Anyone who has grown up in a non-Latin country is familiar with the phrase “drunk enough to dance.”
It’s that feeling, somewhere between excitement and epiphany, when you realize that you just don’t give a hoot anymore how silly you look on the dance floor.
When I was asked to write a piece on Dancefree, a Poblado-based dance school covering primarily salsa and bachata, my primary motivation was to be able to reach this state of body shifting nirvana without a reliance on booze.
I wouldn’t claim that I feel like I was a better dancer as such, just that a surge comes over me, and I genuinely find it difficult to avoid following my traitorous legs and engaging in an act that, under ordinary circumstances, would give me heart palpitations.
Cast your minds back and try and think of a time you were on a dance floor enjoying yourself sober – I don’t believe i am alone in this when I say that in almost thirty years I can probably count on one hand the number of times it has happened.
It’s hard to describe the difference between how Colombians and the rest of the world view dancing.
“It’s in our blood” is often used, although I feel like this has the effect of shutting us non-dancers out – a bit like saying we may as well not bother because only cold fjord meltwater flows through our veins.
Honestly speaking, and before I completed my eight classes at Dancefree, the simple thought of having to dance in front of people and, more importantly, do it sober, sent salsa shivers down my spine.
Eight hours later – not a lot in real terms – and while I can hardly claim to have convinced any professionals (yet), I can now say that my confidence has peaked to such heights that I am almost ready to ask a girl to dance.
As a northern European I can unequivocally say that dancing is not in my blood.
Music definitely is, and I genuinely feel like I have a good ear for rhythm having spent a not insubstantial amount of time on various dance floors across Europe throughout my twenties in various states of intoxication.
But randomly breaking out into dance, outside the very strict European perimeter of the dance floor is heavily frowned upon, and is even punishable by incarceration in Switzerland.
I would never claim that us Europeans (or North Americans or Australians or wherever it isn’t normal to ask a girl to dance without also trying to take her home) lack the coordination or musical understanding to dance well. What we do lack is confidence.
It’s genuinely rare to meet a Colombian who doesn’t at least have a rudimentary knowledge of salsa.
Knowing what I do now, which is to say not all that much, I can tell that probably the majority aren’t actually that good – but this isn’t what’s important.
What’s important is to get up there and give it a crack, because unless you are in a competition no one will be judging you (not to mention the kudos you get from women for giving it a whirl).
Something that my teacher Karina oft-repeated, and which anyone who has lived in Colombia and frequented a discoteca will have heard, is that you should just let yourself feel the music and go with it.
Now to a cynical British mind that statement may sound like nothing more than a clichéd pile of twaddle. However having now completed my basic infantry training I feel comfortable in saying that there is no better starting point.
For some, it may come easy (for me, it really didn’t) but when I ‘let myself go’ and followed another clichéd yet equally valid piece of advice to “not think too much” was when I really started clocking up the muy biens.
The eight classes I received all began with a warm-up and salsa stretches. Although at first it seemed slightly silly at my level, dancing is essentially a sport, so you need to prepare as such.
Stretching consisted of ankles in the lower body and almost every joint in the upper body.
As Bill, the General Manager, told me, this should always be done in time with the music. I continue to delight in the image of a rugby team stretching to Buena Vista Social Club.
Further, stretching was done to hip hop, and admittedly it took a couple of hours before I became comfortable performing pelvic thrusts to the sound of R Kelly singing “bounce bounce bounce” in his seminal Ignition Remix.
The imagined sneers and jibes of my non-salsified British peers eventually abated.
Getting some of the dance-specific stretches right, or rather training my body to move in ways it was previously socially unacceptable to move, was for me almost as difficult as some of the steps.
Even in my last week, I had only just managed to keep my lower body completely still and my shoulders totally flat, while my torso moved from side to side, usually to the sound of ‘Mysterious Girl’.
Karina was mercifully tolerant of my awkward woodenness, and I sincerely thank her for it.
She never lost her temper or even raised her voice, and I never had the cojones to ask how I rated compared to other brave gringos who had taken the plunge and decided to give it a crack. Best not to know. It’s my journey.
The rough structure to the salsa-focused part of the class was to gradually introduce a new step while going over the other ones I had previously learned.
Obviously for the first couple hours we concentrated on linea and lateral, the basic building blocks of salsa.
These two steps are, quite literally, forward and backward, left and right.
While not in the grand scheme of things the most challenging movements in the salsa world, they were stressful for me until I learned to stop concentrating on the exact movements and instead on the timing and rhythm. Fine tuning can happen later.
This is essential to remember – the girl you are dancing with will not be judging your feet but will be knocked off course if you can’t manage to stay in time.
There is no shame in stopping and starting again to make sure you are in rhythm, but worrying about if you are lifting your foot properly can derail the exercise.
Once I had línea and lateral locked down (in the loosest sense possible) we moved on to steps that do need the brain to be engaged a shade more, at least during the learning process.
Vueltas, or ‘turns’ in English, are to the untrained eye what make salsa dancers look like they know what they are doing, hence why I approached with apprehension.
The reality is that they are the same as any other step – place your body and arms in the right place to signal to your partner what is about to happen and let your feet guide your body.
That may seem like a gross oversimplification but, at least with the selection of basic steps I was taught, nothing is overly complicated in hindsight.
The language barrier may sometimes hinder initial understanding, but once you understand the step, it is easy.
Putting it into practice and linking several steps together in a sequence is the challenging part, but when the steps start to come naturally – which they honestly did after just eight hours – you’ll get all the self-satisfaction you need push you to learn the next one.
One last piece of advice – and one that is drilled into you by the teachers and easily ignored (guilty) – is to practice.
You don’t need to skulk around salsa clubs looking for a partner (you don’t even need a partner really) but you do need to put in an hour or two a week in front of a mirror to make sure you are prepared for the next class.
If you don’t practice you won’t get as much out of the classes, and that is just money poorly spent. Record your instructor (probably best to ask for permission first) and gauge yourself by her. It is barely any work on your part but will genuinely make a world of difference.
Finally, I would like to send a personal thank you to Bill and to Karina, my instructor. Bill is proof that gringos can not only dance but dance well enough to open their own dance school.
Salsa is infectious. When I hear it emanating from any house or street corner – as one tends to in Colombia – I start thinking in steps and feeling my hips betray their British origins.
The confidence I gained through Dancefree has done wonders to battle the fear we non-Latins feel, and judging by my progress over the eight weeks this is more than enough to get a rookie up and dancing in a club with someone they have never met before – because that is the goal.
The first time your confidence peaks enough to prompt you to ask a girl to dance, and try and use what you have learned, may well be terrifying, but everyone remembers their first time.
Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays: 9 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Sundays: 9:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Private classes: 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Group classes for all levels every night (except Sunday): weekdays from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., doors open at 7:30 p.m. and you can practice before/after every class; Saturdays from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m., doors open at 9 p.m.
Rumbas: every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.
This story was written in partnership with Dancefree; all opinions are the author’s own.