Why is Musicality So Hard/Rare to Find in Salsa?

Discussion in 'Salsa' started by Big10, Jul 15, 2007.

  1. Big10

    Big10 Member

    Currently, there are several threads floating around Dance-Forums.com & SalsaForums.com regarding musicality during social/improvisational dancing, including references to video clips of Salsa and West Coast Swing. After viewing a ton of clips containing West Coast Swing, I've come to one conclusion -- collectively, WCS dancers kick our (Salsa dancers') butts! Hard. And often.:bkick:

    Here are just a few examples that I really liked:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcdV8cESWUs :rocker:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3i6kyLLB2g

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk_17vLycV8

    Does anybody have any theories about why it's rare to see such musicality in Salsa dancers? I realize that the above examples include various professionals in the the WCS world, but I still don't see as much creativity among Salsa professionals when they are put on the spot to freestyle. :?

    Do you think it has to do with the structure of Salsa music? Do we not have enough accessibility to musical dancing role models in our various Salsa communities? Is there something about the culture of Salsa dancers that doesn't allow us to "think outside the box" on a regular basis, so that we're stuck doing the same old patterns/moves? Or, do you disagree with my premise, and you think that Salsa dancers are just as musical as West Coast Swing dancers in general?

    One of the big things I noticed among the WCS clips was that although the more-skilled women are obviously capable of performing multiple spins, it's much less a part of their dancing than among "top" Salseros, where it seems like there's a multiple-spin after every handful of 8-counts (regardless of what's happening musically). In WCS, it looks like the instances of 3+ spins are reserved for once or twice during a song, and where it fits what's actually happening with the music. (Not always, but much more often.)

    I also noticed that while plenty of Salsa dancers can do "tricks" or hit the big musical breaks/accents, the WCS dancers seem to do a much better job of playing with the little beats all the way through the song. It also struck me how easy it was to find such clips of great musicality involving social dancers, spontaneous demonstrations, and/or Jack & Jill competitions -- i.e., not just in rehearsed/choreographed routines. There's a thread here in DF asking for clips of musicality during social dancing in Salsa, and it was much harder to do than I anticipated (which is what got me to thinking about the dichotomy between Salsa and WCS). I started to notice that even with all the great clips of social Salsa dancing on places like YouTube and imambo.tv, much of the musicality in Salsa dancing occurs in spurts, rather than all the way through the song.

    One of my personal theories is that at the most fundamental level, the WCS "culture" must value musical expression much more than the Salsa world. Moreover, as part of that culture, body movement and footwork seem to take precedence over spinning as a way to express the music in WCS, even among the well-trained dancers. Similarly, I saw many fewer closed-holds in WCS, and the open position (or being completely apart) would therefore allow each partner more freedom to do footwork and playful body movement. Based on my experience, Salsa classes and workshops tend to focus on the ability to incorporate spins and arm-twisting patterns into a certain number of 8-counts, without much reference to when those moves will actually fit the music.

    Am I wrong? Am I missing something? I'd be interested to hear the thoughts of other Salsa dancers, as well as any WCS dancers who happen to be lurking on this forum....
  2. Sagitta

    Sagitta Well-Known Member

    WCS is supposed to exude ...slinky...it's all about playing with the music...from the get go.

    Argentine tango has great musicality. That's the nature of the dance, like WCS

    Salsa like many other dances does not start with that as the premise, as the foundation. While the basics also must be taught in AT and WCS the concept of being with the music is heard early on and often.
  3. Sagitta

    Sagitta Well-Known Member

    Another thought. Might have something to do with the muisc. With cha cha cha I find it easier to be musical than for salsa. The syncopation of cha cha encouages play IIMO.
  4. Don Silver

    Don Silver Member

    Boy, are you opening a big can of worms!
    First: Overall the Salsa scene rewards the pros for complex moves over musicality. You'll notice in the first clip, the guy wanted a slower tune. Given a choice, I suspect most salsa pros would opt for something on the faster side, as the average audience responds to more flash/speed moves rather than subtle musicality.

    I believe you nailed it here: In most Salsa communities the dancers getting the most attention are generally not the most musical. The guys learning in that scene believe that is the standard and work to match the current leaders. That said, I think there are lots of very musical people in the Salsa scene, and as the scenes mature, musicality is more valued.

    Also note that musically, WSC is more varied in terms of tempo and often the music itself is less dense.

    Great observation on your part. The salsa baseline vocabulary is based on "more is more" when it comes to spinning the ladies. If I lead singles/doubles but you lead triples most of the time, most people will think you're a better lead, even if the triple makes little sense in context with the current music.

    You have it right. Part of it is the salsa instructing community is overall less mature than the WCS teaching community. (That will tweak some people, and there are plenty of exceptions, but overall it's true.)

    It's easier (and you make more money) teaching patterns, footwork and more moves. Most students want to look like the more influencial dancers and they push their instructors to teach steps and things they can learn easier. They won't seek out the musical instructors until that is valued by their scene.

    Most instructors are NOT majoring on musicality in the salsa world, but WCS invests more time in that concept, partly because some of the music is slower than the average salsa tune.

    It looks inappropriate leading a lady through complex turn patterns and multiple spins when the music is lyrical. Salsa music is almost always bubbling with a burning percussion section, where WCS songs are more varied, sometimes slower and often lend themselves to a more playful approach.

    I think the tide is turning, and musicality is coming into it's own with increased awareness. That said, it will take a while to filter out because until the most influencial dancers in a scene are also the most musical, the newer dancers will trend toward the technical side, believing that is the key to being a good dancer.
  5. tj

    tj New Member

    I have to agree w/you, Big10. It's a great question. Glad to see you post it. I've been wondering it myself, too.
    At least part of it is that most of what's being passed along from instructor to instructor is what's in the Congresses (both taught and watched).

    And perhaps we (salser@s as a whole) seem to be lacking that 'one unique innovator' that starts a trend? Certainly the 'musicality' concept has been around for years. It's interesting that overall we tend to just stick to the already taught stuff rather than making up new movements.

    Maybe it's due to fear of someone proclaiming, "THAT'S NOT SALSA!" if someone were to borrow from the outside?
    IMHO - agree that we don't seem as musical. Especially if you compare a typical salsa performance to any of those WCS performances.

    (Will continue...)
  6. noobster

    noobster New Member

    I've got a few thoughts.

    1) I don't know much about WCS, but it seems like the structure of the dance is less rigid. Salsa has to fit everything into 6-steps over 8-counts. With WCS you have both six-count and eight-count basics; and also you can insert and drop beats, and I think that allows more freedom in the patterns.

    I actually do not agree with Don Silver that WCS music is more varied than salsa... I think it is less varied, although I can't deny that may be due to my lack of exposure to lots of WCS. But salsa arose from a confluence of musical influences from several different countries, and it continues to evolve. There's an enormous spectrum of salsa out there.

    I do think that there is a tendency for DJs to restrict themselves to a smaller repertoire in order to satisfy dancers who prefer a very specific subset of tempi. I saw that in NYC a lot; and in fact I did hear some dancers complain when the DJ dared to branch out and play something other than up-tempo, percussion-heavy, strong-clave salsa dura.

    I also find salsa music more complex and interesting than WCS music - WCS has a single underlying beat, without the interesting syncopation provided by the second clave rhythm.

    2) So, I speculate that it is possible that the effort to stay on-beat is taking up enough of the leaders' concentration that they have a harder time being creative with the music. Staying on-beat in WCS is never an issue - the beat is completely obvious. Could it be that the less complex music frees up a little more leader-brain for creativity? Probably more an issue for less experienced dancers though.

    3) I think salsa suffers from its reputation as a 'sexy' dance, in that lots of followers invest all their energy into trying to look hot and forget about enjoying the movement and the music. The WCS followers never look like they're trying to be sexy. They just look like they're having fun.
  7. tj

    tj New Member

    Furthering these thoughts - I posted a couple of times over on our sister forum, asking why we in the salsa community put musicality on such a pedestal? Acting like it's sooo hard or something that only top salser@s can do. When I compare it to WCS, they do many simple things in time to the music.
  8. tj

    tj New Member

    So therefore, if we lose the 'fear' of 'finishing' a move in an 8 count, that should free up our ability to create. Great idea, noobster!

    (...pondering)
  9. gte692h

    gte692h Member

    I completely agree. The musical structure is complex, the musical source rhythms (clave for example) is complex. salsa music brings a lot more to the dancer than the swing music I heard from Big10's clips.

