The Salsa Lead Doldrums

“Doldrums” was a word used by sailors on wind-propelled ships to describe getting stuck for days or weeks at a time when the winds would stop.  It is also useful to describe what Leads go through when learning to lead almost any partner dance, but especially Salsa.

(As a side note, to avoid confusion, when I am referring to a person, I will use a capital letter, for example, “Lead” or “Follow” but when I am referring to leading, I will use lower caps, as in “He has a nice lead”)

The “Salsa Lead Doldrums” describes that period of time when Leads feel like they are making no progress at all.  And like the sailors of old, it can last a long time, weeks or, in my case, months.  The problem, also known as “Beginner’s Hell” and best described by Edie the “SalsaFreak” (A woman BTW), is a large reason why there are so many advanced female dancers and so few advanced men dancers.  Men get stuck and quit.

It comes down to what the Lead has to learn compared to the Follow and it is best shown in Edie’s graphic:

How Leads learning curve is different than a Follow.

How a Lead’s learning curve is different than a Follow.

Edie describes it like this:

The Male vs Female Learning Curve
In partner dancing, men are usually the leaders, and ladies are usually the followers.  I’m here to tell you, no matter what dance you learn; it’s a longer, tougher road for the guys.  They’ve got a lot more to worry about than their female counterparts.

Leaders, at a minimum, have to

  • Learn enough moves to keep her interested.
  • Make sure she is comfortable, and well taken care of.
  • Maintain self balance and control.
  • Not be too light, nor too heavy.
  • Understand frame and body momentum
  • Keep his arms and feet out of her way.
  • Smile, and tell her how beautiful she looks tonight.
  • Stay on beat.
  • Make sure his lead is not too light, nor too rough.
  • Ask her to dance, and risk the humiliation of a no, or lame excuse.  
  • Make sure he doesn’t touch her in the wrong place.
  • Allow her the time and space to turn and execute her moves.
  • Make sure just the right amount of hand-pressure is applied on her body. 
  • Make sure he doesn’t poke her with his fingers.
  • Protect her from bumping into other dancers.
  • Remember turn patterns and figures
  • Adjust to timing changes in the music
  • Keep her from falling if she is off-balance
  • Make sure there is just the right amount of body-momentum between both of them.
  • Keep the moves fluid, and working together. 
  • Display her talents.
  • Display his talents.
  • Play traffic cop on the dance floor
  • Make sure she doesn’t run into anyone, nor let anyone run into her.
  • Dance to the peaks, valleys, and hits of the music.

Followers have to, at a minimum

  • Know the basic steps.
  • Stay balanced.
  • Not be too light, nor too heavy.
  • Smile, and look pretty.


The original article by Edie describing “Beginner’s Hell” is hard to find these days, but here is a link to the complete thing.

My doldrums lasted for four months, during which I almost quit, until one day, it all clicked.  My doldrums lasted longer because I was learning Cuban and NYLA at the same time and confusing the two.

I can remember a few months after starting to learn Salsa, that the follows in my classes preferred to social dance with better Leads at On The Rocks, otherwise they wouldn’t learn anything.  I didn’t take it personally as I was continuously losing the beat, crashing into other dancers and my lead was both too strong and too weak at all the wrong places.  It was quite discouraging to start with follows who, in three months, could dance with much better Leads.  When I wasn’t fighting with shyness, discouragement or frequent versions of “Sorry, I am waiting to dance with that guy”, it was just getting enough practice time in.  After the beginner lesson was over at 9:30pm and I left at 11pm, that meant ten songs, half of which were danceable Salsa.  For almost a year, I was regularly going to Funky Buddha on Wednesdays, On the Rocks on Thursdays and other Edmonton salsa clubs on Saturdays.

The “Salsa Lead Doldrums” results in some interesting dynamics both in class and on the dance floor:

  • If a guy show up at all to beginner classes, it is not uncommon to find more Leads then Follows.  The Follows move up quickly and the Leads need to stick around for a repeat.  Bachata classes seem to suffer from this more than most.
    • The reverse is true of advanced classes which most times have more females then males.
  • A lot less Leads make it through the doldrums then Follows, which means:
    • Good advanced Leads are hard to find, both on the dance floor and for dance teams
    • Good Leads, who are in demand, are picky about who they dance with:
      • Follows who don’t fit the athletic lithe twenty something body profile are going to be asked less, even if they are great dancers.  This may sound harsh, but ask older follows – it is true.
        • Ever noticed how there are almost no Follows over sixty at Salsa bars?  Isn’t that strange given the boomers are now all entering that age set?
      • When the party gets going about 11pm on Thursdays, there is usually more great Followers not dancing then great Leads.

So what to do?  A lot of things:

  • Leads should start dancing with other expert Leads before dancing with a regular Follow.
    • Before learning advanced topics like musicality, traffic management (i.e. how to dance on a crowded dance floor) etc., the basics of leading starts with body position (relative to a partner) and the suggestions transmitted through the Lead’s hands to the Follow.  An expert Lead who can follow knows exactly what a good lead feels like and can point out when it is missing and describe what it should feel like.
    • By bringing in the Follow months after the Lead has started, it means the Follow won’t leave the Lead behind.
  • It should be standard for both men and women to become Leads and Follows.
    • Follows as Leads can then get in more dancing, because they can do the asking.

But perhaps our culture is too young, and our masculinity too ego based?  Click on the title of this blog and leave a comment!


