For the first time, I will write something in the context of Salsa that is about myself, about the kind of path I chose to take as a professional dancer. I think it’s worth sharing because this path is not talked about, and it is not very publicly visible. I think most don’t even register it as a professional path to progress as a dancer. I know it took me long years to fully realize the kind of dancer my heart takes me to be and until that happened I navigated between the obvious paths that were not necessarily me. It’s a tad philosophical, and you might need experience in this world of dance to fully grasp it but maybe some of you will find interest or resonate with it.
The meaning of Dance
When you start dancing, assuming you do get the dance bug, most dancers start with a raw purpose. Each to his own, it could be just to have fun, meet people, maybe the thrill of passionate dance, enjoy the challenge of the dance, or whatnot. The beginning is full of magic and butterflies, no one really needs a strong meaning behind his or her dance in the first months or years of their dancing life. At some point, many dancers come to ask themselves – what’s next? there are many paths to progress as a dancer and if one takes enough of those, at some point one starts to wonder what is dance for them and what kind of dancer one wants to be.
If I draw a very rough line, I think most people view three crude options, one that is considered hobbyist and two that are considered professional. The Former refers to the choice I think the majority of dancers take. Whether it’s conscious or intuitive many dancers keep it simple – the meaning of the dance might change with time but not to some higher form of meaning. Dancing in socials, and the occasional class here and there are fun and this relationship to dance will stay casual. That’s totally cool, in the end, dance is there to fulfill you, and if it does all the power to it.
Another way to go about it, as some people assume, is to become a teacher. As a teacher myself I’m very wary of this purpose. Many mistake being a teacher as a progression path for a dancer, and honestly, I don’t think it is – to many it actually spells the end of progression. Teaching has its own merits and meaning, but I generally encourage young teachers or aspirers to view it as a parallel path to the path of the dancer, and it requires a completely different skill set. If one did not love and pursue the path of a dancer at some point, what is the purpose of teaching it? what kind of dancers will teaching without a strong passion for dancing bring to the world? This is a big topic that I could write an entire article about. To avoid that, I will keep these questions open for you to explore in case they are relevant, but I will also disregard this path as a sufficient path to take your dance further.
The Exo-Dancer – “The only viable path” (?)
And then comes what is supposedly the only viable path to becoming a pro or an amazing dancer. For the sake of where I am taking this article, I will call it the path of the “Exo-dancer”.
Dance is generally dealing with the aesthetics of movement. These aesthetics can be for the sake of aesthetics as in – to look pretty, or impressive, or for the sake of expression of some idea or notion. So it comes as no surprise that many people want to perfect their dance aesthetics. I put it very simply, but improving these aesthetics is a lifelong journey – I’m talking body movement, musicality, perfecting movements, getting to know many dance styles, training, performances, many many many classes, self-research, and whatnot.
There are many paths for Exo-dancers and they are not mutually exclusive. Some perform, some choreograph, some create art, some compete and earn titles, and some love to shine on the dancefloor. So, why do I group them all together? Because they all deal with taking the dance “outside” of yourself. Generally speaking, when you perform, compete, or show your art you are putting your art out there – that’s the end product and goal. The relationship with the dance has a relation to a third-party persona, one that is not partaking but watching the dance. The purpose is transferring a sense of excellence in aesthetics, athletism, sharing culture, evoking emotion from the spectator, or transferring some notion of value in the case of high forms of art.
I am sure, some of you performers will claim you do it for yourself – the end product is a byproduct rather than the goal and the goal is in the process. If I read your mind, maybe you are right, maybe you are a certain kind of an “Intra-dancer” (we will get to that in a moment). But to be honest with yourself, ask yourself if you would still do everything the same if there was no one to spectate your dance – ever. When I say no one I mean no one, not even your fellow dancers or your teacher. Whatever you create will be seen by no one but yourself, would you still do it?
The Exo-Dancer is a great path to walk for a lifetime, and that’s what the vast majority of people appreciate about dance anyway. When someone is thinking of a professional dancer they typically think of an Exo-dancer. If being a teacher in international congresses is considered the ultimate recognition of achievement (it’s a good question if it is, but no matter for now) then it’s easy to see that Exo-dancers are the ones appreciated in the dance world. Artists in international congresses are mostly Exo-dancers (or at least act as such and teach in the same manner) with what I believe to be very very few exceptions.