    Something about this that drives the brain away from 'big picture' musicality, and lends it towards the minute aspects of patterns and mathematics. When the beat is obvious, and there are no other beats hitting your system, you can fill in the gaps with musicality.. but if salsa music is hitting you at 1, 2, and a lot of other syncopated times, it could be that we aren't getting enough 'space' to be musical, but instead spend our time comprehending creative possibilities for all these complex beats.

    Going to the parent dance, when I see traditional afro cuban dance, its all about the body as a medium, syncopated movements, interactions, call and answer type movements. I don't see the modern musicality we see in swing, but we see a different type of interpretation.

    Someday, when we exhaust every way of interpreting the complexities of salsa music, we'll probably graduate to musicality. I don't think we've evolved there yet. I don't know if its possible -
  10. noobster

    noobster New Member

    I do think it is easier to be improvisational in WCS because, as noted above, 1) the music is not as complex, and 2) the dance is more flexible.
  11. tj

    tj New Member

    But even with the complexity, you could still pick something out of the song (whether it be a certain instrument, the melody, etc), and 'play' with it.
  12. noobster

    noobster New Member

    Of course you can, and lots of people do. There are many very musical dancers out there.

    But it's an additional thing to think about. The complexity of the music opens up more possibilities once you are comfortable with it IMHO... but it also presents more of a hurdle when it is not 100% instinctive yet.
  13. tj

    tj New Member

    Paralyzing one with too many choices... yes, I can see that.

    I also think that 'the community' tends to be not very creative in how/when we typically allow styling. T-stance, shines, etc - it's all supposed to fit into a Lead's "Bucket of Moves" rather than being part of the actual dance.
  14. noobster

    noobster New Member

    Dunno as I'm not a leader. Followers do have a much easier time of it as we don't have to think much... just shut up and look pretty... so we can use both brain cells to think about the music. :p

    Shines I actually think are the part where it's easiest to be musical, as you don't have to think about the patterns. You can just take the opportunity to boogie.
  15. tj

    tj New Member

    Yes, in some ways, we can look at all of this as doing shines but from partner hold positions.
  16. tj

    tj New Member

    And has been already stated, speed of the song appears to be a major factor.
  17. Dancelf

    Dancelf Member

    A westie's view....

    All standard disclaimers apply....

    First thought - how mature is the salsa scene, taken as a whole?

    West Coast was far enough along that the big annual open championship started twenty five years ago. There have been full time touring pros for years now. I suspect that plays a big part in it... even at the highest levels, musicality is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, if you watch the archives of the US Open, you'll likely notice that even the Champions aren't really keyed into the music until the mid 90's or so.

    But these days, not only do we have a generation of dancers who have been doing this all their lives... they've been competing nationally all their lives.

    Second thought - musical complexity is an excuse. I've crossed over - your music isn't that hard. Or perhaps better said the difficulty of the music doesn't excuse you from getting the easy parts right. The fundamental rules are the same, and as for the rest... are the musicians that much smarter than you that you can't keep up? Unfortunate.

    Third thought - I am almost willing to concede that space is a limiting factor. How many salsa couples can you fit onto the slot that westies use? four? more? and in the clips - those couples are dancing spotlight. But too many elements of musicality are expressible within the confines that you are dancing in anyway (if you've got the room to lead her through that stunt, you've certainly got the room for body isolation and interp).

    Fourth thought - does westie have a great variety of music, and if so does that make hearing the differences easier? A typical night for a westie will include songs anywhere from 100bpm to 140bpm; usually a mix of blues, r&b, contemporary pop, smooth jazz, maybe some rockabilly or country.

    [The musicality workshop I've been designing is based on this idea: trying to heighten the contrast by using songs that the dancers aren't used to listening to].

    Fifth thought - if tempo is the limiting factor, then yeah, you'd have a problem. How do salsa tempos compare with those danced by lindy hoppers? They seem to have managed to preserve the music at high rpm. At some point, musicality has to take a back seat to survival... one of the reasons that I dance west coast is I genuinely have no interest in having my heart rate dangling up there.

    That's my best guess, based on admittedly little evidence or experience, offered with no guarantees expressed or implied.

    ObSnark: Thought six - maybe people are too busy worrying about whether or not they have sabor?
  18. Don Silver

    Don Silver Member

    Any of those techniques can be used in salsa, as the stronger dancers often skip steps, change the footwork for a short time and you can insert/drop beats in either music, as the music has X counts to a bar, but ultimately you have to resolve your footwork back to the basics of the style.

