Rather than write up an intro, I’ve decided to get straight to business. If you’re interested in checking my intro writing skills, here’s my first music recommendations post.
I’d like to take this opportunity to spread the word about Grooveshark, an online music service that lets you play music the way you want. Its extensive library includes songs that are unavailable via the iTunes or Amazon music services. And unlike Pandora, you can play the songs you specify and in the desired order. I’m hoping they’ll have an iphone/ipad app at some point. Thanks to my friend CR for clueing me in to it.
- A Gozar Timbero: I can count on one hand the cha-cha’s that get my head bobbing. This is the top of that list. The King doing his thing. Not played in the local clubs—anyone know why?
- Hong Kong Mambo: a popular choice on YouTube salsa videos. I’d say no one dances better to it than Frankie Martinez. Infrequently played in the local clubs, argh!
- Oiga Mire Vea: discovered this while checking out Oliver Pineda and Sharon Pakir. By the way, do they always dress that scantily while dancing Salsa in Australia?. Heard it once at Roccapulco, otherwise also not played at local clubs. Love the baseline, and can’t get enough of this tune.
Los Hermanos Moreno
- Su Mama No Quiso: outside of buying an expensive out of print disc, I don’t know where else I can pick this song up. Even Grooveshark doesn’t have it. That doesn’t keep me from jamming to it while watching Oliver Pineda and Sharon Pakir put on one of the best social dances I’ve ever seen.
- Rumbon Melon: a classic. They really need to play more of these classic jams at the local clubs. Until then, I will be grooving to them on my private music player. Not available via Amazon MP3 or iTunes, but you will find it on Grooveshark.
- Mambo Yo Yo: salsa with especially strong influence from Africa. This will pick up your spirits faster than a double dose of Red Bull. A popular song in the local dance clubs. Not available via Amazon MP3, but on Grooveshark
- La Salsa Nunca Se Acaba: Seems like only my friend R and I know about this song. Judging by YouTube, it’s a popular song outside of the Bay Area. A great dance song. And if you want to see Frankie Martinez outshined, check this.
- No Vale La Pena: if you’re feeling in a romantic mood, you can’t go wrong with this one. Its smoothness reminds of of Freddie Jackson’s tunes from back in the day.
- Historia Entre Tus Dedos: a beautiful ballad set to a salsa track. The lyrics and singer’s voice are gorgeous. The salsa, however, doesn’t do the song justice. Just shows you how lovely the singer’s voice and his lyrics are, that they outshine the seemingly forced background track. Not available via Amazon MP3, but it is on Grooveshark
The San Francisco Salsa Festival is a top-notch event, and not to be missed. It provides the opportunity to mingle with the best Salsa dancers from across the country, as well as with other avid salsa dancers from across the state and even the globe. On top of all that, it is the best organized Salsa event I’ve attended in my fifteen plus years of Salsa dancing.
Dancing with the StarsIn attendance were 2009 on-1 champions Liz Lira and Christian Aviedo, as well as Yamulee from NYC. Local diva Ava Apple and her dance company The Latin Symbolics were also there to represent San Francisco.
Ms. Lira radiates charisma and commands attention whenever she enters a room. She had this salsero simply star-struck. Mr. Aviedo proved especially charming to half of those attending his classes (guess which gender), evoking more than one cat-call.
I introduced myself to Ms. Lira as an enthusiastic fan who followed her on YouTube. She smiled and thanked me warmly, and invited me to dance later that evening. I stammered a reply of "are you serious?" She smiled broadly and said "sure, just look for me and we’ll dance." Talk about gracious.
Yamulee were also there. I’d say their performance was the best of several crowd pleasers. They also lead instruction for advanced on-2 dancing. I did not have the pleasure of attending their classes as I dance on 1, so hopefully a comment or two will appear to help me out on this point.
A full day of classes were provided for dancers of all levels, both for on-1 and on-2 dancers, as well as for dancers of Cuban style. Local instructors Corey and Mireille provided Bachata lessons as well.
Every class I attended was very well organized and geared towards the level of dancers in attendance. Beginning classes focused for extended periods on basic steps or body movements before moving on to more complex couple patterns. This was a welcome relief from the apparent norm in many classes where focus is on the pattern instead of the basics.
Advanced classes were almost exclusively focused on patterns and advanced movements like shines and spins. The teachers in each class did an excellent job of breaking down the basics of each pattern to make sure the students understood each component.The teachers seemed experienced at making everyone feel comfortable. Christian Aviedo, for example, made an explicit point for the ladies to be measured in their advice to the leaders. I found his advice especially helpful, as I had just finished practicing with a partner who told me with an irritated tone what I was doing wrong as if I were making her look bad. Mr. Aviedo also suggested that advanced dancers make a point of dancing with beginners. He stressed that it was not only the gentlemanly thing to do, but also that dancing with beginners was a great opportunity to sharpen one’s lead. He said that leading Liz Lira was effortless, "because it’s all Liz". But that correctly leading a beginner was a strong test of one’s skills.
My only gripe about the classes was the short, one-hour length. I spoke with several students in each of the classes I attended, and we agreed it would have been helpful to have more time to practice the given lesson and ask the teachers questions. Considering the large amount of new movements and patterns we were learning, more time would have been helpful simply to address muscle memory.
Cameras were welcome, and each teacher made time after the class to review the routine and allowed the students to tape them while doing so. I wished I had known this going in, but at least I’ll be ready with camera for next year’s event.
When I heard ‘discussion panel’, I thought they had reached a point of overkill. We were spending the entire day with each other, surely we’d want to break company for lunch? I decided to attend anyway, and quickly found myself in rapt attention listening to the stories the dancers were telling. Liz Lira mentioned that she had given up law school to become a dancer, that she had a personal trainer she worked with three times a week, and that she had recently decided to become a vegetarian. One of the dancers from Yamulee dance company told about how she still became emotional when meeting fans, and that they inspired her to keep dancing. What struck me most was the amount of time and hard work the dancers dedicated to their art. I came away very glad to have attended the discussion panel.
Dance PartiesA large dance floor was provided, and I had several opportunities to dance with people I had met in the classes. I danced with Salseras from Santa Rosa, San Jose, Portland, Los Angeles, Sacramento and even Europe. Many of the women I danced with were gracious, friendly and very approachable. It seemed everyone was having a good time.
See You Next Year
The San Francisco Salsa Festival was one of the best Salsa events I’ve ever attended. It was great meeting people from around the world who loved to dance Salsa. It was unforgettable meeting the Salsa stars (Liz Lira, you’re the greatest). Considering everything that was offered– full day of classes, world class performances, the elegant venue, the chance to meet and even dance with the top dancers, as well as meet Salseros from around the world– the $100 entrance fee seemed a steal.
I want to extend sincere thanks and congratulations to John Narvaez and Elizabeth Rojas for putting on a very well-organized event where virtually everyone felt welcome.
See you at next year’s Salsa Festival.
Like everyone, I’ve gone through a few phases in my life. When I was in my teens, I dreamed of being a singer, rocking out a stadium and making the women swoon. When I was in my twenties, I dreamed of being an author and producing the great American novel. When I was in my thirties, I dreamed of being the consummate computer programmer, able to make lines of code dance with elegance and efficiency.
While I have held on to each dream to some degree– I sing to my kids at bedtime, maintain this blog, and read journal after journal about Information Technology– I concluded years ago that I wasn’t sufficiently talented in any of these areas to be truly great. I came to accept that I wasn’t born with enough acuteness of hearing, imagination or logical aptitude to become a singing legend, renowned author or computer whiz. I was able enough to make a living and I was OK with that.
Reading Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated has fundamentally changed my outlook. No, I don’t plan to give up my day job so I can set up on a street corner and croon. But Colvin’s book did inspire me to reject the idea that talent is innate. It helped me realize that believing in natural talent is in fact self-defeating. Most importantly, his book has inspired me to consider ability– even world class ability– as something we can all attain.
With regards to Salsa dancing, I may not be the next Eddie Torres. However, Colvin’s book has compelled me to abandon any preconceptions of where my limitations might be. So far, following his guidelines has helped me overcome a plateau that I’d been stuck on for years. I’ve noticed people enjoy dancing with me more, I get asked to dance more frequently, and most importantly I am enjoying Salsa more than ever. We’ll see how far I can take it.
With this blog post, I’d like to share sections of Talent Is Overrated that I found especially illuminating. Also, I include a program I developed to improve my Salsa skills, which I based on the book’s underlying principle of “Deliberate Practice”.
Jerry Rice and Benjamin Franklin
Everyone knows who Jerry Rice is. He holds several prestigious records in the NFL, including most receptions, most receiving yards, most touchdowns, and most yards from scrimmage.
Less widely known is that Jerry Rice received only one scholarship offer coming out of high school, and that offer came from little known, 1-AA school Mississippi Valley State. Jerry Rice said he took the offer because “no one else came to see me in person.”
Likewise, despite setting several records at the collegiate level, concerns about his lack of speed caused him to drop seventeen places in the NFL draft.
Considering the skepticism surrounding his talents, it would be difficult to explain how Jerry Rice went on to become arguably the greatest NFL player ever. Mike Shanahan, super bowl champion as coach of the Denver Broncos, provided the following insight into what made Jerry Rice better than the rest:
“He certainly is talented, but I guarantee you he’s not even close to being the most talented. He’s not the strongest or the fastest. But he is the most determined. Jerry’s mind set was that nobody was going to work harder, prepare better, or sacrifice more. He convinced himself that he was going to outwork every receiver who came into the league relative to conditioning, lifting, studying — everything. He knew that people might not enjoy the practice, but you can’t get to be the best without.”
It would be convenient to leave the explanation at that: Jerry Rice worked harder than anyone else. But that would be insufficient. There are a lot of hard-working players in the NFL and in other professions. But not all hard workers become great.
In Talent Is Overrated, Colvin takes the description of hard work to a more nuanced level of detail, shedding light on exactly how Jerry Rice achieved his success.
Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over…
He designed his practice to work on his specific needs. Rice didn’t need to do everything well, just certain things. He had to run precise patterns; he had to evade the defenders, sometimes two or three, who were assigned to cover him; he had to out jump them to catch the ball and outmuscle them when they tried to strip it away; then he had to outrun tacklers. So he focused his practice work on exactly those requirements.
Not being the fastest receiver in the league turned out not to matter. He became famous for the precision of his patterns. His weight training gave him tremendous strength. His trail running gave him control so he could change directions suddenly without signaling his move. The uphill wind sprints game him explosive accelerations. Most of all, his endurance training – not something that a speed-focused athlete would normally concentrate on – gave him a giant advantage in the fourth quarter, when his opponents were tired and weak, and he seemed as fresh as he was in the first minute. Time and again, that’s when he put the game away.
Jerry Rice’s workouts were not merely arduous. They were strategically designed to address the specific needs of playing wide receiver in the NFL. Because Jerry Rice practiced with a level of intensity and commitment that few if any were able to match, he was further able to raise his level of proficiency higher than any of his peers.
Of course, in the realm of athletics, one must concede that a certain level of natural strength, speed and athleticism is needed to compete at the highest levels. Otherwise, I’d drop this salsa blog, start running hills and wait for a multi-million dollar contract offer from the NFL. Jerry Rice’s story nevertheless illustrates the power of deliberate practice and how it can propel a person with relatively standard natural abilities to the very top of the pile.In the realm of intellectual achievement, Colvin offers the example of Benjamin Franklin. His is another name familiar to virtually every American. His renown spans the domains of literature, politics and science.
Among his many abilities, writing was of special acclaim. He is considered by some as “the most famous American author of the eighteenth century”.
Colvin explains that Benjamin Franklin’s road to becoming a renowned writer was excruciating:
He found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce– a bound volume of The Spectator, the great English periodicle written by Joseph Edison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of.
It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence. A few days later, he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he would compare his own essay with the original. “Discovered some of my own faults, and corrected them”.
One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that?
He realized that writing poetry required an extensive stock of words, because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways, depending on the demands of rhyme or metre. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays and rewrite them in prose– again comparing his efforts with the original.
Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay was its organization. So he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point, he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original.
Again, he “discovered many faults, and amended them”.
When people today hear about what he did, they generally marvel not at the brilliance of his practice design, but at his ability to carry it through. It seems like so much work. The truth is that, in theory, anyone could have followed his routine. Anyone still can, and it would be highly effective. But nobody does it– not even students who are studying writing.
