Framing The Social Dancing Paradigm

“Hammerlock, Copa, double turn, and a smooth dip… with lots of styling.”

An instructor at a festival last weekend taught this combination at a generically titled “On-2 Salsa Workshop”, coining it the “Triple S” (for “super styley swoop”), and highly recommended it for leads trying to step up their social dancing game. My friend, whom we’ll call Dave, was ecstatic about having this new combination in his repertoire after the workshop and began using the combination later that week at our local hometown salsa night in each of his social dances.

As a man who enjoys following (there is a great article on Go Latin Dance about same sex couples and homophobia), I asked him to lead me that night. As expected, he busted the Triple S out at about halfway through the song, and I noticed something very interesting. Dave’s dynamic as a dancer peaked when he executed the combination and then fizzled out immediately afterward. Dave was a beginner-intermediate dancer whose typical moves included basic turns and cross-body leads so the combination was notably out of place. Realizing he brought his new big trick out of the bag too early in the dance, Dave resorted to performing it again at the end of the song. It was identical to the first time he lead it and identical to the way the instructor so confidently taught it.

The Current Paradigm

A lay dancer like Dave who is new to the scene will witness emphasis on combinations that typically highlight elements of the instructor’s style. Subsequently their social dancing will end up reflecting these moves in the order and manner prescribed. Dave may see the instructor social dance and perform complex combinations, but he will have little understanding of the thought processes that go through the instructor’s mind in selecting and executing those moves in any given moment of time.

This is the current paradigm of social dancing: A top down approach conveying final products e.g. combinations taught in workshops, social dances, performances, etc. with limited to no understanding of how these products were created. At the core, the paradigm for social dancers is to “learn more moves” with instructors offering combinations of moves without any appreciation for understanding them or how they might interact differently. This ends up resulting in 1) a lack of variety in repertoire of moves and 2) a lack of uniqueness, creativity, and musicality for aspiring social dancers.

Ex. What a Cross-Body Lead Is and What it Can Be

The cross-body lead is one of the most fundamental social dancing moves. It connects complex moves, has the potential for creating complex moves, acts as a reset for when you and your partner lose the count, and so much more. In the Latin social dancing scene, we consider it singular, as if it were consistently performed the same way every single time. Instructors can shout “cross-body lead followed by basic inside turn” to students and nobody will question how to interpret that or whether interpretations may differ.

But when we observe the vast number of cross-body leads that occur on the social dance floor on a given night, we see countless variations. Some are sharp and quick while some are slow and fluid. Some use or create more space between partners while some are close and intimate. Some cross-body leads are in open position while others in closed position (and some closed position cross-body leads only use one hand). These differences can be subtle but are usually purposeful.

Understanding the intricacies of what can differentiate existing cross-body leads is only the beginning. A basic cross-body lead does not typically call for anything in excess of what is contained in the frame of the lead and the foundation of the footwork. However there is a whole world of movement that is NOT contained in the basic cross-body lead. When performing cross-body leads, many advanced dancers consider potential additional movements, or shines, that can be sprinkled on top of the base lead without detracting from it. The head, shoulders, even footwork are often modified in different combinations by both leads and follows depending on their preferences to construct a new and unique cross-body lead every time.

Analyzing the Micro-Movements (AMM)

We should appreciate the diversity in how cross-body leads and other moves can be executed. I propose shifting importance in social dancing circles toward a new paradigm which I refer to as “Analyzing the Micro-Movements,” or AMM for short. Rather than observe combinations or even basic moves as the base level, we should zoom into the anatomical level of the actual body appendages and muscles that contribute or are capable of contributing movement to modifying the dance at any point. Rather than constantly seeking to “learn new moves”, individuals should break down their entire current repertoire of moves into micro-movements to see how they can be modified, and what purpose such modifications may serve in the contexts of connection, technique, and musicality. Such exploration will equip social dancers with vast arsenals of micro-movements by which they can build thousands of iterations and combinations of moves. This would remedy the current small collections of complex patterns surrounded by out-of-context simple moves (e.g. Dave), or even worse the one trick ponies of the social dancing scene.

