If I was given one single penny for each time I was told “Oh boy! You are a latino, you surely know how to dance salsa. You have it in your blood!”, I’d be a millionaire. Sorry, I meant a billionaire.
Yes, I dance salsa but not because I’m a latino. It’s because I learnt it by going to dance lessons like everyone else. However, most members of my family and some same origin friends know how to dance salsa very well without having to go to a single dance lesson. Am I a weird one? I’ve recently found out I’m not the only latino out there who was not born knowing how to dance salsa, which makes me feel so much better.
My family surrounded by Salsa
Before my first salsa lesson, my only contact with salsa music was in occasional family reunions. People would eat, drink, play salsa music and dance to it. I will always remember my childhood filled with those latin tunes, and when my auntie wanted to dance with me and I’d always refuse because I’d prefer to play games with my cousins, so I didn’t learn how to dance at that time and eventually, when I became an adult I would only join them for eating and drinking but not for the dance.
Salsa in Barcelona
My teenage years started in Europe, Barcelona – Spain to be more accurate, and then you’d probably say “Oh yeah, Spanish people love latin music, they also dance!”. Uhmmm, not necessarily. At that time Spain had not received much influence from Latin America since the immigration was quite low. So if Spanish people heard any latin tunes, it was most likely in the background, probably coming out from a car, latin restaurant or your loud latin neighbour’s party. But unfortunately, not dancing to it.
And there you go, my new atmosphere wasn’t latin at all. Strangely enough, I got integrated very well into this new culture, I learnt a new language (Catalan), new costumes, new currency, new friends, etc…I even got a new spanish accent! I definitely got swallowed into the Spanish/Catalan culture by all means and eventually became very distant from my latin roots until I arrived in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK.
Dancing in the Northeast of England
I’m sure you’d agree with the fact that one usually meets many people in the dance community and we would tell each other stories about our dancing experience and one of my stories to break the ice would be this one: “…and yes, I suddenly realised that an english/geordie guy was teaching latin dance to me, a latino guy! Can you believe it?” then they would burst into laughs. Exactly, my first salsa teacher was an english guy.
Honestly, I was feeling quite sceptical when I was told there was a nightclub full of english and internationals (basically non-latin) people learning and dancing to latin music because from my own experience (with plenty of stereotypes at that time), I always associated it with latinos being drunk and having fun at a party. If for any reason those salsa lessons were actually happening, it would be with people trying to dance with robotic moves without feeling the lyrics of the song. Either way, I decided to give it a go and you know what? – I was so wrong.
I loved my first salsa lesson so much. The dancers were very friendly, welcoming and supportive. The dance level was incredibly high! Their body movement, the energy, adrenaline, the smiles left me speechless. All those things made me feel so small and at the same time intimidated by those experienced dancers who eventually would become my friends and dance family. My super wrong salsa stereotypes were immediately gone.
Now, every time I’m dancing to salsa songs, it brings me to those childhood memories. Who would have thought that I’d reconnect to my latin roots in England.
Trying to dance salsa with my family
Once I got good and confident enough to dance with anyone on the dance floor, I thought it would be a good idea to go back home and visit my family, and perhaps to dance salsa with my mother and aunties.
My family never taught me how to dance latin music and I never showed interest although they would usually dance all night long in family gatherings. So when I travelled back I felt very happy because finally I was going to put those moves into practise and show them my inner latino. And you know what? It was a total disaster.
Our steps would not match at all, we were stepping on each other’s toes all the time. “Mum, what are you doing? – I said and she looked at me very confused and said to me “No, it’s you. What are you doing son?”. That was the moment when I found out the existence of other dance styles of salsa, and me thinking there was only one and no variations…how naive!
Yes, they dance ‘street salsa’ which they learnt in their youth between the 70s-80s, when salsa music took over South America (something similar to ‘The Beatles’ in the UK) and all the youngsters at that time became passionate about it. All in all, I came to the conclusion that my inner latino unfortunately was not ready to come out.
Travelling and bumping into the stereotypes
Despite the traumatic experience with my family, I was still feeling quite motivated to keep learning. Then, besides the lessons in my hometown, I started to go to a lot of dance festivals around the UK and abroad.
Travelling is one of those things you do as a dancer. Once you get to know your regular local parties very well and find out that there are more parties in surrounding cities, you and your friends start to search for new destinations and discover events with big parties lasting all weekend called dance festivals. When I started to dance few years ago, the only latinos at those dance festivals and parties were myself and the teachers! Or at least that’s what I remember.
Dancers would just assume that I am native dancer and I can remember those moments full of questions or interrogations (I used to call them this way): “Where are you from?”, “South America right?”, “Oh, but are you not latino?”, “What are you doing in the lesson?”, “I’m sure you dance salsa very well!”, “Show me your latino moves!” and so on. Some of those would make me feel uncomfortable and others laugh. My answers to those questions? Just quick, polite and short. I knew they were following the same popular stereotype – Latin American people are born knowing how to dance salsa.
Meeting other latinos. I’m not alone!
As time passed and Latin dancing became more popular in Europe, I started to see more latinos and latinas in the dancing community between learners.
I met more of them in international festivals, they all would come from different european countries where they were born and raised or only raised (like me). And yes, they were there to learn how to dance salsa. On the dance floor, you could see different levels, some beginners and intermediate and some others who were more advanced. It was amazing to see the way they engaged with the melody, the lyrics, the instruments, the flow! Oh, they were feeling it. The latinos at their best.
There was one thing in common between most of them – their atmosphere and background was not latino enough to make them dance salsa from a very young age or even learn to speak Spanish, surprising, isn’t it? I remember once waiting in the lift and then a second later a guy joins me, “Hey, where are you from?” I asked him in English – “Mexico” he replied. “Oh nice, are you enjoying the night?” – I asked in Spanish. “Yes, I am. It’s a good festival” – he replied with a broken and shy Spanish. I heard his words and felt a bit confused so I continued with my Spanish to find out more. “How long have you been dancing for?” – he looked at me, kept silent, got nervous and replied very slowly “I don’t speak Spanish very well because I grew up in Paris but nice to meet you!”. Then, he left.
I was speechless the second later. First time in my life I’ve met a latino who didn’t speak the language. I kept thinking about it for a while and came to the conclusion that he probably wasn’t the only one in the same situation. We belong to the 2nd-3rd generation of latinos in Europe, the latin culture didn’t necessarily take us over in the same way as our parents, so I stopped having feelings of guilt for not being so engaged with my latin roots in the past. Instead, I smiled slightly and felt comforted that I wasn’t alone.