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Teach Me the Rhythm

January Playlist Highlights






Ritmo de pollo Ritmo de Pollo - 20 Superhits Charangueros Fajardo y sus Estrellas 1950s Charanga Cuba
Mi Gran Pasion Mi Gran Pasión - Mi Gran Pasión Gonzalo Rubalcaba Danzón Cuba
Tintorera Ya Llegó Tintorera Ya Llegó - Legendary Sessions Chano Pozo y Arsenio Rodríguez Son Montuno Cuba
Tres Lindas Cubanas Tres Lindas Cubanas - Grabaciones Completas 1925-1931 Volumen 1: Tres Lindas Cubanas Sexteto Y Septeto Havanero Son Cuba
Chirrín chirrán Chirrín Chirrán - Colección Juan Formell y Los Van Van, Vol. II Los Van Van Songo Cuba
Bacalao con Pan Bacalao Con Pan - Irakere: Coleccion, Vol. 1 Irakere Modern Jazzband Cuba
Changui Clave Changui Clave - Elio Revé y Su Charangón (Vol. 2) Elio Revé y su Charangón Charangón Cuba
Nube Pasajera Nube pasajera - Pa' Que Se Entere la Habana Charanga Habanera Timba Cuba
Hablando en Serio Hablando en Serio - Hablando en Serio Manolito Simonet y Su Trabuco Timba Cuba
Pegaíto, pegaíto Pegaíto, pegaíto - Estamos pegaos Manolín, El Médico De La Salsa Timba Cuba
Oru Seco Opening: Orun Seco - Yemayá I Abbilona Yoruba – batá Cuba
Makuta Makuta - Iyabakua - Afro-Cuban Traditional Music


Bantu – makuta Cuba


Beyond Salsa for Beginners, An Introduction to Latin Music for Dancers and Listeners – Reviewed

For anyone interested in Cuban Timba or Cuban music in general a great web resource is   One of the driving forces behind the site is its co-founder and musical editor Kevin Moore.  Not only does Kevin help maintain the site he also writes books, a lot of books, on the subject of Cuban music.  I have been meaning to get a hold of one of these for a while but have made the excuse that they are intended for musicians or aspiring musicians or people with more musical background than me.  That was my excuse up until last November when he released Beyond Salsa for Beginners – An Introduction to Latin Music for Dancers and Listeners.   I may not be a musician or musically talented but I do love to dance and am pretty passionate about Latin music so no more excuses.  I picked up a copy of the book shortly before Christmas and have been working my way through it since.

At 250 pages Beyond Salsa for Beginners is not large but I am amazed at how long it’s taken me to get through it.  I’m a slow reader for sure but the book truly is packed full of really interesting info and stacks of song suggestions.  I have probably spent triple the time listening to the musical suggestions from the book as I have reading it.  The point here is that Beyond Salsa for Beginners is really not meant to be absorbed in an evening but is something that should be enjoyed and studied over a period of time to truly get the benefit of all the details that are packed into it.

The book starts off by layout out its intended purpose with the following three goals:

  • To give you a working knowledge of the full history of this (Latin) music
  • To increase your appreciation with some basic clapping, singing and dancing exercised to help you understand how it all fits together
  • To provide a little inside information for those taking dances classes, attending concerts and traveling to Cuba.

These goals are achieved through two major components, Listening Tours and Rhythmic Exercises, each of which are accompanied by audio tracks.  The rhythmic exercises highlight different rhythms that make up Cuban music with each rhythm being available as an audio download.  There are over one hundred audio tracks associated with the rhythmic exercises, which you can download for free without even buying the book.  That said, the tracks are of limited value without the explanations that the book provides.  What’s cool about the audio downloads is that they make the rhythm diagrams in the book come alive by allowing the reader (listener) to hear, internalize and even practice each rhythm.  Personally, I have found the exercises really useful for my own appreciation of Latin music and salsa dancing.

The other major component of the book is the Listening Tours.  There are 4 tours in all covering Cuban Pre-Revolution, Post-Revolution, Timba and Folkloric music.  A list of recommended listening tracks is provided for each tour with each track being selected to showcase the musical genres associated with that tour.  Additionally, there is also a section by selection break of each track so that you can get an understanding of what is going on in the song.  A long lists of further listening suggestions is also provided so that if you like a particular genre you can easily explore it further.   I have used these suggestions extensively to expand my own musically library.   Unfortunately, the recommended listening tracks are not available as a download with the book so you have to hunt them down yourself.  I have included a few of my favourites in this month’s playlist and if you listen to only one song from that list make it Bacalao con Pan by Irakere.  My jaw almost hit the floor when I heard that song for the first time, it’s that good.  I should add a caveat here that the book identifies very specific versions of each track so that the break downs match up with the track.  As I wasn’t always able to find the versions specified in the book the tracks in my playlist may not be identical to those in the listening tours.

In conclusion, if you are a salsero(a) and love to listen to and/or dance to Cuban music I would highly recommend this book.   At the very least it will give you with a deeper appreciation of the rhythms that make up the songs that you enjoy and provide you with suggestions of other songs to check out.  Beyond Salsa for Beginners may also be worth a look if you find Cuban music a little inaccessible.  It will provided you with insight into how intricate and evolutionary (and revolutionary) Cuban music is and also how dancable it can be.   Ultimately, at $30 for the printed copy or$15 for a digital copy it’s an inexpensive tool to expand your knowledge of and love for Latin music.

One last thing speaking of Cuban music, there a couple of upcoming Cuban music/dance events to mark on your calender:

  • If you are in Edmonton, Alberta on January, 19th you will want to check out Timbachata, a Salsaddiction Dance Party at Expressionz Café.
  • If you are in San Francisco, California any time between February 14-17 you will want to check out the San Francisco Rueda Festival, the largest Cuban music and dance Festival in the U.S.!!

Questions, comments, requests? Send me an email or leave a comment below.


Hasta la próxima




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