My First Salsa Performance! Lessons Learned + Video

The women of Hot Timba: Mellissa (l), me, and Tola (r)

In February, I did something I’ve never done before! It took three months of rehearsals and was over in 3 1/2 minutes. Even though I was really nervous leading up to it, when the time came, it was so much FUN and the crowd seemed to really love it. Also, I didn’t fall on my face in my 3″ heels …. victory!

It was my FIRST salsa performance!

Here are a few things I learned leading up to it:

  • I can’t control everything and it’s OK if it’s not perfect. In the last few weeks before our performance, I was getting really nervous. After months of practice, we had finally finished the choreography, but we were a long way from having it nailed down. I wanted to try to use my project management and strategy skills to organize the process so I would feel more secure about our progress, but that was a level of control I didn’t have. It wasn’t my group, it was my teacher’s. I finally let go of my perfectionist expectations and realized that I was just going to do the best I could do and it would be what it would be.
  • In my longing to be a better dancer, I sometimes forget how far I’ve come. As I dealt with my nerves about the performance, I realized I was focusing a lot on the negative: what we hadn’t learned yet, what we hadn’t perfected, where I thought we’d fall short during the performance. But I made a mental shift to look at what we had accomplished and I realized there was a lot. We were learning all new choreography, some of which was pretty complicated. We had come a long way from our first rehearsal together and so much of our dancing was looking really tight.
  • The men of Hot Timba: Hebert, Miguel and James

    The process is exhausting and also fun and inspiring. Due to our conflicting work schedules, we practiced 2-3 times per week for months, from about 9:30-11:30 pm. Before we started, I had been practicing for another performance and caught a cold. Once salsa rehearsals picked up speed, the cold kept coming back to haunt me – it was very difficult to fully heal with our late-night practices and a demanding full-time job. But once I was in rehearsal, if I could shut out the outside world, there was no other place I’d rather be. I loved everyone in my group – we got along great and all shared a sense of fun and humor while being conscientious about doing our best. I feel like we really bonded and I truly miss seeing them every week.

  • I need to perform more so it will scare me a little bit less each time. Did I mention I was nervous about this performance? I was REALLY nervous. I think performing in an official salsa festival put more pressure on me because I felt that I had a bigger obligation to deliver something terrific for the organizers, teachers and students. I know that if I perform more often, those nerves will be less nauseating.
  • I’m inspired to organize my own performance. I think I have a pretty even split of creativity and strategic/organizational thinking. I’d like to put my theory to the test – that I could choreograph and collaborate in a creative way, while also being organized and goal-oriented so that the process of preparing for a performance isn’t so chaotic and stressful.

All in all, it was an amazing experience. When we performed, the energy of the crowd was fantastic and I had my husband and a few close friends in the audience who encouraged and inspired me so much. Once I walked onto the floor, I just went into performer mode – I felt confident, I stayed calm, and I just focused on having fun with the crowd. It was a blast!

So, here it is, Hot Timba’s performance at the 2015 Salsa Rueda Festival with the amazing Miguel A Vazquez (our teacher and choreographer), Tola Williams, James Wiester, Hebert Aguilar and Mellissa Katarina! I’m very proud of what we accomplished together. (Special shout out to Diana Manning, a fellow dancer who helped us with almost all of our rehearsals while she recovered from an injury, and recorded this video!)

(E-mail subscribers – please click above on the title of this post to view the video.)

Weekend Inspiration: From Dystonia to Dance

This is an incredible snapshot of how dance can help us heal – not just emotionally, but physically.

Federico Bitti suffers from dystonia, a disease that causes involuntary muscle movement. His condition was not improving, despite traditional medical treatment, until Madonna entered the picture.

Yes, you read that right. Check it out:

Giraffes CAN Dance and So Can You

I read a kids’ book this weekend while visiting a girlfriend who was my inspiration to learn salsa. It’s called “Giraffes Can’t Dance”.

It’s about Gerald the giraffe, who’s awkward and clumsy when he tries to dance. He goes to a party with his animal pals and while the lions can tango and the warthogs can waltz, he embarrasses himself with his graceless moves.

He’s convinced he can’t dance and he runs away while the other animals laugh at him. (Very mean animals!)

It reminded me of people I’ve talked to who have told me, “I can’t dance.”

