Seeing the World Through Dance: Or How I Learned to Samba

Many visitors go to a new place yearning to sample the food. Tasting street tacos in Mexico City, poutine in Quebec City, or jambalaya in Louisiana means that you experienced something quintessential about a place. Learning the samba, or tango, or salsa is like that. It’s feeling the flavor of a place with your body and feet. It’s sharing the national dish on a dance floor. Just as you don’t need to be a chef to enjoy food, you don’t need to be a “dancer” to dance.


Our Spanish immersion school met in a white two story stucco building in La Vibora, a residential neighborhood of Havana. Each morning, my husband Pete and I walked a block from our casa particular to the school. Each afternoon the school offered an excursion or “cultural activity”. I signed us up for salsa lessons.

Claudia, a young woman dressed in black leggings and a magenta tank top, met us in a large shaded patio behind the school. She set up a boom box, inserted a CD and salsa class began. We faced each other under the trees, hand to hand, hand to hip, and began. Claudia repeated “Uno, dos, pausa, uno, dos, pausa” as we moved under the trees. We were rank beginners. My salsa had been limited to Zumba class and Pete struggled with the subtle shifting of weight that is the core of salsa. The lively chatter of neighbors floated across the patio from verandas almost suspended in the warm December air. Music streamed from open windows.

Later, we took the local bus into Old Town. Out of every bar and restaurant the sounds of Dos Gardenias or Chan Chan filter into the streets. We stopped for a drink in a deep narrow bar, with wicker furniture set along the long windowed wall and, like many bars in Old Town, with entrance open to the street. The crowd pushed up against the windows and a salsa band played in the corner. Eventually the music became irresistible. Pete and I tentatively joined people dancing in the space between the wooden bar and the band and amidst the tables.

Salsa in Old Town Havana

Uno, dos, pausa, uno, dos, pausa”. We were improvising, and the band was playing for tourists and no one was mistaking us for Alberto Valdes or Diana Rodriguez. But we didn’t mind; the taste of the movement satisfied, we joined Cubans and tourists alike swirling and swinging. It was Havana.

Buenos Aires

“4006 Sarmiento por favor”, I said to the taxi driver. He turned to us in bewilderment, with a look that suggested I had either gotten the address wrong or, as an obvious tourist, was making a huge mistake. “La Catedral”, I said. “un club de tango”. He still wasn’t convinced “Milonga”, I added hopefully, using the word for a tango dance party. He shrugged, turned on the meter, and took us on a ride through the streets of Buenos Aires, from the elegant Recoleta, past the brightly lit commerce of Avenida Cordoba, into the neighborhood of Almagro, where we were deposited into the former grain silo and refrigerated warehouse that now houses La Catedral, the tango club.

We went upstairs to the dance floor through a dim and dingy hallway. La Catedral’s dance floor is in a cavernous open space with 30 foot ceilings. The walls are plastered with an odd array of paintings, posters, string lights, hanging objects, as if someone tossed the contents of a junk shop up into the air, and they stuck. The face of Carlos Gardel, the granddaddy of tango, hovers over the floor like a patron saint.

Tango lessons at La Catedral

Tango lessons start around 8PM. With the large floor lit by colored bulbs strung from wall to wall, the atmosphere felt as slinky and mysterious as the dance. The dancers — tourists and students and locals — came in all ages, shapes and sizes. Pete and I worked hard to keep up with the swirl of dancers that move in a large circle around the wooden floor. As the dance floor filled, the sensual energy of the circling dancers intensified. The scent of this most romantic of dances hung in the air. The new generation of dancers arrived at midnight and soon after we left, both tired and alive. We never quite mastered the tango, but we all felt a little bit Argentinian.

Rio de Janeiro

If you want to learn samba in Rio de Janeiro, make your way to an unassuming commercial building in the Copacabana, and ask for Rio Samba Dancer aka Helio. Handsome, charming, light on his feet, Helio has distilled samba to its essence. But Helio’s classes aren’t just instruction; he teaches you, then takes you clubbing.

By 10PM, we all had some level of understanding the basic one-two-three of the samba and a smattering of the forro, an erotically tinged couples dance, Though the fluidity of the hips and rolling movement of the arms escaped some of us, we were nonetheless emboldened to venture onto the dance floor.

The samba clubs in Rio are clustered in the neighborhood of Lapa, a run-down and gritty place which lies between the downtown and the more charming elegantly faded neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Helio took us to Rio Scenarium, located on a small street that had been blocked off for pedestrians. That nigh, the street was filled with tables and chairs, banners and lights strung across from building to building.

Rio Scenarium is, like its name, a scene. Three levels of bars and dance floors for samba, with an interior balcony looking down to the first floor from where the music pulsated through the space. Each floor is filled with plush sofas, antique light fixtures, dozens of old clocks, framed, faded paintings hung in seemingly random order, and glass-fronted cabinets stacked with bottles of liquor, making the entire place seem like a cross between a speakeasy and a consignment store. The dance floor on the first floor was already full, the tables crowded and the crowd seemed to range from happy to ecstatic. Helio danced with us and, as is customary, asked others in the crowd to samba with him. Many sang along with the large and energetic woman in front, whose yellow, red and green long dress swirled around the stage as she whipped the crowd into a dancing frenzy.

Rio Scenarium

“They’re mostly tourists”, Helio told us, “but from other parts of Brazil.” No matter. I was a tourist too, a tourist of the dance, of the music that gives it form, and of the people who give it life. I felt exhilarated.

Martha Graham once said that “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” If you let a new dance touch your soul, you might just see a place in a new way. Don’t just eat your way through your next new place — dance your way!

Urbanist who lives in the wilderness. Planner + Strategist. Real estate consultant to nonprofits. Attorney. Traveler (both near and far). Yoga teacher. Writer.

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