Forget Complicated Turn Patterns. Let’s Get at What Will Really Make You a Good Casino Dancer
At the risk of making a generalization through anecdotal evidence, I will say this: through my years of teaching casino, I’ve found that most people believe that the more turn patterns they know how to lead (or follow), the better casino dancers they become. While I concede that there is some degree of truth to this belief, I would argue that, for the most part this reasoning of more turn patterns equals better dancing does not necessarily constitute a positive correlation.
Yes: knowing more turn patterns makes you a better casino dancer—but only insofar as these turn patterns allow you to execute basic casino figures. In other words, if you are a beginner, of course learning the basic turn patterns like enchufla and vacila will help you become a better casino dancer. (I define a “basic turn pattern” as any turn pattern that only takes one eight-count to be executed, such as dile que no, exibe, ola, abajo, siete, and the already-mentioned enchufla and vacila, among others.) These are the figures that will give beginner dancers the tools to develop “casino competency”—that is, the ability to dance casino. Because, really, when you think about it, almost all turn patterns spanning more than one eight-count that we do in casino are a combination of these basic turn patterns. Take setenta, for example. The most basic setenta is nothing more than a vacila, followed by an enchufla, followed by a dile que no. That really is it!
These “basic turn patterns” are really all that you need to dance casino. Once you know them, and know them well, it’s up to you to get creative with them, to give free rein to the imagination and create your own combinations of basic moves, resulting in a turn pattern—spanning more than one count of eight—of your choice.
That is, in my view, one of the factors which leads to becoming a better casino dancer. It’s not about how many turn patterns you know how to do, it’s about what you can do with the basic turn patterns that you do know.
In my view, it really isn’t about how many turn patterns one knows how to do, though that’s what most curricula at dance academies / groups would have you believe. Indeed, the way the syllabi are concocted in most places is by dividing groups of people into arbitrary levels (i.e. beginner, intermediate, advanced), separated by an equally arbitrary set of moves (i.e. you can only get to “advanced level” if you know how to execute all the moves taught at previous levels.) This is why I say most people come to believe that being a better casino dancer means that one knows how to do/follow a lot of turn patterns. Indeed, due to the way syllabi are constructed and classes taught, people are primed to believe this from the moment they begin to learn.
But this way of teaching and learning casino is leaving things out that, I believe, should be part of what constitutes being a “good casino dancer.” Namely, it’s leaving out structural knowledge of the dance, taking away the ability, in many cases, to improvise and be creative; it’s leaving out musicality, the basic comprehension of the music to which we listen and dance. And it’s doing away with actual partner connection.
I will explain each of these three points below.
Structural knowledge of the dance
Is the turn pattern sombrero different from vacila? Many people would think so. For starters, they have a different name, which means that they must be different, right? On the other hand, the arm-work used is different. While the latter point is certainly true, I would argue that these two moves, structurally speaking, are exactly the same. Indeed, if you look at the foot-work alone and forget about the arms, a sombrero is a vacila. In the same way, montaña is the same move as dedo. In the same way also, the move called “Kentucky” is exactly the same as an enchufla doble in which the lead pivots at the end. The examples of these parallels are many.
And yet when people are learning montaña, many—again, experience—don’t realize that they are doing a dedo, but now with two hands. But what’s more indicative of the lack of structural knowledge is the fact that many don’t realize that, be it montaña or dedo, these two moves are made up of a combination of basic one eight-count turn patterns! Both moves are done thusly: vacila, enchufla, enchufla, dile que no.
Now, I’m not saying that instructors don’t say, while explaining how to do the move, things like, “Let’s start with a vacila,” or “Let’s finish it with a dile que no.” The basic turn patterns are certainly referenced throughout the instruction. However, because what gets emphasized is the turn pattern as a chunk (i.e. dedo) and not its separate, basic components (vacila, enchufla, enchufla, dile que no), what ends up happening is that people will get used to doing that specific combination, in that exact order, without being able to tease apart what really makes the move come together. In other words, people will begin to see the move as one big chunk of a turn pattern called “dedo” where one thing comes after another, and if it isn’t done that way, they are not doing it “right.”