And Franklin was not a student. He was then an apprentice in his brother’s printing business– a demanding job that left him little free time. He practiced writing before work in the morning, after work at night, and on Sunday, “when I contrived to be in the printing house alone.” Raised as a puritan, he knew he was supposed to be in church on Sunday, but “I could not, as it seemed to me, afford time to go.”
The details of how Franklin taught himself to write well are worth our attention for two reasons: first, they provide a particularly clear example of how deliberate practice works. In this case, how it helped form one of the most effective and influential writers of English prose of his era. Second, they are an inspiring illustration of how to apply these principles on one’s own in circumstances far from ideal– which unfortunately are just the circumstances in which most people in companies and other organizations find themselves today.
An Explanation of ‘Deliberate Practice’
Throughout his book, Colvin repeatedly stresses that natural abilities such as extended memory, high IQ and even gifted athleticism fail time and again to explain great performance. The common denominator among giants in their fields like Jerry Rice, Benjamin Franklin, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fisher, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and others is something Colvin calls ‘Deliberate Practice’.
What specifically is “deliberate practice”? Colvin describes it as consisting of the following elements:
1) activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help.
2) can be repeated a lot.
3) feedback on results is continually available.
4) highly demanding mentally.
5) isn’t much fun.
In addition to citing examples of great athletes, intellects, business leaders and other great performers, Colvin cites scientific studies on IQ, memory, and pedagogy. He makes a compelling case for the power of deliberate practice.
Colvin’s ideas have influenced my approach to almost every aspect of my own life including my career, hobbies like Salsa dancing, and my relationship with family. It has provided me both with ideas on how to improve, and motivation to work hard and focus.
Whereas a discussion of my new approaches to work and family are not within the scope of this blog (nor any public forum, thank you very much), I will take this opportunity to present the program I am following to improve my Salsa dancing. I’ve based it on the principles laid out in Colvin’s description of Deliberate Practice and have found it to be quite effective.
The Learning Zone
A fundamental component of my approach is to always stay in the Learning Zone. In Talent Is Overrated, Colvin explains:
Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, and former chief of General Electric’s famous Crotonville Management Development Center, illustrates the point by drawing three concentric circles. He labels the inner circle comfort zone, the middle one learning zone and the outer one panic zone. Only by choosing activities in the learning zone can one make progress. That’s the location of skills and abilities that are just out of reach. We can never make progress in the comfort zone because those are the activities we can already do easily. While panic zone activities are so hard that we don’t even know how to approach them. Identifying the learning zone, which is not simple, and then forcing oneself to stay continually in it as it changes which is even harder– these are the first and most important characteristics of deliberate practice.
As a dancer of several years, I had found it difficult to stay in the Learning Zone. Attending group classes was unattractive, as they mostly taught basic patterns that were not challenging. Also, the level of dancers who generally participated in group classes were learning techniques I had already achieved. I had considered taking private lessons, but the cost was prohibitive. Even if I had decided to do one or the other, the time requirements were heavy, especially considering I was now a husband and father of two.
Applying the Concepts
And then I discovered the plethora of Salsa material on YouTube. Watching clips of dancers like Frankie Martinez, Eddie Torres, Oliver Pineda, Nancy Ortiz and Griselle Ponce sparked my imagination. The material is essentially free of cost, and highly portable (for those familiar with transferring internet videos to their portable players).Practicing the patterns and styling I found on YouTube, I found I had difficulty with some of the movements and leads. Fortunately, my very gracious wife gifted me a lesson with local instructor Isabelle Rodrigues for my birthday one year. Isabelle pointed out several areas where I could improve, not just with the new patterns I was trying but also with my fundamentals.
As I continued to practice the new patterns and styling I found on YouTube, as well as incorporate the suggestions provided by professional instructors, I found that my dance partners were responding– they offered a lot more smiles during our dances, they complimented me on the new patterns I was leading, and I was getting asked to dance more often.
I was following the principles of deliberate practice and getting concrete results. Here is the program I’ve developed:
1) Using material from YouTube, I study new steps and styling. This provides me with new material and motivates me to get out of my comfort zone and into the learning zone.
2) I first practice the new steps and styles on my own (yes, in my living room) and then with partners on the dance floor. I repeat each step until I feel comfortable.
