Hurricane in Havana: Recovery (Part 3)

It’s been over a week since the storm hit, and as with most natural disasters, recovery is happening, but in fits and starts.

We wound up being without electricity from Saturday afternoon to Monday early evening. At that point, our fridge was a hot box and we were running out of fresh food. On Sunday afternoon, we lost water. That came back with the electricity Monday night, once the pump had power again.

In Vedada - a huge tree was plucked up during the storm, concrete and all, and crashed into the nearby house. Luckily it looked like the building wasn't damaged and no one was hurt.

In Vedado – a huge tree was plucked up during the storm, concrete and all, and crashed into the nearby house. Luckily it looked like the building wasn’t damaged and no one was hurt.

On Sunday and Monday, I went to Hotel Habana Libre, about a 5-minute walk away to see if they had power, so I could charge my phones and laptop. They did! And a hundred other people had the same idea. It was challenging finding a spot to plug in and I noticed that people had brought in power strips to make the most out of each outlet. I tried that approach the next day – it was much less stressful and it felt good to help other people out.

The cool thing about Habana Libre was despite feeling dirty and sweaty and gross and having no idea when life would return to normal, everyone else was in the same boat, and I had some really good conversations – with three Venezuelan doctors who were returning to their country after two years working here, with a Cuban ex-model who lives in Houston now, and with a Peruvian-Italian artist/singer/songwriter who has been traveling to Havana to record his second album. This helped pass the time and I got to practice my Spanish a lot!

Every day that I go out, more things seem to be returning to normal. The hotels aren’t packed with desperate tourists and Cubans charging their cellphones. Stores and cafes are re-opening. More and more people are getting their power restored (although some friends have been without it for close to a week now). Fallen trees are slowly but surely getting sawed and collected.

A popular restaurant in my neighborhood – Biky's – gets its sign rehung a few days after Irma.

A popular restaurant in my neighborhood – Biky’s – gets its sign rehung a few days after Irma.

As far as dancing goes? That’s the big question right now. I was heartbroken to hear that Mil Ocho, one of the most iconic salsa dancing venues in Havana, was destroyed. It was located right at the end of the Malecón in Vedado. I plan to visit to see the damage for myself, but haven’t been able to get there yet.

I’m hopeful that this coming week, the rest of the popular spots will have power and the resources necessary to re-open. Until then, I’m just happy and grateful that I’m safe, and have working utilities and food.


Hurricane Irma in Havana (Part 1)

Hurricane in Havana Part 2: Irma & the Aftermath

Hurricane in Havana Part 2: Irma & the Aftermath

By Saturday afternoon, I was feeling as prepared as I could get. At that point I knew from messages from home and asking around that Irma was likely to skirt Havana after hitting regions of Cuba east of us and along the north coast. I knew we wouldn’t get a direct hit, but we would still feel the impact.

At dusk, the winds were getting strong and the rains came in, and we had already lost electricity. I was a little nervous keeping my windows open but I really needed the airflow without air conditioning or fans. I knew once I went to bed, I’d have to close everything, but I wanted air for as long as possible.

I was exhausted from the day so I got a cold shower in, ate my pizza, and retreated to my room. People were still walking around in the streets in the early evening, which I was really surprised by. The winds were strong enough that I would have been scared of getting hit by some kind of flying debris.

I let Jason Statham calm my nerves in his role as an assassin in the Mechanic (I know, that’s his role in every movie), and then watched one of the worst 80s-homages I have ever seen – Rock of Ages.

Then I shut the windows, grabbed my eyemask and earplugs, took some melatonin and settled in on top of my sheets, ready for a hot, uncomfortable, possibly frightening, and sleeples night.

I managed to sleep solidly for most of the night! I didn’t even hear the storm. The only thing I did hear was the vague din of a party in the neighborhood. They sounded drunk and I swore I heard chanting. The sounds started getting incorporated into my dreams. It was a little surreal.

The winds from Hurricane Irma were strong enough to take down many large trees, like this one in Centro Habana.

The winds from Hurricane Irma were strong enough to take down many large trees, like this one in Centro Habana.

The next day we still had gas and water, but no electricity. I ventured out to assess the damage. There were trees down, and branches and debris in the streets of my neighborhood. And I was shocked – the panaderia was open and they had bread! (I ran back to my place for a bag and some money and bought my pan suave! Happy day.) Then I wandered towards the Malecon.