We finally get to the point of why I began writing this article. Exo dancers are dominating the art of dance in the professional sense. The nature of an Exo-dancer makes them extremely visible as well – in performances, in art, in teaching, in social media or in videos. It’s so out there that many don’t realize there could be a professional “Intra-dancer”. Simply put Intra-dancers dance for themselves – the meaning of dance has to do directly with the dance or the byproducts of the dance and not with any 3rd party spectator. Basically, the opposite of “Exo-dancers”.
I am an Intra-dancer, and while I cannot speak for all – I dance because of the bliss a good dance can make me feel. It’s not that I don’t deal with these once in a while, but I honestly don’t care much for performances, videos nor titles that come with competitions. Maybe surprising to some, but I don’t care if anyone watches me dancing, if anything it often makes me feel uncomfortably conscious and takes me out of my flow. It doesn’t happen too often (really…the stars need to align), but a great dance is like nirvana for me – it’s total harmony with the music, it’s total connection with the partner (sometimes even passion…in a dancy kind of way), and total connection with myself and my body to the point where I feel extreme freedom. These few moments of bliss are why I dance, and why I train to become a better dancer – the better I am as a dancer the bigger the bliss I can reach. It’s also the reason I teach and what I am educating for, cause I believe this is a beautiful thing to experience and I wish I could guide more dancers to experience the same.
I feel like the common assumption is that Intra-dancers are generally hobbyists, and maybe that’s correct in most cases. But I am here to put it bluntly – there are high forms of Intra-dancers and we tend to excel in dance in a slightly different way.
Things I value in dance as an Intra-Dancer
Like there are many types of Exo-dancers, each with their own motivations, drives, and values – I believe the same goes for Intra-dancers. Below I will describe a few things I value in dance more than anything else, and maybe it will resonate with some of you. I feel like Exo-dancers might initially resonate with them as well, that’s what causes Intra-dancers to develop their skills in a very similar way, but it’s the fine details of these values that make the Intra-dancer a different kind of dancer (or an educator).
If I have to define the kind of Intra-dancer I am, I am afraid there is no easy way to describe it. I would call it: a high-form mindful-present dancer. High-form because I choose to hone my dance skill, learn different dances, and prefer to add certain complexities to my dance (just like Exo-dancers do). Mindful because I seek to be extremely present with myself, my partner, and the music. Present might be the hardest to explain, but when I dance I attach myself to the now, and that causes me to value spontaneity that is found normally either when I dance by myself or in the context of social dance. But let’s go into it in more detail:
Bliss in connection
A big part of the bliss in dance for me is due to the connection that is built within the dance to the partner. Connection in unity, connection of play, connection of opposition, connection of passion. We might have leaders and followers in couple dances but a social dance at its best is a dialog, and when the conversation is great – magic happens. In the greatest of dances, I feel all of that. I go through different emotions, and end up in an almost telepathic connection with my partner and the music.
All of these require putting a lot of your attention into the partner rather than the outside. And more than that – it requires a LOT of social-dance practice to be able to do it in a complex dance. Being able to connect like that to someone you barely know (might be even a total stranger) through movement is an art. Every partner is different and developing the ability to feel, listen, adapt and respond accordingly requires a LOT of practice and mastery of the dance.
Musicality in Spontaneity
A second part that gives me that bliss is Musicality, but a special kind of musicality – one that comes spontaneously. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, musicality is a skill we dancers refer to when the movements express the music well. It’s a vast and important topic with many interpretations to it.
I find some beauty in a well-choreographed musicality-attuned routine. But for me, the best kind of musicality is spontaneous & creative, not one that is well-thought and practiced. I find sophistication in predicting unfamiliar music pieces, and I find it blissful to connect to the music in a totally unique way that I feel at that moment. It’s a practice that could be compared to meditation – if I attach myself to a preconception of what is fitting for each moment (i.e a choreography) – I cannot be present in my experience.
