My previous encounters with salsa always included a side of Tostito tortilla chips, which I masterfully conquered without a hitch. So allow that to set the stage (hah, dance pun) for the impending shitstorm, casually disguised as salsa dance lessons. As if speaking Spanish wasn’t mortifying enough, I opted to bring an entirely new level of embarrassment upon myself while in Colombia.


Whyyyy? WHY? Now that is the million peso question (which is only like $343, so not that burning of a question). I was originally attracted to salsa during an aguardiente fueled night out in Medellin. I watched the Latin gods and goddesses simultaneously gyrate and float across the dance floor. With every turn, dip, and kick I grew more intrigued, and likely creepy as I stared from the comfort of my dark corner. While any sort of dance is out of my comfort zone, the liquid, anise-flavored confidence was telling me otherwise.

Drunk Cali: “I’ve totally got this!”

Sober Cali: “Do you though?”

Any dance teacher ever: “No, you definitely don’t.”

The Lessons

It was now my turn. I signed up for private lessons at Dancefree Medellin as I needed all the individualized attention I could get. Luckily all of their instructors are frickin’ saints. They were patient and receptive when I calmly explained to them that North American hips and South American hips must be different on a genetic level and that was why I was struggling through the warmup. 

We’ll say I did ok with the warmup, because even though my hips did not hit the proper swinging circumference, I was successful at things like the wrist stretch and the head nod. Moving on. The basic steps go forward and backward in a line. Easy? Well no, because the counting goes, one, two, three, five, six, seven. Um, where the eff is four? I cannot possibly participate in a dance where we do not use consecutive numbers to count steps. I am an engineer after all.

Turns out missing integers was the least of my problems. You must also add stylized flair in the swinging of your hips and shimmying of your shoulders, while keeping your arms bent at perfect 97 degree angles and toes pointed slightly outward. Not to mention, these instructions were fired off in my non-native tongue of Spanish. One glance in the mirror confirmed that my dancing appeared as awkward as it felt. I was in no danger of being mistaken for a Colombian enchantress.

After more practice and clumsy, toe crushing attempts at maintaining balance, we (prematurely) moved on to dancing with a partner. Dancing with a partner adds a whole new set of challenges including ten more toes to step on, the need for eye contact (when I prefer to look at my feet), and understanding the mysterious language of the hand positions. For instance, when my partner lifts my hand above my head, that means turn. However, lifting my hand above my head, but slightly further back indicates a gentle tousle of my already disheveled locks.

Awkward Cali
Photographic evidence that I am indeed awkward

Is it Easier to Learn Salsa Dancing in the Traditional Male or Female Role?

Thank the Lord I am a girl. I am a hopeless dancer, but if I attempted to learn this as a man, I would be completely hopeless. Not only does the male role need to master the moves like the ladies, they also have to be the leader. They decide what moves and tricks (ok, they aren’t called tricks, but I think they are) are coming up next.

“Am I going to make her spin?”

“Am I going to make her make me spin?”

“Should I crouch down and make her do some sort of freestyle dance thingy that will inevitably make her cry from embarrassment?”

And the thing is, you aren’t supposed to think when you are dancing. You are supposed to feeeeeel it. The key to being a good dancer when you are in the woman’s role, is to be a good follower. Granted you need a good leader in order to play it off. So being the male role in a salsa dancing duo is a huge responsibility. One I feel lucky that I will never undertake. Which leads me to…

Dancing in Public ?

I purposefully started my salsa dancing classes in Medellin because I had plans to later visit Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia. And with a name like mine (um, it’s Cali), it is quite the burden to bear knowing you will never live up to the potential of your namesake city (an aside: I was not named after this city as it was riddled with turmoil and drugs at the time of my birth. This is truly a coincidence).

Cali Colombia: salsa dance capital
Cali is a beautiful city

After 10 lessons in Medellin, did I arrive in Cali feeling confident and rearing to dance? No. But I sucked it up and headed out to La Topa, which was super packed on a Monday, with some friends from the hostel. Miraculously upon entry, the effects of all the beers I had consumed at the hostel had dissipated. I needed to quickly regain a buzz before my awkwardness realized my current situation. Luckily beer chugging is still in my skill set (thanks, college).

After that one drink was down the hatch, I must have started oozing confidence or something because people started asking me to dance. One takeaway I still remember before my first middle school dance was, “If a boy asks you to dance, always say yes the first time. After that, you are allowed to politely decline.” So, yes, I said yes. I was a salsa dancing fool for the better part of an hour. This is where I learned the true meaning of finding a good dance partner. If he was a good leader, then I looked like less of an idiot.

Not that I can talk, but when the quality of dance partners started to deteriorate, I opted to take a break. It was during this time that I witnessed the best dancers in the whole bar. The pair looked like they practiced together for years and came out on Monday nights to show off their flawless execution. As the song ended, they parted ways and the guy asked another girl to dance and their performance was just as spectacular. I mean, some of the moves were a little “Brady Bunchy” as they would bop side to side in opposite directions while looking into each others eyes, but the whole thing looked so well polished.

He continued to switch dance partners each time a new song came on. And then it happened. My worst nightmare (which is a two-part nightmare). He asked me to dance and I had to explain in Spanish why this might not be his best life decision. I was unsuccessful and we began to dance. And I could not stop laughing. He was such a good leader that I actually think I looked like a good dancer which was sheer comedy to me. He had such control over all of my movements. If he spun me, he also had a hand ready to stop me from spinning out of control (which I almost always would do). I somehow knew exactly what to do next and even found myself doing the hokey, Brady Bunch maneuvers with a big Marcia smile on my face.

This was the pinnacle of my three-week dancing career! I was still not in any danger of being cast on Dancing with the Stars, well because I am not a star, but that was the first time I didn’t feel dumb and awkward while salsa dancing. A momentous occasion. Then he asked me to dance again, and then again, and again. I gladly obliged. I was in no position to reject the only person in the place who could make me look like functioning member of the salsa dancing community.

As the lights came on and the bar was closing I thanked him for wasting his night dancing with me and apologized for my abysmal moves. He told me I did a good job while outright laughing. I could have, should have just said thank you. Instead:

Me: “But you are laughing! You can’t tell me I did a good job while you are laughing.”

Him (laughing): “But you did a good job.”

Me: “I have enough self-awareness to know that I am not a good dancer; you don’t have to say that I am.”

Him: “I liked your spirit.”

My spirit. This is 100% the dance equivalent of having a “good personality” when the question is, “is she good looking?” But you know what? I’ll take it! Nothing to be ashamed of. I worked hard in my classes, I was brave enough to dance in public, and for a period of time, I felt like I had actually improved! I was having fun and that is all that matters, right Mom?

Now, that’s the spirit.

Salsa Dance Colombia (Medellin, Cali)

43 thoughts on “Learning to Salsa Dance in Colombia: What if Your Hips DO Lie”

  1. Love the awk photo. I’m hoping to see the Brady Bunch bop next wedding we go to. Plz don’t stare into my eyes while doing it though.

  2. Your post title made me laugh, and I didn’t stop laughing the rest of the way down! Gold star for trying and giving it your best shot, and it sounds like you had fun and weren’t as bad as you thought you were! Based on trying salsa dancing myself in Cuba, a good partner definitely helps! And alcohol… ;-)

    1. Thanks so much Jill. I am happy you enjoyed it! And you hit the nail on the head with alcohol tip, haha!

  3. Great post, loved the humour in it. Sounds like you had fun anyway. I’d like to give it a go, but I know I know I’d be utterly useless.

  4. This had my laughing all the way through, great post! I definitely know the importance of a good partner. I met my Colombian husband while out salsa dancing, I was a complete beginner and he was the first one who made me feel like a kind of decent dancer. Nowadays we get loads of compliments when we dance, which makes me very proud :D

    I do think it’s important to learn to dance in a room with no mirror, a mirror would probably have put me off. Everytime I take a dance lesson in a studio with mirrors I think I look completely awkward as well! And I can’t do any of the elegant hand gestures and elaborate feet movements like the Colombians!

    Oh and by the way, the Colombian spirit is definitely all about having fun, social dancing is not a competition!

    1. Oh my goodness! What a story you have! You should be very proud of your dancing. I appreciate your thoughtful comment and you’ve made me feel like there is still hope for my dancing!

  5. I give you so much credit. I am a horrendous dancer and so related when the guy said you had good “spirit”. That is what everyone says about me when I attempt to “tear it up”. Love your honesty and your attempt at this. I tried a few dance classes and was never invited back, if that gives you any idea of how it went.

  6. I love salsa dancing! I’ve been going out to salsa a lot in Beijing, but I’d love to go in Colombia. As you can imagine, the salsa scene in China isn’t the best in the world ;)

  7. I appreciate the tone in this post! It’s conversational and engaging, and I think will resonate with anyone who has ever been scared to salsa dance :) I do want to comment on the “is it more challenging to salsa as a man or a woman?” discussion in this post, though… While the salsa scene is fairly gendered and binary, women don’t have to follow and men don’t have to lead (in Colombia and globally). I think that it’s important to break down assumptions that people of x gender have to do x role (and that otherwise it’s some sort of transgression of gender). In salsa scenes around the world, you’ll find dancers who both lead and follow, and it’s my opinion that the best dancers know how to both lead and follow.

    Beyond that, it’s a bit offensive to all of the followers out there to assume that following is the “easier” role in the dance. While leading has a different set of challenges than following, it’s not inherently more difficult, in spite of the fact that the lead decides which turn patterns to use, etc. For example, I find following to be much more physically demanding than leading. Regardless, both roles are essential to the dance. My two cents from someone who leads and follows in salsa, but whenever I see or hear comments like this I find it pretty disappointing. It plays into the assumption that the man’s work is inherently more challenging and valuable (and that the woman’s work is inherently less important!), which is something that we need to unlearn in all spaces, including the dance floor.

    1. Hi Alissa, I appreciate you taking the time to read my post. I also appreciate you taking the time to write a constructive comment, respectfully explaining your perspective.

      I do understand where you are coming from and I realize that not only men lead and not only women follow. For that reason, I purposefully noted “male role” and “female role” to indicate these roles do not necessarily need to be filled by the gender that is noted. I was not terribly explicit in this explanation, but I chose not to be, because I was writing about my experience as the lowest level of amateur.

      Basically, my intent was not to undermine anybody’s skill or experience as a dancer, especially because it is evident that I literally have no skills to speak of. The only purpose was to poke fun at myself and maybe give some readers a little push out of their comfort zones as well.

      Again, I did not mean to offend and thank you for your opinion.

  8. As I read this I’m preparing for me first salsa class! Haha. I’m a professional contemporary dancer but Salsa is a whole different ball game! I’m hopeless. Good to know I can learn in Colombia too. I move there in October :-)

    1. What coincidental timing! Well as a dancer, you will at least have fundamental rhythm, but it will definitely be a different challenge!! Where are you moving in Colombia? That is so exciting! Good luck with your classes!

  9. I admire your spirit. You may not see those people anymore who thought you were awkward, so might as well be crazy all the way and just enjoy the moment. Or even if you do see them again, well at least you had fun and collected some good memories plus you had acquired a new skill too.

    1. Thank you, Ricci! This was the exact pep talk I would have with myself before my lessons or going out for the evening!

  10. Hahahhaa so glad I’m a gal too. I’ve always wanted to try salsa but I have zero talent for dancing. At least I wouldn’t have to lead! This sounds like quite the experience though and I’d love to try it some day.

  11. Wow that seems like a amazing experience! Your pretty brave I am not sure if I would be so confident after 10 lessons :) But I would definitely would love to try those classes in Colombia!

  12. I love your spirit! haha. Also like the way your write, made me laugh :)
    I have never tried salsa but also not sure if I can get over the awkwardness haha

  13. This is exactly what I would do when in South America. My daughter tried to teach me to roll my hips…it wasn’t working…we laughed and laughed. I would totally try it again!

  14. I would love to learn how to Salsa dance! How fun would that be to learn in a country Thats always dancing. Our friend is Columbian and her hips dont stop moving.

  15. Haha! Your post is hilarious – good for you for giving it a go! Taking salsa classes in Colombia sure does sound like a whole lot of fun! Not sure I would be able to pull it off though, my dancing skills are…well…horrible!

  16. It sounds really fun to learn salsa dance in Colombia. You get to be with the people who are passionate about salsa dancing so it will be easier to develop your dance moves. You are right when you said you have to feel it. Salsa dancers have a beautiful rhythm and make it look so easy. It was so nice that you had a chance to test your skills with an excellent dance partner. Be more confident next time because he said that he liked your spirit. You had the right attitude probably that’s why he kept dancing with you. Cheers to you!

  17. Love the honesty … there’s definitely something to that NA vs SA hip ability! I’ve also been know to “have good spirit” when forced onto the dance floor.

  18. Such a fun feat to learn how to salsa dance in Colombia. I applaud you for challenging yourself even though dancing isn’t your best strengths. And it seems to have paid off a little as you got to dance in Cali with a partner multiple times! I would say that made your lessons worth while.

  19. I did a few lessons at Dancefree too and totally loved the place! I went in the opposite direction from you – from Cali to Medellin, so didn’t get to try out my new moves in Cali, haha. I did do one taster salsa class in Cali which was crazy confusing – in Medellin they explained to me that the footwork in the Cali-style salsa is so complicated, even salsa pros from other countries get confused. So don’t feel too bad about it! Anyway the most important thing is to have fun, right? :)

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