Becoming a Great Dancer (Obliterating racial stereotypes in 10,000 hours)

Dublin, Ireland
Foreign girl: Where are you from?
Me: Ireland
Foreign girl: No your not, hahaha!

Cali, Colombia
Local girl: De donde es usted? (Where are you from?)
Me: Irlanda (Ireland)
Local girl: jajaja, mentira (hahaha, lies)

I was dancing with both of these girls when they asked me these questions.

Apparently it’s common knowledge that I, as an Irishman shouldn’t be able to dance well. Apparently, I do not have the genetic material that would provide me with the bone structure and joints needed to move smoothly nor the ear for the beat that would let me react intuitively to music. Apparently, these genes can only be found in Latin and African populations which is why they’re the best dancers.


This is a lie that has been perpetuated throughout the world and especially so in the dance community for far too long. Preconceived notions like this are what stop people from even attempting new things. If we listen to them we WRONGLY believe that we are destined to fail at a certain activity because we lack a certain characteristic, be it physical or mental, that is necessary to excel in that endeavor. How many times have you heard someone say something like “Oh I could never learn Japanese, I’m no good with languages” or “I’d never be able to play the guitar. Music just isn’t my thing” or the classic “You can’t teach an old dog, new tricks”? BULL S#!T BULL S#!T BULL S#!T

I’m going to put all those lies to rest today by saying this: “I am an Irishman and I dance salsa”.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to base my entire case on that one comment. It’s time to elaborate.

When I first started dancing in Japan, I was constantly told by the people who got me into the scene in the first place, how latinos were the best dancers, that they could move better than Japanese people and really express themselves with the music. I was told this by people who danced salsa well, by the people who were teaching me how to dance. I later remember going to salsa clubs in big cities in Japan on a few occasions and seeing Japanese people dancing spectacularly, with passion and rhythm and everything else that dance should be. Every bit as good as their latino counterparts.

When I returned to Ireland and started on the scene there I lost count of the times that people would tell me things like “I’ll never be as good as “so and so” because he’s black and they just move better”. One of my own former dance partners (you know who you are ;-)) even told me that I would never be as good as a latino dancer because I was Irish. She was convinced that her own latin heritage meant she could feel the music differently and dance better. Yet despite this I still managed to get many comments like those at the beginning of this post in Ireland, Japan, the US and even in Colombia, a latin country. Despite being Irish, I still dance well. (I know it sounds like I’m blowing my own horn here but I’m trying to make a point. I know for a fact that I have a very long way to go before I’m a great dancer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dance WELL now).

Some of the best compliments I ever got were when I went with my friend of mine (let’s call her Angie) to a party held by some friends of her family. Angie is Afro-Latina as were the vast majority of the people who were at the party. I, on the other hand, am super-white (a term that really doesn’t do any justice to my level of whiteness) so I tend to stick out “a little” at such parties. I’m used to it at this stage. The lifeblood of Colombian parties is of course salsa, so when the music started I took Angie out on the floor and started doing what I love to do. It was a great dance as I had danced with Angie many times before but I also felt that every eye in the room was on me. It’s easy enough to justify; the white guy in a house of Afro-Latinos trying to dance salsa in the world capital of salsa. Everyone was dying to see if I’d be able to keep up with the beautiful black girl I was dancing with. The song ended and we walked back to our seats smiling. What came next was a stream of compliments from my hosts about how well I danced. They all expressed their surprise and told me things like “you move so well” and “you’re really able to get the rhythm”. I blushed hard (as everyone who knows me knows I do often) and went on to dance plenty more songs during the night.

A little later the only other white people at the party (a married couple and their daughter) told me how impressed they were by my dancing and I continued talking with the father for a while. He told me that he had never been able to dance, that instead he preferred to just listen to the music and chat at parties. He thought it was really amazing that a non-Latino like me could dance salsa so well. As we were talking we watched his teenage daughter dance with her friends. She danced just like them. She moved her body, especially her hips, beautifully and in perfect rhythm with the music, just like all the other girls dancing around her. I asked her father about it and he told me that he didn’t really understand why his own daughter danced so well. Neither he nor his wife were big dancers but she simply had always been able to dance well, since she was a child.

Let’s think about this a little: a white girl whose parents can’t dance, grows up in a mostly black community, with black friends, and ends up being able to dance just like them!

Is it possible that the ability to dance doesn’t actually come from some innate genetic ability that varies among races and is in fact something that can be simply learned? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS IT IS!

