Ethnographic Research of Salsa Dancers

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Observing how dancers learn salsa by analyzing their cognitive activities using field ethnography. The goals of this project are to learn to observe cognition in the wild, describe observations using the correct user research tools, and analysis of the found description. The analysis was d

  • Description




During the beginning of the class the students queue up facing the instructors who are explaining the basic steps of the dance and practicing it along with them. Some novice students try to grab the front place to get a better view of the instructor’s feet as the whole salsa is based on the feet movement. Once the males and females are partnered they are asked to circle the instructor; the females have a set space that they maintain for the rest of the class although the males rotate amongst each partner. After a particular step in the dance sequence is accomplished the instructor commands to rotate.

As the instructor teaches the students, first they observe the performed dance sequence later based on the instructors counting they recall the same steps and replicate it. Some students learn from their own errors as they realize they are performing the step incorrectly compared to what was shown to them. Follows are said to learn more from a good lead and his instructions on how to perform the steps correctly, in addition to observing the instructors for the correct form. Others say they learn more from teaching the follow based on the information they have received visually, to replicate the moves of the instructor. If the number of males in the class is more dominant to the females or vice versa then some places are left alone and for a turn he/she has to practice that step individually while imagining to dance with a follow/lead. Students are seen to dance with vigor and enthusiasm on the music. Once the class ends everyone is very excited to record the dance sequence and thus take out their cellphones surround the instructors and record their dance.


Practice session which is conducted after the dance class. The instructors are not part of this class. Only students are given this hour to socialize, dance, and ask whoever they want to dance. It is similar to a social event at a salsa events. In the session, students are practicing salsa dancing on the music played by the group’s officers on the speaker. Other students who are not dancing are talking sideways of the class and simply cracking jokes, sharing stories or getting to know each other which is another social aspect of the class.

The focus is on multiple couples:

Couple 1: The follow is an expert level dancer and the lead is a novice dancer. He is observing the couple next to him and copying the lead’s moves.

Couple 2: Both of the dancers are proficient dancers and they are casually dancing comfortably. They even strike conversation with the couple 1 about the dance moves performed.

Couple 3: They are standing by the door and observing the dancers. Appreciating and conversing about how the other couples are turning with perfection on the beats.

Couple 4: The lead is explaining outward turn to the follow and how he will push her against his body for her to turn outside. The follow commits a wrong move and is irritated.

Students in the back: Students are seen sitting on benches and chatting amongst themselves.



The student dancer who talks about teaching styles of a lead and follow. She exclaims she learns more by teaching. She uses the numbering technique of instructor. It is more difficult for a lead to learn proper dance steps. She observes the instructors feet and understands the steps. The instructor's teaching style impact the students. His jovial vibe makes learning enjoyable. She talks about the basic steps practiced in the beginning of the class and how it is easier for a novice student while learning how to dance. She furtherly adds that repeating the steps everyday builds muscle memory of dancers.




A normal class begins with a simple daily practice of basic steps of Salsa dancing. Where the male and the female instructors stand in front of the students (standing in queues) with their back towards them (it becomes easier to mirror for the students and learn the accurate steps in the process.) The instructors simultaneously move their feet in the motion of the basic steps on the counts of 1, 2, 3….5, 6, 7.The pauses and change in the movement of the dance happens on different counts. After the basic the instructor begins the class, where they are in the middle of the circle surrounded by leads and follows in their positions observing them. The instructors start explaining pre-decided sequence which students have to watch and replicate.  He uses humor to get everyone’s attention and to instruct the different steps of the dance sequence.

When a variety of students are having trouble performing a step; the instructor paused the class. He explained the move in a greater detail with a lot of similar examples of unrelated things to bring humor and students comprehended it better. (Students were seen to perform the same sequence with more precision in the next try). He turns on the music once everyone has had enough grasp of the dance sequence. The instructor uses the word ‘basic’ to inform everyone to do the basic sequence of dance steps in that moment.


The instructors ended the class by performing the whole sequence for the students to record and asked them to practice at home.

The instructors first showed the exact same sequence in simple. Later they completed the same sequence by adding music to those steps. Sometimes the instructor even asks one of the female students to join him and lets her perform in front of the whole class.


  • Analysis:

Edwin Hutchins in Cognition in Wild has three chapters on learning, namely Organization in Learning, Learning in context and Navigation as a context of Learning. Based on some of his stated theories I have referenced conclusions for my own topic.

According to Hutchins distribution of knowledge theory, cooperative tasks such as couple dancing can be defined in a mutually exclusive manner where the sum of the individual’s knowledge is equal to the total required with little or no overlap. Taking any couple’s example during a learning session: A lead is paired up with the follow and the instructor is teaching a dance sequence. Based on individual grasping skills and level of dancing one may understand the step well and do it. When they both are dancing together their final outcome of a proper rhythmically correct dance sequence with correct moves is achieved by a combination and overlap of each other dancing. If the lead understood the dance sequence better than the follow, the lead may explain it to the follow or he may give cues in a way that makes it easier for follow to understand what the next step should be and how it needs to be performed. In such examples gestural interaction provides additional identifying information. Such gestural interactions replace the cognitive function of verbal interaction with one another with words due to time crunch. These interactions come with expectations on what the next dance move should be.

