Unexpected Leadership Lessons from Cuban Salsa

They say that you can learn the best lessons in life in the most unexpected of places. When I first started Cuban Salsa, I’ve never expected how much I was going to learn about leadership, followership, communication, and collaboration.

I’ve always loved Cuban culture, music and dance but for some reason I had never tried to join a Salsa class before visiting Cuba. I guess, I’ve never felt really comfortable in the idea of dancing with complete strangers.

But soon I realised that this was the most exciting part of it.

In Cuban Salsa you don’t really need to have a partner in order to join. All you need to do is show up, join the circle and dance with total strangers!

Different Styles of Salsa

There are many styles of Salsa (NY style, LA style, Cuban, Cali). Admittedly the most popular style is the LA one, also knows as Crossbody Salsa. The key difference between Crossbody and Cuban Salsa is that the first is a ballroom dance between two partners, while the second is a social dance with multiple partners.

Compared to CrossbodyCuban Salsa is more about the interplay between partners, and improvisation and less about technicalities and perfection. However, this doesn’t mean that technique is not important. But the focus is more on dancing in a group and socialising.

Cuban Salsa, known as casino, is a distinct style of Salsa of Afro-Cuban origin. It originated as a partner dance from Cuban Son integrating movements, gestures and figures from a variety of other traditional Cuban dances, such as Danzon, Mambo, Rumba and Cha Cha Cha.

The name Casino derives from the dance halls where affluent Cubans used to meet, dance and socialise in the mid-50’s.

In addition to Casino there is Rueda de Casino. In Rueda de Casino, multiple partners dance in a circular fashion, while a “caller” calls out the dance moves to maintain synchronisation. Most moves involve the swapping of partners while everyone keeps moving around the circle.

This is the very definition of social dancing and a great spectacle to watch.

After years of Cuban salsa and a trip to Cuba, I have learned some invaluable lessons about leadership.

There is always a leader and a follower and both have to respect their roles.

In Cuban Salsa, the leaders (traditionally men), are expected to lead the way for the followers (traditionally women).

When the leader is not experienced enough this instantly shows while when the follower is not experienced enough it will not be so obvious.

Therefore, it is up to the leaders to bring the best out of the followers.

Having danced with hundreds of partners, I can say that not one follower is the same. Some want to be the leads and end up pulling you to the opposite direction with awkward results. Some want to be instructive, while others can be too passive expecting their partner to do everything for them. In just an hour of dancing, you can experience so many different leadership and followership styles with no filters. It is an interplay of styles where you continuously have to adjust.

Another interesting point is that in Cuban Salsa you cannot afford to be egalitarian while you are dancing. What makes everything work in real harmony, is when followers follow their leads, even when this is counterintuitive. The best experience I have had was when my partner would help me lead, even when I was making mistakes. This is the beauty of it, followership and leadership interchange harmonically.

However, this doesn’t mean that followers just follow blindly. But it is always best to wait for the dance to finish before having a discussion on what didn’t work out.

Be ready to dance with hundreds of strangers and learn from them.

The idea of dancing with women (or men) of all ages, experience, skill and background, who you have never met before can be extremely intimidating at start and requires you to be really confident. But it is something you can overcome quite fast.

You will be surprised in how much you can learn from partners you’ve just met and have danced with for less than a minute.

From the way they hold you to the way they will react to your lead you can understand so much about the other person’s style and personality.

All you need to do is leave your biases and preconceptions outside of the dancefloor and you are going to have a truly unique experience.

Do not be afraid of mistakes, instead own them and keep moving.

The biggest mistakes that amateurs do is stop while they are dancing because they did a mistake. What they fail to realise is that, there will always be mistakes and you need to own them and move forward.

In most cases, people will not notice if you do a wrong move but even if they do, it doesn’t really matter. Dancing is not about perfection, unless you are competing for the Olympic Games but even then, Olympic athletes still do mistakes. There is too much focus on and fear of mistakes. Mistakes are part of life and of our learning process, and we need to be open to them.

Do not overthink, go with the flow and trust your body.

The worst thing that you can do while dancing is overthink. Yet, this is the most common mistake people do.

They tend to overthink every move and engineer every step. Of course, when you are a beginner you will have to pay attention on the steps but once you get a bit comfortable, dancing should become more intuitive. Like professional athetes, you must rely on your body’s memory rather than you brain’s.

Thinking too much always gets in the way of your dancing, making it seem unnatural. You have to trust yourself and go with the flow and the motion.

Similarly in business, overthinking can get in the way of good decision making and paralyse leaders. Sometimes you have to follow your insights without overanalysing.

Be ready to step outside your comfort zone.

This is the most obvious advice for anyone interested in leadership and yet it is what is keeping us away from new experiences and fulfilling our potential.

You cannot lead if you are not ready to step outside your comfort zone, do mistakes, learn from your partner and try new things.

You cannot participate in a Cuban Salsa class unless you are ready to dance with same gender partners as well, when the numbers are uneven. It is always interesting how many men (usually) feel uncomfortable with this at first.

It is all about how comfortable and confident you are with yourself. None of the biases you have matter on the dance floor. In fact, you can never be a great leader if you cannot move away from your biases and pre-conceptions when you lead. You can always learn from new experiences but I’ve never expected to learn so much about leadership from Cuban Salsa.

All it takes its to be open to new experiences.

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