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.
“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…