It Takes Two…: 10 Ways Learning to Salsa is Like Learning Spanish, or Mandarin, or Swahili

“Dance” by Henri Matisse, The Hermitage, St Petersburg [photograph by the author]

“Dance” by Henri Matisse, The Hermitage, St Petersburg [photograph by the author]

In a few short weeks the autumn clouds will roll in, the days will shorten, and it will be dancing season again. Across the Atlantic, 14 September will mark the return of ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. A week before that, here in the UK, the new season of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing will see a fresh line-up of celebrities hoping to waltz, tango and salsa their way to victory.

As a big fan of Strictly, I recently decided to get off the couch and try to learn to dance myself. As well as getting some much needed exercise, I hoped it would give me a better understanding of dancing’s technical jargon (just what is a “chasse” anyway?) as well as some appreciation of what this year’s line-up of celebrities will soon be going through. I chose Lindy Hop in particular and, after a couple of months of classes, I’m pleased to say I can just about string together a whole song’s worth of basic moves. Although I can’t yet swing dance like former Strictly champion Chris Hollins, I like to think I’m no John Sergeant either.

But what has dancing got to do with a blog about language? Well, as a linguist, I’m discovering that learning to dance is similar – in many ways – to learning to speak a foreign language.

First of all, mastering your first few dance steps is easy and fun, a bit like learning your first “bonjour” or “ni hao”. But, there soon comes a point when the novelty wears off and things start getting difficult. The moment when the instructor tells you have to move your hands and legs at the same time in different directions is just like the moment when your language teacher tells you there are more irregular verbs in German than regular ones, or that there’s no fool-proof way of guessing which nouns in Spanish take which genders. Yet, despite the challenges, you still carry on. Because there’s something inspiring about watching an ex-England cricketer learn to dance the Paso Doble, just as there is something inspiring about watching an ex-England rugby star give an entire television interview in fluent French.

And there are more fundamental similarities too in the sense that dances are like languages, and dancing is a bit like speaking. Clearly, a Tuck Turn doesn’t have referential meaning in the same way that the words “tuck” and “turn” do. But dancing is certainly a form of social interaction and human communication, just like speaking is. And, although linguists like Noam Chomsky would have a field day explaining to you why dance doesn’t have a “grammar” in the same way that natural language does, it does have similarities in the sense that an endless number of different dances are produced by individuals combining a limited number of recognisable moves in highly creative and productive ways.

One evening, while grappling with the footwork of the Charleston Hand-to-Hand, I started to think about all the other similarities between learning to dance and learning a foreign language. And, in the end, I could easily think of more than a dozen ways that learning to dance is just like learning to ask someone in Mandarin: “are you dancing?”

So, in celebration of this year’s festival of sequins and lycra – and of the joys of language learning – here are 10 ways in which learning to waltz is just like learning Welsh – or Spanish, or Japanese, or Swahili:

  1. Learning a new dance or language entails learning about another culture. Just as languages are intimately associated with the people, and the culture of the people, that speak them so too are different dances. Learning to flamenco dance, for example, will teach you a lot about the history, culture and traditions of Southern Spain. Learning to break dance will teach you a lot about the urban culture of 1980s New York.
  2. When you get really good, you can alternate between different dance styles like you can switch between languages. Dancers fluent in more than one style will often combine elements of both (like jive and quick step, or rumba and tango) in the same routine – just as fluent bilinguals will often code-switch between two languages when they speak to each other. Dances (like languages) evolve when people combine together elements of other dances (languages). In 1930s Harlem, for example, dancers fused together elements of Tap and Charleston and created the Lindy Hop.
  3. You can only get so far on your own. It takes two to tango, just like it takes two to have a conversation. Dancing, like talking, is a social activity and you can’t really learn to do either on your own. It’s embarrassing at first to dance with someone you don’t know very well, especially when you know they can dance much better than you can – just like it can feel awkward to try out your beginner’s French on a sophisticated Parisian. But it’s worth it in the end.
  4. You will make the occasional faux pas (literally so, when it comes to dancing). Saying someone has a nice bottom (“beau cul”) in French when you really just want to thank them (“merci beaucoup”) is quite a bit like unwittingly standing on your dance-partner’s toes. But they will usually forgive you.
  5. You need to learn the unwritten rules of interaction. Just like there are unwritten rules of conversation, which dictate who says what and when, convention dictates that when dancing in pairs there is a leader (usually, but not necessarily these days, a male) and a follower. Moreover, there are social rules about dancing with a stranger, just like there are universal rules of politeness in conversation. For instance: always try to make eye contact with your partner, and try not to kick them in the shins.
  6. You can fake fluency, but it will only get you so far. In the film Chinese Puzzle, French actress Audrey Tatou recites a classical Chinese poem with impressively perfect tones – but she’s not a Mandarin speaker. Likewise, there’s a difference between learning a dance routine and learning a dance. The difference is that when you can speak a language fluently, or have really mastered a dance, you have the ability to be productive. You can take the basic elements (the moves or words) of that language or dance style, and put them together in an endless number of different ways – that’s when you can really express yourself.
  7. You will inevitably develop your own style. Just like there are an infinite number of ways to speak a language and still be understood (for instance, what accent you have, the particular lexical choices you make, and so on), there are an infinite number of ways to dance the same dance. Everyone naturally develops their own individual dance style, which dictates what sorts of moves you like to do, how far apart you like to put your feet, how high you tend to jump, how much you smile, and so on. Just like your idiolect – your own personal way of speaking a language – your dance style will likely say something about your personality, where you are from, where you learned to dance, and so on.
  8. Learning one dance, or language, will make it easier to learn another. Once you’ve mastered Salsa, it will be much easier to learn the Tango, just like it will be easier to learn Spanish once you’ve learned French. Not only will you have better balance, musicality and fitness, as well as a good understanding of the social rules of dancing, you will generally have refined your own personal learning style. For example, you will know if you prefer to count out loud when you are learning new moves, or say the names of the moves out loud as you do them – just like you will know if you prefer to learn a language by reading and writing it, or by speaking it.
  9. It’s like scaling a mountain. As Strictly’s head judge Len Goodman puts it, learning to dance – like learning a foreign language – is quite a bit like scaling a mountain. When you’re standing at the bottom you can’t believe you’ll ever make it. But, once you get to the top, the view will be amazing.
  10. It will do you good. There’s some evidence to suggest that dancing has cognitive benefits, especially in old age – just like scientists have found that being bilingual can delay the onset of cognitive dementia. So, if you want to live a long and happy life, and can’t decide whether you’re going to learn to dance or learn a new language, then there’s a very simple solution: do both!
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3 thoughts on “It Takes Two…: 10 Ways Learning to Salsa is Like Learning Spanish, or Mandarin, or Swahili

  1. Overall, proper technique is not difficult to learn, but it requires specific instruction. Once you master it, however, your dancing abilities will improve phenomenally.
    Salsa requires us to do two things at once – move both our feet and our arms. The problem is that our brains can only think about one thing at a time.

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