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SALSANEWYORK CYBER-INTERVIEW: 
Steve Shaw Part 1 of 2
-by Manny Siverio 
Originally published on SalsaNewYork on 8/03

Copyright © 2003 Steve Shaw

This month we interview SalsaNewYork Co-host, my internet partner in crime, Steve Shaw (AKA “Doc Salsa”).  In addition to work on the web, Steve is also an active social dancer known by most of the NY/NJ dance crowd.  Lately he's added DJing to his list of skills and can be seen working the turntable at various local events.  Though a strong proponent to the "On 2" way of dancing, he never says dancing On 2 is better than any other way of dancing to salsa. They are all great, and everyone should choose the style they like the best (Click here to see our web site’s introduction).  A true lover of "dancing", Steve also loves to write about it, watch it being performed and see it danced socially.  He loves to cover all aspects of the dance scene ranging from performers, dance companies and DJs, to instructors, students and social dancers.  His calendar of events page geared toward the mambo dance crowd is often imitated and plagiarized but never equaled.  Unlike other cyber-interviews done on this site, Steve is not an instructor, performer or promoter.  He is a social dancer, and he speaks his mind about topics which he feels concerns the dance community. 

This cyber-interview is in 2 parts.  The first part which appears below is about Steve’s own dancing history and his opinions about performers & shows, instructors, students, the “mambo community”, etc.  The second part will appear in our next Magazine issue. - Manny Siverio


SalsaNewYork:  What made you get into Mambo dancing?

I have always preferred music with Afro-based rhythms, beginning in high school in California with R & B, soul, blues & jazz.  It’s the strong complex syncopated beats that move me.  When I came to New York, the Afro-Latino-Caribbean rhythms & music became the most enjoyable music for me to listen & dance to.  I speak some Spanish and have spent considerable time with Latino friends so the topics, emotions and situations expressed in salsa songs, and the “attitude” on the dance floor, are quite familiar to me and I can relate to them personally.   

Since this is my favorite music, it is only natural that I would want to dance to it.

SalsaNewYork:  How long have you been dancing? Who have you learned from?  Why On 2 Dancing?  

I began going to Latin clubs here in NYC in the late 1970’s.  For many years, I danced the old side-to-side style with a kick.  I think it’s what Eddie Torres calls “lay lo lie”.  I just learned it in the clubs from watching people and dancing with different partners.  I tried dancing On 1 a few times but I never felt that the timing fit the complexity of the rhythms, especially the clave and the tumbao.  I had a good time at some of the old hangouts like Casa Blanca, Ochentas, Club Broadway (96th & Bway), Side Street, Orchard Beach, the old Copacabana on East 60th Street, Eddie Torres Socials….but no, not the Palladium.

In the 1990’s I got tired of seeing certain dancers do amazing things on the dance floor which I couldn’t do.  I wanted to dance that way and dance with those partners.  So I asked around and discovered that this was called “mambo breaking On 2” and eventually ended up at Eddie Torres classes, where I went for about 2 years.  After that, I continued for several years in weekly privates with 2 Eddie Torres Dance Company performers, Sammy Irizarry and Frankie Martinez, going 1 year to each of them.  I also had privates with Addie Diaz who taught me cha cha, plus a few classes with Thomas Guerrero of Santo Rico and Nelson Flores of Descarga Latina.  In addition to the lessons, I had 3 practice partners over several years who very patiently allowed me to bore them to death with my drilling turn patterns over and over again.  I owe Marilyn Curet, Madeline Cruz and Rocio Paz a lot of gratitude for helping me to learn and love this dance. 

To me, dancing “mambo breaking On 2” is a method which captures many of the complex rhythms that are in classic salsa music.  I have written about this more completely, and you can read this by clicking on How Dancing On 2 Fits The Music .  Our moves respond to the 2 downbeats, the clave, the tumbao and the overall uneven syncopation of this music.  And what is really special about the On 2 timing is that the better one gets, the more one becomes aware of different rhythms that weren’t noticed before.  And also the more skilled one becomes, the more one can dance with advanced partners and discover the fascination of seeing and feeling how they each respond uniquely to the music. 