I walked down Calle O, then back to Infanta, then crossed over to Hotel Nacional. Each spot had a different vantage point of the Malecon completely flooded as well as one to two blocks inland. It was an incredible sight.

Huge, mesmerizing waves were still crashing against the sea walls and flowing into the street. People were swimming in the water! It seemed like extremely dirty and dangerous water to play in, but they didn’t appear to care. And of course many didn’t have a choice but to move through the water – their first floor apartments were submerged.

Crowds gathered to watch the waves as they continued to cascade from the flooded Malecón.

Crowds gathered to watch the waves as they continued to cascade from the flooded Malecón.

The famous Hotel Nacional was open - inside - but the grounds were a mess from the storm. They offered a good view of the Malecón though.

The famous Hotel Nacional was open to guests and visitors – at least indoors – the grounds were a mess from the storm. I managed to sneak out to get a good look at the Malecón though. You can see the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista on the far left, which of course, is right in front of the American Embassy.

We had survived the worst of the storm itself, but we didn’t know what was next – when would things get back to normal?

Blocked access to the flooded Malecón.

Blocked access to the flooded Malecón.

Previously: Part 1: Preparing for Hurricane Irma

Next: Recovery

Hurricane Irma in Havana (Part 1)

I was first alerted to Hurricane Irma heading for Havana by my mom. Without a TV and constant online access, I hadn’t heard a thing. After she called me, I went online to download some articles and I started asking around.

Over the course of the next few days, I realized how serious the storm was – a Category 5 is no joke – and I started to get prepared.

Cubans didn’t seem too worried. I casually asked everyone – the concierge at Hotel Habana Libre, the cutie at the counter of my favorite ice cream shop, the shelf stocker at the grocery store, my friends out dancing, and my dance teachers – are you prepared? What do you think will happen? Most seemed generally unconcerned (they’ve been through hurricane seasons every year on this tropical island of course), even by a Category 5, but they agreed it was smart to stock up on water and food.

Two days before Irma, the view from my living room. I never would have guessed a hurricane was on its way.

Two days before Irma, the view from my living room. I never would have guessed a hurricane was on its way.

It was clear when I went out shopping that Cubans were definitely getting prepared, despite the unruffled reactions I got. Lines were abnormally long at grocery stores, panaderías (bakeries), and gas stations.

I was very relieved to learn that the Cuban government is known for being excellent at hurricane preparedness. This surprised me and reassured me. My experiences with Cuban bureacracy range from being…ahem…fairly inefficient and inconvenient to “I want to gauge my eyes out”. I was impressed that when it comes to down to life or death, they’ve got their sh** together.

One day before Irma, the clouds started getting more dramatic hitting at what was to come.

One day before Irma, the clouds started getting more dramatic, hinting at what was to come.

So for about four days leading up to the ETA of Irma on Saturday night, I ran around the city getting prepped, while still trying to go about my normal business – dance classes and rehearsal, a doctor’s appointment, even going out dancing at Hotel Florida the night before.

I wanted to make sure I had basic supplies if we lost electricity, gas and/or water – all of which seemed likely.

This proved, unsurprisingly, to be completely exhausting. First of all, it’s HOT. It’s always so damn HOT here! So “running around” means walking through the city in the blazing sun and taking shared taxis with very little air flow, and usually not finding what you need easily.

I tried to go to Epoca, a big supermarket/mall-type store in Centro Habana on Galiano. The lines were CRAZY. And besides a big bottle of water and some juice boxes, there was really nothing to help this vegetarian survive. Typical offerings: one aisle of just vinegar, one aisle of just canned sausages, one aisle of “refresco” (soda), one aisle of ridiculously expensive jam. I gave up and decided to try my luck somewhere else.

I finally found a store in Habana Vieja that had water (yes!! I was really worried about that) and some good staples – e.g. canned tomatoes, reasonably priced jam, juice. As is typical in many stores in Cuba, there are separate counters with these offerings so you have to wait on two to three different lines to get what you want. It is…frustrating. So, I waited 20 minutes on one line for my water and juice. And then 20 on another for cooking staples. In the end, I was relieved though – it didn’t take THAT long and I felt prepared.

An unusually long line at my local bakery.

Hours before the storm, hardly any cars on the streets and an unusually long line at my local bakery.