3) I receive constant feedback. Of great value are the ideas I get from professional instructors, but no less so is the constant feedback I receive from my dance partners. Whether that involves a smile for a well executed lead, or a frown and cold shoulder for a poorly executed one, I know what is working and what isn’t.
4) The process is highly demanding. I have to take the risk of fumbling the new pattern, and I must constantly focus on the lead I am providing.
5) While the process is often fun, it is also rigorous. I watch the videos incessantly, and risk frustration on the part of my dance partner. I also must make arrangements around family time to keep up with the schedule.
The Salsa King
And so, here I am in my 40′s and in full circle, indulging in one more dream– that of being a Salsa king. Even I roll my eyes reading that last statement. But let me end this with Eddie “Mambo King” Torres’ autobiography. There are several illustrations of Deliberate Practice in it. And if I continue on a similar course, who knows?
He was merely 12 years old when he caught the dancing bug. Just back in New York after a two year sojourn in Puerto Rico, he developed a puppy-love crush on a girl from the hood. Shyly, he asked her to the movies and she made a counter-offer: why didn’t he come to her house? That Saturday, when Renée opened the door, Eddie was surprised to see a tall, good-looking guy sitting on the couch. Renée whispered apologetically, “He’s my ex-boyfriend. He’s looking to make up with me.” Then, in an attempt to break the tension, she asked Eddie, “Do you know how to Latin?” She wanted to know if he knew how to dance Latin. Fresh from Puerto Rico, his confidence emboldened him. Renée leaned over the record player and dropped the needle on the groove of Eddie Palmieri’s Azucar Pa’ Ti. Not knowing a thing about leading position or about timing, the young suitor started jumping around, then glanced over to collect looks of approval. But his rival on the couch sat clamping his jaw closed, holding back a burst of laughter. Two minutes into the number, Renée retired her inexperienced partner, pulled her ex-boyfriend up and explained in a professorial manner, “Let me show you the way WE do the Latin.” It was plain to see that there was a lot of coordination, plenty of moving together and all sorts of turns. The more they danced, the worse Eddie felt. After the dance demonstration, his love interest pulled him to one side and explained, “He really wants to make up with me.” From that moment, Eddie made himself a promise, “This is never going to happen to me again. I’m going to learn how to dance.”
The idea of learning “to dance Latin” became an obsession. Schooling took the form of going to all the clubs and hanging out with all the good dancers–watching, imitating, asking, and being a pest. Slowly he started to learn the foundations of the dance.
In those days, not many clubs allowed teenagers in, but the famous Hunts Point Palace opened every Sunday from noon to midnight, and for $5, they presented five top Latin bands, back-to-back, on two stages.
Fifteen-year-old Eddie punched the clock when the club opened and sauntered out at closing time, exhausted but determined to learn.
Eight years later, he was teaching and competing in dance contests and garnering a reputation amongst the good dancers as being one of the best. One night, while he was dancing in a head-to-toe white outfit, in a club lit with nothing but black lights, his sister pulled him off the floor. It seems Renée, his childhood flame, spotted a slick dancer and wanted an intro. In the dark, Eddie’s sister did the honors.”Renée, I want you to meet Eddie.” Upon recognizing the skillful dancer, she froze as if she’d seen ten ghosts. Eddie wanted to dance with her desperately, he wanted to thank her, “You’re the reason why I got into this.” But she disappeared and that was the last time he saw her.
In case you couldn’t gather from my music recommendations, I’m a big fan of the New York style. I have video after video that I watch on my ipod when I can steal a moment– on the train, just before going to sleep, and other places I won’t mention.
Here’s one of my most watched videos nowadays. These guys are tremendous, and as far as I know, not particularly well known. Famous or not, I love their style.
|Some songs provide enough clave for you and your dance partner to practice patterns. Others are background noise, allowing you to catch up with your fellow dancers’ lives and ask how their kids are doing.
These aren’t those songs. Click the links in each song description to hear samples, or use the player below.
These songs get me desperately scoping the dance floor, looking for one of my favorite dancers in hopes they aren’t swept away by another eager salsero. If I’m lucky enough to find the right partner and some elbow room, the night– indeed the week– is made.
I’d be happy to hear about the songs that give you that ‘Gotta dance’ feeling. Let me know in the comments.
And visit again soon– part two is forthcoming.
New Swing Sextet