I grew up in the ultimate Latinx household. I speak Spanish at home, you’d always find several opened tortillas packages in the fridge, and my family watches Univision and Telemundo religiously. Whether it was my tan skin or curly hair, my Latina-ness is undeniable. One of the things that’s always deeply connected me to my Latin culture is music. As a Latina that grew up in Bushwick (pre-gentrification), Salsa music had always been around me and I developed a love for it. Yet, learning how to dance salsa was something that never happened. It seemed to have slipped through the cracks. How did this happen? Because let me reiterate, I grew up in the ultimate Latin household! This meant that I’d wake up to the sounds of Oscar de Leon’s songs on Saturday mornings as Mami cleaned the house. But somewhere, somehow, I guess I missed a “Growing up Latina 101” class and I never learned how to dance salsa.
I knew what Salsa dancing was SUPPOSED to look like but I never actually learned the footwork. Was it because I had become too Americanized along the way? Had I swapped out Joe Arroyo for too much Jay-Z? It became a thought that would periodically linger in the back of my head. Over the years, this thought would make me feel like I was being held back from living my best Latina life. A thought that would rear its ugly head during weddings or family functions. I’d always reluctantly sit out the salsa set, opting to do a little shoulder move from my chair, while admiring everyone else dancing from afar.
On the rare occasion when I would muster up the courage to tell a friend that I didn’t know how to dance salsa, they’d think I was downplaying my salsa skills or lack thereof. “You’ll know what to do, just go with the flow.,” they’d say. But sometimes, to my horror, they’d give me a shocked face followed by a “What? YOU don’t know how to dance salsa?” I guess it was kind of embarrassing, but yea, I really, didn’t know how to.
A few months ago, while casually browsing through some youtube videos I happen to come across a few jaw-dropping performances by Karen y Ricardo on the show World of Dance. I was blown away by their stellar salsa skills and choreography. It was right then and there that I made an executive decision. I was finally going to do it. I was going to learn how to dance salsa.
After some research on the internet, I enrolled in beginner salsa classes at Nieves Latin Dance Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, close to where I live. Once a week for the next four weeks I’d learn the very basics of salsa dancing.
I was a little terrified at first. I grew up taking ballet and hip-hop classes but I had never willingly paid money to learn any Latin dances. In my head, salsa was something I was supposed to have been born knowing how to dance. But here I was.
I decided to take these classes by myself. I figured I’m probably the only person I know that needs to take these classes and I wasn’t trying to further embarrass myself by having to go to my friends and explain to them that when it came to salsa, I had no clue what I was doing on the dance floor.
Once I entered the dance studio and scanned the room, I was pleasantly surprised to see other Latinos in my beginner class. We were on the same boat.
Our instructor Wil, was really patient and able to break down the steps in a way that was easy to follow. As the very beginners that we were, he taught us the “basic step”. He’d call out, “One, two, three; five, six, seven” as he demonstrated the steps for us to mirror. “Number four and eight went home”, he’d joke. After the first month of dance class was behind me, I was very pleased with my progress. I even signed up for part two of the beginner course. Toward the end of every class, we’d partner up and practice the steps we’d learn. Time to put my basic step to the test. Forward, forward, back; back, back, forward. My feet were moving in the correct direction, at the right speed and time. “Not too shabby” I thought to myself, “I’m really here and I’m learning how to do this!”
With every passing week, my confidence grew a bit. We started learning basic turns, side steps, and combs. I’d practice some of the moves in front of the mirror as I changed for work in the mornings. Eight weeks in and look at me doing a Susie Q! I wondered to myself why I hadn’t signed up for classes years ago. But as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.
I’m never going to be as good as Karen y Ricardo. But I decided I was going to continue on with classes. I found something that I enjoy and was managing to get some cardio in during the week, so it’s a win-win for me. I eventually want to get to the point where I’m really good. But the biggest lesson for me in all of this wasn’t the salsa steps I’d learned. It was that something wasn’t wrong with me for never learning to dance salsa. I wasn’t the dancing girl in the red dress emoji but that didn’t make me less Latina. That part was all in my head.