Here’s the thing, in general (I have to say in general because I have encountered plenty of exceptions over the years) people of African descent and latinos are amazing dancers. Is it because their bodies move differently, because they have “dancing genes”? I’m going to say “Not exclusively”. Then why do they dance so well? I firmly believe that a great deal of it is down to cultural exposure and the resulting practice.

Latino culture (at least from my experience in Colombia and Cuba) is full of music and dancing. Children are exposed to this music from a young age and start dancing salsa in school and continue to dance it at virtually every social evemt they go to during their lives. They spend a huge amount of time “practicing” so it’s no wonder they’re such good dancers. Black people in Cali often live in black neighbourhoods where they have an even stronger music and dance culture than non-afro-descended Caleños. Due to all of this exposure many of them end up being spectacular dancers. This explains how the white girl at the party was able to dance so well. She grew up in an Afro-colombian neighbourhood surrounded by that culture and “learned” to dance in exactly the same way as all her friends.

How to be Great at Anything

How can we use this, in practical terms, to improve our own dancing (or anything else for that matter)? We’ve established that even if your not of African or Latin decent you can still become an excellent dancer just by immersing yourself in the culture. So all you need to do is travel back in time and convince your parents to move to a Latin neighbourhood to raise you, right?

Thankfully it’s a little easier than that (no time travel required).

This brings me to the concept of 10,000 hours popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. I first heard of this concept while studying Japanese after discovering a great website with the snappy title of The whole concept of “10,000 Hours” is that anyone who has ever mastered or excelled in a particular field, be it sports, arts or business, has done so only after putting in a huge amount of time (for example 10,000 hours or so) “practicing”.

Why is Tiger Woods one of the greatest golfers on Earth? Because his father introduced him to golf when he was 18 months old and encouraged him to practice constantly. By the time he was ranked world number one he had racked up years worth of experience. The Beatles honed their concert skills over four years and 1,200 live concerts in Hamburg, Germany leading them to become one of the greatest music groups the world has ever seen. Think about it, how many times have you heard of some prodigy child musician on the news? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the kid started playing the piano or whatever when he was two and practiced 3 hours a day for 10 years? Not at all!

Now, since Outliers was released the theory of 1o,ooo hours has been shown to not be as important as previously assumed. However, the meta-analysis or pooled study that showed this still proved that deliberate practice was responsible for up to 25% of success in certain fields. As a scientist myself, 25% is nothing to turn my nose up at. So at the end of the day, the mantra holds true: CONSTANT, DELIBERATE PRACTICE MAKES PEOPLE BETTER. IN ANY FIELD!

But hold on, if you do the math, it would take almost 14 years of practicing everyday for 2 hours a day to reach 10,000 hours!
Yes…if you want to become one of the greatest in the world.

Some people, however, have less lofty goals. The whole point of this article is to point out the importance of practicing frequently to improve your chosen skill. Practice and you will get better. If you want to dance like a latino, increase your “cultural exposure”; listen to the music every chance you get and dance to it like it’s going out of fashion. Move with the music, make it part of your life and watch how you improve.

My own personal experience with the power of constant practice came about a year after I “started” dancing salsa. As I’ve stated in a post on my own blog when I first started dancing salsa I had trouble getting to regular classes (due to my schedule, location and interference from other hobbies) so my initial progress was slow. So in September of 2009 after deciding I wanted a holiday and wanted to improve my salsa at the same time I booked a trip to Manila in the Philippines and Hong Kong. My logic was that I could get some private coaching there much cheaper than I could in Japan and there was a more developed salsa scene in both cities so I could dance regularly while I was there. I booked a number of private lessons with some instructors who I found by searching on the net, packed my bags and left on what is known in Japan as Shugyou (修行) (training or the pursuit of knowledge).

My holiday lasted about 10 days of which I had a number of hours of private salsa instruction (maybe 6) and I also went out social dancing almost every night (amounting to maybe 24 hours of practice). So when I came back to Japan 10 days later I had an extra 30 hours of practice under my belt (which was probably more than all my time spent dancing in the previous 6 months). It showed. My salsa friends in Japan noticed straight away a huge improvement in my leading skills and general movement. I moved smoother and more easily and my lead became lighter but more definitive. In less than 2 weeks I had returned a different dancer.

I needed to increase the amount of time I spent practicing so I took matters into my own hands. I started organizing a monthly salsa class and party to get more people interested in salsa and so I could dance more. It took off and once a month my salsa friends and I would teach beginners the basic salsa steps and then dance for hours on end until our feet ached. I tried to practice with a partner on occasion too and I occasionally made the 4 hour bus ride to Fukuoka to dance in the salsa parties there. I improved a huge amount because of all the new practice and because I needed to learn to adapt my style to that of all the other new dancers I was dancing with.