Amateurs watch us dance and say:  “It’s just a bunch of fancy turns without any relation to the music.”  They are wrong.  Within all those complicated moves are each dancer’s response to the complex syncopated rhythms, the melody and even the meaning of the salsa songs.  Like many skilled activities, the better one becomes, the more one can perceive and feel the richness of this music & dance.  People who reach a certain mediocre level and never strive to improve, or move on to another timing or dance, never discover these rich pleasures of dancing On 2 to classic salsa music that open up to the advanced dancer.  Or, to put this another way, the more one refines their skill, the more one enjoys the dancing.  Add to all of this, learning more about the salsa music, the Latino culture, the food, the people, etc., and how these contribute to the “flavor” of the dance, and there’s almost no limit to how much one can enjoy dancing On 2.

 

 

 

 

  With Griselle Ponce & "Taima Las Hijas Del Trueño"

 

 

 

 

 

SalsaNewYork:  What would you say is your favorite thing when it comes to dancing?

Dancing with a great partner to a great song.

SalsaNewYork:  Have you ever had the urge to be a performer? (Yes or no, and why?)

No.  The reason is that one of the things I enjoy most is the improvisation which occurs between 2 social dancers based on the relation between them and the particular song that’s playing.  In performing, dancers memorize a certain set of moves and then repeat them over and over, sometimes for years.  That is not interesting to me. 

Of all the activities of salsa, including teaching, performing, social dancing, DJing, promoting, web hosting, etc., I believe social dancing is the original and most fundamental salsa activity and skill, and it is the ultimate test of how much of a salsero one is, and how skilled one is.  If one can perform a series of preset moves up on a stage but cannot social dance well with different and new partners, how good a salsa dancer can one be? 

This is not to criticize the many different salsa activities people do.  They are all necessary parts of the world of salsa and they all contribute to our dance.  But let’s face it, how many times have we heard:  “He’s a good DJ but he can’t dance”, or “She’s a good performer but can she really dance?”, or “He runs a salsa web site, but he’s not much of a dancer.”  When we say “dance”, we mean social dancing.  That is the real measure of whether someone can “dance”.

However, I do like to watch performing.  In that case, I’m seeing a routine once or maybe a few times and it seems fresh.  But I would never want to watch that same routine as many times as those performers are rehearsing and performing it.  Nor would I want to do a particular routine that many times either.  By the way, we have some wonderful performing teams here in the NY/NJ area – Click on our Directory of Mambo Performers .

Finally, performers should realize that many of their fellow dancers enjoy watching them dance in a social dance situation, sometimes even more than on stage.  There’s a very good reason for this.  In a club or a mambo social or congress, when performers are social dancing with different partners, they are dancing to the same music and on the same dance floor as the rest of us, but doing it much more impressively.  They are dancing spontaneously, not following some preset rehearsed script, and it is fascinating to watch for all of us.  That is REAL dancing! 

Some performers come to an event a few minutes before they go on stage and leave a few minutes after.  For all we know, that little 5 minute routine is all that they can do.  But when performers come and join in the general dancing, then go on stage, and then return to the dance floor with all their style, technique, flavor, charisma and expertise, we are really impressed.  Now we know for sure that they can “really dance”.  It makes us proud to be a part of a way of dancing that has such an awesome high end, and it inspires us to improve our dancing even more.  I believe performers should make it an important part of their role in the mambo community to spend time dancing in the socials and clubs where their fellow mambo dancers hang out. 

SalsaNewYork:  What about being an instructor?  What do you think of the On 2 instruction?

I’ve never really wanted to be an instructor, although I’ve enjoyed occasionally helping people work on improving their dancing.  As I mentioned before, my main interest is social dancing.

There has been a big increase in the number of people calling themselves “instructors” nowadays.  We have a Directory of some of the more qualified ones - Click on Directory of Mambo Instructors .  Although a few people are able to learn to dance On 2 on their own, most people benefit from going to classes and taking privates.  They learn faster and they benefit from the instructor’s wide experience and from the practice & familiarity with other students in the classes.  When they go out to clubs or socials, they can immediately start dancing with the people they know from their classes.  It’s a big advantage.

There are 2 recommendations I would make to instructors.  The first is that they should make sure that their students have mastered good fundamentals before teaching them more advanced turn patterns or shines.  Many students are trying to do intermediate or advanced moves and yet still have not learned the basics:  the basic step, the timing with the music, the footwork for cross body lead and turns, how to lead & follow with a partner, proper etiquette on the dance floor, etc.  Along with this learning “the timing with the music”, I would urge you to help your students to learn how to feel and dance to medium and slower speed music.  We know it’s harder, but that’s where the rhythm is at.  Yes, students want to rush right away and do the fancy stuff, to super-fast music, but instructors should drill them in the basics until they have mastered them before moving them on to more complicated moves.  And of course, social dancing is mainly partner dancing, not open shines, so instructors should concentrate their attention on the fundamentals of partner dancing.

