Dancing with the feet is one thing, but dancing with the heart is another. – Author Unknown
I enter a popular club in Oaxaca with two English girls living in my apartment complex. We snake our way through the dense crowd. We find a spot towards the back with room to move.
The music is some strange Indian electronica fusion. Random, but the crowd likes it. Everyone sways from side to side or up and down to the beat.
Some guys start to move in. I ignore them, preferring a solo dance to the gropes of strangers. Besides, with this music, a partner is unnecessary.
Later, I start chatting with a nice local guy about my age. We shout into each other’s ears over the noise. The music begins to transition to salsa. My new friend notices the switch immediately. “Quieres bailar?” he asks.
I glance at my friends. They have partnered up and are being flung around with abandon.
Gulp. I glance around at the rest of the crowd. Everyone is neatly arranged in twos like they’re taking a trip to Noah’s ark.
He holds out his hand expectantly. I take it. We start with the basics. I stare at his feet and try to keep up. Then I feel self-conscious and look straight ahead instead.
He spins me. I hold my breath, worried I spun the wrong way, hoping I didn’t turn too fast or too slow.
He’s a great dancer. Soon, he’s spinning me like a planet rotating on its own axis and orbiting around the sun at the same time.
Now, we’re doing double spins. I’m twirling him. I feel like an amateur figure skater paired up with an Olympic gold medalist.
Dancing couples nearby bump me. I glance at them. I feel like they are so much better than me. I feel like people are watching me.
I psych myself out. I stop spinning, let go of his hands. “I only know the basics,” I shout in his ear.
I feel incompetent. After all, I’ve been in Latin America for a year and a half. Shouldn’t I know this by now?
I wonder what the people watching me think. They probably think I’m a Latina that dances like a gringa.
I take a deep breath. A song I recognize comes on. He reaches for my hands. We begin again. I try to relax. I recognize how crazy my thoughts are, how none of these people know me, and how everyone is having fun and not caring what they look like.
I wish I could say the same.
The night comes to an end. A group of us leaves the club. I watch them eat tacos from a street vendor. I exchange emails with my dance partner. I explain my insecurities. He offers to give me some lessons some time. He’s nice.
My hang-ups with salsa are complex. Where I come from, you don’t need a partner to dance – you just shake what your mama gave ya. In the south, organized dancing is also popular, like the soulja boy (see above), the cupid shuffle, or you could just walk it out.
Latinos, on the other hand, have pretty much been dancing in twos since they could walk. Salsa, merengue, bachata – reggaeton is about the only kind you don’t need a partner for.
The idea of being led by someone on the dance floor is hard for me to wrap my head around. As the female of the duo, I have to move the way they direct. I feel forced into a follower position, whereas naturally I’m a leader.
I like to dance because I feel free. Aside from travel, dancing offers me moments of pure liberation that I’ve yet to find elsewhere.
But with somebody else?
I know its neurotic. I know it’s really not that deep. But when it comes to down to salsa, I’m crippled.
Will I ever just be able to let go and enjoy it?
My name is Jasmine Stephenson and I've been traveling around the world since 2007. I'm currently enjoying the expat life in Medellín, Colombia.