All of this taught me the real value of constant practice. I now know that if I want to improve in Salsa, or anything else, I just need to put in the hours. If I want to learn to dance like a latino dancer I just need to dance (a lot) with latino dancers, to watch and imitate what they do and practice it (a lot) for myself.

After living for 2 years in Colombia I noticed 2 things:
1: My LA style salsa (that is, my technical salsa) took quite a nosedive because I didn’t have access there to partners that could dance LA (although I did find some and trained some in too).
2: My body movement and my ability to feel and react to music improved significantly. I danced salsa regularly there in much closer contact than I ever had before and that gave me that opportunity to work on isolation in my shoulders and hips that I felt I was lacking in before.

With lack of practice one skill deteriorated while with added practice a different skill improved. It’s all about the number of hours you dedicate to a given skill. Simple as that.

So if you want to be great at something (or even just want to improve a little) there really is nothing stopping you except yourself. The only thing keeping you from being as good (or even better) a dancer as Africans or Latinos is time. Go take every salsa class you can find. Practice your basic step while you’re cooking in the kitchen. Get a good partner and practice together as often as you can. Fill your smart-phone with salsa music and listen to it when you drive to work. Dance socially at every, single opportunity you get. Show the world that you don’t need magical dancing genes to be a great dancer. Put in your hours and reap the benefits.

How many hours have you put in this week?

Join the Conversation


Leave a Reply

  1. says: David Sander

    The other reason patience and the hours are needed is that high level Salsa dancing is complex. I compare it to learning a language, to do complex beautiful paragraphs you have to know and understand the underlying principles and have the physical strength and movement skills to express them. I had to take a couple years of classes from a top instructor in order to get properly sorted out and I could still use a few more private lessons on my remaining faults. Its important that staying on beat is one of my weaknesses and I have to drill regularly to a timing CD to improve my beat precision and attention every so often. So dance challenges all of us in different ways, you have to be patient and willing to learn about yourself!
    Dancing socially, with a variety of people brings enlightenment. I can identify a performance or ballroom trained dancer frequently by the errors they make in adapting to social Salsa dancing. Its also wonderful to dance with new dancers and be able to give them their best dance of the night.
    It is well worth while to travel to regional dances and Congresses to get different views of instruction and dance with a variety of dancers. Because I spend a lot of time dancing in my home city of Pittsburgh PA, its important for me to dance with people unfamiliar with my lead so I can notice any bad habits that my regular home town followers have learned to accommodate.
    Good instructors must not only be good dancers, they also have to care about the education of their students and understand how to teach to maximum potential. That is a very human objective and requires a good deal of self examination by the instructor on how to best teach students. Its a very tough chore for an instructor to balance the self examination and the self promotion they need to do business along with having the charisma to attract a good student population without having it all get to their head.

  2. says: Reuben

    Great article…. just one extra comment.
    10,000 hours is a pretty good rule of thumb, however I must also stress
    it largely depends on “what” you learn and well as time. 🙂
    With good education you can reach higher levels faster, with bad education
    you can be “stuck”. But we should assume 10,000 hours plus being a sponge
    and learning any way possible. Congresses, Group Classes, Privates, practice, Videos & Youtube, Social Dancing & learning from Many teachers etc.

    Thanks again, keep up the good articles.

  3. says: timbero1

    Only to Colombians is Cali the salsa capital of the world. I am pretty sure Puerto Ricans, Cubans or even New York “on 2” dancers would think otherwise. Cali style is pretty, but requires a lot of co-ordination and athletic ability. (But for me doesn’t always express the music in the best way. How do you dance Cali style to Marc Anthony?). Casino (Cuban salsa style) was invented in Havana and spread across the whole nation. But it would hard to find a Colombian who just dances socially and that knows how to dance Cali style at a party in Bogota or Barranquilla. Even in this street party in an Afro-Latino neighborhood in Cali, how many people can do a basic step? Cali style or otherwise? I guess with performers and championship competitors, it’s different. But when I danced socially in Cali, most ladies find taking lessons or hard training in salsa ludicrous – something that against the nature of “salsa” itself, which is supposed to be informal and spontaneous.
    But of course, many Latinos are white. Many white Cubans were involved in development of salsa dancing in Cuba (where I am sure all styles of salsa had their roots. Even Cali style). The idea of dancing in couples and having a leader lead a follower in turns comes from Europe. Not Africa. So, you don’t have to be Afro-Latino to dance salsa well.