Students, you need to remember that an instructor earns income from teaching classes.  If you push your instructor for fancy turn patterns before you may be ready, he/she may teach them to you in order to not lose you as a student.  That's just good business by "satisfying the customer".  But you will be hurting yourself by building fancy turn patterns on bad fundamentals, so they will never work well and will look lousy.  So take it slow and learn your fundamentals very well first before pushing your instructor to move on too quickly before you are ready.  Be patient and drill drill drill.

The second recommendation I would make to instructors is that they not isolate themselves from the social dancing scene.  One of the reasons that many instructors teach impractical turn patterns & shines which cannot be done out in the clubs and socials, and cannot be done with a partner who has not been in the same class, is that these instructors have lost touch with the social dancing community.  They remain isolated in their own world, or they only dance with a few favorite partners who know all their moves.  The result is that they are no longer aware of what the dancing is like out in the real world of socials & clubs, and what it’s like to dance with many different partners, and in crowded situations which limit one’s available floor space and possible turn patterns. 

After all, more than 95% of students are in those classes to learn social dancing so they can go out and enjoy themselves with many partners.  They are not there to become future performers.  Many instructors are teaching turn patterns and shines for performers on the stage, but they need to remember that their students just want to go out & have fun social dancing in a club or social.  Save the fancy stuff for rehearsals.  Since most of your students are there to become good social dancers, teach them how to social dance.

Also, dancing evolves over the months & years, it changes with new dancers & new songs on the scene.  Instructors who don’t go out dancing will keep teaching the same old fashioned moves that are no longer used.  Students need to ask the question:  “If my instructor is never out dancing socially, with many different partners, in crowded situations with various floor surfaces & music, how can he/she be teaching me mambo that I can use out in the real world?”  When students try a complicated move from class at a social or club, and it doesn’t work, they should wonder if maybe the reason is that it’s only a “classroom” or “performance” move, but not a practical move for the real world of social dancing, a move that can work when dancing with a stranger.  Most of us have had the experience of learning dance moves in the classroom which simply won’t work well when we’re out social dancing.  If our instructors were out there frequently dancing with us in those same places with a variety of partners, they would never try to teach such complicated or difficult to lead moves. 

And finally, instructors should be out there in the social scene because they are the experts, the role models, the experimenters and leaders of this dance.  They set the example for students to follow, they demonstrate the good technique & musical feeling that students need to learn, and they provide the image of what a student can become if he/she continues to work on their dancing.  When instructors are a regular part of the dancing scene, it is good for the “mambo community” because the students see that everyone is together enjoying this dance & music.  Also, the students who are looking for an instructor can see them in action and can choose to attend their classes.  Being out there in the social dance scene is one of the best ways for an instructor to pick up new students.

SalsaNewYork:  What do you think of the level of social dancing over the last few years?

There is no question that the sophistication of mambo On 2 here in New York has advanced.  It has become more complex, more subtle, more varied.  There is an increasing diversity of people who dance On 2.  A dancer friend of mine from San Francisco who visited Jimmy Anton’s Social here in New York commented that many of the social dancers here are at the skill level of performers out on the west coast and in other cities.  My own experience has confirmed that. 

I know some “old school” mambo dancers have criticized the current style as being without feeling or connection to the music.  I would both agree and disagree.  I would agree in the sense that many dancers now try to do only super-fancy turns, shines & style moves, and only want to dance to fast music.  This kind of manic hyperactive showoff dancing is often disconnected from the complex rhythms of salsa music, especially when done by unskilled dancers. 

But I disagree that our newer more complex dancing style is without feeling or connection to the music IF it is done in moderation and done skillfully.  Just because someone does a triple turn followed immediately by some other equally complicated move does not mean they are not in touch with the rhythms or mood of the song.  If done well, the music & feeling are right there in the fancy moves, although sometimes only a skilled observer can see them.

To the beginner & intermediate social dancers I would urge the following:  Don’t rush into trying to learn a bunch of complicated turn patterns or fancy styling moves.  First learn the most fundamental parts of this dance:  your basic step, the timing in relation to the rhythms in the music, your contra-body motion, the posture and hand positions for leading & following, your footwork for simple turns & cross-body lead, balance & spotting for turns, etc.  Fellas, Learn To Lead Properly.  And ladies, Learn To Follow ProperlyAll these should be drilled until they are so automatic that you shouldn’t even have to think about them. 