That always breaks my heart just a little bit.

Not because I think everyone should be as in love with dancing as I am, but because, more often than not, I quickly learn that they CHOOSE not to dance because they don’t THINK they can.

They’ve come to accept a belief about arts and creativity that is very harmful, which is: “You’re not good at this. Therefore, you shouldn’t do this.”

It’s not true. Because the truth is something closer to, “I choose not to dance because I feel insecure about my skill level.” But instead we say, “I can’t.”

Now, if dancing is not something you enjoy, and you don’t want to do it, that’s cool. But if you don’t dance because you’re convinced there is some skill or talent level you have to reach before you’re allowed to do it, then I’m here to tell you – No.

And, you’re not getting off the hook that easy.

There are many different ways to explore life as a dancer. Your journey may be to find the confidence to just enjoy dance. To dance at weddings, on the street, or in your living room and not care what anyone thinks – to just have FUN moving your body to music, technique be damned.

Or, you may be fascinated by specific styles and you want to learn the technique, the language of the dance. You may come upon a dance style that grabs a hold of your heart and inspires and transforms you. And then you can study with different teachers, experiment with new moves and try performing. You may turn into a dancer that other people look at and think, “Wow! She’s amazing!

Either way, you’re a dancer.

So, back to our sweet, sad giraffe who wants to dance but “can’t”.

He runs off from the party and happens upon a cricket, who wisely advises him to concentrate on the beauty of the moon and the gentle night breezes. Gerald breathes and sways while the cricket plays his violin and before he knows it – he’s dancing!

The other animals take notice of this “miracle” and are captivated by Gerald’s boogy-licious leaping, flipping and turning.

And then Gerald speaks the truth:

“Then he raised his head and looked up

at the moon and stars above.

‘We all can dance,’ he said.

‘When we find music that we love.’

Giraffes can dance. And so can you. Find the music that you love, dance your butt off, and don’t let “I can’t” stand in your way.

 

Getting Honest

I’ve been working on honesty here at Follow My Lead.

A big part of the reason I started this project was to encourage and support anyone who wants to dance to feel empowered to do so. The thought that anyone would WANT to dance but hold back because they’re embarrassed or afraid breaks my heart.

For most of my life, I’ve talked about how much joy it brings me, how much I LOVE to dance. And my friends, family and colleagues all know that and have seen that love and passion in action.

But it’s not so easy to talk about the other emotions that seem to flare up so easily: the envy, the insecurity, the body hate.

It’s necessary though. It helps me learn and heal, for sure. But I also want to be real. I don’t think it means much to have someone who has studied dance for their entire lives to encourage everyone to “just get out there!”, “have fun!”, “feel the joy!”

Because it’s scary to dance. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people and feel like you’re coming up short. It’s hard to feel comfort and love for your body.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to just talk about how dance is joy in motion, how it’s a form of human communication that spans our globe, how it’s a spiritual experience, how it is so much FUN. It is all of those things.

But it ain’t easy.

I know you have to get over some fears and make yourself vulnerable. You’re not alone. My fear is that if people really knew what I was thinking, knew how insecure I was, they wouldn’t like me. They’d think I was negative and weak.

So I write about it. The times when I dance and I feel love, freedom and joy. And the times I feel unworthy, envious and insecure.

Those feelings are scary for me to admit. Maybe as scary as it is for someone who’s never danced to get out on that dance floor at his cousin’s wedding. Or for someone who doesn’t fit society’s extremely narrow definition of physical beauty to put on some tights and take a ballet class.

We’re all scared sometimes. Dance is frightening because it’s so powerful. I think we can make it less so by sharing the journey together. And I can only share it with you if I’m honest about it all.

Weekend Inspiration: Take Me to Church

I love this song and I love this video – and I’m certainly not alone! As of this posting, it had racked up over 7 million views on YouTube.

If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now and get ready to feel a painful longing to just quit your job, start over, and devote your life to being able to dance like this man. (Or was that just me?)

It features “ballet bad boy” Sergei Polunin dancing to Hozier’s hit song “Take Me to Church”. Polunin’s grace, strength, and precision combine powerfully with his emotional expression of the dance. It’s enthralling.

(Email subscribers: Click through to the blog post to see the embedded video.)