I also went to the market to get fruits and vegetables that I thought would last without cooking or refrigeration – avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers. And I had big plans to pre-cook a bunch of other stuff the day the storm was coming. That didn’t happen. I bought a pizza instead.

Luckily, I currently have two housemates so we were able to join forces in prepping. The biggest priority was water: boiling liters and liters of water, filtering it (there’s a lot of sediment in the tap water here), and refrigerating it. We also had some water for bathing and washing. And luckily for me, they cooked up some rice and beans.

On Saturday afternoon (the storm was supposed to hit that night), I made my way to the Meliá Cohiba, a huge hotel on the Malecón (the iconic 8 km stretch of roadway along the coast of Havana), in the hopes of picking up a prescription at the international pharmcy across the street. That turned out to be a pointless trip because, of course, the pharmacy was closed! It was right on the Malecón, the street was blocked off and the winds were already really, really strong. Like, you can barely walk strong.

I headed back to Centro to go to my favorite media store – where you can buy all sorts of TV shows and movies for about 50 cents each. I had already started charging up my phones and other devices. I figured if I was going to be trapped in the dark for a while, I’d run down my laptop battery entertaining myself. I felt very proud of myself for being so smart to think ahead like this!

Then I went to the neighborhood panadería to get some bread (soft rolls called “pan suave” that I love and are only one peso each). Apparently EVERYONE else in Havana had the same idea, go figure. There was no way I was waiting on that line. I felt very disappointed in myself for not thinking ahead!

In the face of Hurricane Irma, I had Wonder Woman dubbed in Spanish and Season 3 of Orphan Black – but no bread.

I gave up on getting bread after seeing this line at my bakery.

I gave up on getting bread after seeing this line at my bakery.

And, with that, I was done. There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to shop. It was time to go home and hunker down. And the power was already out.

Part 2 – Irma & the Aftermath
Part 3 – Recovery

My goal is to perform with a Cuban dance company. Last week was my first rehearsal.

We spent an hour and a half on less than 25 seconds of the choreography. By the end, I was completely drenched in sweat and dying for about three gallons of water. (And a massage.) (And someone to carry me home.)

It was my first day rehearsing with Yeni, the lead dancer and choreographer of Proyecto Rueda de Casino. If you’ve gone out salsa dancing in Havana recently, you’ve seen this dance company. They perform at Mil Ocho three times per week – the iconic salsa spot right at the end of the Malecon. They always perform a variety of styles and they bring a ton of energy to the crowd (they even lead everyone in “line dances” at the end of the performance to get everyone dancing).

About two weeks ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask the director Rodolfo if I could study with them, with the goal of performing with the group at Mil Ocho. He said yes! I’m starting with private sessions with Yeni to learn the choreography before getting integrated with the group.

Here are the highlights from my first rehearsal, plus video below:

  • Early on in our practice, Rodolfo advised that we needed to perfect each phrase before moving on to the next. I needed to do the movements as I would in a performance – bigger, with more energy – so that I would learn them that way from the beginning. Often when I first learn choreography, I don’t do it full out, as I’m focusing on the very basics of the technique. But he was right, it’s better to build the muscle memory of how you’ll be performing from the very start, as it can be harder to add in later.
  • I was hoping and half expecting that we would start with some salsa choreography that would be just salsa steps. Instead we started with a phrase that we’ll be dancing without partners that incorporated son, cha cha, three orisha movements (Elegua, Chango, Ogun), and rumba Columbia. It was actually perfectly Cuban and is what entices me and challenges me here – the dancing is so layered and rich, pulling from a diverse array of inter-related styles. To be able to develop that kind of mastery of movement is why I’m here.
  • “Poco a poco” and “sin miedo” are always the mantras I hear from my dance teachers that I need to remember: “little by little” and “without fear”. You can’t learn everything perfectly at first, it takes time to develop, but you also have to dance it as openly and passionately as you can from the start.
  • Good dancers make everything look so EASY. You can never tell how much work it takes to perfect the steps – and in fact great dancers make it seem like YOU could easily hop up there and do it! But it takes so much work. When I watched my post-game video (me and Yeni dancing the choreo together), I was pleasantly surprised: I looked better than I thought for my first class. You might not have guessed that I would learn a step and then forget it, then have to repeat it, then get it again, and then lose it again with the music, or when I tried it by myself. It looked fairly fluid, although with very obvious spots for cleaning. That gave me a bit of hope.
  • I’m going to have to practice at home – a lot. If I want to progress to the point where I can actually perform with the group before I leave in two months to renew my visa, which is my goal, I need to have everything I’ve learned down perfectly so I can move on to the next steps.
  • Living here is very good for my body and very tough on my body. It’s good because I walk everywhere – including up five flights of stairs to get to my apartment (no elevator!). But it’s tough because I walk everywhere, including five flights of stairs to get to my apartment (no elevator!)– then add in hours of dancing, oppressive heat and humidity, and dealing with muscle weakness and tension built up over 20 years or so – this all makes me very prone to exhaustion and muscle pulls, stiffness and soreness. So….
    • I have to take really, really good care of my body and be realistic about what I can handle. I’ve decided to budget for weekly massages and continue to work on my self-discipline with daily stretching and foam rolling every day. Otherwise, I’m going to get injured.
    • Also, I’ll miss out on good dancing opportunities if I’m not selective about how I spend my time. For example, I was having some soreness in my hip starting last Friday. I went out in heels on Sunday night and drank a bit too much. On Monday, I was too tired to wake up early and go to the immigration office to renew my visa, so I put it off another day. Then I took two hours of salsa and reggaeton classes, which put more pressure on my legs. And I went out dancing that night until about midnight. On Tuesday, I got up at 6:30 to go to the immigration office, which involved a lot of walking, and then I had my first dance rehearsal. By the time I got home, my legs were screaming and my feet were so sore I didn’t want to stand for more than a minute. My body was completely exhausted and I wound up missing out on going to one of my favorite dance spots to see a singer on his last night for a while before he goes on tour. Lesson learned.

So, here’s the video of the choreography with my teacher. I’m laughing at the end because the last steps were the ones I kept messing up over and over and over again, so I was happy that I finally got them!

rehearsal video screenshot** This is on my Facebook page because I was having some issues uploading to YouTube. I also couldn’t get the screenshot to link for some reason. Click here!

So thankful to have this opportunity to grow as a dancer! More updates to come on how rehearsals go and if I’m able to reach my goal of performing with the dance company by July.

Travel Tips for Americans Who Want to Visit Cuba

Now that I’m living in Havana studying dance, I’m getting A LOT of questions from Americans who want to travel here. I’ve put together some advice that I think will help you if you’re considering a visit to Cuba.San Ignacio

First steps:

1. Do your research before: 1) booking your trip and 2) asking friends who live in Havana for advice. There is a LOT to do here – think of it like New York or London. Buy a guidebook (I just discovered that Amazon Prime members can download Lonely Planet guidebooks for free) and read online articles and forums to get a sense of the possibilities.

Think about what you like to do – wander through museums, relax with drinks and listen to live music, go dancing and hit the best nightspots, explore beautiful natural settings, study music, dance or Spanish, go to the beach? You can do all of this from Havana, so if you only have a week, figure out your priorities for the time you have.

2. AMERICANS CANNOT ACCESS MONEY IN CUBA. That means no credit cards, no debit cards, no traveler’s cheques. You must bring the money you will need in cash. Most Americans either bring USD (but be prepared to get charged 10% when exchanging) or Euros (no 10% fee, but you lose money when you change from US to Euros in the US). For a short trip, I’d recommend USD. You’ll be exchanging for one of the Cuban currencies, called CUCs.

3. Prepare to be off the grid. You will likely not find up-to-date information on many websites anyway – it’s better to ask around or call to get current info – and wifi is only available in hotspots. Hotspots are located in parks and plazas throughout the city, and inside and outside many hotels. Parque Central is a good place to go online – either in the park or in one of the surrounding hotels. Once you get to Havana, you’ll need to buy a wifi card. Your best bet will be to go to the Etecsa office early on Obsispo for the best price (the hotels sell them for 3x as much) – 1.50cuc/hour – and wait on line.

4. There are two main requirements for traveling to Cuba that people often get confused about. Cuba requires that you purchase a 30-day tourist visa. Most airlines offer you the option to buy this at a kiosk at the airport where you’re flying out – you’ll need to check with your airline. From the US, it costs between $75-100. The other requirement is from the US side and has nothing to do with Cuban policy – it is to identify which category of licensed travel you fit under. In starting to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama opened up these categories to individuals – so you can state which category you fit into, without going through a ton of paperwork to get a license. Most US tourists are now using the educational category (also known as “people-to-people”) – you select this when you buy your flight. **

** I will update this post or publish a new post once Trump announces the revised US-Cuba travel policies this Friday, as I expect regulations will be tightened for individual travel.

