As a Cuban Salsa teacher, I have seen many students make mistakes, but one above all is the worst. Not only because it harms the dance, but because unfortunately many schools teach it as the proper way to lead. Let’s call the monster by its name – “Tap Leading”!
“Tap Leading” – what is it and why do some dancers use it?
Let’s start with understanding why is “Tap leading” supposedly needed. In Salsa, ladies normally step back on the first beat. That is great for Enchufala, Back Rocks based figures, and many other figures. Other figures such as Vacilala, however, require the ladies to go forward on 1. But even the best follower cannot guess she needs to go forward on 1 unless we give her some kind of a redirection signal. If we had such a signal all would be well.
Here comes “Tap Leading” to the rescue (supposedly). In order to convey the message that the follower should advance forward on 1 we could direct her to the side, opening our bodies and make a tap with our feet (left for men, right for women). Yay! We have a solution. And it works! Well at least for some of the figures, maybe the only ones that the school is teaching. Why does it work? Simply because we pre-decided that this would be the sign and as long as everyone agrees on it things should generally work. But is it a good lead? Is there any sense behind it? No.
How “Tap Leading” became popular.
Before I will get to why there is no sense in “Tap leading”, let’s explain first how such a leading mistake came to be. Before the internet was fully developed and we had YouTube to gain quick access to hundreds of video tutorials, it was not an easy job to learn Salsa. Cuba was quite isolated and it was also not the favorite tourist destination it is today, only selected few went there to learn the secrets of the dance from the source.
In contrast, many Cubans & Porto Ricans moved to the United States and tried to sell Salsa as a product. In the United States, salsa material could have been found in abundance. However, Cuban Salsa has been modified to different styles in order to fit the local extravagant taste. Some of these styles became completely distinct like Salsa LA or NY Salsa. These pose no problem because we know the leading in LA/NY Salsa is just different than Cuban Salsa to the point where they are just separate dances. But the culprit for “Tap leading” is non-other than Miami style Salsa.
Miami salsa remained relatively similar to Cuban Salsa (Casino), but it was transformed to fit the stage. Instead of dancing in circles one around each other people danced in lines. This is great for stage shows since you can control what details will the audience see. Another addition was the “Tap Leading”, which was again a nice perk for the stage, as the partners are opening up to look at the audience and tap outwards in synchronization before stepping forward.
Meanwhile, in Europe, most dancers and teachers would learn Salsa from videotapes. Some schools in the United States produced instructional videotapes classes and these were the main source of learning of the inner workings of Salsa outside of the US. Some tapes became very popular, one of which is the famous “Salsa Lovers” videotape series. As a whole, they did a great job in popularizing the dance, standardizing many Salsa moves and providing detailed technical instructions, so credit is due where credit is due. To the right, you can see a video by Salsa Lovers demonstrating Vacilala using Tap Leading. They are often taken down from Youtube though.
Anyhow, while Miami Salsa Style has died out slowly even in Miami, their modified Miami Style leading stuck. And even though most of us aspire to dance Cuban Salsa rather than Miami Style Salsa many schools still promote their leading principles unknowingly. In fact “Tap Leading” has propagated so much, that it is actually hard to find a video for some moves that do not utilize “Tap Leading”.
Five reasons “Tap leading” is bad
Why is “Tap leading” so bad? There are plenty of reasons.
First, when we are social dancing, we are not on stage. There is no reason to open up towards a non-existing audience, the focus should be towards the partner.
Second, the tap makes absolutely no sense. In Salsa, we generally lead with our arms and the steps are left for the dancer to express himself or herself. In the original Cuban dance we often utilize the 8th beat for styling, tap being only one of the many options. By tapping on the 8th count you are losing the ability to choose anything else.
Third, The tap and the open combined are a Salsa cliché and are great for looking ridiculous on the Social dance floor. Cubans never do it and it’s one of the reasons that westerners look silly in comparison to Cuban dancers.
Forth, you can’t control the direction of the first step. This tap and opening works great for Vacilala, but not for other figures that direct the partner towards the back or front.
Fifth and the most important, it has completely no sense in it. Leading in Salsa makes sense, it is natural and uses common sense principles. “Tap leading” is unnatural, it’s just predetermined.
The proper leading technique – “Tension”
The proper solution is Tension based leading. Where the couple creates a tension (Contra, as some call it) between the partners on the 7-8 beats, which alarms the ladies to go forward on 1 in the direction of the force.
Simple, natural and it works…for any figure.
Tension leading complies with the basic concepts in Cuban Salsa that followers should follow their arms direction, and strive to move their body rather than their arms. So within Cuban Salsa tension leading makes sense, creating tension forward should take the followers body forward thus stepping forward. It also keeps the partners facing each other, fostering partner connection and does not include any “Show” element by default (but of course, if you choose to, you can adapt it to be “showy” as well).
It is worth mentioning that there are a few advocates of an alternative solution with the belief that no tension (or tapping) should be applied in Salsa Cubana. It is, however, a controversial and lengthy debate that is beyond the scope of the current article. Suffice to say that it creates a very different flavor to the dance that in my opinion puts unnecessary limits to the dance.
Tension leading is a simple principle, but it requires practice and guidance by a professional teacher to be done right. The small details and tips on how to perform a proper tension leading make it difficult to just copy it from a YouTube Video, there are just too many subtle notes that are hard to observe from the outside. A good teacher could help you create the tension from the core of your body rather than with your arms, understand how much tension should a leader and a follower put into it, or where to direct the tension in each case. There are also plenty of small tips that only experienced teachers could give that would make you a great leader or follower.
If you live in Berlin, you are welcome to join our Technique Foundation Course where we introduce and practice tension-based moves often. Alternatively, if you are looking for full attention, and speedy learning we also provide private classes. If you don’t live in Berlin, search for an experienced teacher that specializes in Cuban Salsa.
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.