But Is It Fun? The Search for the Perfect Salsa Class in Cali

After two weeks in Cali, my Belgian friend Griet and I, wandering our somewhat bohemian neighborhood San Antonio, found a gym an astonishing two blocks away. The gym offered a dance workout—rumba aerobics—Saturday mornings at 10. What a find! Although Cali is a very late-night party city, we decided to call it a relatively early Friday night at 1 at La Matraca, a gorgeously nostalgic tango club, so we could get up early to work out! Yes, we were committed to our health!

The gym’s rumba class combined a series of dance moves: salsa, bachata, and African dance moves. Bachata is a slow sensual hip-rotating rhythym gaining in popularity worldwide that I first encountered here in Cali. The teacher and the class were high-energy. I even got to work on my Caleno-style salsa footwork.

I felt such a high from the class that I couldn’t help but think of the Saturday morning, 10 am class that I took for two years in San Francisco. It was a combination of world dances that had all the potential in the world to be great, but after a month the teacher really started to wear on my nerves. He wasn’t a comedian, but he seemed to think he was one. He used the class as his stage. I persisted in going for over a year even though I gritted my teeth through his jokes.

Why did I keep going to a class I didn’t love for two years? You could argue that I could have adapted to like him more. I think I’ve always had this idea that the more spiritual approach in life is to be zen and learn to be neutral–not actively disliking–things I don’t like. As if I should accept everything and enjoy all the ups and downs of life. But why? He got on my sister’s nerves too. Why continue to do anything that I don’t love, if it is in my power to change it and find something better? With regard to that particular dance class, I could have easily driven or biked bussed to half a dozen other classes and found an experience that I truly loved. The class was convenient. It was a three minute walk from my apartment.

Oh wait, I felt a travel-inspired revelation come on. I vowed to not stick with anything anymore that’s just OK or that I actively don’t like! The world doesn’t necessarily hand you the perfect dance class the first time, or the perfect man, shoes, dress, etc. You might have to put in some effort and find it! You can’t just stick with whatever is convenient and easy if you don’t enjoy it. An apartment, a job, a shampoo, whatever.

I was feeling extremely enlightened and clear about how to operate in the future. Then I really laughed when I realized that I was actually doing the same thing in Cali—going to a salsa caleno dance class that I didn’t really like. When I first arrived in Cali, I switched hostels, much in keeping with this philosophy of not accepting a place that I don’t like. The first hostel Jovita’s had zero privacy with no private rooms, and whenever I have no privacy I get exhausted. I found Café Tostaky, where I have my own room and the owner is so sweet, he creates a community that brings together an interesting mix of Colombians, expatriates, and travelers.

Everyone who stays at or hangs out at Café Tostaky goes to Manicero, a popular, cheap dance studio that offers salsa Caleno style classes. The first time I went I was stunned by the energy in the class. There were at least 100 Colombians practicing exceptionally fast, highly stylized fast footwork steps. I thought, Wow. It was fun to go with a group from the hostel. In many ways this whole Tostaky-Manicero situation is what I was looking for in Rio: a community of people pursuing dance classes together.

But after a couple of classes I realized that Manicero was not for me. It is cheap but it lacks soul. The footwork is fast, but there’s no joy. With the exception of the woman owner, the teachers are all men and the men never smile. They call out moves like drill sergeants. I started to feel like I was training for a salsa military. My dance partners were distracted, seemingly full of anxiety. And I asked myself, how could I be looking at the clock during a dance class?

That very Saturday that Griet and I discovered the gym class we passed another dance studio. I went inside to inquire. The salsa classes seemed worth checking out. I felt a little self-conscious like that person who endlessly collects flyers, a perfectionist who neer stops searching. As in, why don’t I just give it a rest and enjoy what I have? Why keep searching for the perfect ________fill in the blank? Will I never be satisfied? But I am in Cali to learn to dance, and that’s the most important thing: finding good teachers

On Monday I tried out a class. It was pretty much a random shot. No one had recommended it to me. And guess what? The class was fantastic. The teacher was everything I love in a dance teacher. He smiled, for one! He made the class fun. The teacher focused on all the footwork we practiced ad nauseum at Manicerro’s but with real spirit, and he integrated the footwork with partner work, which made the class much better preparation for “rumba”–dancing out in the real world. I expected to leave by 8 but found myself staying on for the third hour, not even looking at the clock. The other students were sweet and all Colombian, and I sensed that I could learn the male steps as well as the female, which is part of what I have really been seeking in my current dance education—a more egalitarian salsa.

I have been to three classes at my new studio so far, and every time it’s been great (albeit exhausting!) I’ve done three private lessons with the teacher. The private lesson was at the preschool that his girlfriend runs. I am learning technique in my private lessons that is making me a salsa dancer with the flourishes and confidence and posture that I always admired at salsa clubs in San Francisco, and never knew how to acquire.

Since then a few of the people from my hostel and I have stumbled upon a fantastic situation at Swing Latino, one of the most famous salsa schools in Cali. Swing Latino regularly graduates world champion salsa dancers. The four of us are taking a class for 8 hours with one of their teachers and are learning Caleno and linea style salsa. It’s kind of incredible to actually feel myself improving. I never really knew how to get from point a to point b with salsa or any dance. The others recognize and agree that this a real class as opposed to the instruction at Manicero (though they like it more than I do, and keep going).

What’s the moral of the story here? I was right to not settle? Perhaps that is completely obvious, but for me, maybe it wasn’t. I think in a lot of ways my life before I decided to travel was full of things that I was just accepting–a living situation where I didn’t feel entirely comfortable, a job that wasn’t really in line with my passions, and in that unpassionate vibe I forgot how to pursue things that I love. Traveling has really helped me come alive and deepen my previous passions of languages, informal cultural anthropology (!), music, and dance.

In some ways I wish that I was more relaxed and go-with-the-flow, that I could have accepted Manicero. But now the other people who have come to Swing Latino realize that Manicero is lacking, and I’m glad that unlike them I didn’t spend a month there.

At the same time, it’s not easy being a perfectionist: always looking for the best . . . Looking for the perfect salsa school can have overtones of looking for the perfect shoes or mate. It can be kind of exhausting. I have a hunch that it has something to do with just allowing things to happen, and not telling yourself you are on the search, or at least not allowing the search to feel like effort, more like curiosity, a game. If you decide to come to Cali, I could tell you how to find the best salsa teachers. The best mate, I am still not sure. But I have a hunch that it must have to do with following your passions, and at least I’m on that path now.