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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