In reality, what they should be seeing is not a chunk, but rather four separate basic eight counts (vacila, enchufla, enchufla, dile que no) that don’t actually have to follow that order and can, if desired, be substituted at any point for another basic move. For instance, we could have the following combination: enchufa, dile que no, vacila, rodeo inverso; or: vacila, enchufla, exibe, dile que no; or: vacila, exibe, ola, saloneo.
Now, one could argue that if we start substituting one move for another, it will no longer be dedo. Well, yes. And that is the whole point: to get away from the nomenclature that falls outside the basic turn patterns. In other words, what falls outside the basic turn patterns does not need a name.
Seeing turn patterns that extend for more than one count of eight as “chunks” (e.g. dedo, montaña, Kentucky) will actually make it harder for you to remember them. Because these chunks are so strictly codified in their sequence, the moment you don’t remember how any one part goes, the entire turn pattern falls apart: you cannot do it. The only way to able to keep up with all these moves that as an “advanced” casino dancer you are required to know by a certain syllabus is to have a pretty good damn memory. Sadly, most of us are not so-gifted.
But I’ve got good news for you: you don’t have to have a damn good memory! All you need to do is have a basic understanding of how the basic turn patterns work, structurally speaking (i.e. you cannot do an exhibe from the same position that you do an enchufla, nor can you do a vacila from the same position that you would do a dile que no). With this in mind, you can let your imagination run free and start combining the basic turn patterns that you know in any way you want—again, as long as it’s structurally possible. And if you start looking at videos of, let’s call them “chunk turn patterns”—as opposed to “basic turn patterns”—, you will notice that that is exactly what these chunk turn patterns are doing: combining basic turn patterns in a certain order. The trick, as you watch these videos, is not to get lost in the arbitrariness of the chunks, falling back into thinking that that move has to go after that move, but rather see them as something flexible, always prone to whatever changes you want to implement when you do them—again, as long as it’s structurally possible.
The point in all of this being the following: go into the dance floor, not thinking about executing as many of the chunk turn patterns that you learned in whatever level you are arbitrarily placed at your dance academy/group. (I have labeled compulsive execution of turn patterns in a previous post as turnpatternitis.) Instead, go into the dance floor with an open mind, ready to get creative with the basic turn patterns. My own personal example: when I dance, I think in eight counts. Whatever I execute always feeds off the previous basic turn pattern. I don’t think, “I’m going to do this complicated move.” I think more along the lines of, “Hey, for the next set of eight counts, I can do this move, based on the position that I’m in; and I can put my arms this way.” And that thought process repeats itself over and over every eight counts. Essentially, I’m putting things together as I go, never thinking “dedo” or “setenta,” but rather “vacila,” “enchufla,” “exhibe,” “ola,” and so on. Whatever comes out, comes out. I don’t have names for the moves I do, outside of the basic turn patterns.
I’ve written extensively about the connection we should strive to have with the music as we dance. I’m not planning to do it again here. This piece is turning to be quite long as it is. So I’ll just say something brief and direct you to some previous posts which treat this point in more detail.
The second issue I have with a turn-pattern centered approach to becoming a “good casino dancer” is that, more often than not, it totally forgets about the music to which casino is danced. I’m not saying that instructors should devote entire classes to imparting musical history lessons. I’m saying that basic musical comprehension is lacking in most places where casino is taught. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know this: the music to which we dance casino, son, has a bipartite structure: it has an introduction, followed by a montuno. And in each section, the musicians play their respective instruments differently, creating a different “feel” in each section. I have argued that, as dancers, we should tailor our steps to go with these different sections: a more toned-down way of dancing, with lots of closed position done in contratiempo, resembling more the structure of son dancing; then, when the montuno kicks is, switch to more up-beat dancing, a tiempo, and really going at it with the turn patterns.
