The popular Latin dance helps bring nations together — one four-minute song at a time

By Amy Tenowich 10/25/2007

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Salsa dancing is a great way to shake off your cares while shaking your bod. Each time I jut my hips to the left, work deadlines are hurled into orbit; to the right, I forget a recent dinner date that was about as fun as the first 12 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”

It’s a Latin dance, but it draws a diverse mix of folks all wearing the glow of having kissed their woes adios. The dance floor is rife with international goodwill, like an ideal UN meeting. Makes me think what all could have been avoided if Cheney did the cha-cha, or Rumsfeld the rumba…


Te gusta bailar?
One of the salsa axioms is that the man is the frame and the woman is the picture. As a born-and-bred Valley girl and new salsa student, I had the cute outfits but no moves that were even remotely frame-worthy.

In my few nights at the clubs, I’d gotten a crash-course in the dance — and by that I mean I literally crashed into people. I haphazardly whacked one partner in the nose with my elbow, and poked another in the eyeball. Both gave me a cheery, “Is OK! Is no problem!” I have yet to read the man’s subtle signs that give his split-second warning of whirling me into semi-acrobatics. All I can do is the basic one-two-three and five-six-seven footwork with minimal flare. My arms? They’re propeller blades.

So I headed off to salsa school to learn how to organize my limbs.

Sergio Leal and Salud Leon of Latin Dance Pro patiently broke down the basics over an eight-week beginners’ course at Pasadena’s Le Studio. Every few minutes, Sergio would announce, “Gentlemen, thank your partner and rotate.” My leading men ran the gamut of colors and creeds, making it feel like an affirmative action dance celebration.

Watching Sergio and Salud is like seeing genetic perfection in motion. They have some sort of salsa telepathy with each other that keeps them perfectly in step, never becoming a rat’s nest of body parts. I inwardly appointed this duo as my training team, but also knew I was a big project who needed a variety of experts.

Next, I walked into the Tango Room in Sherman Oaks and found three dark-haired, smiling men. The instructor was guiding the other two, who had to pair up in the absence of estrogen. No wonder they looked happy when I arrived.

They encouraged me as I slowly learned the Cuban version of the basic step. Then the teacher started giving one of them dance tips in a language I didn’t recognize. Not one of the Spanish verbs I’d learned in high school stood out.

“What are you speaking?”

“Hebrew,” the teacher said.

What? Que? Who knew! The men whose hips dripped with Latin heat were Israeli.

“Are you one of the Chosen People?” the instructor asked me, smiling.

“No, but I grew up in Encino. I think that counts for something,” I said.

Chosen or not, I soon felt like one of the Tribe. The Israeli salseros helped me past my post-twirl vertigo and strongly yet sweetly corralled me to where I was supposed to land.

At the end of the class, they all sweetly kissed me goodbye on the cheek.


Es un mundo pequeño
Armed with some basics, I went to Silhouette Jazz and Café in Burbank, early for Sergio and Salud’s Sunday evening lesson that happens before the night’s action at the club officially kicks off. I danced with a smooth Armenian, countless suave and suave-in-training Latins, a Southern gentleman, a young man from Mozambique and a New Yorker named Ron with a yarmulke bobby-pinned to his hair.

“Do you remember my name?” he asked after we danced. I did. “Oy,” he said. “I never want anyone I’ve danced with to remember my name. That way they can’t sue me for injuries.” He asked jokingly if I had life insurance and went on his way.

At Vive Dining and Lounge in Old Pasadena, a Honduran man with plaid pants swooped me across the floor and led me into dips he must have seen at Cirque Du Soleil. He then maneuvered himself with his back to my front and reached back to pull my hand toward his face, out of my sight. I felt something warm and moist on my index finger — but couldn’t figure out what he was doing — it was all happening so fast. He repeated it on my other hand, and just as I realized he had been putting my digits on his tongue, he took it to another level: He seized both damp fingers and zapped them onto his nipples — perfectly in time with the music. Weird, yes. But I was about a foot taller than Mr. Plaid Pants, which made it all so non-threatening and ridiculous. I went with it, happy they were his nipples and not mine.

My next partner was Jorge from Mexico City, who’s been dancing since he was in utero. His every move was gentle yet precise, executed with the posture and grace of some kind of ballet-dancing bullfighter. His English was broken, much like my rhythm. That’s OK — the only language we both needed to speak was that of his hand on my hip, guiding me into a spin and catching me when I boomeranged back. The man with all the perfect steps went a step beyond — he took me to the side of the dance floor and spent a good hour repeating combinations with me until I got them … kind of. Then he pushed and pulled on my hands and explained to me how the art of resistance drives the dance. Who can resist that? With him as my partner, others remarked that it looked like I’d been dancing for years. Wow! It was like a little spark flew off his Latin fire and landed on me, even if only in short bursts.

The vibrant music and my wonderful, patient partners made me feel euphoric. I fell madly in love multiple times that night, but left without having my heart broken once.


Los otros
On a different outing to the Granada in Alhambra I danced with a delightful lesbian who put other leads to shame, an 80-year-old Salvadorian who could shimmy like a teenager and a Cuban psychologist who wanted to analyze whether any of my control issues might interfere with my surrender to salsa.

Then I was seized by a tall, gorgeous Latin man. When I botched some of the moves, he whipped me into him in such a way that my leg wound up wrapped around his thigh like a frisky python. He held me there for a few smoldering seconds and demanded, “Follow me!”

It’s not like I was trying to rebel — I just couldn’t keep up. We danced more, and when he caught me looking down at my feet I got another scolding. He pulled my face nose-to-nose with his and ordered, “Look at me!”

He was bossy, but the song was good and at least I had a nice view. Looking at him I forgot everything, which made me wonder: With the right music, could world leaders get lost in Bush’s eyes long enough to forget about Iraq?

My partner then whipped me around so his torso was slammed against my back, his arm around my waist and hand firmly placed near my navel. With the other hand, he pushed my upper back so I was bent over, as he worked his hips for three sassy beats. Then in a flurry of flying hair, he had me back up and spinning again. The song ended, and before I could get my tousled bangs out of my eyes, he was gone.

My next partner coached me on merengue, a dance driven by quick hip gyrations. He got behind me. “Come on,” he yelled. “Like you’re giving it to me really good!” Like in life, sometimes a gal has to give in order to get. So I gave it — as good as I could.

Something tells me that guy may have been one of Bill Clinton’s old advisers. Too bad Al Gore didn’t have him on the campaign trail, to help him unleash his passions — global warming could have gotten a whole lot hotter.

Like most of my salsa nights, that one ended with my feet hurting. But my face hurt even more from smiling so much.


El Fin
For many newcomers to America, the salsa family helps ease feelings of loneliness after leaving most of their own family to pursue a better life here. For me, the dance is therapy that helps erase the disappointments of a day, or a lifetime. But I also think it reminds us all that by working with partners who seem totally different from ourselves, and may even speak another language, we can create something beautiful while having fun — even if it’s just for a four-minute song. Maybe we can carry some of that same spirit into the rest of our lives too.

I know it’s a stretch to think that countries at odds could work things out on the dance floor. But I do know that for me, global relations never felt so good.


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Excellent article! Your words have emotion. Feels like I just took a Salsa lesson in my mind.

posted by Dismas on 5/21/10 @ 03:36 p.m.
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