LA instructors Mike Zuniga and Valerie Olivas at the Dallas Bachata Festival. I wonder if they were analyzing the micro-movements of the move pictured here.

AMM for Instructors

A world of opportunity unveils when one is able to analyze not only the intricacies of existing movements, but also the potential for what can exist in even basic movements. Instructors can encourage understanding of the moves they teach, or better yet they can accompany their curriculum with their own analysis of the micro-moves present in their moves. Instructors may offer the alternatives and variations they would choose from when they are at that given point in a social dance, and how it relates to their musicality.

Example: “From this hammerlock, I sometimes copa out if the music is syncopated or perform a free spin and catch if there is a nice juicy stop coming up.”

AMM for Social Dancers

With AMM, social dancers can understand the micro-movements that contribute to their own style, and craft their style further through a logical and understandable framework. You might think that bringing such a logical framework to an activity that is based in creative expression might seem oxymoronic. But it actually is designed to enhance creative expression tremendously. Social dancers always experience moments where a certain movement attracts special attention. In these moments, social dancers may use AMM to try to identify what made that movement unique. This is a process most social dancers subconsciously undergo already but what AMM also suggests is trying to view that isolated aspect as independent and potentially applicable in other contexts.

Example: “That hand-flick enabled a smooth transition and styling for that dancer when performing a triple turn. Maybe it could be used in the context of a free spin too.”

A Full Example

I’ll walk you through a full example of how AMM could be used when observing a social dance. Take this video of Nery and Giana social dancing on-1 salsa:

I have identified 4 of the cross-body leads Nery performs on Giana throughout the dance. Using AMM, the unique characteristics of each cross-body lead can be identified. I analyze these characteristics by looking at the following:

  • What is being done differently?
  • How does this difference contribute to the dance?
  • What possible changes in micro-movements can contribute to more variations of this move?
  1. 0:07
    1. After coming out of a cross-body lead, Nery creates a medium amount of space and syncopates his back break. This syncopation is independent of the connection in the lead.
    2. This achieves musicality highlighting the syncopated nature of the percussion.
    3. Could the syncopated step be executed in more complex cross-body leads while not detracting from the connection in the lead?
  2. 1:17
    1. Nery sends Giana and himself back to be completely horizontal and break sideways.
    2. This achieves musicality highlighting the break in the music.
    3. Could I add a hand flick at the end of this break to allow the follow a styling opportunity? Could I add a drop as a dip instead of standing straight? Could I add a slow shimmy or other men’s styling while holding the stop out?
  3. 1:51
    1. This faux-cross-body lead comes out of a move that has crossed arms on Giana’s shoulders. Nery redirects his connection to stop the cross-body lead halfway and send Giana back. He does this with his right hand on her right shoulder.
    2. This alternative (redirecting the cross-body lead) is playful and allows Giana to add a taste of styling by puffing her chest.
    3. Could the point of connection for the “redirection” be changed from the right hand on shoulder to elsewhere? The follow’s hip? The follow’s chest? Using the lead’s arm? Using the lead’s leg?
  4. 2:50
    1. Nery slows down an around the world and cross-body leads as an exit into a shine sequence. He also flicks his right leg on 7 and points to Giana to challenge her to outshine him.
    2. Rather than leave Giana hanging after the around-the-world for shines, Nery transitions smoothly into the shine section using the cross-body lead. The start of the shine sequence (when Nery points at Giana in challenge) coincides with a break in the music (only vocal section) giving musicality points.
    3. Could the shine section not have had to come out of this cross-body lead while maintaining the right leg flick men’s styling? Could another outcome have occurred while maintaining musicality and hitting the break?
Could AMM be for you?

AMM for You

This example highlights one dance (and a simple one at that for a couple capable of much more complexity) from one couple. One could choose to analyze cross-body leads for other dancers and likely find many more differences and recognize patterns and styling choices that are unique to each dancer. In real time, one might not be able to keep track of the different movements that occur which is why it is important to isolate and focus on select few each time. I encourage you to film dances (you already film demos at festivals, don’t you?), or simply ask dancers to perform a move you enjoyed in slow time after his/her dance is complete. Maybe even ask why he/she chose that move and see what response you get. Most will happily oblige.

I carry the AMM philosophy with me in my workshops, even holding sessions exclusively on discussing how social dancers can use AMM in their own endeavors (going through examples like the one above). It has been a guiding principle for my own development as a dancer and I know it can be for others. If you have questions or need clarifications, feel free to email me at I’d love to learn about your social dancing adventures!

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  1. says: David Sander

    There are probably several steps to achieving the use of AMM. The first is that the dancer has to know the basic movements well. They then have to learn how to improvise a dance which is to connect any of their known movements into different ordered patterns. This ability to combine any movements together allows them to improvise dances that use the partners best skills rather than being limited to only the combinations they have learned.

    From this point, getting into AMM involves sharpening timing skills, movement precision, and turning skills. These skills enable the movements to be broken down and recombined as individual elements into a coherent whole movement. To get to this point the dancer needs to drill on their basic skills and cover their weaknesses.

    Beyond this they need to do a lot of social dancing to build experience in communicating a lead or follow and develop the experience of adjusting to their partner’s moves in an improvised dance. This is the one thing that a lot of dance teachers don’t cover. Often in advanced classes, students are directed into performances and competition training that rely on choreography with the result that improvised communications skills and the ability to break down movements and recombine them in interesting ways is lost.

    Improvisational skills can be so good that its possible to do utterly new movements. With one world class dancer, I improvised a crossed hand turning backrock I’d never done before in a successful movement. I’ve since not found the skills or inspiration anywhere to do those moves again!

  2. says: Luis

    A new dancer must learn somewhere. Teachers will throw patterns at their students, but the good ones will sprinkle in good conversations about musicality and the importance of interpreting the music.
    AMM? Isn’t that DANCING, feeling the music, which comes after you learn the basics, then FORGET them and do your thing? Good article, thank you.

  3. says: Jazley Faith

    Loved this article. I agree that most teachers in the out current paradigm do not teach in an effective way–this is the reason why I have become extremely selective in deciding whose classes to take and where I will invest my time. From my classical training background, I quickly realized that popular outlets of learning (before a social or social dancing), are not efficient or often very helpful to me because I do utilize the AMM movement.

    When I first found a teacher that I decided I wanted to train consistently with (after a month of trial and deciding if he was the right teacher for me), my first lesson was filled with countless numbers of specific questions despite the fact that he taught movement that I have done many times before. Where do my eyes look? What angle should be elbows be at? When I follow this turn, where is my head supposed to be positioned? Do I point my toe? Should I bevel my ankle? What should the the precise location of my pinky be? (Just kidding about the last one, although I’ve definitely thought about it).
    I believe that AMM is the secret of the best dancers. Even after over 10 years of ballet training, I still hop into a lower level ballet class to perfect my pliés, tendues and degagés.

    I think you do a wonderful job at explaining your case and why this technique is beneficial for dancers. Thank you for writing this piece!

    (Also, Thank you for mentioning/referring to my article, Imaan!)

    1. says: Imaan Taghavi

      Hey Jazley,

      Thank you for writing your article as well. My journey with teachers has been a little different. I realized awhile back that there is much more to be gained in having quantity over quality in instruction. I am an individual who learns a lot from observation and I tend to see a lot of things that instructors sometimes don’t even recognize or highlight within their own style. But using something like AMM, I can dissect an instructor’s biggest potential contributions to my learning within a short amount of time and then try and incorporate those contributions and quickly move on to the next instructor. 10 hours split among 10 instructors for me is much more beneficial than 10 hours with one instructor. Some instructors will be better at understanding the details of their dance than others. Some will be better at conveying the details than others. But by continually finding and understanding new perspectives (and taking each with a grain of salt) do I enable my dancing style to stay dynamic and continue to grow. That has been my experience at least.