Salt Lake Salsa

Exploration doesn’t always involve traveling. You can go to uncharted places and have experiences with unknown outcomes without going anywhere at all. In fact, sometimes this variety of adventure can feel even more risky than the kind that involves a passport and a travel dictionary…

All my life I have wished I could dance. Twenty years ago, when I began to travel to Latin America frequently, that desire became more focused on Latin dancing. In nearly every country I visited, I marveled at well-coordinated pairs tearing up dance floors. So, I took classes here and there. I went to salsa clubs and open dances. And I flailed. Every time I attempted to dance with someone, I ended up embarrassed, ashamed, and feeling sorry for my partners. “Just follow me!” they would say. JUST? Are you kidding? I had no idea how to do that, and simply willing it to happen was not working. I got to the point where, if I was asked to dance, I simply said, “no, I’m sorry, I don’t dance,” and sat on the sidelines.

I don’t much care for the sidelines.


This year, I resolved to tackle this project. I figured that living near a major metropolitan area and having a relatively normal work schedule for a while would facilitate regular class attendance, and I promised myself that when I felt clumsy and humiliated I would shake it off and get right back on the horse.

IMG_0053I found a place in South Salt Lake City called DF Dance Studio, whose location and atmosphere I instantly loved. The studio is right on State Street, south of I-80, which, if you know anything about Salt Lake City, isn’t exactly a high rent district. It’s got a solid variety of cheap ethnic food (pho places, burrito joints, and “curry-in-a-hurry”) along with some pawn shops, strip joints, and a Harley Davidson dealership. The studio is sandwiched in a strip mall between a plasma donation center and a hobby train shop, and all three institutions are so successful that parking in their huge lot is a near impossibility.


My beginners’ class had an impressive diversity of students.  About half were Latino, the other half a solid cross-section of Salt Lake denizens. We covered the standard basic steps, which I already knew, and practiced them on our own. No problem; everything was going along just fine – that is, until we had to partner up. Then everything fell apart, and I did a lot of apologizing.


I had read on the studio’s website that they strongly encouraged students to consider private lessons to maximize their learning, claiming that most aspiring dancers cover four classes worth of material in one private session. That sounded good to me, and what sounded even better was the thought of someone being paid to be stuck with me for an hour, feigning patience while desperately attempting to coach me into grace. If I’m paying him, I don’t have to keep apologizing for my ineptitude!  Perfect.

That oh-so-lucky patient person is named Julio, and we’ve done a handful of sessions now. Guess what we work on, every time? Yep, following.

We dance. He stops and tells me to lower my shoulders. He reminds me to stop clutching his fingers as though they were handlebars. He points out when I am spinning myself rather than letting myself be spun, and he reminds me not to move my arm until he moves it for me. He tells me to relax, constantly.

Last week, he had me lead him (pretending to be the less-than-stellar follower that I usually am) for a minute, to let me experience what it feels like to lead someone who is on their own program. It was awful, truly. It felt like fighting.

I’m forty-five years old, and I’ve been single all my life. I live alone. I travel alone. I’ve been self-employed for the last ten years. I’m very accustomed to calling the shots. In fact, this may be the only activity I have ever done where I don’t get to decide anything at all. Oh, I can decide to swivel my hips a little or do some flourish-y move with my hand, but as far as where we are going or what we are doing, I’ve got zero input.

That is SO hard.

IMG_0104I’m getting better though, really. Especially when I dance with Julio, whom I trust, and who is a darn good dancer. On the other hand, with the guys in my Level 2 class (I managed to graduate!), I find myself occasionally telling them, “no, your hand needs to go here on three,” – I’m sure that’s going over really well. But I do have runs when I let go and stop trying to predict what’s going to happen next. I just turn off my brain and react and move with what my partner is doing – and it’s very fun.

The life metaphor in there is so darn obvious I feel silly even alluding to it.

Yet, it’s so relevant – for everyone, yes – but most particularly for someone who always seems to be in transition.

IMG_0062In the meantime, while I’m working that out, I’ve found this unexpectedly welcoming scene. I actually know most of the “level two guys” who go to the classes and practice nights. We laugh when one of us messes up, and when it’s my fault I might apologize, but I don’t feel ashamed. They even feel a little like friends, despite the fact that they don’t know what I might think are key things about me – like that I’ve traveled the world, or that I’ve run my own businesses or am an accomplished athlete. They don’t need to know.  It doesn’t matter.

IMG_0078I spent the last couple weeks mustering up the courage to go to the studio’s Valentine’s Day Social. I asked Julio what he thought of that, and he gave me one of those responses that a coach gives his players when he wants to be encouraging but knows they’re going to get their butts kicked. “Uh, yeah…for sure you should go, I mean, you’re going to see some stuff you’ve never seen before and all, and there are some really good dancers there, but, yeah…you should go. And we’d better practice some more following now, with moves you don’t know.” Sort of encouraging, right?

I went. I got my butt kicked. And it was great.


To say I “did some moves I didn’t know” is an understatement. I got twirled around until I was dizzy, did some carousel-like circular stuff that supposedly was merengue (like I need another dance style at this point??), did some sassy “bacha-tango” strutting, and stopped dead in complete confusion more that once. I also did a lot of apologizing. But I didn’t hide, nor did I say no to anyone who asked me to dance. And I had a bunch of solid stretches where I knew what I was doing, and even better, a few glorious moments where I had no idea what I was doing but it sure felt like the right thing, regardless.

I’m not used to struggling this much – certainly not with physical things. The good news is: it just doesn’t matter. Nobody really cares, including me. And, the less I care, the less I try to predict what’s going on. The less I try to predict the sequence, the better I follow. Then there are moments of co-creation, which, I suspect, is the whole point.


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