Salsa Dancing for Beginners: How to Prepare for Your First Class

Smiling couple dance salsa

So, you’ve signed up for your first salsa class? Perhaps you are realizing a lifelong dream, perhaps an unexpected opportunity has presented itself, or perhaps a dear but crazy friend is forcing you. Whether you are ready to set the floor on fire or are getting cold feet, you definitely want to know what you are getting yourself into. Most of all, you want to be ready.

What Is Salsa?

Salsa is a form of dance that has a strong Afro-Latin influence. It developed in the Caribbean and then made its way to New York, where the term salsa was coined in the 1960s. It is danced with six steps for every eight beats of music. The two extra beats are marked by a pause or hold step.

There are many styles of salsa. Your instructor can tell you which you will be learning. The difference in style mainly comes from which beat your dancing emphasizes and how you use the space around you. Every style has the same number of steps. 

The rhythms of salsa are quite complex. The easiest way for a beginner to find the rhythm is to listen for the cowbell. The cowbell marks all of the odd-numbered beats. Later you can start listening for other instruments, dancing on their beats, and exploring the diversity of style salsa has to offer. 

You can listen to the cowbell in this video from Bon Sueno:

What Should You Wear When Dancing Salsa?

The most important thing to consider when choosing what to wear is how comfortable you are. Ask yourself two questions. First, does the outfit restrict movement? Second, do I feel confident wearing it?

Unless you are in a competition, you don’t need to wear a formal dance outfit. For your class or social dance, attire will be casual. Whether you wear pants or skirt, something loose or something form-fitting, the main thing is that it is easy to move in. 

Don’t wear something that will hide your feet. Give yourself a chance to get used to the steps. Your instructor will also want to see your feet so they can correct you if you aren’t stepping right. 

Students dance in beginner salsa class

Credit: Jacek Dylag

Salsa can be sexy. Dress sexy if you feel good about it! However, don’t go so sexy that you have to worry about wardrobe malfunctions. Make sure you can move your arms and hips freely and that you can spread your legs comfortably.

If you wear a skirt, you may want to wear a pair of athletic shorts underneath, especially if it flies up when you spin. Tight clothing can also easily ride up. It can be intimidating to dance in front of people for the first time, so wear clothes that will give you confidence, not drain it away.

If you don’t have dance shoes yet, that’s not a problem. Wear a pair that slides easily on the floor. You don’t want shoes that are too grippy. You also don’t want a pair that will come off easily. If you wear heels, don’t wear a pair that are too high. A low pair (two inches or less) will allow a wider range of movement. Wedges are difficult to dance in as well. 

Be sure to brush your teeth and wear deodorant. You might even want to bring extra deodorant with you. Keep your nails trimmed short. It’s more comfortable to dance with someone who has short nails. 

If you are dancing somewhere other than a bar, a bottle of water is nice to have on hand. Bring a small sweat towel and maybe even an extra top or two. A purse or handbag will get in your way if you try to keep it on you while you dance, so only bring something that you are comfortable leaving in the cloakroom or at the side of the room. 

Dancing couples in salsa class in a bar

Credit: Eduardo Sánchez

What Can You Expect in Your First Salsa Class?

There will most likely be a pair of instructors who will first teach you the basic steps. They typically do this by having the class stand behind them and follow. After you have had a chance to get comfortable with the steps, the instructors will have you pair up (a lead and a follow) and teach you how to incorporate the steps into moves. 

The instructors will probably have you switch partners several times during the course of the class. This means that even if you don’t have a partner, you will still get a chance to dance. It is also a great way to meet other people.

This will also make you a better dancer. You will get a chance to dance with people that are more and less advanced than you, giving you the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. It also teaches you to adapt to different partners, making you a better lead or a better follow.

Couple dance salsa in a bar

Credit: Bobby Burch

While dancing with strangers can be scary at first, don’t let it intimidate you. Most of the people there will also be at your level. If they are more advanced, they remember what it is like to be a beginner. The salsa scene is friendly, and people are eager to help. 

Keep in mind that anyone can lead and anyone can follow. Traditionally men lead and women follow, and in more conservative cultures this is often still the case. However, in some places the choice of who leads is dependent on the couple’s preference. Understanding both roles will help you learn the dance better in the long run. 

Many dance classes will have a social dance after the lesson. This is a fun way to practice what you have just learned. It feels great to put your moves to music, and you might even learn more on the floor than you do in the class. 

If there is a social dance, don’t be surprised if there are other dances besides salsa. You will most likely encounter bachata, but maybe others as well. Bachata is normally slower than salsa and the steps are easy to pick up, so give it a try!

Couple dancing at night

Credit: Maksym Kaharlytskyi

Dance Floor Etiquette: What to Do at Your First Dance Social

Being thoughtful is the best rule of etiquette anywhere. The second-best one is to watch what everyone else does. The formality of the etiquette will depend on the place you are dancing, but most salsa places are pretty informal.  

Traditionally, the men asked the women to dance, but this is no longer the case. Anyone can ask anyone. Don’t be afraid to do it! 

Try to ask several people to dance, including those who are more and less advanced than you. If you want to be asked to dance, stand by the floor and smile. If you don’t want to dance, sit down away from the dance floor.

One of the great things about salsa socials is that everyone dances with everyone. If someone asks you to dance, you can say no, but it’s more fun to say yes. If you are comfortable doing so, try to give everyone a chance. The salsa community is warm, and you will be included right away. 

Partner dancing social

Credit: Toufic Mobarak

If you do need to tell someone no, be gentle. Remember how intimidating it can be to ask someone, and be kind to those who ask you. If you only need a rest, be clear and express your willingness to dance later.  

If you ask someone to dance or accept an offer from someone else, you should think of it as a commitment for the length of the song.  Unless there are pressing circumstances, you should finish the song with that partner. When you do finish, it is polite to say thank you to your partner.  

So, what are you waiting for?

Salsa is fast and fun, and yes, it can be spicy. Remember, confidence looks less silly than timidity. Just put yourself out there and get into the music. You’ll be adding your own flavor in no time! Don’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing through the rest of your week.

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