And learn to dance to medium & slow speed music.  Eddie Torres has always pointed out that dancing to slower music takes much more skill because one must feel the rhythm inside your body during the longer moments between the beats.  Dancing to slower music is harder, but when you can do it, you connect much more strongly to the rhythms than when you are always dancing to fast songs.  We talk about a “slow groove”.  Learn to feel & dance to that groove.

Only after all this is accomplished should you move on to the fancier stuff, which must be built on sound fundamentals.  Guys:  take it easy with all those crazy turn patterns; they should fit the music and your partner.  Read what Edie "The SalsaFreak" says about How A Man Should Lead A Woman.  What does a woman really want?  Read Edie's "How To Satisfy A Woman"Ladies:  keep the styling simple & clean; forget all the constant wiggling, shaking and overdramatic arm and hand movements.  Watch the experts, they keep it clean, they move to the music, they follow beautifully.  Remember:  A good dancer has good fundamentals and a strong connection to the music and her partner.  And the advanced partner would rather have you do simple things very well, in time with the music, than to have you do fancy things poorly or off-timing with the music.  I have written on learning and drilling these important fundamentals - Click on How To Learn & Improve Your Dancing .

Finally, there’s the problem of how to get more partners when one is out social dancing.  People get rejected, ignored, intimidated, shy, nervous and lots of other unhappy feelings out there in the social dancing scene.  People complain of "attitudes", cliques, competition, showoffs, areas of the dance floor that seem to be "For Performers Only".  There are some very good ways to deal with these issues and get over them so you can be relaxed and really enjoy your dancing.  I have written an article to help dancers at all levels (yes, you hot shots too) offering strategies for everyone.  Click on the rather strange title  “Overcoming Some Fears Of Social Dancing – How To Get More Partners – Tough Talk For A Tough World”. 

SalsaNewYork:  What do you think of the evolution of performance dancing since you got involved in the dance scene?

As with social dancing, On 2 performance dancing has also advanced considerably.  The routines are far more elaborate and complex, the use of the stage, costumes and music has shown real creativity and experimentation.  Also, there are many more opportunities for a wide variety of dancers now, at all levels and in all shapes, sizes and ages.  When I began dancing, there were only a few local performing groups.  Now there are more than 30.  You can see them listed with pictures and contact information by clicking on Directory of Mambo Performers .  And some of these groups are traveling all over the world to show & teach our New York style of mambo to eager audiences.  I think it’s great.

SalsaNewYork:  Do you think that a mambo show like Latin Madness is where the art of mambo dancing is heading towards?

I have seen Latin Madness several times and enjoyed it immensely.  I’ve loved the dancing, the whole production, and also the fact that our fellow salseros have been able to create, organize & produce a complete music-dancing-theater event based on our On 2 New York mambo and they’ve even taken it to the west coast and will soon be heading out to Europe.  What an accomplishment!

You ask whether “Latin Madness is where the art of mambo dancing is heading towards?”  My answer is that it is only one of many forms of our “art of mambo dancing”.  In New York, there are thousands of On 2 social dancers, a few hundred individual performers, about 30 performing teams, maybe some 40 instructors, 1 Latin Madness and 1 New York Salsa Congress They ALL express the art of our mambo in their own ways and contribute to the development of our dance.  Each represents only a small segment of our total  mambo community….and we need them all. 

But the one mambo phenomenon which brings it all together is a congress;  in our case it's the New York Salsa Congress.  This annual major production involves 4 days of performing, workshops, panel discussion, social dancing, music, as well as the opportunity to dance and socialize with salseros from around the world.  It puts our New York On 2 style of mambo on the world map like no other production.  This single event is the height of "the art of mambo dancing".

SalsaNewYork:  What do you think of the NY social dance scene?

I love it.  There is much more opportunity now than ever before for everyone:  more events, more studios, more performance groups, more DJs and more dancers, all taking part together in what I call “the mambo community”.  Of course, it would be nice if they all felt and acted as if they were part of a “community” with something in common, instead of the way many want to believe they’re so unique & separate or exclusive, not wanting to participate in “the mainstream”.  But so be it.  Whether they want to admit it or not, they ARE part of the “mambo community” because they dance & communicate in the same language…..On 2.