    I respectfully disagree on that point. WCS is danced to more styles of music than salsa. While there is a wide spectrum of songs within salsa, the styles are much closer than WCS. I've seen WCS danced to R&B, Top 40, country, and other styles. What is common is the music has a nice groove, with memorable melodies. The percussion may be less complex, but the overall music structure may or may not be...

    Depends... and of course, that is personal taste and one size will never fit all. I love complexity but there can also be brilliance in simplicity. And the interesting clave may be replaced by an interesting bass line, guitar groove or drum patterns that may change in different sections of the tunes.

    In a salsa tune, you can depend on the clave feel to be relatively stable within one tune (although it can change direction from time to time.)

    I think less experienced dancers in both camps have a tough time being creative. And most of what we see as "creative" those WCS dancers have done hundreds of times before... (BTW - It's the same for jazz musicians. Few understand how many thousands of hours of practice go into being "creative".)
  19. noobster

    noobster New Member

    That is interesting that you say the musicality was less well developed in WCS 10 or 15 y ago. I guess the salsa competition scene is much less well developed than the wcs competition scene; and the YouTube videos we're using as references are usually made by competition-type dancers.

    OTOH, salsa-type dancing as an art form is certainly far more than 25 y/o, if you count the pre-salsa roots in Cuban and Puerto Rican music and dance forms. You'd think some of that would have leaked over.

    I think this ties into what I've posted about before, which is that I noticed much more musicality in the Latino-heavy NYC scene than I saw in other US scenes. I suspect people who grew up with the music and dance - even if they didn't learn to do it at the acrobatic studio-style level until later - are more easily keyed into the musical elements than people who were only exposed later. Then some of that interpretation leaks over into others who did not grow up with the music but pick up the musicality by exposure to the Latino forefront.

    A related idea: Is wcs-type music more familiar to the average American than salsa music? Is the average wcs beginner listening to songs he may have heard in other context, or to a genre he already appreciates? If so, this could be another reason why it would be easier for the non-Latino majority to develop musicality in wcs than in salsa.

    Baiting isn't fair. ;) We're trying to dissect the reasons for the discrepancy in musicality, so your opinion of whether salser@s ought to be able to deal more easily with the relative complexity of the music isn't so relevant.

    That said, I don't really find salsa music 'hard' per se... but I do find wcs music very simple. Again, nobody is ever off-beat in wcs AFAICS. It's simply a non-issue. Lots of dancers are off-beat in salsa. You can't be musical if you're not tuned into the beat.

    Salsa performers have all the space in the world and they still mostly do the exact same spin-spin-spin-split-wiggle-spin-wash-rinse-repeat. I don't think it's relevant.

    Well. Maybe I am less tuned into the variety of westie music because I don't like it as much as I like salsa music. The it-all-sounds-the-same phenom for stuff you don't know. Or maybe it's just this scene where the song tempos are very regular. I'm really just an observer; the only reason I got exposed to it at all was because I was looking for hustle and all the hustle parties around here are mixed with wcs.

    There is a huge variety of tempi available in salsa music. Unfortunately the dance community as a whole seems to prefer a limited range of rather up-tempo selections. Why that is, I don't know.

    People use 'sabor' around here as if it meant Enlightenment. That's taking it a bit far. But really it refers to much the same thing as musicality, I think.
  20. noobster

    noobster New Member

    I'm wading into murky waters here as I'm not a wcs dancer...
    but I do dance hustle, and that dance is much more flexible than salsa because the basic is not so rigidly tied to the measure.

    You can certainly skip steps and change the footwork in salsa (I do it a lot), but you can't ride across measures, drop your basic and pick it back up again on any beat the way you can in hustle. In hustle you can insert just as many extra beats as you like and then pick up your anchor step whenever you like.

    It makes the dance less well related to the music IMHO, but the tradeoff is total flexibility.

    I suspect that something similar could be happening with the use of 6- and 8-count basics in wcs. I could be wrong. Maybe DanceElf or another experienced westie can let us know.

    Well, ok. I'm willing to admit that the music seems less varied to me because I don't like it as much.

    I'm not saying simplicity is better or worse than complexity in music. I'm saying it presents less of a barrier to improvisation by the dancer.

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