Cali’s Seductive Dance¬¨‚ĆCulture

A viejoteca plays old salsa classics, and may or may not attract an older crowd.

Traveling is not necessarily that relaxing. Being on the move all the time, unpacking and repacking every two or three days, getting up for early buses, meeting new people every day. The rest comes when you find a place where you want to stay for a while.

I have always been fascinated by travelers who unpredictably wound up staying in a place. One Swiss woman told me her story of going to Honduras’ Bay Islands for cheap diving. She fell in love with a German diver and became a dive master herself, working for the diving school. She wound up staying for two months and loved both things—the diving and the guy. I wanted to fall in love unpredictably (with a place). Cali and Caleno-style salsa and tango have been those unpredicted loves for me. Call has lulled me into a dream world of constant dancing.

Cali is not a very pretty city. In the end, a beautiful environment doesn’t matter so much as a beautiful activity. I never realized how much I absolutely love dancing. I don’t call myself a dancer because that sounds like professional dancer; but being in Cali and consistently studying salsa and tango has made me realize that I am capable of dancing faster and learning much more technique than I believed possible. It just takes sustained practice. And I never felt such dancing highs before as I have felt here. I wouldn’t say every night has been that way, there have also been real downers. But there have been some truly magical spells, spins on the dance floor when I thought, wow, I didn’t know dancing could be so much fun.

Dancing at La Matraca, a favorite nostalgic mostly tango (with some salsa) club. Pre-lessons. I would never look at the floor now! (Right.)

Cali is a party city but it’s a party city based around an artful activity. I’ve visited party towns like Praia de Pipa in Brazil where it seemed all that people did was stay up all night, drink, do drugs, and start dancing to electronic music at 3 am and it all seemed pointless to me. Boring. Cali has this huge nightlife but it’s built around a real passion. Going out is a lot more interesting when there’s something do beyond just getting a beer and talking.

I’ve gotten a little obsessed with figuring out how long I have been in Cali. The fact that I didn’t even know how long I have been in Cali disturbs me. I have the sensation that I have lost control of my life. In the end I will have spent about six weeks here if I can execute on my plan of actually leaving. Funny how dramatic that sounds but when you are traveling and get comfortable in a place it takes a lot of emotional energy to catapult yourself into the traveling mode again.

The words unbeautifully seductive run through my mind when I think about Cali. I only planned to spend a few days here. That was five weeks ago. I always say, just one more week. That’s a common story in Cali: it’s not just me.

Mauricio, a national Tango Champion, and one of our tango teachers, performing with partner at La Matraca

Cali is a city driven by a singular passion: to dance salsa (and bolero, cha-cha, bachata, doble paso, fox, and tango). On more than a few occasions, we go out and someone points out a Salsa World Champion on the dance floor. Or a Tango World Champion. (Sometimes you start to wonder how could there be so many?) The recent salsa festival showcased the talent of Cali’s kids and adults, and my, can they dance. People tell you stories of learning to dance from their parents and grandparents and I feel jealous that the U.S. doesn’t have this strong tradition of partner dance. We have lindy hop, swing, Charleston, but I can’t think of any parents who taught their kids these dances.

Cali calls itself the worldwide salsa capital. For a long time, I didn’t really believe it.

Caleno style salsa isn’t widely recognized in the way that Cuban salsa or Linea (LA-style) salsa are. If the rest of the world doesn’t know what Caleno salsa is, how could it be the capital? The recent Mundial (Worldwide) Salsa Festival in Cali featured almost exclusively couples and gropus from Colombia, if not Cali. I discussed this with a guy who runs a salsa video show from London, and he said it’s because the Calenos absolutely live salsa in a way that no other city does, and they incorporate styles and music from all over the world. The audience for salsa is greater here than in any other city because the passion is so pervasive. I walked into a grocery store the other day practicing some salsa steps and a man in his mid-50s or so smiled at me and said, Yo bailo tambien–I dance too. And he showed me his steps.

Caleno style is so diverse and varied that the dance, when danced well, is never boring, and finely attuned to the music. Almost every cab or grocery store is playing salsa music, and it’s about the music just as much as it’s about the dance. I rarely hear Top 40. Once in a chi-chi club in the chic neighborhood Granada, but I had the feeling, how boring and soulless.

A gentleman celebrating his birthday at La Matraca, and his dance partner of the moment

There are dozens of dance schools to choose from and more salsatecas than I will visit. Some of the clubs are reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever, with florescent lights lining the floor and the ceiling, others are nostalgic and like a club in Havana or Buenos Aires. I am a fan of the viejotecas that play older music and attract a more mature crowd. I love watching people in ther 50s, 60s, and 70s rule the dance floor.

Sometimes it seems like dancing is too important in Cali. My favorite dancing nights have been at Tin Tin Deo where there are a mix of Colombians and foreigners, great dancers with a variety of styles and no pressure. Sometimes at other places a dance can feel stiff as if the men are humorless and seem ego-driven. They really want to teach you and look good, and if you mess up, you can’t laugh about it. For me, messing up is often the best part. It’s a chance to laugh together.

Dancing plays a central role in dating. A Colombian friend Angelique tells me Caleno women will go out with guys they don’t like that much because they are good dancers.

During the daytime I sometimes wonder what I am doing here. Rio was a city where I loved the luxury of taking a cab–the city was beautiful if sometimes overly stimulating to watch go by. In Cali, taking a cab is much cheaper but the view is boring. The streets all kind of look the same, blocky, cinderyblocky new buildings. And unless I am in a dance class, or enjoying the friendships I have made here, I get confused, What am I doing here?

But at night (or in almost any dance class) the appeal of Cali becomes more clear. The wheatpasted posters for Viejotecas (salsatecas playing old salsa classics) and other salsa nights give hint to the pulse of the city, and to why so many people stay here much longer than they expect to when they come to visit for a few days. Cali is one of Latin America’s cities with the greatest African influence (other big ones are Havana, Salvador, Rio). The African influence shows up in the city’s obsession with dance.

Now that I am actually getting more skilled and confident in my salsa I am enjoying dancing more and more. It’s getting to be a true high. Before coming to Cali I always felt kind of bipolar with salsa: sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. It all depended on the night and my dance partners. If I had partners that I loved, being spun around and connecting with someone could be a total joy. But if I got asked to dance by men who were rude or threw me around like a doll, I felt manhandled, and wondered why I had put myself in that situation on a Saturday night.

But I never actually took classes. I never trained the way I am training now, practicing steps over and over again, as an individual and in partner work.

Now that I am taking so many classes, practicing the steps so much, I have developed a much stronger sense of rhythm. You can always keep your rhythym is what people have told me here, and now, in week three, I’m happy to say that’s actually true. I don’t quite feel quite as much at the effect of every partner.

My Belgian friend Wooter who is a bit of a fact boy (one of those guys who always has a study to cite) tells me that dancing all the time makes you happy. I still want to see the study and understand the science, but it’s not hard to believe.

A Battle of the Sexes on the Salsa Dance Floor

Can't we just all get along in a salsa class?

This past week I went to a free dance class offered by the Cali’s Mundial (Worldwide) Salsa Festival. The class was actually bugaloo and it was a lot of fast-stepping fun. At a certain moment the teacher told us we would not do “pareja” (couples) work. A stocky, red-haired Irish-looking guy and I drifted toward each other. The first thing he says to me is “Relax.” I said in response, “I’m already relaxed. Are you relaxed?” He says, “Maybe you want to dance with someone else.” Then he went off to find a new partner. Why did he need to tell me to relax before saying hello? We were about to practice a dance combination, not compete on Dancing With the Stars.

Salsa dancing in Cali, Colombia, the worldwide salsa capital, has been a magical experience. I’ve gone out dancing to about a dozen clubs and there are still dozens more to explore. I’ve taken classes at a phenomenal school Swing Latino and with fantastic teachers. But immersing myself in the salsa culture of Cali, Colombia, has also immersed me in the machismo of Colombian culture.

It’s been a full-on battle of the sexes with both Colombian men and other travelers that I haven’t felt since college.

I am ordinarily quick to avoid conflict but I have morphed into the lady with a short fuse. Give me some attitude and I give it right back.

You could argue that salsa is inherently machista because men lead and women follow. But it is a spontaneous social dance, and someone has to lead and someone has to follow. Why is it the man? Tradition. Latin culture is machisto itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with following. Leading is harder. The leader (who could be a man or a woman) has to think about what comes next. I like the sense of abandon and living the moment with the music, not having to consciously plan. But these are roles that a man or woman could play. A woman can lead, a man can follow, and the best dancers know how to do both.

But the idea that men are the leaders permeates the classes in a way that really pumps up feelings of “natural superiority” for men.

Too many men get the idea that they are our “salsa daddies”—that they know more than they already do. The paternalistic attitude trickles down in our classes. The “salsa daddies” tell us we don’t need to look at the teacher, we only need to follow their lead. They criticize their female partner when actually they don’t have any clue what they are doing themselves. Like the cliche of men who won’t stop a car to ask for directions, they don’t want to ask the teacher for a demonstration when they are not getting the steps themselves. Of course not all men behave this way. The coolest men resist the machismo pull to think they know better than their female partners, and those are the ones I enjoy learning with because learning feels more like a team effort.

It’s psychologically intense to be paired with a stranger in a relatively close embrace and to have to work together. If I sound as if I am sensitive to the male psychology of salsa dancing, I can be. But if anything, the last week made me pissed off.

Here’s a very typical example: I was at Manicerro, a Caleno-style dance school, doing partner work. My partner and I were learning a combination. He wasn’t getting it and it was impossible to do the turn. He called over the female director of the school because according to him, I needed help. She danced the man’s part, and the combination went off smoothly. She smiled and said, “I think she knows it. I couldn’t resist saying, “Now maybe we can focus on you and your problems.” The female director gave me a knowing smile.

Sometimes I feel like men feel responsible to correct their female partners on everything once they step into a salsa class, including how to speak or tie their shoes. The day before, I took a semi-private class with five other foreigners at Swing Latino. My partner was also American. I said “Listo” as we were about to begin. “Listo” means two things in Colombian Spanish: “ready” or “OK.” I was using it to say, “OK, let’s go.” My partner responds, “Lista. It’s lista,” assuming I was saying “ready.” Was this southern Californian guy really correcting my Spanish? I tell him, “listo” doesn’t follow the gender of the speaker if I am saying “OK.” But I did feel “lista” to kick his butt.

This past week I was at Cali’s phenomenal Mundial (worldwide) Salsa Festival. In addition to performances, competitions, and concerts by Yuri Buenaventura and other big names in salsa music, there are 20 free dance workshops open to the public. The workshops are on everything from Salsa Calena to Fusion of Salsa and Tango to Salsa en Linea (otherwise known as LA Style). The classes are large and there is only one teacher per class.

During the free workshops at salsa festival I really started to really feel the imbalance of male teachers leading the class with microphones and silent female partners by their side.

I attended six workshops out of twenty, and all of them had men teachers. I’ve had plenty of male and female dance teachers, and it’s always been just fine to learn from a man. But consistently seeing men speak and women silent as their partners started to get on my nerves. What about the female point of view in a partner dance? My friend Griet showed me the way she dances at times and says she naturally drifts toward the male style of the basic step in salsa, with more vigorous footwork and armwork, because the only examples we see demonstrated are from male teachers with the occasional female partner.

One teacher of Caleno-style salsa, “El Mulato” Luis Eduardo Hernandez, told us that men hold all the responsibility for the dance. He joked that his partner needed to dance on her toes–the Caleno style–so that she could be “manejado” (driven) by any man. A titter of outraged laughter went through the crowd.

Most insane: the workshops “Estilo para Mujeres” (Style for Women) was taught by a guy who couldn’t have been older than 20. He began the class by telling us that he has nothing against gay people, but he isn’t gay. What can I say, but WTF?

I saw a young woman dancing beautifully. I asked her why she didn’t go upfront so we would have a female example. She smiled and said that a man or woman could demonstrate. That may be true. But I also wanted to hear about Style for Women from a woman.

I talked with a female organizer from the Secretary of Culture who is organizing Cali’s salsa festival. She says she and her female colleagues have discussed the issue themselves and wish there were more female teachers leading workshops. Why they don’t invite women teachers then? When I expressed my pissed-off-ness a female Colombian friend looked at me like I was a little crazy, overzealous.

The imbalance in teachers is not such hard problem to solve. I vented to my uber-sweet Colombian friend William who takes salsa and dance classes himself. He told me he learns from women all all the time. His teachers are both women, and he pulled a card out of his wallet to show me his salsa teachers–they are a couple and the woman and man teach equally. The ideal situation, according to him, is a group class with a man and a woman teacher. That wouldn’t be so hard for the Salsa Festival to pull off. Just give a microphone to the woman demonstrating so both people have a voice.

New salsa fashion: mustaches on the dance floor

It’s hard to change the behavior of arrogant boys who think they already know everything. How do you teach humility? But as a woman, sometimes you really have to stop and insist, let’s see what the teacher has to say. Or if he criticizes you in an unhelpful way, just say, can you stretch your feet a little more because right now I think you walk like a duck. Or paint a mustache on your face to tell an overly helpful dance partner to step off.

Thanks to David Reina for wardrobe assistance, Wouter De Maeseneire for serving as impromptu photographer, and Griet Van Herck for the styling genius, modeling, and being my fellow Reina (queen) on the dance floor. More of our salsa photos to be posted soon as soon as I figure out the WordPress galleries feature.