I have taught this in different places around the east coast in the United States. And everywhere I have gone, the reaction from the people has been the same, even if they had been dancing for years: all of this is new to them. And I’m not surprised that it is, because that is what a turn-pattern centered approach does: it discards the musical aspect of the dancing. It deprives people from connecting to the music. Really connecting. What people in my workshops have told me after taking it is that, before my workshops, they used to start doing chunk turn patterns as soon as the song began (what I have called in a previous post turnpatternitis), even if what they were doing felt “weird” with the section of the song. They knew something was wrong. They simply didn’t know exactly what, or how to fix it. The best thing for me was hearing that they actually felt relieved that they didn’t have to be doing so many chunk turn patterns back-to-back. That it was okay to do something else, and that doing that “something else” actually felt great with the music.
If you want to find out more about this musically-oriented way of dancing, here are some previous posts that you can check out:
On the bipartite structure of the music (intro – montuno): click here.
On turnpatternitis and dancing to the different sections of the song: click here.
The other day, a casinera whom I respect a great deal and whom I consider, without a doubt, one of the best in the U.S., gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. She said to me, after some dances, “You’re my favorite dancer.” Coming from her, this was no small thing! So I asked her why she thought so. She said, and I paraphrase: “Because it’s challenging to dance with you. And I don’t mean ‘hard.’ I mean ‘challenging.’ Challenging in the sense that I feel I cannot allow myself to be ‘absent’ when I’m dancing with you. I’ve got to be there. I cannot be distracted. You’re always paying attention to the music, and that makes me have to do it, too. I like that.”
Let me explain a bit what she is trying to say here. When, as a follower, you dominate the structure of casino at its most basic level, when you really know what is structurally possible in the dance, there is very little that anyone can throw your way that you won’t be able to follow. At this point many things become automatic—you are doing them without being aware that you are doing them, like breathing. And so it can get to a point that one can follow what the other person is doing and allow themselves to be distracted, to think about other things that have nothing to do with dancing. (Let’s not create an idyllic dancing world here: there are times where we do get bored with whomever we’re dancing. There are times that, for whatever reason, people simply do not connect.)
So this casinera whom I respect and admire a great deal told me that she wasn’t bored when she was dancing with me. I was challenging her, and she liked the challenge, which kept our connection strong when we danced.
However, not everybody likes to be challenged. What might work with one person, might not work with another.
And that is exactly what a turn-pattern centered approach does not address. You see, when all you’re doing is learning chunk turn-patterns, the emphasis is not really on the partner. Rather, it is on making the turn pattern “come out.” A successful lesson is measured not on how well students learn about connecting to each other while dancing, but rather on how much of the turn pattern they were able to learn.
And so it stands to reason that when these same students go out to dance, what you will see them do is focusing on doing one turn pattern after another—nevermind the musicality aspect—without regard for whether or not the other person can actually do the turn pattern. The logic is the following: if they were able to execute it during class, then they can do it with anyone outside of it, too. After all, what is important is executing the turn pattern.
I’ve lost count of the times I have seen someone try a turn pattern that the follower cannot follow, then try it again, getting the same result, not realizing that it’s not about what turn patterns you can do, but rather about finding that common ground between you and whomever you’re dancing with in which you both can connect and enjoy dancing with each other.
Going back to the anecdote, I knew I was being musical when I was dancing with her. I was completely aware of it. I knew what I was doing, and I was looking at her, appraising her reaction, which, by the smile on her face and her positive response to the changes I was implementing in the dancing based on the music, turned out to be favorable. So I continued that. With other people, however, I do other things. With other people, I don’t try to switch from tiempo to contratiempo. With other people, I don’t do complicated turn patterns. Sometimes, I almost don’t do turn patterns at all (this is especially helpful when you’re in a room full of people and you don’t want your partner to get elbowed). Sometimes I even deviate from going full-on casino because my partner only knows a basic step and simply wants to have fun.
I’m not saying that every time I do these things I am successful. Sometimes I am not. Sometimes the dance sucks, no matter what I do. This happens with anything in life. Yet at the end of the dance, I can say, “I tried.” And that’s all you can really do when trying to find a connection with the person with whom you are dancing.
The alternative—to be in your own bubble, too focused on your turn patterns, and essentially dancing with yourself even though there is someone else right there with you—isn’t too appealing to me.
Casino is a partner dance. It’s a social dance.
I’ll take a genuine smile from my partner, stemming from the joy of a fleeting connection that spans the lifetime of a song, over any turn pattern, however cool, any day.