“Devórame otra vez, ven devórame otra vez
Ven castígame con tus deseos mas
Que mi amor lo guarde para ti”
Nowadays when I hear the first melodic note from a Salsa song, honey… my hips do not lie! They pick up the rhythm, move from side to side, twirl around and move my feet to the infectious beat. It turns me into a salsera and yes…I do shake my shoulders for effect. !Wepa!
But there was a time not so long ago when I could not stand to hear salsa. As a kid at family parties, the first sounds of a salsa song- I was gone! If I didn’t escape, my aunts and uncles would throw my cousins and I into a circle and force us to dance, our feet fumbling and our hands awkwardly swaying trying to find a grip on the others’ torso. Just thinking about it makes me wanna cringe.
But, alas, salsa was always playing in our home. On Sunday mornings we all knew it was cleaning day when my mother would put a cassette in the radio. The music alternated between salsa and lover’s rock reggae, but it was the former that made me groan. Maybe it was a reminder of those awkward family gatherings when cousins didn’t understand the meaning of ‘cousin’ and hands groped every which way.
Though I grew up listening to salsa, I never actually learned how to dance. My family is from Honduras, but most importantly, we are Garífuna– a small group of thrice-diasporized indigenous Blacks who settled along the coast of Central America over two hundred years ago. With us, we have carried our own language, our own customs, and our own culture. Our indigenous dance is the ubiquitous Punta, a fast paced movement that has become internationally renowned due to musical hits in the early 90’s. Among the Garífuna, punta is never formally taught, however, you are expected to know how to dance. This was also forced on the young ones at family gatherings, but punta never had the same cringe-inducing effect that salsa had.
Fortunately, the older I got, the more my feelings about salsa started to change. My curiosity and wanderlust got the best of me and soon I seized the opportunity to travel and backpack throughout Mexico and Central America. Reggaeton, a sly mixture of dancehall, reggae, and hip-hop with Spanish verses was slowly making its way onto the music scene. During this time salsa still had a huge impact in the clubs. I’ve never been a huge fan of reggaeton but I preferred it over the alternative. In every bar, club, and party I would dance to everything that was spun by the DJ, including reggaeton, cumbia, merengue and even bachata. But the moment salsa hit the speakers I flew off the dance floor so fast you would have thought I had wheels. I was never the only one- a lot of couples quickly made their way off of the dance floor and straight to the bar.
But one night, my whole attitude changed.
It was at an open-aired beach party in a small club on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The night was warm, the ocean breeze tickling the dancing brown bodies glistening with sweat. The moonlight illuminated the dance floor, showing glimpses of couples swaying and grinding to the sensual reggae beat. Guys were behind girls with their arms wrapped around their torso, and the girls had their arms flung over their boo’s head, dancing cheek to cheek. It was alllllll was good. Suddenly the music changed and as the first notes of salsa started to play, everyone made their way off the dance floor.
Everyone except for her.
Who knew where she came from? She didn’t particularly stand out with her dark cocoa skin and her braided hair tied up in a bun. She was not wearing anything eye-catching, in fact, she didn’t seem to stand out at all. Until she made her way onto the dance floor. While the rest of us were shuffling off, she strode down the middle of the sea of departing couples and with her head held high, went to the middle of the dance floor and started dancing. She was fearless; the only brave soul on the floor. As I watched, her body began to move, slowly at first, matching with the slow rhythm so popular at the start of many salsa songs. But as she continued to dance it seemed as if the music was relying on her every move, the horns following her every curve, the drums beating to every hip thrust. Her back arched as her hips swayed sensually, while her arms gracefully reached up over her head slowly coming down in a sensuous manner, hands seemingly hypnotizing, beckoning, her fingers delicately caressing the air.
Her eyes were closed, her mouth slightly open with a small smile of ecstasy on her face. As the music picked up and she began to move with more vigor, her long braids fell out of her bun, framing her body and whipping around every turn. The temperature went up a couple of notches adding to the Caribbean heat. She was openly making love to the music. Salsa was more than a rhythm. It was her pulse.
I wasn’t the only one who was watching her. After about what seemed like forever one guy got up and made his way to her, pulling her toward him, twirling her around and around until they came face to face. Their bodies began to dance in sync. As she moved he danced around her, his face in awe of this salsa queen. He was not alone. To his visible disappointment when the song blended into the next one another guy politely cut in to dance pulling her close, their bodies touching. After him, there was another, then another. I was lost, watching her in a trance. It seemed to go on forever.
I blinked hard, snapping out of the reverie. I looked at the DJ wondering when the hell he was planning on changing the music, but he too seemed to be enraptured by this goddess. And yeah… I was hating. Just a little bit. I mean, who was this chick? I couldn’t hide my admiration, though. I had to admit I was a bit envious of the attention she was getting. She had all the men and definitely the women spellbound. But it was her moves that captured me. Without realizing it, I found myself moving my shoulders and tapping my hips subtly trying to emulate this woman. I was caught up. And it was at this moment, at this party, watching this salsa queen that I decided, no I vowed, to finally learn how to dance salsa.
Throughout my travels, I was slowly starting to rediscover my Afro roots within Latin America by making my way through Afro-indigenous lands on the Atlantic coasts of Mexico and Central America. My Spanish fluency opened up my world to other Afro-Latin@s* who would invite me into their world with musical get-togethers and play not only their culturally significant music such as punta, reggae, and other sounds within their culture but salsa as well. Many of the songs that were reproduced were from famous salser@s who were also Afro-Latin@, including the effervescent Celia Cruz. Everyone would get up and dance, all caught up in the moment while I sat on the side, watching, hoping not to be noticed. When I would eventually get pulled up to dance I had nothing to show for it but fumbling feet. It was time to start learning.
I first connected with the music I heard growing up. Though I grew up unintentionally listening to salsa I was familiar with many artists and hits that graced our radios and record players over the last twenty years. From Oscar D’Leon, Africando, El Gran Combo, Marc Anthony, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Lalo Rodriguez, Frankie Ruiz and DLG (Dark Latin Groove) to name a few, their songs instantly brought back memories. This time I actually listened to the lyrics. Many of the songs were about love- love lost, love found, faithfulness, cheaters, sex ( see lyrics above) – and if you have ever been through any of these emotions and events it would be impossible for the rhythm not to move you, to intoxicate you, to guide you. Some songs tell stories of slavery, of redemption, of victory. I would watch videos of people dancing, and also pay attention to salser@s in the clubs and mimic their movements, especially the ladies.
But the hardest part for me? Learning how to let the man lead. Being vulnerable had never been easy for me, especially with men, but I was starting to learn to let myself go…at least on the dance floor. Soon whenever salsa took over the speakers, I found myself staying out on the dance floor while everyone else scattered to their seats. There was no shortage of attention on the floor and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But it wasn’t the attention I was after, it was the liberation. The connections with the song, feeling the music, the rhythms, the beat. Suddenly this movement was taking over me and putting me under its spell, possessing my body. Though I’ve danced in salsa clubs from New York City to Cali, Colombia, I still have a lot to learn. Nowadays, though, you can find me moviendo mi cuerpo with the best of them.
I never knew who the girl was but wherever she is I am grateful to her. She opened my eyes, my body to a new experience. I owe her. Who knows, maybe I’ll see her on the dance floor again. This time, she won’t be alone.
Have you ever danced Salsa? Did your ego ever persuade you to try something new?