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A Guide for Salsa Competitors


12-22-2002 - By Stephanie Palmieri


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Many salsa dancers decide to take their dancing to the next level by entering competitions.  Some do it for fun, others for promotion, and still others for profit.  Whatever your motivation, competing in salsa contests can be a rewarding and worthwhile experience.  But before you sign up for the next competition, here are some things to consider.


1)  Your purpose:  Why do you want to compete?  If you’re not sure, let me suggest some reasons.  First of all, it’s fun.  There’s nothing like the exhilaration of having all eyes on you as you strut your salsa stuff.  But even more than that, it’s rewarding.  You will improve your dancing by having a goal that motivates you to work on your choreography, partnering and performance ability.  It can also be financially rewarding if you win.  But even more valuable than the prize money, are the recognition and credibility that may result.  If you are thinking of beginning or furthering a salsa “career,” it is crucial that you become known in the salsa scene.  Competing can do just that for you.  Think of all the well-known dancers in the West Coast salsa scene:  Joby and Luis Vazquez, Gabriel Romero, Josie Neglia, Alex da Silva, etc.  They all competed at one time or another, establishing themselves as performers and instructors.  But once you have established yourself, you may not want to compete anymore.  While it can’t hurt you to do poorly in a competition if you’re just starting out, it can tarnish your already established reputation if you compete and don’t do well.


2)  Your partner:  If you already have a set partner, decide together if you want to compete.  It is important that you both have the same purpose in mind and are willing to put in the same amount of effort.  Taking a competition seriously requires hours of preparation and practice.  It is frustrating to one partner if the other is not as committed.  If you don’t yet have a partner, try to find someone who complements your level and style.  You should choose someone who you can get along with.  You should be at a comparable ability level.  It’s OK if one of you is “better” or more experienced than the other, but it shouldn’t be glaringly unbalanced.  In terms of style, it’s fine if one of you is “flashier” than the other, for instance, as long as you feel a good connection.


3)  Music:  Some competitions have qualifying rounds where you must dance to music chosen by someone else, but most finals allow you to choose your own music.  Choose something you like.  While the spectators may enjoy a familiar song, judges might be put off by songs that are “overused” in routines.  Also, pick something that you can dance to.  If the music is too fast for the complicated moves you would like to execute, it just won’t work.  You may want to cut together more than one piece of music.  Software to cut music, like “Sound Forge” is affordable and user-friendly and there are other software programs that allow you to slow down or speed up music and add special effects.  Many DJs know how to do these things if you don’t want to try it on your own.  Your routine should be between 2 and 3 minutes long.  That’s just enough time to do what you need to do without getting boring.


4)  Choreography:  Work with the music.  Try to choreograph moves that hit the breaks in the music.  Weave a combination of partnering patterns, footwork sections and a few tricks.  You may choose to insert some sort of “acting,” especially if you choose a theme.  Ronnie and Dinorah of Los Rumberos have had a lot of success using themes in competitions.  They have used “The Matrix,” “Zorro,” and even Elvis as themes.  Their choreography always weaves in some acting and moves related to the theme.  You may even choose to use props.  However a theme is not necessary.  It is important, however, that your choreography be varied and dynamic.  Be sure to include plenty of styling and engagement with the audience and judges.  You can come up with your own choreography, enlist the assistance of someone more experienced or get ideas from watching others.  Be careful not to copy someone’s choreography, measure for measure, without permission.  This is illegal and unethical.  And while no one holds the copyright on the cross body lead, you don’t want to have the reputation of “stealing” other people’s moves.  My best success has come from creating moves out of “mistakes” and creating “variations” of moves I’ve seen in other routines.


5)  Timing, timing, timing:  Work on your timing.  While it may not seem like a big deal to the average spectator, timing has become the most important category for judges.  Some competitions weigh timing more than any other category.  Whether you are dancing on the “1” or the “2,” make sure you stay on beat throughout your routine.  There have been many times that I’ve heard people wonder aloud why a certain couple didn’t qualify in a competition even though they were real crowd pleasures.  Usually, it’s because they had poor timing.  If you haven’t been trained, or are not sure about your timing, consult with a professional dance instructor.