Hutchin talks about the decomposition of tasks: the structure of the distributed task provides many constraints on the learning environment. The way a task is partitioned across a set of task performers has consequences for both the efficiency of task performance and the efficiency of knowledge acquisition. Here, the knowledge and the interaction of sharing the knowledge with the follow and her ability to grasp it affects their dance performance. Besides that it was observed that the environment for dancing was much freer in social events and also practice sessions with no instructors and where the partners chose whom to dance with.

The instructor used the numbering technique of 1,2,3..5,6,7 while learning any dance as that becomes the framework to learn any sort of dancing sequence according to a student in her audio interview. She further mentioned knowing the numbering technique helps her dance with the beats easily rather than jumping directly into the music. It further helped her dance with advanced salsa dancers. For an instructor following a numbering technique is helping in teaching as he can mention when to do a specific dance step.

The numbering technique can also be looked as a cognitive artifact as mentioned in the cognitive artifact paper by Hutchins, 1995. Here it replaces a number of cognitive activities for students and instructors. Here the finger counting theory can be linked with toe counting. It is scientifically proven that counting numbers on fingers helps the same part of the brain while doing counting. Due to a literature survey conducted on different cultural diversity of counting in fingers it shows similar findings. Biologically in brain it helps when toes or fingers are used for counting for better understanding of numbers, while here performing dance steps on those numbers itself.

One of the integral parts of learning is learning from ones errors. Edwin further talks about errors and that a system can learn in many ways: Learning by detecting and correcting, learning from the correction of one’s mistakes, learning from the correction of the mistakes of others.The video for students dancing in practice session is a simple explanation of that. Based on the couple 4 mentioned before the girl was learning via self-error detection. She was seen turning a wrong way and the lead was helping her out. She expressed irritation once she realized that she was attempting a wrong turn again. Emotions are also an integral part of learning. Edwin Hutchins further mentions most studies of error, focus on its reduction. Yet error is inevitable in human systems. This is attributed commonly to the fact that humans can become tired or confused or distracted in our work or the idea that we are fallible in some other way.

To control such effects of error, attention becomes a key factor. Being attentive to the dance movements can reduce the error, if made, being attentive towards the error can also reduce its chance of making it. Like the girl in the video before attempting the wrong move stopped from doing the move as she noticed that it was a wrong one. More commonly than not, errors are also detected by ones partners. According to Hutchins not only is the lead or follow responsible of their own dance movement but also responsible for each other’s dancing steps as it is a couple dance and not a solo performance.

Sometimes finding the source of the error is also helpful. In the video recording the lead in couple 1 is looking at the hands of the other couple and found out that he is doing it incorrectly causing him to turn the follow wrongly and thus later performs the step correctly. Since he was a novice and his follow was the most experienced one it is seen that novice’s steps are closely monitored by more experienced watch stander. Continual corrections can help a novice learn recovery strategies that can be applied even when errors are self-detected. In the video we can see couple 3 is standing by the door and simply observing the dances of others. They are observing the advanced dancers and learning of their style. They are even observing novices learning dancing and later implementing it in their own dance styles. Observing others is also a good way to learn.


To summarize, a novice: follow or lead learn dancing by developing the internal counting which helps learning dance sequence on our own according to the instructor. This is done via the numbering technique a cognitive artifact that can be used to learn dance on your own. The knowledge and the interaction of sharing the knowledge with the follow and her ability to grasp it affects their dance performance, which was an essential part of learning on field site.  It was observed that when leads were poor at giving proper gestural interactions like tapping of the right shoulder which indicates to turn right or in the back to indicate a turn, the follows could not pick up the gestures and do the next step incorrectly.  Another technique of learning which was observed via the novices was learning from errors, of oneself or learning by watching or teaching others. Ultimately the salsa dancing is taught as dancers could dance on salsa social events which happened once a month and are part of the class’s learning experience. Here anyone from beginners to advance can dress up and go to a gathering at a salsa dance floor on a decided venue. Here, the instructor’s technique of rotating the men in class to multiple girls helps, according to the audio recording of the dance participant. She further explains by saying that to become a good dancer it is necessary to know how to dance with varied dancers and their dancing styles. This experience is also learnt in that classroom and thus, gives the entire learning feel of salsa. At the end of the class when the instructors perform the entire sequence again, they ask students to record it so that they can practice it at home. This way it enables dancers to store it in their visual memory. You understand that dancing is not just a simple bodily movement but something that requires enough cognitive abilities in a human mind that unless you have the capacity you may fail to do a good job too. Learning can be done via a number of ways whichever suited an individual novice. He adapted those and at the end enjoyed attending the salsa class of SPYCD.


Cognition in the wild, Edwin Hutchins; Cognitive artifacts, Edwin Hutchins; Finger Counting, Wikipedia

Raj Vaibhav 2 months ago

I tried learning Salsa in my University, but i bet their way of teaching was not as methodological as you described here. You wrote a nice piece here @Gauri