On the Salsaholics Facebook group this week, I posted a picture of what looks like a pretty painful injury incurred by one partner, literally at the hands of another. What is clear from the photo is that the injuring party grabbed the injured person with extremely strong thumb pressure, so much so that there is some mighty serious bruising between the base of the thumb and the wrist.
I’m guessing that the offending partner was a leader. But both leaders and followers are sometimes guilty of putting the Vulcan Nerve Pinch on someone’s hand as a means of (attempting to) control their partner. I often remind my students that “salsa is a metaphor for life.” In this instance, attempting to control your partner by force is as good idea in dance as it is in life (i.e., NOT!) How does the leader then convey moves to the follower, especially if both are relatively new to the dance (and particularly if they’re not)?
There are two key elements to communicating with one another in an open hold: finger/hand strength, and arm tension (or frame). Think about your hands, first, and try this exercise: Bend your fingers at 90 degrees to your palms, so your hands form inverted letter-Ls. Turn your hand so that you can catch the bent fingers of one hand with the bent fingers of the other. While maintaining your fingers at 90 degrees, attempt to pull apart your hands while holding your fingers very strongly. Do you feel how much control each hand has over the other without having one clamp the other? This is the strength that you want to have in your fingers when connecting with your partner in open hold. Maintaining strong fingers throughout patterns and various moves will enable both partners to be safe while keeping good control. Followers should remember (almost) never to let go of the leader’s hands; it’s the leader who releases the connection as a particular dance element requires.
The second element, arm tension, can be replicated in a similar fashion. Both partners have to maintain equal-force tension (compression) and extension throughout moves. This means keeping the tendons, ligaments, and muscles through your arms and upper chest engaged through a particular movement. If arms are lax (or worse, moving or swinging randomly as schoolchildren might skip double-dutch) the follower has no way of knowing what the lead might be, and the leader has little ability to clearly communicate what his intention is. What we have here is the classic, “failure to communicate.” I see it all the time among both students and social dance partners, where the follower guesses at which direction a turn – either spot or travelling – should go; whether a particular arm movement is leading a comb or a turn (and in which direction); or when one partner goes through an unled rote pattern once learned in a studio class because the leader’s initiating movement is similar to the learned-by-rote pattern.
By keeping a firm tension in the arms and chest – and this is especially true through turns and hand-switches – both partners can communicate their intentions and actions to the other without having to forcibly control the intended motion. This means a leader or a follower always provides equal pressure to the other partner, even through turns and travelling steps.
Safe connection is vital to salsa dancing, as it is in many other styles as well, and it takes some considerable awareness and deliberate practice to master. But it’s a worthwhile endeavour—not only will it make you a safer dancer, it will also make you a considerably better, more enjoyable dance partner.
See you on the dance floor!