Salsa – the Latin American attitude on life

This Latin American attitude on life involving salsa is something that my colleague Natalia from the Exploring SouthAmerica team and I wanted to experience. With this goal in mind, we headed to our first salsa lesson at the dance school Tropical Dance located at Veracruz N37-186 and Villalengua in Quito.

First Salsa Lesson

Salsa has many different roots. African slaves brought their rhythms and dances to Cuba, where they were mixed with other sounds such as Cuban son. Via the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Puerto Rico, the rhythms reached Mexico and then the United States. In the 1940s in New York the mix of these rhythms with jazz sounds and big band elements became the well-known salsa. The name salsa came about in New York as well, but at that time the term was loosely used to refer to any new music with Latin influences. Later the dance was also called salsa because of its mixture of different styles. In the sixties and seventies, salsa became more and more popular and different styles of salsa arose, like New York-, LA-, Cuban- and Colombian-style.

The rhythms of salsa traveled all the way to Europe, including Germany. In the eighties true salsa dance centers opened, especially in Berlin, Munich, and the Rhineland. The boom in tourism in the Caribbean only made salsa more popular in the nineties. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I had had no experience at all with salsa dancing until I came to Ecuador. So I faced my first salsa lesson with skepticism. My lack of a sense of rhythm particularly concerned me since I don’t carry it in my blood like people here seem to. Fortunately, Natalia and I had a private class with the instructor, Enrique Gaitán, so nobody else could see how hard it was for us at first.  It was Natalia’s first time dancing salsa, too.

Enrique taught us Cuban-style salsa, which he told us is what beginners usually start out with. We lined up in front of a big mirror on the wall of the studio with Enrique in the middle. Oh no! – I was going to have to watch my own shaky beginning in the mirror.  But I had no choice, and we began. First, we began practicing basic steps to slow music. In the beginning I felt a little inflexible but I was surprised how fast I could catch on to the steps and then it turned out that my rhythm was not that bad. The music got  faster and I realized that the most important thing while dancing salsa is to not think about it. As soon as I began to think about what I was doing, I lost my steps and rhythm. After we were able to do the basics, we started dancing with Enrique, which was incredible. He gave me the feeling that I am totally able to dance salsa. But this was all because of his great skills as a leader and really had nothing to do with my own dancing abilities. The next time I went out salsa dancing gave me hard proof that the fabulous dancing was all because of Enrique.

I learned something else in this lesson: salsa is machista, or quite sexist. The woman has to let herself be led by the man; otherwise, it is impossible to dance salsa. When I first started dancing with Enrique, it was hard to keep my arms loose and let him guide me on the dance floor while I followed his instructions, especially because I am not used to being led while dancing.  This is because in Germany people dance on their own most of the time when they go to a club.

Despite my initial skepticism, I have to admit that the salsa fever got me a little bit and now I feel like I should practice so that I’ll be able to enjoy it more. Even though when I came to Ecuador I was quite unfamiliar with couple-dancing as people do here, I have gotten used to this way of dancing now. And who knows, maybe I’ll be sweeping across the dance floors of the salsa bars in Germany in a little while.

Translation: Maggie Bjorklund

Photos: Sebastián Oquendo

Animation: Miguel Diaz

One Comment

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