, then messing up and laughing about it…all of that is super fun when you start. It certainly was fun for me, too, when I started.
But at some point it stops being so. Everybody has a different threshold. For me, it was when I realized that I even as I became more advanced in my partner-dancing abilities (that is, one-on-one dancing) there was no way, under the current structures in place at dance academies, to advance in a similar fashion within the rueda. Now, if you happen to teach rueda de casino or have seen a rueda de casino curriculum, you could argue that some curriculums do have an “Advanced” level which academies/instructors do get to teach provided that students stick long enough to get there. But let’s be honest for a moment, truly honest: when was the last time you danced in a rueda that was truly, entirely “advanced”—here defined as only performing the moves listed in said advanced level you teach/are taught?
In fact, chances are, the last time you joined a rueda, you heard the following calls: sombrero, sententa, dedo, dame, dame dos, dame dos con dos, Coca-Cola, Kentucky, montaña, por arriba, enchufa doble, un tarro, adios, vacila, un fly, suénala.
Thing is, these are not advanced moves. These are the moves we all use to get people familiar with the calls that have, for some reason or another, become standard.
This is—at least in my experience—what gets called every single time a rueda gets formed. Do it often enough, and for long enough, and like me, you’ll reach your threshold, too. And like me, you will get tired of doing it over and over again. You will also eventually say: “Ruedas are boring.”
The question, then, becomes: As more advanced dancers, how do we find that spark for the rueda again?
Well, for starters, there is one thing we all have to agree on, before we move forward: the ruedas that we dance, they are all stuck in the beginners’ levels. That’s why for advanced dancers, ruedas eventually become boring, unchallenging. We eventually drift away and concentrate more on partner-specific dancing. This is mostly due to the way we have framed the rueda outside of Cuba to serve these two main purposes:
- To familiarize new people with the dance of casino. That’s why it has to be at the beginners’ level. If it were any higher, it would be inaccessible to those who are interested and want to jump in. The rueda is the entry point to the dance of casino. It creates a welcoming, laid-back environment where people don’t feel alone learning the moves, and encouraged to keep learning.
- To serve as a stepping stone toward one-on-one dancing. With the confidence gained in the rueda, the dancers can then begin dancing casino outside of it, focusing on more advanced partner-work techniques which the rueda no longer offers since the rueda’s purpose is really to draw in beginners, and so the calls will remain at the beginners’ level.
To summarize: the rueda is really tailored for beginners. It’s the way to get people to become interested in casino. Because of this, you will hear the same calls over and over again. The rueda does not provide a space to advance outside of the beginner level. Casineros/as who want to do more advanced moves will do so now in the only space that they can: outside of the rueda, while dancing with a single partner. (Some could argue that these outside-of-beginners’ moves are taught while in a rueda, so they can be done in a rueda. And yes, I agree, but they are only taught like that for consistency purposes, since the beginners’ lessons were also taught in that format—plus you have to admit that the dames are a great way to seamlessly go from one partner to another. The fact of the matter is that these outside-of-beginners’ moves are rarely—if ever—called in a social rueda.)
Seeing things this way, the following is clear: we have framed the rueda in a way that it does not follow our progression as casino dancers. As we want to learn more and do more, the rueda, stuck in the beginner level, functioning as the welcoming open door into the casino community, cannot do much else for people who want more out of it. It’s always going to be fun at the beginning, sure. But once you find that you’ve got a pretty good grip on all the basic calls…well, good luck joining a rueda anywhere that goes beyond those calls!
Because let’s be honest: the really complicated stuff, that only happens when you are dancing one-on-one.
For me, there is a very simple solution to making the rueda fun—and challenging—again for the more advanced dancers: those who want it, get together and make your own rueda, one which reflects the level of those who conform it. A rueda with your own calls and moves, specific to you and what your group likes.
I like to think of it as the equivalent of the “pro team” that is so common in the salsa dance community. That is, a team made out of the more seasoned dancers who work on their own choreographies. I suggest making a similar division. Your group can get the best dancers together and make a group-specific rueda that only they can dance, because only they know the calls. The key to having a rueda like this is that you have to have committed people who want to practice regularly. Also, you cannot have new people join in every time you meet; otherwise, you’ll never advance because you’ll spend all your time teaching the old moves to the newcomers. The best thing to do is to get all the people interested together from Day One. Think of it as your own exclusive club within the larger “club” of whatever academy or dance team you’re a part of. (I’m only giving general advice here. You can always work out the specifics of your group.)
This is not to say that you have to do away with the beginners. No. Beginners still get their ruedas. Again, these beginners’ ruedas serve a purpose and are important in order to get people interested in the dance and familiarize them with casino.
What I am saying is that you can have a regular rueda for beginners and a rueda that is more for those who want a bit more of a challenge. For instance, I´ve noticed that in the past couple of years, a new rueda formation known as “Rueda llanta” has gotten some popularity. “Rueda llanta” is an example of what you could start doing to spice things up, but certainly not the end-result. For if all you do is change the formation a bit, but still call out the same moves in this new formation, well, you’ll be back at square one, once you master the new formation itself.
The other thing to consider is that, as you create this second, more exclusive rueda, you also have to make people aware that that is what you’re doing. It serves no purpose if you practice all these moves, only to not do them because, when you started dancing in the rueda, everybody else joined, and you had to lower it down to the beginner level. It´s not about being snobs. It´s about setting the right expectations from the beginning. (When people go to a Cuban dance social, they don’t expect to dance to the music of Tito Puente, and therefore cannot get mad if it’s not played. Right?)
This is not to say, either, that those in the more advanced rueda be so exclusive that they don’t do a rueda with beginners. No. The community grows through the incorporation of new people. And mingling with and making beginners feel welcomed is paramount to that effect. In fact, having a separate rueda—and making clear that that is a more advanced rueda which requires a certain level and commitment—that can have a very positive effect, as it can give beginners something to look forward to doing in the future.
Advanced dancers looking to overcome the disillusionment of the ruedas: ruedas can be fun again. Heck, they can be a freaking blast.
We’ve just got to revolutionize our way of thinking about them, and then do something about it.