March 2018 UPDATE: New regulations from the Trump administration were released in fall of 2017. They reverted the people-to-people category to the previous restrictions, in which Americans must be a part of a US tour group at all times. This is more expensive and more restrictive. It still remains unclear how or if it will be enforced. You can still travel to Cuba as an American, but you must choose a category of licensed travel – and many Americans are either still selecting educational despite the restrictions, or are opting for “support for the Cuban people”. (Note: this article does not constitute legal advice. Research your options and travel at your own risk.)

Parque Central from Hotel Rooftop

Some ideas for your time in Havana:

Once you’ve researched and prepared yourself a bit for a trip to Cuba, start asking more specific questions based on what you’d like to do. Here’s what I recommend in Havana when friends ask me for general advice (not dance-related – that’s another post):

  • Splurge on a classic car tour – 35-40 CUC per car – you get a tour of the city in a convertible, hitting some of the most famous spots. Yes, it’s touristy and a bit cheesy, but it’s a great way to get a visual tour of the city. So bust out that selfie stick and have fun.
  • Spend some time on the Malecón – take a walk in the early morning or around sunset when it’s cooler. If you’re feeling social, buy a bottle of rum and refresco (soda) and find a spot to hang out at night (try where Galiano or 23rd intersect at Malecón) and be ready to make friends.
  • Give yourself time to wander Habana Vieja to take pictures, stop for a mojito or limonada, and catch some live music in the afternoons or evenings. Obispo or Plaza Vieja are good spots to start from.
  • Pick one or two museums that sound the most interesting to you, and definitely go to Plaza de la Revolucion.
  • I’m the worst at buying souvenirs for friends and family on my trips; I’m lucky they keep me around. If you’re better at that type of thoughtful stuff, you’ll like San Jose artisan market as a one-stop shop. Don’t get excited about it as a cultural spot though – just buy your T-shirts, claves and bottles of rum and get on with your life.
  • The terraza on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra has horrible mojitos, but a great ambiance, lovely view and live music.
  • You can also easily do a day trip to nearby beaches or spend a day or two in Vinales or Trinidad. Both are interesting and beautiful, which is why they’re so popular with tourists.

Quick Tips:

  • Buy combination luggage locks for all bags – especially anything that will be checked. If it is not locked, expect to have a much lighter bag when you pick it up at baggage claim.
  • Keep your money on you in all transportation – airports, taxis, buses, etc. Lock it up in your suitcase in you’re room when you’re out.
  • Take a picture of your passport. You’ll need it for buying wifi cards and exchanging money.
  • Speaking of changing money, banks give slightly better rates, but are slower. Cadecas are generally quicker.
  • Download an offline map before you get here – I like “Map of Cuba offline”.
  • You can’t drink the tap water, but you can brush your teeth with it. For a short trip, you can buy bottled water. I have a Lifestraw water bottle with a filter that I use with tap water, and haven’t had any problems.
  • Stay in a casa particular – you can find them on sites like Airbnb – either renting a room in an apartment or house, or renting your own apartment.
  • You will usually have a phone in your casa that you can make local calls from, just ask the landlord.
  • Bring comfortable shoes. Havana is a very walkable city, so you’ll likely walk a lot. You can wear heels, but stick with wedges over stilettos. The streets and sidewalks are not even, and I don’t want you to break an ankle.
  • Bring a fan. It’s hot here. Really. Hot. Here. (Cubans and foreigners use umbrellas as shade from the sun – that’s an option too.)
  • When you get on line for anything – changing money, for example – ask, “who is the last?” by saying “Quien es el ultimo?”. Remember that person. People do not queue up in perfect formation here, so you need to remember where you are in line and let the next person know you’re last when they ask.
  • This should go without saying, but: learn the Spanish words for hello, how are you, please, thank you, bathroom, the check, water, and the United States (people will ask where you’re from) – and use them as appropriate with all of the Cubans you meet.

Of course, there is much more to share about enjoying Havana, but this should get you started! More information to come in future posts…stay tuned…and feel free to comment or ask questions below.

Finding My Salsa Tribe

A year ago, I made a decision that changed my life.

