“Are you traveling with anyone?” asked the woman next to me on the plane from Panama to Cali, Colombia.
“I’m by myself,” I answered.
Looking horrified, she continued, “Do you know anyone there?”
“Well, not really,” I said.
“Honey, you need to be really careful. My husband got murdered here a few years ago and I’m only going back to pick up some things,” she said.
I hadn’t yet read that Cali was ranked as the world’s 10th most dangerous city.
But I chose Cali because it is the salsa capital of the world. And at $12 an hour for private lessons, I could potentially be a credible dancer after three intensive weeks.
“Up-Chest!” Ronny roared.
By now I knew through his broken English he meant, “Chest UP!” I pulled my shoulders back and thrust my chest out to appease him. But within minutes he was screaming again.
“Up-chest! Up-chest! Why you not get?” he shook his head.
This was only my third day, but Ronny, my 5’5”Colombian-born salsa teacher, didn’t care. He expected me to grasp the techniques immediately even though I had never taken a dance class. When I was slow to catch on, he glared at me. “NO! Not right! AGAIN!!” And ‘again’ I did, four hours every day for three weeks.
By week two my feet were destroyed – bloody, blistered and sore from my dance shoes. I wore socks in my lessons until Ronny decided that I didn’t have the proper dance position in just socks. “You want to learn salsa then you wear dance shoes.” Socks were no longer allowed and excuses were not acceptable, especially not the poor excuse of sore feet.
Ronny is 26-years old and shorter than I am in heels. He has a slight black Mohawk and long thick curly lashes of which I am envious. He is a beautiful and graceful dancer, the result of dance conservatory training from age six. For me he was the perfect balance – leading me like a man and teaching me to move like a woman.
Not once did Ronny smile during my lessons. In fact I often wondered, as he spun me around the 8×8 foot practice room, what his teeth looked like. He yelled at me daily, but somehow I never saw his teeth.
By week three, I had improved, and was now able to keep up with the men in the salsa clubs where I went every night.
On my last day in Cali, Ronny and I were to perform a dance routine in front of his other students. Nervous and excited, I focused intensely on moving my hips, keeping my chest up, remembering foot taps in between beats, keeping my balance on turns and doing ladies styling to add grace to my dancing. His words and screams from the past three weeks echoed through my head as I spun around the room – “UP-chest,” “TAP,” “SPOT!” I even managed to do three spins in a row without losing my balance – a record for me up to that point.
When the song ended I took a deep breath, mostly out of relief.
“I did it!” I whispered proudly, under my breath. Ronny’s eyes sparkled and a tiny smirk spreads across his face. I had learned to salsa dance.
A vid of me learning to dance: