The journey through Colombia has thus far been all about the people and the experiences, not so much the destinations, though I was welcomed to the country with some lovely landscapes during the bus journeys. That theme continued as I made my way to Cali, the capital of salsa. Though the city is noted as the most dangerous urban area in Colombia and in my opinion has few redeeming qualities to make for a pleasant daytime sojourn, coming here to experience the salsa dancing nightlife is worth sacrificing some night time walking freedom.
Stereotypes can sometimes be harmful and untrue, and as such, some people tend to get offended when such stereotypes are used in a detrimental and ignorant way. However, there do come some times in life when you’re really hoping a certain stereotype holds, if only for your own innocent fun and amusement. For me, my stereotype come to life was that of the flamboyant male salsa dance instructor.
I could have done nothing in Cali but loaf around at the hostel all day and still declared Cali a fun city as long as I was taking salsa classes with Arturo and Stefano, the instructors who embodied everything I could hope for, expect and demand from a Colombian salsa dance instructor. Let’s first start with “the look”, which basically involves decorating yourself with as much shiny stuff as possible. Arturo was rocking the shorter version of the fashionable Mohawk hairstyle that required a gallon of hair gel and no less than 5 pieces of gold jewelry bedecking his arms, fingers and neck. Stefano happened to be sans jewels which led me to believe that perhaps he was a peasant salsa dancer.
The female instructor, Fernanda, was also a stereotypical gem and is my first ever “girl crush”. She’s just as saucy and flamboyant as her male counterparts. She’s been shaking and swiveling her hips through the streets of Cali for her whole life and she has the butt and legs to prove it. I was so envious and amazed at her physical perfection that I couldn’t help but stare in awe with her Hello Kitty booty shorts. I was inspired enough to put down the beer and bag of churros and look up “salsa lessons” in each of my future travel destinations. I was further mesmerized as we headed to the salsateca and all of the Colombian women were dressed to the nines in their best attire, but Fernanda is just so well known and that good, that she could go rocking up in shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers and still be the hottest thing ever.
Then there’s the token gringa
Despite my self-conscious embarrassment about how I look, I’ve always managed to have a good time or a good story learning to salsa dance throughout various destinations. There was the first time at a salsateca in Costa Rica where I danced with a man who almost tossed me aside because he was so focused on looking at himself in the mirror. Then there was the time in Paris where, in my role as dutiful wing woman to my friend, I developed the “dead fish” maneuver to try and escape from a man who would not stop spinning and whipping me around the dance floor like a rag doll. To execute this stunningly attractive maneuver you basically let your entire body go limp and try to fall onto the dance floor or the nearest bar stool in hopes that your dancing partner will be annoyed and leave you to find someone else.
Regardless of my lack of natural talent for salsa dancing and my unease with looking silly amongst a crowd of naturals, I decided to give the salsa dancing another try here in Cali. The first lesson is always terrifying as you never know who will show up or what the format will be. The first student I saw was a Dutch girl in booty shorts and professional dance shoes. I was actually so nervous I actually screamed out, “Holy Professional Dance Shoes! What the fuck am I doing here?” right to her face and then walked off to sit in the corner after I realized how obnoxious that was. This was actually a great strategy though because when class started with Arturo, I was in the only spot in the room where I couldn’t see myself in the huge wall mirror and thus spared from the image of watching myself gyrate like a monkey on anti-depressants and muscle relaxants.
The dancing lesson itself was also something of a surprise. The previous classes I took were very lackadaisical and beginner friendly with slow dance steps, but this class was basically an aerobics class, very fast paced and no hand-holding instructions. You just run with it here. By the end my feet weren’t on fire, but were more of a toasty warm and I was sweating like a monkey on speed. While I wasn’t worrying about the dance steps or how awful I looked, I was snickering at Arturo who was basically spending the entire time admiring himself in the mirror. I even heard a story from one of the other girls that he was fixing his hair so often during one of the classes that everyone thought it was part of the dance move and began mimicking him.
In da club
After the dance lessons and requisite shower, I headed out with my salsa groupies to whatever salsateca was popular for that night of the week. On Thursday, it was Tin Tin Deo. Even though I had two lessons at this point and was feeling limbered up, it still seemed like a daunting task for me to keep up with the rubbery-hipped Colombian men and so I tried to strategically sit somewhere where no one would notice me and I could just watch everyone dancing. I got over this quickly though as my friend, Andrea, pointed out that everyone just wants to teach you and wants you to enjoy salsa. Plus, she said it’s a “No No” to refuse a dance when offered. So I got up and danced with the first of many an intrepid dance instructor and quickly embraced the whole dance culture, which is, a guy asks you to dance for one song and then you sit back down, they ask someone else and someone else asks you to dance. This will go on for the rest of the night until you’ve danced with the entire club multiple times over and you feel like you’re ready for a professional dance competition.
The one cultural note to mind here is the other stereotype about Colombians and salsa which isn’t true. The stereotype being that salsa dancing is naughty and basically equivalent to fornicating on the dance floor. This, I think is a fable believed by rigid uptight Protestants who are intimidated by all of the hip swinging action. If anything, dancing in a salsateca is the most civilized club scene I’ve ever experienced because people come here with the precise intention of actually dancing. Most clubs in the U.S. and Europe basically look like a boozed up National Geographic scene where inebriated men mindlessly grind up on a woman who either doesn’t care or is too drunk to realize how ridiculous this all looks. But in a salsateca, it’s all about the dancing itself and there’s no awkward obligation of carrying on a conversation with your new dance partner after the music stops.