But all this spontaneity doesn’t mean I just wing it. Quite the opposite, it leads me to take musicality workshops, it leads me to choreograph pieces myself, it leads me to perfect movements so they will be natural to my body, and it leads me to study all the dances that are required to express different songs. In the world of Salsa Cubana that almost means you need to learn the entire repertoire of Cuban dances, and if you add Hip-Hop, Contemporary dance, Ballet, Funk, and many others it doesn’t hurt at all.
Creativity in Spontaneity
I also value creativity in spontaneity. For true creativity, one must first understand the structure of the dance very very well and feel extremely comfortable in the dance. When this happens, “breaking the rules”, fusing styles, and innovating the dance is what I call creativity. When it’s done on the spot, in the heat of the dance with a unison of music and partner that’s what I call creativity in spontaneity – and it’s freaking awesome.
Quite similarly to musicality, this pursuit of creativity leads to exploring dance. Partly because I’m a teacher I have analyzed the dance to bits, and love to explore where I can break from my normal patterns. Any dance I have learned contributed to my ability to innovate on the fly. Sometimes I literally have no clue what I am doing when I dance, it flows through me for the first time, and these are beautiful times.
Expression & Feel over Aesthetics
A lot of dance is about what looks aesthetically pleasing. But I care less about that and more about my ability to express myself freely. That’s where the connection to myself comes in – movements need to feel right for me and make me feel free & alive. Especially when it comes to connecting with the partners, a lot of movement can feel amazing but not be particularly aesthetically pleasing.
That said, if you are fully free you should also be able to express yourself aesthetically I feel, and often there is merit in it, cause aesthetic movements are often aesthetics because they express something better. I also enjoy aesthetic movement as a challenge. I’m curious about many things and new movements are just one of these things. So this is not to say that I don’t train in perfecting my dance skills. Quite the opposite, it’s just that the focus is different.
Partnerwork technique to a fault
I feel like this is just an extension of previous sections, but I wanted to put some extra emphasis on it. I feel like it’s an art that is getting sidelined lately by other topics. High-form of Partnerwork technique is not about having the ability to perform figures, it’s about creating freedom of communication in the dance. Great leading and following skills are the base that allows all the previous points to happen, it’s the mutual language we all speak. There is a lot to speak about when it comes to partnerwork technique in each dance, but there is a depth to it that many don’t even try to reach: How does a lead feel, how does it create emotion through it, how it is connected to musicality, non-contact leading/following, energy flow, and many other nuances.
If your focus is on performances, art, or competitions it’s far from mandatory to excel in the topic. But for me, it’s the bread and butter. It’s the base that allows me to connect with my partners in a social dance. When I feel like the following skills are still not there yet I tend to choose to “compensate-lead” and not to overwhelm my partner. This will allow my partner to enjoy the dance so I’m happy to do so. But when my partner mastered following I feel free and I have the capacity to shift my attention to connection, to the music, and to my own movement.
For me, dance is about enjoying life to the fullest. It sounds like a silly life advice that everyone would go “duh”, but It is extremely easy to forget that in the pursuit of greatness. We so easily compare ourselves to others, and we so easily criticize. We get caught up in the endless pursuit of unreachable perfection. We end up in scenes that are competitive or even toxic. We get entangled in politics, pursue fame and give way too much attention to how we are perceived. The deeper you get into the dance scene the more you interact with such situations. I’m no saint, but I do my best to avoid these situations and focus on what brings joy, and this is one piece of advice that I’ll give to all dancers regardless if they are Intra-dancers or Exo-dancers.
Words of closure
I feel like my path is clear to me, as a dancer and as an educator but it took me long years to see it clearly and I didn’t have role models that were verbose about this path. Dance brought a lot of good to my life, and I hope some fellow Intra-inclined dancers will find some validation in their way through this article.
If my values for dance will spread further and get more visible space in the Salsa international community I’ll be overjoyed. That starts with you and me, so let’s enjoy the dance and take it a day at a time.
Lastly, I did build a strong dichotomy here between the Exo-Dancer and the Intra-Dancer. But feel free to treat it similarly to being extroverted or introverted. I feel like I’m a rather strong case of an Intra-Dancer but this dichotomy might just be a spectrum, or relevant in certain contexts – you don’t have to fit into any box that was not made by your own definition.
The owner of La Candela. A Dancer and a certified teacher for Cuban dances since 2008. Studied under many Cuban teachers, including with Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba for a longer period of time.