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Flow like water: Applying the philosophy of Bruce Lee to Salsa Dancing

Flow like water: Applying the philosophy of Bruce Lee to Salsa Dancing

by Jeffrey Huang

Like every other Chinese boy growing up in North America, I was a huge Bruce Lee fan; dreaming one day I’d become a fearless and powerful warrior, handing generic bad guys beat-downs in the name of righteousness – and instead kicking a hole in my bedroom wall and nursing my bruised toes.

I did end up doing martial arts for a while, leading to my eventual spinal injury, and my jump into the world of salsa dancing; my dream of becoming a butt-kicking martial artist never materialized. However, I remained an ardent fan of Bruce’s philosophical side; on how to live a fulfilling life, how to continually self-improve, and how to become a better person overall. Bruce’s words pushed me to try things, take on new challenges and, as strange as it may seem, taught me how to be good at dancing.

Fun fact: Bruce Lee, prior to moving to America, was a talented dancer.

In fact, he was so good, he became the Hong Kong cha cha champion in 1958, and taught wealthy couples how to dance while travelling to America.


Ok, back on track. Bruce Lee is a big believer in learning and self-improvement, so much so that he has observed that the learning process can be divided into three stages, or as he calls them, “The Three Stages of Cultivation”. Here’s an excerpt from The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee (1996):

The first is the primitive stage. It is a stage of original ignorance in which a person knows nothing about the art of combat. In a fight, he simply blocks and strikes instinctively without a concern for what is right and wrong. Of course, he may not be so-called scientific, but, nevertheless, being himself, his attacks or defenses are fluid.

The second stage — the stage of sophistication, or mechanical stage — begins when a person starts his training. He is taught the different ways of blocking, striking, kicking, standing, breathing, and thinking — unquestionably, he has gained the scientific knowledge of combat, but unfortunately his original self and sense of freedom are lost, and his action no longer flows by itself. His mind tends to freeze at different movements for calculations and analysis, and even worse, he might be called “intellectually bound” and maintain himself outside of the actual reality.

The third stage — the stage of artlessness, or spontaneous stage — occurs when, after years of serious and hard practice, the student realizes that after all, gung fu is nothing special. And instead of trying to impose on his mind, he adjusts himself to his opponent like water pressing on an earthen wall. It flows through the slightest crack. There is nothing to try to do but try to be purposeless and formless, like water. All of his classical techniques and standard styles are minimized, if not wiped out, and nothingness prevails. He is no longer confined.

Cool stuff, right? Now while the words describe the development of a martial artist, the spirit of the words is completely compatible with the development of a dancer. Let’s take a look (Note: in the following example, “he” can be freely swapped for “she”):

The first stage: The student has never taken a dance class before; he dances to the music instinctively, without concern for what is right and wrong. While he may not be technically correct, his movements and expressions are fluid.

The second stage: The student begin to take dance classes, and he is taught how to perform specific moves, spins etc. He has learned how to move in a technical sense, but his original sense of freedom is lost, and his action no longer flows. His mind freezes at different movements for calculations and analysis.

The third stage: After years of serious and hard practice, the student adjusts himself to the music. All his techniques and forms are minimized. He is no longer confined.

In my previous blog post on salsa hell, I described the different stages of learning for salsa dancers, and how most of the difficulty comes from understanding the many aspects of dancing, including musicality, partnering, footwork, and so forth. What I was describing at that moment was the second stage of cultivation, and the need for one to transcend to the third stage.

So, what can we learn from this? A couple of things actually:

Technique is important

Before a person can reach the third stage, he needs to master technique; to look at something from a mechanical angle in order to understand it from the inside out. If this is overlooked, the person will never be able to improve beyond their initial condition (first stage). “Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there.”

Don’t get hung up on technicality

…. And in a complete reversal of what I said in the first point – once you have a good grasp of the technique, you have to learn to let it go in order to create a sense of identity and creativity. You need to explore what the technique can bring you, and exceed it. This way, you are truly free to dance as yourself, instead of dancing like someone else. “When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow — you are not understanding yourself.”

To end this post, I will leave one last quote:

“Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.”

Now go dance your heart out.

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