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.”
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.
Is it Easier to Learn Salsa Dancing as a Man or a Woman?
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 do men 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).
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.