Many years ago while I was a university student in a dull and wet European city, I opted to help run my uni’s Afro-Caribbean society as a welcome break from the tedium of training to be a doctor. The university's strength wasn’t its diversity so we at the society brought much needed culture to campus. While other societies focused on alcohol fuelled activities we did things like offer djembe drumming classes, food tastings and hip hop dance classes.
Our hip hop dance classes held weekly and was quite popular. One day in the middle of term (yes the university used terms not semesters), our Asian hip hop dance teacher dropped the bombshell that she was moving to a different country in a couple of weeks and we had to replace her fast. Despite being a handy dancer, I couldn’t teach any dance as dancing and teaching dance are 2 different abilities. We didn’t know anyone else who could teach so were stuck for a while without options. One day while mulling over our impending loss of dance and cultural options at our bland university, a member of the drumming class overhead us and suggested we try Cuban salsa classes. His brother had just returned from Cuba where he went to learn salsa and would be happy to teach a weekly class.
Salsa became our new offering and replaced hip hop. This was pre ubiquitous social media so we sent out emails and went all over campus putting up posters and inviting everyone we knew. I’d personally only heard about salsa in passing and didn’t really know what it entailed. The salsa dance scene from the second ‘step up’ movie was my only reference point.
I knew that Salsa was Caribbean in origin with some African roots and so it felt natural to offer it. On the appointed day for the class, I went along to ensure everything went smoothly. I arrived early, turned on the lights and moved the seating around to make room for a makeshift dance floor. The teacher arrived with a beautiful Cuban woman in tow who was to be his partner instructor. Soon after, a handful of green horned dancers filed in, unsure of what to expect. I’d gone to help organize so I welcomed people, collected the 5 Euro payment and stood aside to watch as the class began.
Salsa is a partner dance, it’s not danced alone but with someone else. One partner leads while the other follows. So after the initial individual warm-ups people partnered up and the group was down one man. The teacher beckoned to me to help fill the gap. My reason for attending wasn’t to learn to dance, what self-respecting African does that. We’re born with rhythm and can ‘get down’ without instruction. This natural blessing that my Caucasian counterparts didn’t have meant I regularly tore up club dance floors across the city with my Asian Swedish friend. We were the toast of many, the envy of some and had innumerable amazing nights. There was no way I was subjecting my self to a dance class. So when the teacher beckoned to me to join in, I didn’t join to be taught to dance, I joined to help fill a gap.
“1–2–3, 5–6–7” was the dance count he repeated over and over again as he demonstrated the basic steps and its variation. Within a few minutes I’d mastered the basics and was a handy gap filler in the class. By the end of the class I’d thoroughly enjoyed myself and turned out to be the best of all the beginners. In fact I’d began to feel frustrated that others were slowing me down with their ‘clumsy’ steps. I was a natural, I continued to attend weekly and grew my dance skill rapidly. I’d gone from wanting to only observe to looking forward to classes every week. It helped that a fine Cuban senorita was on hand to cheer me on and show me the ropes. The natural inclination for a young man to impress said senorita meant I practiced constantly wherever I was. In the shower, while washing dishes and while studying. I began to walk around with a constant “1–2–3, 5–6–7” in my step and the count playing incessantly in my head.
I finally outgrew the beginner classes in my university and went further afield to search for classes and opportunities to practice my dancing. I found social dancing where you go have a swell time dancing with complete strangers who somehow know exactly how to dance with you even though you’ve both never met each other before. Eliciting a wide smile from my dance partner was a profound feeling I found magical so I rapidly got hooked, going social dancing 6 days a week at one point. I would on occasion dance till the early hours of the morning and then head into work at the hospital on little sleep. It became almost like an addiction, I had to get my fix constantly.
All this started 14 years ago and salsa dancing has since become a big part of my life. It’s brought me so much joy and enhanced my health and wellbeing. It saw me through many difficult and stressful times because when I dance I forget everything and live in the moment. I’ve danced in 20 cities across 5 continents and have a global community of friends I can plug into wherever I go. One of my best moments has been dancing in the open night air to the legendary Buena vista social club from Havanna on their final global tour at the world music festival in New Zealand.
As I approach the mid point of my second decade of salsa dancing, I want to share my love and passion for the music, the dance, the culture and the community with others. We all could do with a bit more physical activity, more sensuality, more touch and more human connection. So watch out for things I’ll be doing in Nigeria in particular to spread the joy of salsa.
Ahi na’ ma!