SalsaNewYork:  Do you still go out social dancing? What is your favorite social dance event and why?  Can you name me some of your favorite social dancers and why?

I go out social dancing on average 2 – 4 times per week, depending on what events are available.  My favorite event is "Latin Sundays with Jimmy Anton" .  Where else can one consistently find 300 – 400 On 2 dancers, including some of our best as well as visitors from out of town, excellent classic salsa music with an occasional cha cha, and one of the best “medium speed” dance floors in the city?

No, I won’t “name some of my favorite dancers” because I don’t want catch hell from all my other favorite dancers.  But I can say “why” they’re my favorites. 

I have the honor of dancing with some of the best On 2 dancers in NY/NJ, and that means the best in the world.  Some are “best” because of the way they feel the rhythms and music, and how they communicate that feeling to me when I’m dancing with them.  Some are “best” because they are so technically perfect in how they dance On 2.  Some are “best” because of how they partner so well and are so synchronized when we dance together.  Some are “best” because of their facial expressions, whether it’s a “New York attitude”, a sexy cat & mouse game, a gentle friendliness, a playful goofing around, or being completely lost in the music & the dance.  And sometimes, some of them are “best” because all of this happens together in a dance with me, with a great song…..and that is one very special dance!

SalsaNewYork:  What do you think of the young dancers coming up in the scene these days?

I would say that the young dancers now are not a whole lot different than 5 years ago, except maybe that they are more diversified in their ethnic, racial & cultural backgrounds.  For those who are not Latino, I’d like to emphasize that “NY style On 2” evolved as an urban Latino “street dance”.  If you want to capture the real “flavor” of this dance, you should expose yourself to dancing with and among local Latino On 2 salseros, whether it’s in classes, clubs, socials, or in the partners you choose.  I would also suggest learning about and building up a collection of salsa music, learning to speak some Spanish, becoming familiar with the local Latino culture and eating the food.  It’s delicious!  All of this will add to your understanding and feeling about dancing salsa.

SalsaNewYork:  What makes NY Mambo dancing so unique compared to everywhere else?

As I mentioned in Question 2 above, NY style On 2 mambo has a special way of connecting to certain important rhythms in classic salsa music (clave, tumbao, downbeats, etc.) as described at "How Dancing On 2 Fits The Music" .  That is not to say that it is any better or worse than other ways of dancing to salsa.  Each one is unique.

The way we dance NY style mambo On 2 here in New York is the result of the many years that this dance has developed, mainly in the unique urban culture of New York and Caribbean Latinos who live here.  Even though we have many instructors here who are not Latino, most of them try to teach this distinctive New York/Latino flavor.  And when dancers of all origins are out in our clubs & socials, they are surrounded by this influence.  That gives them a constant exposure to this “New York style”.

Even though there are many NY style On 2 dancers in other parts of the world, and their numbers are increasing, it would be rather difficult for them to consistently dance with our New York style to the degree that we do because they do not have the home-grown New York Latino environment to constantly reinforce it.  So, to answer the question, that is what makes NY mambo dancing so unique compared to everywhere else.

Nevertheless, many international On 2 social dancers, performers & instructors come here for visits and spend lots of time taking classes and going out dancing.  We have a special section for visiting salsa dancers - click on Salsa Dancers Visitors Guide To New York .  Also, many of the NY dancers travel internationally showing and teaching the style.  With this “cultural exchange” has come a wonderful spreading of not only the basic techniques of our dance but also some of the New York “flavor and attitude” which distinguishes our style and which we are quite proud of.  For those of us who love this way of dancing, this internationalization of the New York style is very gratifying.

Steve Shaw - "Doc Salsa"
Email -  Salsa@nyc.rr.com
Copyright 2003 Steve Shaw


Part 2 of Steve Shaw's Interview will be in the next issue of the SalsaNewYork Magazine. - Manny


Other Articles By Steve Shaw - "Doc Salsa":

How To Get More Partners - Overcoming Fear Of Dancing - Tough Talk

Definition of Dancing On 2 - Technique - How To Learn - The Music

Guidelines For Mambo DJs - List Of Good Mambo & Cha Cha Songs

How To Put On A Successful Salsa Dance Event

The Story Of SalsaNewYork.com - How It Came About

Fellas, You Are Supposed To Make The Lady Look Good

DJ Steve Shaw "Doc Salsa" - Resume & Contact Information

How To Make & Care For A CD For Performing
 


 

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