Saturday, July 7, 2007

Great Style: Back to the Future (Part 2 of 2)

This is second part of my “Great Style: Back to the Future” series. I’ll assume you’ve read part one of this series but in case you haven’t, here’s a minor recap:

The “Baarns Direct-Indirect” (BDI) learning approach assumes you combine direct learning from your favorite salsa dancers or instructors AND indirect learning by going back a generation or two to their influences. Generally, you will find additional moves and feels you like and often you’ll work your way back to those roots as well.

Here’s a real world example: Let’s say you are learning salsa from an instructor who is primarily teaching LA style salsa. You notice they are doing some moves you like and they mention that those are “Cuban” in origin. Rather than learn this instructor’s version of Cuban exclusively, watch people who specialize in Cuban dancing, learn those fundamentals and then you can integrate the parts you like into your dancing.

Here’s how that worked for me:
Luis Vasquez used to live and teach in LA. He has some outstanding Cuban motion in his dancing and I was taking some lessons from him before he left for a year in Spain (now he is in Italy). I paid him for a series of privates, and at one point, I asked him, "Please teach me that Cuban motion you use so nicely." He looked me in the eye and said, "No, that doesn't make sense."

As you might imagine, I was a little bothered by that answer, figuring I had just paid him a decent chunk of change for a set of lessons. You'd think the guy would teach me what I wanted.

Instead he said, "Go check out this guy named 'Moon-yain-co' who teaches at LuLa Washington's in LA. He's from Cuba, has only been here a few years and he's my favorite authentic Cuban dancer in the LA area." Of course, he didn't know how to spell his name, but I did some searching on the web and tripped over the class. Now I know the guy’s real name is 'Pedro "Muñeco" Aguilar' and he is amazing. I started attending his weekly classes and took a few privates from him.

When explaining things to me one time, Muñeco said, "This move is from my village. You can always tell people from my village because we do this part a little different." I realized the differences between LA and NY style span a few thousand miles. In Cuba, some villages can be almost walking distance apart and they still have identifiable "regional" styles.

You’ll see plenty of salsa dancers doing Afro-Cuban moves that imitate using a machete (a long cutting knife used to chop down vegetation). When doing those moves in a private, Muñeco goes to the trunk of his car and pulls out a real machete and starts showing me how the moves really work, with a real machete. He demonstrates and then hands me the machete and I immediately decide I’m passing on "trying it", fearing I will become the world’s latest one-armed salsa dancer.

The point is this guy lives it and while I love the way Luis had integrated Cuban into his dancing, Muñeco (or someone like him) is the right place for you and me to learn authentic Cuban motion. He is not trying to be a flashy LA salsero, he just dances what he feels based on growing up with it.

Today my overall Cuban is a work in progress, but from being in his class and taking a few privates, I recognize exactly what it looks like, though I can’t yet do it well, even with a gun to my head. I hear certain tunes and I can see Muñeco dancing up a storm, and over time, I'll be able to integrate those feels into my dance. When I see others dancing salsa with a Cuban flavor, I have a pretty good idea if they are faking it or if they really know.

Muñeco also turned me on to some DVDs of authentic Cuban dancers, so I could further my studies. Click here for a taste. Disclaimer: It's a QuickTime clip, it's large and it takes a long time to download. Download it anyway because it's pretty cool.

I ended up purchasing 4 DVDs and now use them as a reference, feeding my mind so that later authentic Cuban style will become part of my dancing. Rather than exclusively learn Cuban moves from salsa instructors, it makes sense to feed our minds with images from the source.
From another perspective, lots of people are doing moves with a hip-hop flavor. Some dancers are integrating body waves, shines, glides and other moves that come out of hip-hop, hustle and/or west coast swing (among others).

There is nothing wrong with learning some of a salsa dancer’s hip-hop influenced moves, but the ideal path is go back to the source and roots of hip-hop. You might take some hip-hop classes and/or watch hip-hop instructional DVDs, and learn the roots of that dance.

If you want to see some amazing hip-hop inspired dancing, purchase the Usher: Truth Tour DVD and watch it a hundred times.

It's one of my favorites, and I never liked Usher before seeing this live show on DVD. His dance team is a set of absolutely stunning, excellent, world-class dancers, and the staging and choreography are amazing. The live versions of his music are a dramatic improvement over his studio CDs. The eight dancers backing him can dance as a group or freestyle with the best of them, and in the first two tunes, this team blew me away.

Like any great artists, they make it all look so easy and fun it seems within reach immediately. Then the rude awaking hits when you try to imitate some of the moves. These are extremely versatile dancers, combining hip-hop, jazz, b-boy/b-girl (AKA “breaking”) and making it look like my mama could do it.

If that type of show inspires you (and it does me), then watch them, learn from them and go back to their sources, the roots of hip-hop. Those roots come out of the 1970’s with grooving, locking, popping and a set of social dances that set the stage for today’s more complex variations.
If you want truly authentic hip-hop flavor, check out the guys who work the foundational moves and learn the social dances of the day. Ill Kosby has a MySpace page and this guy is the real deal when it comes to the history of hip-hop, funk, poppin', lockin' and such. He's forgotten more than most people will ever know about the roots of modern hip-hop. His “BASIC MOVEMENT PRINCIPLES” DVD should be a part of everybody’s collection who wants to understand the roots of the current hip-hop scene.

Check out this YouTube video to get an idea of this old school style.

Once you've seen the roots you'll recognize today's dancers are doing advanced versions of moves that started 20-40 years ago.

I used to think some of today’s salsa dancers where creating new materials and now I know they are smart enough to learn from the past, and then add their own style on top of the original materials.

Again, the big point is learn from your local instructors, but be sure to also find their influences and go back and check them out. It doesn't matter if it's Cuban, hip-hop, West Coast swing, or square dancing; learn from the people who started the movement, rather than just the current move of the week. There is nothing wrong with learning from specific instructors or grabbing moves from a dancer you like, but in parallel, it makes sense to get to their roots as well.

Of course, awareness and knowing the roots and what is authentic is only part of the equation. You still have to practice, and while being aware and recognizing a specific style is the first critical step, the practice phase can be weeks, months or years, depending on your starting point.

By going back to the source, your own style will develop and it won’t be a clone of your local instructor. The depth learned over time will provide you a different perspective, giving you materials others only dream about. They’ll think you’re brilliant (and you probably are), but you’ll know you are using the time-honored tradition of standing on the shoulders of the past giants.

That is not the short road, but if you want great styling, these direct-indirect principles will take you there. Over time, you will blow past your peers who simply copy their favorite dancers directly.
Everyone has talent; but rare is the courage to follow the talent to the places it leads.
-Erica Jong

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero