The dance, not the food.

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, Cali, Colombia, is often referred to as the salsa capital of the world. Salsa is a way of life here and an integral piece of the city and people. After living here for six weeks now (my time here will be up two weeks from today), I finally feel like I can at least attempt to put into words what salsa means here and what it has meant to me during my visitor’s stay.

According to my host family, salsa started in Cali more than three decades ago as a pastime for the inhabitants of the more poverty-stricken neighborhoods. After years of being confined to a handful of barrios, it grew in popularity in other parts of the city and eventually more broadly in Latin America, although there are still select neighborhoods here famous for their salsa discotecas and procurement of world-class salsa dancers. The culture and music of the Caribbean portion of Colombia can be easily detected in salsa music by a novice ear and although the music is far from traditional in other parts of the world, this Caribbean, free-spirited vibe has a way of hooking even the most rigid personalities. Case and point: me.

Before coming here, I knew very little about Cali but everything I had read pointed to the city’s love and talent for salsa dancing. My first reaction to this was fear. Although I took dance lessons as a kid and was a part of my high school’s dance team back in the day, I feel completely lost in unstructured dance. Being the last one to enter the dance floor at any event requiring such a place, I was terrified that I would be forced onto a dance floor here as a prelude to complete and utter embarrassment. Yes, I can dance to almost any pom routine you could throw at me – give me straight lines and consistent beats and I’m your girl. However, ask me to move my hips in any direction shy of center or leave any point of execution open to interpretation and I am 100% lost. Gringa can’t dance salsa. Or so I thought.

Since enrolling in a dance class here a week and a half ago, my thoughts on this subject have changed. While Keely was here, we went and saw a show called Delirio, which totally opened up my mind to salsa. The tagline of Delirio is “Salsa + Circo + Orquesta, Hecho in Cali (Salsa + Circus + Orchestra, Made in Cali) and it is spot-on. Aerialists summersaulted through hoops above a stage filled with dozens of scantily clad and light-footed salsa dancers as a live band strummed out music with an undeniably catchy rhythm. The show ran for nearly four hours and by the end of it, I was absolutely infatuated with salsa music. Three days later I signed up for a class at the dance school supplying the majority of the show’s dancers and here I am, loving salsa music and not embarrassing myself nearly as much as I anticipated. I should actually clarify here that the class I’m taking is not technically a salsa class. Unfortunately, the salsa portion of the beginner’s class I signed up for ran last month and this month brings dances from the Dominican Republic – the bachata and the merengue. When I studied abroad in Spain as an undergraduate, I enrolled in a handful of salsa classes (though I can’t remember a thing from them) and now that I’m in Colombia, I’m learning dances from elsewhere yet again. Funny the way things work out sometimes…


Anyway, in the short time I have been enrolled in the dance class here, I have made a fool of myself a million times yet somehow discovered a love of the music and rhythms and passes. At our first meeting, as we started out with a simple warm up, I felt my dancing days come back a bit, thinking “I totally have this. What was I worried about?” But that feeling didn’t last long. Half a song of hip rolls later and I was dying of laughter at my almost impressive inability to move the hips that God (and my mother’s side of the family) so generously blessed me with. I was also having a hard time keeping myself from laughing at the fifty-year-old man who for all the concentration in the world could not manage to clap on the fourth beat of the song with the rest of the class. Seriously, it was like he was trying to clap on any beat but the appropriate one and the fact that I found it so comical was not helping my own coordination in the least. As the hip movements were broken down by the very competent instructor, however, (and as the aforementioned student grew the tiniest bit more capable) my movement felt a little less uncoordinated and my laughter began to dissipate. If anything, I am student of analysis – type A personality all the way – and I thrive on structure and clarity. Being taught the specific movements the hips move on the basic one two three four pass (left, right, left-right-left) made me feel so much more in control of my body. However, shortly after this breakthrough we were made to dance with partners and I was instructed to follow the lead of the male. Here within began my return to inept-land.

Anyone who knows me well (or who has ever worked on a group project with me) knows that I like being in charge. Throw that out the door with salsa. Uh oh. I probably get told at least three times per class that I need to learn how to follow and not lead. I also frequently get told to relax my posture and movements. Latin music is not the refined, strong, arms fully extended, on toe kind of dance that was pounded into my head in earlier years. It is sultry, sexy (yes, I said sexy!) and full of in-between levels and movements – enough to convey the style yet not so all over the place that it becomes a fully synchronized, high kicking Broadway number. This has been a huge change for me but ever so slowly, I have been coming around to it. During the last song of last night’s class, I managed to follow the lead of my partner more or less for an entire number without talking at all. This was quite the feat for me, as I am usually so concerned about what’s coming next that I fail to “feel” the music. Add in the fact that I am a good two inches taller, minimum, than all of the males in the class and it’s not so hard to fathom that I am at times one of the last ones to pair off with a partner. Seriously, I can almost feel the desperation in these guys as they look for anyone but that giant American girl, and the way they sort of puff themselves up to their full stature before taking my hand is quite entertaining. One such doomed partner even told me last week that he needed to wear high heels to dance with me.

Height difference and subsequent knee-knocking aside though, my dance skills are most certainly improving and my love for the native dance of Cali is increasing everyday. I no longer find it annoying to fall asleep to the neighbor’s salsa music blaring through my open window here – although a couple of nights ago, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy listening to what appeared to be Celine Dion’s greatest hits CD (Titanic theme song anyone?) as a change of pace. I also not so occasionally find myself swaying my hips to the beat of the song pouring from the radio as I wash the dishes at night. Cali, what have you done to me?!