6)  Clean up your routine:  While I myself have been guilty of finishing up the choreography on the same day of a competition, it is best if you have plenty of time to practice once you put a routine together.  This will also give you time to work out the kinks and make any necessary changes and improvements.   Doing full out run-throughs will also help you build up your endurance.  The trick is to have a difficult routine, but make it look easy.  You also want to have the choreography so well memorized that you can do it without thinking, especially if you get nervous when performing.  You also want to be prepared for what to do if one or both of you makes a mistake while performing.  Practice will help you be ready to “jump back in” if you “mess up.” 


7)  Work on your presentation:  Your presentation and showmanship can make or break even a great routine.  Remember that you are dancing for someone else.  Smile.  Exude confidence.  Be sexy.  If you act like you look good, people will believe you.  Practice in front of a mirror.  Video-tape yourselves and practice in front of a live audience.  Don’t be afraid to make eye contact with your partner and with the audience and judges. 


8)  Get feedback:  Find some experienced dancers to give you feedback on all aspects of your dancing and your routine.  If you’re really serious, it’s worth it to pay an instructor to “coach” you.  Many successful competitors have worked with a pro for help with choreography, presentation and technique.  It is best to choose someone who you have already taken lessons from and whose style you admire. 


9)  Costumes:  This is a topic not to be ignored.  While your dancing is more important than what you’re wearing, your physical appearance will affect how you’re judged, even if it is only subconsciously.  We all dress up for interviews and important occasions.  A competition should not be an exception.  You don’t need to invest a lot of money in costumes, but you should carefully consider what you’ll wear.  If you have a theme, your costume choice will be more obvious.  If you don’t have a theme, choose something that is both flattering and practical.  You don’t need to have matching outfits, but the colors and styles should complement each other.  Choose your outfits and shoes wisely, especially if you’re doing tricks and moves that require a lot of flexibility in movement.   It is imperative that you practice in your costume to be sure that it won’t inhibit your dancing.  There’s nothing worse than watching a woman continually tugging to pull down her dress or continuously adjusting a loose shoulder strap.   Don’t forget about hair, make-up and jewelry.  Women should wear their hair in a style that holds through all the spins and tricks and doesn’t whip the man in the face.  Jewelry should not interfere with the dancing:  nothing on the hands and wrists and no hoop earrings that can get caught and pulled out (it’s happened to me).  Make-up should be heavier than normal, but not gaudy. 


10) The competition:  Find out as much as you can about the particular competition.  Find out what the specific requirements are and how you’ll be judged.  Some competitions require that you pre-qualify or sign up in advance.  Most competitions have a website where you can get all the information.  If not, investigate.  Try to familiarize yourself with the floor you’ll be dancing on.  Don’t over-practice on the day of the competition, but make sure you’ve warmed up and stretched.  Be on time and check in with the person in charge.  You may choose to come in your costume or change at the last minute.  Don’t let yourself become un-nerved by the other competitors.  Try to exude confidence, but be careful not to come across as cocky.  Be friendly with everyone.  Most of all, remember to have fun.  Be proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished, even if you don’t win.  Forgive yourself and your partner for any mistakes, and don’t be discouraged.  Very few dancers are finalists in their first competition.  Learn from the experience and try to reflect and improve for the next time around.


About the author:  Stephanie Palmeri is the assistant director of Son Bravisimo of Salsa Brava Productions.  Check out the website at .  She and her dance partner, Danny Zepeda, have been performing, competing and choreographing together for almost three years.  They have also judged amateur and professional salsa competitions.  They currently teach all levels of salsa dancing at the Mexican Heritage Plaza and Club Miami, both in San Jose.  Stephanie is a regular feature contributor for the Salsacrazy website.  Contact her at (408) 806-0787 or

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