Business student Wesley Lim had never danced until he auditioned for SMU Caderas Latinas. Determined to try something new when he joined SMU, the adventurous volleyball player spent weeks picking up salsa dancing tips on YouTube to prepare for the try-outs.
Today, Wesley is the president of the salsa dance club and loves spending his time on the dance floor. He talks to SMU Snapshots about getting over the fear of social dancing and some lessons that he’s picked up along his steep learning curve.
The SMU Caderas Latinas style
For the uninitiated, salsa is a vibrant, carefree and sensual style of dance that originated in the Caribbean and has evolved into various styles to represent different cultures. SMU Caderas Latinas adopts the Los Angeles (LA) dance style.
“We’re a performance team, so what differentiates us is the partner dance. We specialise a little more on tricks too. There’s a slight risk there because training is more intense and there is more fear. Our dances are also more high energy. We tend to choose happier songs to bring out the joy that we have for salsa.”
For most of the dancers in SMU Caderas Latinas, it is their first-time dancing the salsa because of the more mature nature of the dance. So, everyone starts off from the same level, learning together on a steep learning curve – with the first performance just three months after term begins.
Although LA salsa is not an uncommon dance style in Singapore, SMU Caderas Latinas adds their own spin to it. The team’s tagline, “Sexily Sick”, is an identity that resonates with them and shows in their stunning performances.
“We do a lot of partner dances that require patience, and add in a lot of tricks like cartwheels. We also often perform as a big team and don’t break into small teams unless there are stage constraints. We focus on the team rather than the individual.”
Thinking outside of yourself
In salsa, the dance is a give and take with your partner. Whether you are the “lead” or “follow”, it is important to pay attention to how the other person reacts to each move.
“Getting the steps is not hard. But to look good, smooth and comfortable is the most important. That is the key to any successful partner dance – learning to be comfortable and understand each other.”
For instance, Wesley knows that he lacks the strength necessary to perform certain tricks, and that is where his partner steps up and has learnt to hold herself more. At the same time, Wesley is working on himself so that he can be a stronger partner.
In team performance dancing, the people are the most important. The team can range from five up to ten couples, which makes delivery of the overall performance slightly trickier. “It doesn’t matter so much whether you are good or not,” Wesley shares. “Because our job is to lift each other up and make each other better. We all have three layers to work on – the self, the couple, and the team.”
Stop worrying, start dancing
Unlike in other activities where you can work on your skills alone, it is difficult to improve in salsa without a partner to practice with. “You can’t dance alone. You can’t just imagine your partner’s hand – you have to hold the hand to actually dance and anticipate your partner’s reaction,” Wesley elaborates.
His advice on how to pick up dancing quickly is to attend social dances and put yourself out there. In social dancing, it is perfectly normal for a stranger to come up to you to ask for a dance, and vice versa. Typically, the guy leads the dance and the lady follows along. This helps to hone technique as you learn to pick up the dynamics of the dance.
“What is beautiful about this dance is that everyone is very accepting. The first time I did social dance, I literally just went back and forth using the same basics because I had no vocabulary. I felt very lucky because although the ladies there were very experienced, they continued to dance with me and encourage me. That really spurred me to give back to the community.”
Initially, Wesley admits, you have to be courageous in taking the first step to put yourself out there. But as you ease in and become more familiar with the people and environment, it becomes fun, a good way to de-stress, and a great platform for learning.
Sharing the love for salsa
Competitions for bigger salsa teams, like SMU Caderas Latinas, are rare in the local salsa community. To get more exposure, Wesley led 30 SMU Caderas Latinas dancers up to India, Bangalore, in July, to compete at the India International Dance Congress (IIDC).
The junior team, who only had eight months to pick up dancing and learn the choreography, came in fourth place, and the senior team won second. The trip was a great opportunity to benchmark the team against the regional competition and most of all, the festival experience brought the team closer and strengthened the SMU Caderas Latinas family spirit. Wesley also fulfilled one of his personal goals as president, which was to take the team overseas.
“India was an eye-opener and a test for us – so that we know where we stand in the region. Hopefully it serves as a reminder as a way forward, that we can keep pushing the standards.”
India is not the first time that the team has travelled abroad to compete. In 2008, Wesley’s predecessors were invited to perform at the Los Angeles Salsa Congress. They competed in the Italia Grand Prix in 2012 and came in first place, and also took first place at the Europe Dance Grand Prix in 2014.
“My hope is that the team will continue to produce high quality performances and venture overseas more, following in the footsteps of our predecessors. I want us to do Singapore proud, then come back and really contribute to the salsa community in Singapore by putting up performances and sharing what we’ve learnt.”
As it is, every year, SMU Caderas Latinas puts up two main performances in March and September. The upcoming Bailamos, which runs on 17th September will be held at the Lasalle College of the Arts to cater to a target of 1,000 people.
“It’s common for dance groups like us to perform on bigger stages,” Wesley explains. “For us, we’re trying to reach out to as many people as we can. After all, we were all non-dancers at the start, and our hope is to be able to spread the love for salsa.”
Besides performing, the club also organises salsa dancing workshops that are open for the public to participate.
“The main objective of going overseas is for us to give back – to perform in places like Singapore Night Festival, Bailamos, carry out workshops and engage our counterparts. We travel, gain exposure, and bring it back.”
Bailamos XIII is an SMU Caderas Latinas annual production. It aims to provide a shared platform for all tertiary salsa clubs in Singapore. Check out their website or Facebook page for ticketing details.