left image: Pascale Dernacoure right image: El Moro
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 the dance shoes); a rainbow of colour and fabric – sparkly silver and gold, black satin, skin-coloured with 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. 123 567. 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 synchronised body movement, 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, right there in the moment. From the 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 the addiction takes hold, for many, once they’ve got over the initial hump of being a self-conscious beginner. They’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 this instills self-belief. As you become more proficient at the steps your body relaxes and the movement becomes fluid. This newfound 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 and 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; body language, eye contact, self-expression. ‘Would you like to dance?’ is 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-to-eye coordination. Pascale believes the biggest therapy is building new neural pathways in the brain. Kon now feeds his salsa addiction almost every night; maintaining his fitness, social life and keeping stress levels down all in one hit, without drugs.
My new dancer friend, Rachel (name changed) was recovering from a painful divorce. She found solace in salsa and the new social life that went with it. 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 recognise 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 saviour, bringing me back to life but it eventually caused problems in my marriage. My husband was relieved my depression had lifted but he 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. 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 and he admits the self-consciousness is on a par with public speaking. 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 is not eroticized but is an intrinsic part of their culture.
Eventually I persuaded my husband to learn salsa. The negotiation was that I purchased a road bike (his obsession) and all the Lycra bling, to train with him and do his dream climb: Alpe d’Huez, where we’ll watch the Tour de France, as part of a trip to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. A fair exchange I thought, until I realised that his dream involved a grueling 13-kilometre ride uphill traversing 21 hairpin bends – attempted only by professionals and over-zealous kamikazes. He’s 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 assumed that the revival in salsa was partly a result of reality TV shows like Celebrity Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance. On reflection I think its 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, people are increasingly time poor and use technology: SMS, email and Facebook, to communicate, society is losing its kinesthetic awareness. Salsa provides an opportunity to connect on a different level. It liberates people from the rules, structure and stresses of work, associated with survival and the mental realm. It gets people out of their heads and literally into their bodies: into feeling, 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 by friends at school, partners and siblings, rather than formally at dance schools, though that is changing now they realise that salsa, along with other traditional dance forms, entice 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 fibres 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 the feeling is not at all of diminished power and subordination.
Kasia, a friend I met through dancing, made similar observations when she travelled 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, and 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, 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 Jacksonesque 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 humour in class, mimicking and exaggerating our errors in a comical way. I remember one class when a little dog randomly bounded through the centre 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’ so there is a process of elimination with a winner at the end. It’s fun and playful, we clap hands, we smile and laugh. It’s like being a child again.
Travel plans to South America are underway: salsa in Cuba and tango in Argentina – for mine and my husband’s fortieth 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.
 Name changed to protect privacy
To find classes in Sydney visit http://www.sydneysalsascene.com
or contact one of my dance teachers below in the interviewees list, Pascale for LA salsa and El Moro for Cuban salsa:
Buena Vista Dance Cuban Academy
Interview conducted via Skype on Friday 29 March 2013
Life of Dance
Interview conducted in person on Friday 22 March 2013 at Pasta Zu, Mosman
Interview conducted in person on Monday 1 April 2013
Interview conducted by phone on Thursday 28 March 2013
Vivas dance magazine and website: http://www.vivaz.net.au
You Tube – Black Roots of Salsa http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HywjkqmxjRo
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4f43QcdSMuU The History of Salsa Dancing Part 1 – Afro Caribbean origins