Shines in Salsa, and Why You Shouldn’t Be Dancing Solo

Female Latin dancer dancing alone on crowded floor
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Salsa dancing is not about boasting to your partner. 

OK, I admit it, we show off a bit. However, it’s the fun type of showing off that’s about your dance partner, not about you. It’s not the “I’ll talk all night about my six-figure banking job, fast car, and luxury vacations, and of course I won’t ask you any questions” kind of showing off.

Showing off on the dance floor is the conversational equivalent of demonstrating how witty you are. If you want it to be effective, your partner has to enjoy it. 

Shines are the perfect moment to show off in salsa, yet it can be easy to forget that you’re still supposed to be dancing with your partner even as you break into footwork

Given that there are few things more boring than feeling like you’re dancing on your own while your “partner” amuses themselves, how can you avoid being this person? And what should you do if it happens to you?

Ballroom dancers' feet dancing side-by-side

1. Don’t Force Shines or Partnerwork

In my first shines class, the teacher told us there was one golden rule: leaders, if you decide to let go of the follower, they can decide when to come back into hold. Followers, she said, could initiate coming back into hold by presenting their hand and the leader had to accept it. However, if the leader initiated an attempt to come back into hold, the follower could make them wait.

Partnership is always built on compromise, so I don’t adhere slavishly to that rule. Yet there’s a reason my teacher believed in it.

If a leader has initiated a breakaway into shines, they want to dance shines. However, not all followers, especially beginner followers, want to dance un-led. 

If the follower wants to come back into partner hold, don’t ignore them. If they freeze or look at you with a terrified expression while stiffly doing the basic, don’t force them to struggle through it or initiate the partner hold. Offer them your hand.

Conversely, forcing someone to come back into partner hold too early is like interrupting them mid-sentence. Go ahead and indicate that you want to come back into partner hold, but grabbing your partner’s hand before they’re ready isn’t polite, whether you’re a leader or a follower. Allow your partner to accept your offer to come back into hold in a timely manner.

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Leaders, remember that most salsa shines are taught on your timing. This means that a follower needs an extra 8-count to do the same shine as you since they’ll dance it over beats 5–4 instead of 1–8. Don’t make your partner come back when they’re in the middle of footwork. Give them time to finish up. 

2. Stay Connected

When you dance shines on the social dance floor, it shouldn’t feel like two people dancing near each other dancing. It should feel like people dancing together. Even while you focus on your footwork, your attention should be directed to your partner.

I mean, who else are you performing for? This is a social, not a stage.

Know where your partner is. Look at them. Stay spatially connected; I won’t say that you should never dance away from them or angled at 90° to them, but if you do that, make sure you’re still maintaining the connection. 

Not sure how to stay connected during shines? Check out this playful and musical salsa by Desiree Goodsell and Laurent of Les Twins as filmed by Social Dance TV. Desiree and Laurent spend more time dancing shines than they do in partner hold, but they never stop dancing together.

3. Respond to Your Partner 

Partner dancing is a conversation, not a monologue, which means responses are required. Is your partner impressing you? Let it show. Have they suddenly changed their style or tiempo? Consider adapting (which doesn’t have to mean copying them). Are they moving around your dance space? React.

For beginners, improvers and some intermediates, it can be hard enough remembering a handful of shines or trying to be musical. Reacting to your partner’s shines can add extra responsibilities that you don’t feel capable of. But you learned how to communicate with facial expressions long before your first dance class so don’t be afraid to smile and let your feelings show.

What to Do If You’re Not Having Fun While Dancing Shines

You’re dancing to a great salsa song and then suddenly your partner lets go of you, breaks into shines, and stops looking at you. You feel lost, ignored, and unsure of what to do. However, you’re a positive person so you think, That’s ok, we’ll be back in partner hold in a few counts.

10 eight-beat counts later, you’re still not in partner hold, your partner’s still not looking at you, and you feel bored (and perhaps even stupid).

What can you do?

  1. If you never like shines, practise your footwork and musicality at home so you can start to enjoy them. Take part in shines battles to build up your confidence. 
  2. If your partner ignores you, try to spark a connection by interacting spatially or stylistically with them.
  3. If they still ignore you, indicate that you want to go back into partner hold
  4. If they still don’t want to do that, enjoy dancing by yourself and say “no” the next time they ask you to dance.

Shines can be one of the best parts of a salsa dance, especially for followers who have less opportunities to be musical. But to make sure they stay wonderful, pay attention to your partner, dance with them instead of next to them, and make sure they’re enjoying themselves as much as you are.

Whether you’re the follower or the leader, good dancing is about taking an interest in what your partner is communicating and then responding to that.

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Carla started Latin dancing as a teenager and never stopped. She has too many dance shoes and dreams of dancing in Latin America. But it's not all about dance in her life: she also paints and has a day job as a marketing assistant.