All I want to do lately is dance salsa, bachata and kizomba. It's definitely been my remedy these past several months, the activity that has allowed me to find myself and connect with others amid great transition in my life.
There is something uniquely special about partner dancing. You are given the opportunity to connect physically and energetically with another person (often a complete stranger). You have to relax into each other and find a common language of movement and flow. It's spontaneous and intuitive, expressive and intimate. It is an exercise in trust and vulnerability and being in the moment. And at its best, dancing feels like falling in love - a euphoric suspension of space and time, where all that exist are you and this other person moving together through the world.
I first danced salsa when I was in college in Albuquerque. We would have these glorious house parties attended by friends from all corners of Latin America. Someone would throw on a mix cd and we'd all dance into the wee hours of the morning. I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but it was always a damn good time.
Then I got a boyfriend who didn't enjoy dancing. He was also a jealous type, so I shifted from partner dancing to taking cardio-salsa classes at the gym. I got in shape and met many incredible women in the process, but didn't really register that I had abandoned something that sparked great joy for me.
In the time between college and now, I had the strange luck become involved almost exclusively with people that weren't into dancing. Rather than push someone to take up an activity they found akin to pulling teeth, I dove deep into the world of solo dance to satisfy my passion. I discovered Nia in Austin, did samba de passarela in Brazil, learned all sorts of fun moves in Mozambique, and eventually found my home crew of ladies at Hipline in Oakland. Dance has been a constant in my life, but moving your body solo (albeit in a room full of other people) is a different animal from dancing with another person.
It took me fifteen years to return to partner dancing. Fifteen years!!! Better late than never, though, right? Actually I returned somewhat by chance. At the beginning of this year, as I was planning a trip to Gorizia, the small city in northeastern Italy where my maternal grandmother was from, I had a strong desire to do something different, to meet new people. I've been visiting this place of my roots since I was a child, but always the trips were centered around my grandmother: who she knew, who she wanted to visit, how she wanted to spend her time. I have some childhood friends in the area who I enjoy spending time with, but I really wanted to break out of my family's circle of influence and find an expanded social scene.
I randomly googled "zumba Gorizia" thinking I'd find a gym with some cardio dance classes. I came across Arte Dance Studio and messaged them to see if I could take a bunch of different classes for the two weeks I'd be in town. They were super receptive to my request and welcomed me with open arms. I took zumba, modern dance, pilates, piloxing, and something called Latino Base. I showed up to the latter imagining a class akin to zumba; instead I found myself smack in the middle of a salsa and bachata dance course with no partner, no knowledge of the moves everyone had been practicing for the past several weeks, and sweaty palms.
It didn't matter. The instructors Marco and his wife Mikki welcomed me with open arms. They allowed me to jump right in and made me feel like part of the group despite my language and dance limitations. With them I was introduced to cuban-style salsa and moves like dile que no, enchufla, setenta, and all manner of variations on the vuelta (turn). Classes were a funny mix of Italian and Spanish, with students a mix of Italians and Slovenes. I felt as if I'd finally found my people.
About a month after that experience, I found myself in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with my best friend Angel. We were looking for a spot to grab a bite to eat and go dance, and a local friend recommended La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban restaurant that has apparently franchised in other locations (I went to the original location in La Habana with my mom back in 2000). It was pretty quiet when Angel and I arrived, but there was a live band with salsa music and I ended up dancing with our server for much of the evening (I guess dancing is part of the job description?). I had tons of fun, and vowed to find some lessons and keep dancing upon my return to the Bay Area.
The first time I went to Allegro, a dance school in Emeryville, was with Rico's mom. Sort of strange to go to a dance social with your ex-mother-in-law, but we are friends and enjoy hanging out, and she was interested in taking a salsa class. So we hit the beginner lesson, then I stayed for the intermediate one and the open dance afterwards. Honestly it wasn't the best experience - I got stuck dancing with a creepy, overly-touchy dude and sadly was not practiced at setting boundaries or making the great escape after one dance - but live and learn, right?
Despite the slight trauma, I knew I'd be back, and this has been my go-to place for dancing for the last five months. I've gone way up the learning curve in salsa, and added bachata and kizomba to my repertoire. Actually kizomba has become my favorite - it's a dance originally from Angola that is slow, sensual, and deceptively simple. You basically embrace your partner, with chests and belly buttons touching (no contact below the belt, though!), and then proceed to "walk" in very close proximity to different rhythms. There is no clear pattern to the steps, which makes it impossible to predict what's next - and therefore as a follower it is impossible to back-lead.
That's one of my main objectives in dance, actually: to be a good follower. It means relaxing, connecting with your partner, and not anticipating or forcing any of the moves according to your own agenda. Harder than it sounds, especially after so many years of dancing by myself. It's quite different from the ultra-independent role I have in my "regular" life, and the balance and lessons to be gained are not lost on me.
My 35th birthday is in a couple weeks and as a gift to myself, I got private lessons with Isabel, one of the instructors from Allegro. I want to be sure I have good habits and know my basic footwork before proceeding much further down this dance path. Much better to build on a solid foundation as opposed to one that is flawed.
I have plans to dance salsa and kizomba in Albuquerque, Houston, and Mexico this coming month as I embark on yet another travel adventure. Here's to meeting more lovely people and learning some new moves. See y'all on the dance floor!