Feeling Intimidated? Ask Them to Dance Anyway

My friend and I were talking the other day about guys not asking her to dance salsa. A lot of times she’ll have to ask them to dance and at some point they’ll tell her, “I never asked you before because I was too intimidated!”

This frustrated and confused her a bit, because she is a very friendly, modest and down-to-earth person. She’s not dancing from her ego or showing off, she’s genuinely enjoying herself and usually smiling the whole time! So, to her, the fact that she could be perceived as “intimidating” didn’t make much sense.

I got it though. When I first saw her dancing, I was completely intimidated just as another female follower in the same room!

The thing that makes her dancing intimidating is that it is immediately obvious that she knows more than just the steps. Her movements are fluid and complex, stemming from her knowledge of African dance, and more specifically Afro-Cuban dance – the roots of salsa. When I see someone who clearly embodies the richness of a certain dance style, it inspires me to step up my game, but it also makes me think twice about whether I’m ready to dance with that person.

Sometimes you just have to go for it though.

In my experience with salsa, most dancers are friendly and non-judgmental (and they remember when they were beginners themselves!). I wouldn’t ever try to monopolize a more advanced dancer’s time, but from time to time it’s definitely important to step out of your comfort zone and ask someone better than you to dance (leader or follower).

You may surprise yourself and dance quite well! You might also be completely out of your element and get the chance to recognize your weak spots – and that’s a great opportunity to focus your ongoing study of dance.

And don’t forget one of the most important elements of partner dancing that has little to do with your level of technique – your energy! Your unique personality and way of expressing joy and humor all comes through in the way you dance. Let it! This is the essence of our connections to our partners and it is just as meaningful as technique for your partner’s enjoyment of the experience.

So, next time you’re out dancing, I challenge you to a little experiment: Put a smile on your face and ask that intimidating person to dance. Who knows what you might discover!

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Tell me in the comments – how do you deal with feeling intimidated by another dancer?

The Power of Performance

Sometimes when I watch a dance performance, it’s like eye candy. Everything is bright and colorful and visually stimulating.

Sometimes it feels analytical. I’m impressed and intrigued as I observe the technique and skills of the dancers.

Other times, there is an energy that’s infectious, and I feel a light, joyful or peaceful connection with the dancer.

But something rare happened this weekend at Kosmos Dance Camp. Each night, our amazing teachers perform their style of dance. This year, the Global Street Dance teacher Rashad Pridgen performed a solo. As soon as he started, I felt like I had been pulled into a tractor beam. I was frozen, mesmerized.

He danced to Gregory Porter’s “1960 What?”, and with each movement it felt as though he was inflating a bubble around us that pulsed with the emotions of the dance and the music. We were experiencing it with him, not just watching. It was so emotional and captivating.

Rashad teaching Global Street Dance at Kosmos Dance Camp, 2014

Rashad masterfully fuses a variety of styles of street dance, many of which I’m not familiar enough with to name. But I guess it doesn’t really matter. His dancing was terrific, yes, but it was the soul behind that reverberated through all of us. (As I was watching, I started thinking, “this audience is going to go CRAZY when he is done” – and we did, all jumping out of our seats, clapping and hollering.)

I thought about going up to him after the performance to thank him and tell him how captivating he was, but I felt a little shy and I knew it would be hard to find the right words to express how his dance affected me. I’m sure he knew though. The energy and connection between all of us was palpable. It reminded me of what incredibly powerful creatures we are when we express ourselves through music and dance.

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What about you? Have you ever watched a dance performance that felt like a powerful shared experience that you’ll always remember? Tell me about it in the comments!

Dance Camp!

Just finished packing before heading out to carpool with some friends to Kosmos Dance Camp….and found this in my old posts! A draft of an unfinished post after last year’s dance camp. Maybe this year I’ll actually publish a complete post after attending, but for now, here’s a little peek into the experience and why it’s one of the best times of the year for me.

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A few days ago, I was laughing, talking and dancing with new girlfriends, living together sleepaway camp style in a 10-bunk bed cabin in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

After taking classes with some of the best teachers in the Bay Area, we’d eat dinner, get cleaned up and spend the night watching performances and dancing to live music.

It was amazing. It was Kosmos Dance Camp.

Another world

For four days, you’re immersed in a world of dancers and musicians – everyone filled with joy at the opportunity to dance and play all day every day.

