Will I Ever Get Over My Fear Of Salsa?

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?

  • David Krug
    October 1, 2011

    Cumbia is the way to learn to overcome this fear. It’s a liberating dance. As a man I often let the woman lead even though it’s kind of backwards in this society. I truly love cumbia. 

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 1, 2011

    I love cumbia too! Though I’m not sure of the exact movements of the dance, I do love the music.

  • Anonymous
    October 1, 2011

    I don’t know if i should say this but this had me rolling laughing! lol  I don’t know why but it did.  Maybe because how you took something that most just think “ah it’s just dancing” and turned it into a mid-life crises or something! lol Jasmine you open up so much but never in a normal way, love it! :)

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 1, 2011

    Hey now, that’s quarter-life crisis! Lol I know I’m a freak but I embrace it. I’m glad I entertained you :)

  • Jen King
    October 2, 2011

    See, all the stuff you don’t like about Salsa and whatnot is what I love about it. Once you figure out the whole “following” thing, it’s like all the pressure is off. You just have to go where the guy leads. As a rhythm-impaired white-chick, I like that. Otherwise I end up dancing like (a) a stripper or (b) a person having a seizure.

    With someone leading (after enough lessons to have some vague idea what I’m doing) I figure it’s his job to figure out the dancing bit, so I can just follow, and spin. (I think, in any dancing, the spinning is the best bit). It’s like being drunk, without all the nasty side effects–you get to give up control, have fun, and not worry.

  • Matthew Karsten
    October 3, 2011

    Everyone WAS watching you. They probably sent out FB updates about it later.  ;-)

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 3, 2011

    I guess it really depends on your perspective! I think you’re right about taking a few lessons though, which is something I haven’t done yet. I’ve mostly learned through imitation.

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 3, 2011

    At least they didn’t know my name! :)

  • Jesus B.
    October 3, 2011

    I came all the way from Couch Surfing, see I am a Computer Scientist turned into dance instructor, so don’t feel that I am stocking you or anything.
    You can dance Salsa, like the best, the myth that Latin American are born with the rhythm is well, a myth. I spend every day with “White dancers” and they are just as good as anybody else. 
    I arrive in Mexico City at the same time you do, please let me share with you a pair of pointers, my profit would be not to be alone, and yours to improve your salsa and to reduce your fears that I assure you have no reason to be. :)
    Jesus Basail

  • Leonardo Camargo
    October 3, 2011

    well written article… gotta check out more! amo la salsa! yes, salsa can be like that, but it all depends on who is your partner and-or  your group. its gotta be a partner who smiles a lot, and isnt all crazy spinning all the time, and its better that they arent competitive dancers they suck at teaching. i say learn from a Colombiano (caleño o costeño) or a Boricua.. mexicanos suck at salsa… . and heck, one that lets you lead a little bit even though thats not typical. they gotta meet you halfway just to get ya started. i have tons of amigos that fit that description, just gotta make it out to barranquilla… or when i get back to california… 

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 3, 2011

    Yeah, one of my biggest regrets is being in Colombia for so long and never taking a lesson! Thanks for your input :)

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 3, 2011

    Latinos may or may not be “born” with rhythm, but as a culture, they sure get a lot more practice than others. Thanks for the encouragement :)

  • Heather Ogilvie
    October 5, 2011

    I first read the title without looking at the picture and I thought incredulously “She’s afraid of salsa?!” As in chips and salsa. lol! I guess I’m a window licker today. 

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 7, 2011

    Definitely not afraid of (chips and) salsa! I eat that with gusto :)

  • Casey
    October 7, 2011

    Yup, I know exactly what you mean. I took 2 months of salsa lessons in Ecuador, and am decent, but only when I’m dancing with my instructor or a partner worse than me.

    Dancing in clubs is terrifying :-

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    October 9, 2011

    Casey, I need to take lessons too!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *