Bailando la salsa

Detail of a mural along Porter St. in Mount Pleasant.

Baila performed in El Progreso

In Honduras, a local dance troupe invited us to the local cultural center where they performed a luscious series of bailafolklorico and merengue dances. Afterward, they offered some mini-lessons on salsa footwork to all of us gringos.

Needless to say I was impressed, by all of the dances but especially merengue. Someday, I decided, I would learn merengue myself.

To that end, this summer I started researching fanatically for a dance class in the DC area that balanced affordability, accessibility, and comprehensiveness. Merengue is a more marginal dance form here, so I decided to start with something more mainstream: salsa. Unfortunately, salsa’s mainstream popularity is such that anyone who thinks they can bailar la salsa may try to become an instructor and probably get away with it, so in my search I encountered a bewildering variety of choices with very little ability to gauge quality.

It took a while, but after reading great reviews and hearing positive testimonies about Joy of Motion dance studio, I finally enrolled in their introductory salsa class. It is a bit expensive but all in all the best choice I could have made. Joy of Motion has three different locations Atlas, Bethesda, and Friendship Heights — none convenient for the Virginia dweller, but working in Mount Pleasant made it doable for me.

I ended up at the Friendship Heights studio, which I had difficulty finding at first as their banner in the second-floor window was blinded by the glaring lights of the liquor store below. Inside, the studio is sparse, slightly verging on rundown (not something I expected from their sleek and clean website), and spacious with great sound systems in each dance room.  The teacher for our salsa class is a warm, down-to-business lady who leads the class efficiently and seamlessly.

Our class consists of only four students, three of us gals (followers) and one guy (leader). This is great insofar as having only one leader has allowed us to move through the course content faster and even transcend it. Insofar as I have never tried social dancing or attempted to execute any formal dance, it has been overwhelming. Still, I have been managing to internalize basic concepts of the dance, such as…

– Salsa is a rhythm, not a series of steps (muy importante)

– Salsa rhythm is 1,2,3, rest, 5, 6, 7. It is conventional to count that way so that you can associate the 123 count with one leg and the 567 count with the other leg.

– The leader’s and follower’s footsteps must be mirror images of each other, with the leader starting on the left leg and follower on the right.

– The ribcage leads on steps to the side…a rule that’s not obvious to the untrained eye but applies to all Latin dance.

– Don’t try too hard. When you dance salsa, you want to look relaxed, as if you could be doing this in your sleep — i.e., when doing a spin, don’t try to see how fast you can possibly spin your body around, just be natural.

– Latin dance is earthy, heavy. No tippy-toes. Land your feet as fully as possible, waiting until the last moment to shift your weight onto the other foot. Feel like you are pushing into the floor with the weighted foot.

– Legs should not be spread far apart — inner thighs should be rubbing together. Otherwise it to impossible to shift your weight fast enough.

– Maintain good posture, leaning in towards partner in order to feel the lead and follow.

Next year, when I have returned to DC and come of age (the sage and serious doctrine of 21…), my aspiration is to attend salsa and Latin dance nights offered by DC bars, such as Lucky Bar in Dupont Circle and innumerable others in Adams Morgan, to extend my learning and get practice (and, of course, meet other people who can give me tips and advice). In the meantime, I will be prowling YouTube for merengue and bachatta tutorials.

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