You get up in the morning, go to breakfast together, and then dance to your heart’s content. Want to take every class that’s offered that day? (That’d be seven hours of dancing.) Go for it! Want to take it easy? Take a few classes, hang out at the pool and take a nap.

Whatever you decide, you’ll be surrounded with people feeling joyful, open and adventurous, exploring everything from Bollywood, Afro-Peruvian and Afro House Hop to Reggaeton Fusion, Salsa Reuda and Contemporary.

Learning the Steps is Easy

Something I realized recently is that most of the challenges I have studying dance have less to do with any actual styles or steps I’m learning and more to do with just dealing with my own shit.

The steps are simple, in a way. It’s clear to me that if I commit myself to learning a dance and I keep practicing, I will improve. This has happened before and it will happen again. So the easy thing would be to keep going to classes and blissing out to that fascinating process of gradually learning and mastering new steps, secure in the knowledge that I’ll keep improving and becoming a better dancer. This would be very fun!

But, no.

My mind loves to fixate on what’s wrong.

I learned the steps of the choreography, but didn’t get the style right.

I’m so tight and inflexible that I can’t properly do all of these steps and I bet everyone thinks I’m old and pathetic.

Ugh, my teacher loooves that other dancer so much. Sigh. She should love her – she’s an awesome woman inside and out and I adore her too! I’m the one that sucks.

Sprinkled in with the joy and exhilaration of dance are so many other painful feelings: insecurity, jealousy, frustration, self-loathing, disappointment.

But there’s an upside to this. What dance illuminates, I can heal. If it weren’t for my dance classes, I wouldn’t necessarily get such stark reminders of how much I need to practice loving and accepting myself – being KIND to myself. When so much insecurity and jealousy comes up for me, I know that’s a part of myself that needs healing.

Dance truly does make me feel joyful and blissful. But it does more than that. When I’m open to looking at ALL of the feelings that come up when I dance – the good and the bad – that’s when dance transforms me.

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Do you find that dance brings up joy and pain for you too? How does dance transform you? I’d love to hear from you – talk to me in the comments!

Act Like a Dancer

For me, stretching regularly is always a challenge. It feels like such a chore – especially since I need it so much, so it is rarely comfortable or relaxing.

I know I should take rest and stretch breaks from my computer during the day at work, but I find myself forgetting, putting it off, or just feeling kind of demoralized and apathetic about the state of my body.

Over the last three years or so, as I’ve become more immersed in a 9 to 5 computer-based office job (previously I was self-employed and spent less time sitting at a computer all day), I’ve gained around 15-20 pounds, lost strength, flexibility and muscle tone, and become more prone to fatigue and minor colds.

This depresses rather than motivates me, so I continue my routine of sitting with my laptop all day.

Then, last week, during a massage for neck and jaw tension, a thought popped into my head:

What if I identified as a dancer first, and an office worker second?

It would be a priority to move and stretch regularly throughout the day because I’m a dancer and that’s what I need – and more importantly – want to do.

As a marketing specialist, I need to answer emails, research sales data and run conference calls. As a dancer, I need to take five minutes here and there to stretch my neck, massage my feet and do a few pliés, as well as taking a walk break to move and get fresh air.

I knew I would need a reminder of this to keep it top of mind and start a new routine, so I drew this and placed it near my computer at work:

It’s been about a week and I’m happy to say – it’s working!

My mindset has shifted. I don’t feel bad about having tension and tightness (“boohoo, my computer is slowly killing me”) and needing to stretch it out because if I were a full-time dancer, I’d be doing the same thing and probably dealing with painful injuries to boot.

Without those negative feelings, in the past week I have enthusiastically:

  • Taken several walk breaks at lunchtime
  • Gone to the gym twice
  • Taken a Reggaeton Fusion dance class (and heading to another one tonight!)
  • Done yoga on my own at home and taken a power yoga class
  • Taken time to step away from my laptop to gently stretch

There’s such a difference between “should” and “want”. As an employee with a desk job, I “should” take breaks to care for my body and prevent chronic computer-sitting tension and weakness. But as a dancer I “want” to move and stretch and bend. It’s such a simple part of who I am and what I do. Easy!

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Do you have a similar challenge when it comes to what you “should” do for your body to stay healthy and feeling good? How do you deal with it? Tell me in the comments!