The Salsa Class Mentality

by Teva Corwin

While I love to dance, I will be the first person to tell you that coordinated footsteps and tasteful hand movements aren’t my strong suit. Instead, I somewhat chaotically move to the music with little acknowledgment of its rhythm – my elbows often take center stage in my questionable, yet quite expressive, dance moves. Very soon upon arriving in Bogotá, Colombia, I realized this shortcoming of mine may prove to be a bit of a problem in my new home for the semester. In Bogotá, whether I’m walking past a bakery in the morning, doing homework on campus, or grabbing an empanada for dinner, music follows me. Salsa, reggaeton, cumbia, bachata, vallenato, champeta, merengue… Among much else, (arepas, very tall palm trees, ajiaco, coffee, guanabana, tejo, really really good hot chocolate, etc) Colombia is known for its wide-ranging array of music – which differs greatly in each region of the country. And accompanying the many kinds of music, instruments, and rhythms found throughout the country, are many forms of dance. Thus, in attempts to challenge myself, embrace Colombian culture, and push my sociality to its furthest extremes, I enrolled in a dance class this semester at my university, Universidad de los Andes. Salsa y bachata básica. 

True to its name, Universidad de los Andes rests in the cerros (hills) of Bogotá, its dispersed buildings climbing higher and higher on the mountain. At the very top of campus sits the beautiful sports center, nicknamed “La Seneca,” where my salsa class takes place every Wednesday afternoon. In my sixteen years of school, I have never been more nervous to start a new class. And arriving at my first class already out of breath from climbing to the top of campus, not quite adjusted to Bogotá’s altitude, didn’t calm my nerves much at all. Neither did the fact that our classroom had glass walls. On all sides. I walked into class the first day fully aware that I was about to embarrass myself to the furthest extent.  

I was not wrong. I made a complete fool out of myself in the first class. And I have in every class that has followed. But so has everyone else. Rotating from partner to partner every few minutes, we step on each other’s feet, spin in the wrong direction, and crash into the people next to us. On top of Prince Royce’s “Si Te Preguntan” blasting through the classroom’s speakers, rings a chorus of “¡Lo siento!” “¡Pérdoname!” and “estoy completamente perdido...” Oftentimes, I can’t catch my breath from laughing so hard. And when we do get all the moves right, I’m flooded with a combination of shock and joy – only leading to more laughing and passionate high five with my equally shocked partner. While I only spend about two and a half minutes with each dance partner every week, I’ve slowly gotten to know my classmates in a way I wouldn’t have expected. The classes are completely awkward, strangely intimate, yet totally comfortable and fun.  

I’ve tried to embrace the “salsa class mentality” as I’ve navigated life in Bogotá outside of my dance class. In Colombia, dancing extends far beyond the discoteca or the dance studio, but as a way of connecting with your friends, family, or new acquaintances. While we’re making dinner, my roommate will let her broccoli burn in order to teach me the proper way to move my hips to the Shakira song that came on shuffle. An afternoon asado (barbeque) will spontaneously erupt into a salsa ballroom, friends effortlessly spinning each other around the backyard between bites of chorizo and sips of aguardiente. Although my dancing hasn’t improved tremendously, (maybe a bit less elbow movement) my weekly salsa classes have taught me the importance of not taking myself too seriously as I navigate a new place and new experiences. They’ve shown me a new form of human connection that spans beyond language. Studying abroad can be awkward, messy, and embarrassing – but finding humor in the mistakes made along the way and embracing the discomfort makes it all a lot more enjoyable.