As soon as I stepped into that room my life changed. The addiction began.
The vibrant pulse of Latin music hit me sideways, sparking an old familiar fire in my belly that instantly burst into flames, filling my whole body, pulsing in my ears, making my blood swim, banging in my heart, making it beat quicker than it had in months, years.
The gleaming wooden floors squeaked and clopped to the chorus of stamping heels (everyone had on their dance shoes) surrounded by a rainbow of color and fabrics—the sparkle of silver and gold, black satin, ballet ribbons, snake skin, shimmering midnight blue, fire-engine red, burnt-sunset orange.
My eyes drank them in greedily, like a magpie, as the advanced salsettes twisted and turned, spun and dipped to the rhythmic beat of the clave.
I was captivated by the teacher, Pascale Dernacoure. Her hips and shoulders shimmied effortlessly like rippling water. She was ultra-stylish, a professional dancer with elfin blonde hair and perfectly applied make up.
I wanted to dance like her; I wanted the silver shoes. I had something to aspire to again.
My mind and body were totally absorbed in the music, the rhythm, the sheer joy of the synchronized body movement and the novelty of dancing with a partner. I saw a new me in the studio mirrors, smiling and flushed. Not the me with lilac-tinged bags like bruises under my eyes, carrying the weight of my grief from ten years of fertility struggles.
Learning these new and unfamiliar dance steps took all of my concentration and energy. I was captivated in the moment.
And after that very first salsa lesson, I was hooked. I went obsessively every Sunday. Even when I didn’t feel like going, it whisked me away to forgotten dreams.
I hurried to put my shoes on, fumbling to fasten the sparkly diamante buckles over the black satin T-bar, so the escapism I craved could begin. The smell of my anticipation, wood, minty breath and sweat, was intoxicating. My life had just begun.
At first, social dancing was intimidating on several levels.
Out of the practiced repertoire of the class situation, I didn’t know the guy or what sequence of steps he was going to do, so I had to learn to trust my partner, trust myself, learn to let go, follow his lead and have fun.
The standard was so high; I felt I’d never progress. But more than anything, the desire to improve fed my addiction.
Pascale, my teacher, agrees that the addiction takes hold once you get over the initial hump of being a self-conscious beginner. We’re propelled by the natural spirit of human competition, of wanting to be as good as the teachers and professionals on the dance floor doing their tricks and spins. When you see those seemingly impossible sequences, then a few weeks later you discover you can do them. It’s inspiring and instills self-belief.
As you become more proficient at the steps, your body relaxes and the movement becomes fluid.
This new-found confidence, according to Pascale, extends beyond the dance floor. I found myself being inspired to pursue goals in other areas of my life that I’d put on hold during the ‘trying in vain to have a baby’ years.
Pascale observes how salsa attracts different personality types and is intrigued by how personality is reflected in the way people dance.
A guy who is a rough dance lead is often domineering, whereas a really limp leader is usually passive or lacking in confidence.
Equally, it’s easy to spot the women who are strong or control freaks. It’s common for ladies to lack trust, partly because our culture promotes independence for women, but also because they are not familiar with partner dancing.
The movement tells a story; revealing personality, mood, feeling, culture and life.
Salsa definitely attracts divas, extroverts, exhibitionists and addictive personalities, but also, surprisingly, it draws introverted wallflowers in equal numbers.
Shy guys who wouldn’t dare chat to someone in a bar gain confidence on the dance floor as they share intimacy through non-verbal communication like body language, eye contact and self-expression.
‘Would you like to dance?’ is spoken with a simple hand gesture.
Kon, a charismatic guy with an addictive personality, discovered the benefits of salsa when he suffered a stroke. Prior to the stroke he indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle with a daily dose of alcohol and recreational drugs as an antidote to his high-flying stressful job. He claimed salsa helped enormously with his incredible rehabilitation after his stroke.
Learning the steps has been helpful in restoring his memory and hand-eye coordination. Pascale believes the biggest benefit to dance therapy is in the building of new neural pathways in the brain.
Kon now feeds his salsa addiction almost every night; he maintains his fitness, social life and stress levels all in one hit—and without drugs.
My dancer friend Rachel (not her real name) was recovering from a painful divorce and found solace in salsa and the new social life it offers.
Being part of a community and experiencing intimacy through dance without the pressure of dating or chat-up agenda was liberating. Sydney has an exciting salsa scene, comparable with other major cities like Paris, New York and LA.
Like me, Rachel took full advantage of the availability of salsa socials, which were on every night of the week. She developed the confidence and independence to go alone, knowing she would recognize people there.
It was an escape from her problems and a welcome stress relief. Salsa has been more successful for Rachel and I in creating happiness and improving self-esteem than any counselling or therapy.
Salsa arrived as a welcome savior, bringing me back to life, but it eventually caused problems in my marriage.
My husband was relieved my depression had lifted but was resentful and threatened by the new version of me that emerged: the teenager with an enthusiasm for short skirts, heels, lipstick and going out dancing all the time. He thought I was having a mid-life crisis (he could have been right!), or looking for a new man. After all, my hobby did involve late nights, dressing to the nines and being in the intimate company of men.
In his head the salsa scene was a bunch of single people out to pick up.
You’d think his resentment would have spurred him on to join me, but he resisted for a long time. Like a lot of Western men, he wasn’t accustomed to dancing, and certainly not with a partner. The rhythm and hip movement doesn’t come naturally to him, and he admits the self-consciousness is on par with public speaking.
Plus, there’s a widespread perception in our culture, reflected in the media, of salsa being an erotic, frivolous past time for gays, Latinos and divorcees. The clichéd portrayal whiffs of desperation, with comical stereotypes of snake-hipped Latino men in tight satin pants — think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and young single girls in short twirling skirts.
In Cuba, the roots of salsa dance are not eroticized but are an intrinsic part of the culture.
Eventually, I persuaded my husband to learn salsa. The negotiation was that he’d learn to salsa and I’d purchase a road bike (his obsession) and all the Lycra bling and train with him and do his dream climb: Alpe d’Huez to watch the Tour de France as part of a trip to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary.
A fair exchange I thought, until I realized that his dream involved a grueling 13-kilometer ride uphill traversing 21 hairpin bends, generally attempted only by professionals and over-zealous kamikazes.
My husband is still a salsa beginner, stepping on my toes as we practice, but it’s a start. I’ve told him he has to be proficient enough to dance with me in Paris for our anniversary. His hips are starting to move, and I think I can detect a determination starting to take root—in the set of his mouth and the intense concentration in his eyes.
I initially assumed that the revival of salsa was partly a result of reality TV shows like Celebrity Come Dancing, Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.
On reflection, I think salsa’s popularity is more about people craving connection with others.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s with disco, then clubbing in my teens and twenties, I never had the opportunity to dance with a partner.
With society becoming less sociable, increasingly time-poor and relying too heavily on technology to communicate, we are losing our kinesthetic awareness.
Salsa provides an opportunity to connect on a different level. It liberates people from the rules, structure and stresses of work, survival and the mental realm. It gets people out of their heads and literally into their bodies and into feeling and engaging with their senses and with other people.
If lack of intimacy and experience in partner dancing is symptomatic of our individualistic Western culture, this is the antithesis of Cuban culture. In Cuba, salsa is a street dance for all ages. Many Cubans are taught to dance with friends at school, partners and siblings, rather than formally at dance schools. But even that approach is now changing with the realization that salsa, along with other traditional dance forms, entices tourists seeking an authentic Cuban experience.
Graydis, a professional Cuban dance teacher who I had the pleasure of being taught by once, says the way Cubans dance is deeply ingrained in the fibers and essence of their culture, history and genes; the way they dance reflects how they live.
They walk with that slow hip wiggle, because of the hot climate. They stand, one hip jutting out, hand on hip, telling the husband off for coming in late or not cooking dinner.
‘Boobs to heaven, bum to hell’ is how she described the women’s posture. In other words, chest lifted, bottom protruding. The posture makes the woman look attractive, it may sound sexist, but she is the boss.
These clearly defined traditional gender roles play out in the dance.
During lessons, El Moro, the Cuban teacher, tells the ladies to stand proudly, moving to the music, looking sexy whilst waiting for the guy to ‘collect’ her. The guy must lead strongly and take charge. He gets frustrated if a girl tries to anticipate or doesn’t follow the lead properly! It’s an interesting dynamic for an independent Western girl. That said, it’s clear that for Cubans, the woman, though the follower, has an enigmatic power over the man and is not at all of diminished power and subordination.
Kasia, a friend I met through dancing, made similar observations when she traveled to Cuba. She loved the way Cuban men treated women. They were very complimentary but not in a sleazy or threatening way.
Their appreciation and celebration of women and their important role in society was apparent on International Women’s Day. Men of all ages congratulated her. There were no inhibitions, fear or lack of confidence for men asking women to dance either. It was very natural to them; a part of their culture and upbringing.
A Cuban friend said to her, ‘If you don’t dance in high school, you’re lonely; if you don’t dance after that, you’re either a recluse or not Cuban!’
The discovery of Cuban salsa is my latest addiction. Each week my heart quickens as I approach Bar 100, the dance venue in The Rocks. Butterflies soon transform into a feeling of liberation.
We could be in Cuba; the humidity of Sydney’s summer clings like fog to the salty air, the music and the teacher; and , El Moro, originally from Havana, provide the authentic experience.
El Moro says Cuban salsa is organic; it’s an expression of how you feel. Salsa was something that was ‘born in him’ at the age of 20, a late starter by Cuban standards.
He used to work in a factory and saw dance as an opportunity, a new start; it awoke something latent in him. His alpha male physical presence and teaching style reflect the Cuban personality and culture. His angular face speaks elegance, his posture confidence, grace and energy.
No surprise that Michael Jackson was a huge musical influence on him growing up (more so than Latin music, which is unusual for Cubans). He is very Michael Jackson-esque in his white felt cap—the trademark of all male Cuban salsa teachers—and his array of spangly, animal print dance shoes.
Like Jackson, El Moro moves smoothly like silk, noble as a cat, gliding fluidly across the dance floor, with an easy wave-like rhythm that we try to emulate, which comes, not just from years of practice and dedication, but also from his Cuban roots.
El Moro seizes the opportunity for fun and humor in class, mimicking and exaggerating our errors in a comical way.
I remember one class when a little dog randomly bounded through the center of the dance floor.
‘Quick, Helen!’ he shouted. ‘You have a new man; grab your new dance partner’.
He leads us to dance Rueda, a form of Cuban salsa and an expression of its heritage. Rueda is a game; if someone makes a mistake, they are ‘out.’ This process of elimination results in a winner at the end. It’s fun and playful; we clap hands, we smile and laugh. It’s like being a child again.
My husband and I are making plan travel plans to South America: salsa in Cuba and tango in Argentina for our 40th birthdays.
I wonder what it will smell like in Cuba?
I can feel the sticky tropical air clawing my skin as we dance on narrow cobbled streets under a moonlit sky with whispering palms and coconuts jangling in the breeze to the beat. Beads of happy sweat trickle down our backs in a Havana nightclub—me in my silver shoes and red dress. The sharpness of lime meshed with the sweetness of rum and fresh mint fizz.
Like elephant home on Facebook.
Assistant Ed: Paula Carrasquillo/Ed: Bryonie Wise