Nobody Puts Valry in The Corner: Learning to Dance Salsa in Cali
Carlos turned on the stereo and the son clave beat of a salsa song started blaring through the speakers. He walked over and took my hand, but, just as he was about to lead me into our first basic step, he turned my arm over and looked at my wrist.
“Superman?” he asked, pointing to the insignia tattooed there.
He let go of my hand and fished his phone out of his duffel bag, scrolling through his text messages until he got to a point where SUPERMAN was written. His friends called him that, he explained.
And I knew I was in good hands.
I was nervous. I only knew a few basic salsa steps that I’d picked up at my Spanish school in Guatemala, and Colombian, Cali, salsa seemed hard. From what I’d seen so far it was a lot of foot patterns, a far cry from the images I’d had in my head of simply back, front, together, pause, front, back together, pause.
I hadn’t really taken a dance class since college. But, after watching locals in a club in Medellin, I really wanted to learn salsa. So the day before I’d asked Carlos, one of the teachers who led the free daily lessons at our hostel, in broken Spanish, if I could take a private lesson with him.
I’d been in Cali, Colombia, the salsa capital of the country, for three days, and had about two days left before I wanted to head to Salento, the coffee region, a part of Colombia everyone agreed was beautiful. While I was in town I hoped to get in a private lesson or two to get some of the basics of salsa down. A few of the friends I’d met had already taken a few and recommended it.
Carlos put his phone back away and once again took my hand. We did a few basic steps together and things were going OK, and then he pushed me into a spin that I just didn’t get. “Shit,” I mumbled under my breath, frustrated at myself.
He stopped the music and tried to explain something in Spanish that I didn’t understand. When I wasn’t getting it, he left the studio. I followed as he asked a girl at a computer if she spoke Spanish and asked her to translate for him.
“He says you’re a beautiful dancer,” she translated, “but you need more confidence. No one is going to know you can dance or ask you to dance unless you act like you know how to do it.”
“You need more confidence.” It’s a phrase I’m getting used to.
I followed Carlos back into the studio, took his hand, held my head up, smiled, and danced with him. And as soon as that first class was over I asked him if we could do another one the next day.
When I was younger, I danced. Dance was my life.
For nearly 10 years I spent hours every day in a dance studio learning ballet, jazz, lyrical. Everything. I went to competitions, workshops, camps. I read dance books. I watched dance movies. I lived dance.
I wanted, quite seriously, to be a ballerina.
Dancing was the only thing in the world that I truly loved doing. And it was the only thing in the world that I truly felt good at.
But I was never flexible. In all the years I danced I could barely lift my leg to a 45 degree angle to my body. I could never do the splits. I could never touch my toes. And no matter how long, how much, I stretched, and I was always stretching, it never got any better.
And who wants to see a ballerina who can’t lift her leg well beyond her ear?
At first, it never mattered. I was still a good dancer. I still could hold my own. But as the years went on, it got frustrating. And I was left behind on classes, on dances, not because of a lack of talent, but because my joints just wouldn’t cooperate.
And it, eventually, got too hard.
After my freshman year of high school I mostly stopped going to classes. I still danced, a little. I was in my high school’s dance club and, in college, I took a few swing and ballroom classes. But then I stopped altogether.
It had been a long time since I’d really danced.
I’d forgotten, until that moment in Cali, in the studio, with Carlos, just how easily my body knew how to move. Salsa was still hard, mind you, there were still moves that took forever for me to get, but even then it felt more natural than almost anything else I’d ever done.
Each day after that, I met with Carlos for an hour and just danced. And if I didn’t get a move we’d practice it until I got it. And each day I’d ask if we could meet again the next.
“I like my classes with you,” he told me after a few lessons. And I liked my classes with him. He pushed me to do more complicated steps, he spun me around and around until I got dizzy. At the end of each class he would always ask how long I had left in Cali as if he didn’t want me to go. And I didn’t want to leave. And I’d say “I don’t know. A couple more days.”
Carlos spoke very little English and I spoke very little Spanish. But we figured things out.
Truth be told I may have had a small crush on the guy, knowing very well that they were feelings that would never be returned. But above anything, I loved dancing with him. And I’m afraid that no one will ever dance as close to me as he did or spin me as many times as he did.
I re-fell in love with dance in Cali. I’d forgotten how much I loved it. How big a part of my life dancing used to be.
This was something that I’d slowly been realizing throughout my six months in Central and South America: I have to dance.
Dancing made language barriers obsolete.
Dancing made all my problems disappear, at least momentarily.
Dancing made me happy.
I’d forgotten how much dancing made me happy.
Almost every day in Cali I’d have a private lesson with Carlos. Almost every day I’d take a group lesson at the hostel. And a few times, when my private didn’t conflict, I’d take another 2-hour group class in town. Outside of classes I’d practice moves in the the hallways of the hostel. At night my friends and I would go to clubs and dance with each other and with locals.
I was in love.
I ended up changing all of my plans for Cali. I skipped the coffee region altogether, I only returned to Medellin for my last weekend.
I meant to stay 4 days and ended up staying 16.
On my last day in Cali, I was a jumble of emotions. I was excited at my progress, sad to be leaving, hopeful for a future that could possibly involve dancing again.
That morning I went out to buy a pair of heels. Carlos had suggested I buy a pair and I wanted to wear them in our class at least once before I left. I had tried to order a pair but they wouldn’t be ready before I left. We spent half of our class one day trying to break into a display cabinet to get me a pair which, unfortunately were a bit too big. So, on my last day I went on a hunt and came back with a cheap $5 made-in-China pair to practice with.
“Bonita,” he said when he saw me with my hair up, my dress on, my heels, ready for our last dance. And he gave me a t-shirt that said “I <3 my salsa teacher,” which was more than true.
And we danced our last class. And I didn’t want it to end.
That night, we all had plans to go out for one last time. I was leaving for Medellin in the morning and all my friends had finally broken down and bought tickets onward after being stuck there do to strikes that closed many roads.
While I was putting on my heels, they broke. You get what you pay for, I suppose, but I was upset because I wanted to wear them out. Luckily, my friends, my amazing friends, at the hostel had the great idea to ask the Argentinian guy who made and sold jewelry if he could fix them. And so he got out his tool kit and made me a new clasp. And to him, as silly as it seems, I will forever be grateful.
That night we went to a club and we danced.
I danced with some strangers. I danced with my friends. I danced with Carlos.
At one point my friend Matt spun me around about 20 times in a row. And when I stopped him, finally, I dropped to the floor because the whole world was spinning.
After my last dance with Carlos, I hugged him and didn’t want to leave. “Te gusta mucho,” he said.
And I wanted to explain to him how much he meant to me, how much he and Cali and Salsa changed my life. But my Spanish is awful and so I just said “muchas gracias” and left it at that, hoping that he somehow knew.
Being in Cali, dancing for sometimes six hours or so a day, reminded me of something that had been missing.
For a long time I’ve felt in my travels that I was losing who I was, finding this new (albeit wonderful) person I didn’t know existed. But in Cali I felt like I was reconnecting with a person I used to be. Finding a person I lost a very long ago. Someone I missed a whole lot.
When I was 10 years old I wanted nothing more in life than to be a dancer.
And now, at 32, it’s become my biggest life goal again.
Maybe I’ll never be a professional. And I’m certain that my leg will still never brush my ear. But I can still dance. And, this time around, nothing will stand in my way.