Somehow I came across an invite to the first annual International Salsa Rueda Festival Flashmob. A group was going to meet at a public park area at Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA to dance a rueda (a group salsa dance). I didn’t know anyone and I hadn’t danced rueda in a while, but I had no plans that day and it sounded fun.

Diana and I on our “anniversary” this year.

On a whim, I decided to check it out.

When I showed up, people were starting to gather and everyone seemed to know each other. It wasn’t clear who was leading it or what was happening when. I stood around kind of awkwardly, trying to look friendly and approachable.

At some point, I started talking to another dancer named Diana. I was really curious about the East Bay salsa scene. I’d only been dipping my toes into Bay Area salsa events on and off for a few years and I didn’t have any “salsa friends” who I could go dancing with. Plus, I didn’t really know where to go except for a few places in San Francisco. This posed a problem because it was a a bit of a trek for me to go into the city and I wasn’t finding a strong Cuban-style salsa scene, which I was really craving.

Diana enthusiastically filled me in on classes and places to dance every night of the week in the East Bay. She introduced me to her teacher Miguel, whose class she took every Monday. They encouraged me to join them the next night in class.

This one connection turned out to be the catalyst for a year of exploring the Cuban salsa scene in the Bay Area. It helped me find my tribe.

Since I met Diana, I started taking Miguel’s salsa classes which got me salsa dancing at least once a week. Then I found more classes that focused on Afro-Cuban elements, which helped me improve my styling. I started going out to Cuban salsa nights at nearby restaurants and bars and to Salsa by the Lake, a periodic daytime salsa event. I danced at a salsa block party and went to a salsa house party. I joined Miguel’s performance group and performed salsa for the first time at the 2015 Salsa Rueda Festival in San Francisco.

Many of these salsa activities have been shared with Diana and Miguel. Last weekend, we all danced at the second annual International Salsa Rueda Flashmob – which I considered our “anniversary” 🙂 I’m so thankful for their warmth and friendship.

With Miguel, our dance teacher extraordinaire :)

I realized that saying “yes” that first time to an unknown event that sparked my curiosity set the stage for a year of joyful dancing. The more I just showed up, the more people I got to know, and the more I started to feel like a part of this community.

And that feeling is so important. What fun is dancing if you can’t share it with others who feel the same passion, joy and curiosity?

I still have so much to learn in order to improve as a dancer, and I’d like to develop deeper friendships with my fellow dancers, but right now I’m just amazed and grateful for how different my life is from a year ago! And it all started with saying “yes” to something new.


Tell me in the comments: Do you have a dance tribe? How did you find them? If not, what are you doing to find your tribe?

My First Salsa Performance! Lessons Learned + Video

The women of Hot Timba: Mellissa (l), me, and Tola (r)

In February, I did something I’ve never done before! It took three months of rehearsals and was over in 3 1/2 minutes. Even though I was really nervous leading up to it, when the time came, it was so much FUN and the crowd seemed to really love it. Also, I didn’t fall on my face in my 3″ heels …. victory!

It was my FIRST salsa performance!

Here are a few things I learned leading up to it:

  • I can’t control everything and it’s OK if it’s not perfect. In the last few weeks before our performance, I was getting really nervous. After months of practice, we had finally finished the choreography, but we were a long way from having it nailed down. I wanted to try to use my project management and strategy skills to organize the process so I would feel more secure about our progress, but that was a level of control I didn’t have. It wasn’t my group, it was my teacher’s. I finally let go of my perfectionist expectations and realized that I was just going to do the best I could do and it would be what it would be.
  • In my longing to be a better dancer, I sometimes forget how far I’ve come. As I dealt with my nerves about the performance, I realized I was focusing a lot on the negative: what we hadn’t learned yet, what we hadn’t perfected, where I thought we’d fall short during the performance. But I made a mental shift to look at what we had accomplished and I realized there was a lot. We were learning all new choreography, some of which was pretty complicated. We had come a long way from our first rehearsal together and so much of our dancing was looking really tight.
  • The men of Hot Timba: Hebert, Miguel and James

    The process is exhausting and also fun and inspiring. Due to our conflicting work schedules, we practiced 2-3 times per week for months, from about 9:30-11:30 pm. Before we started, I had been practicing for another performance and caught a cold. Once salsa rehearsals picked up speed, the cold kept coming back to haunt me – it was very difficult to fully heal with our late-night practices and a demanding full-time job. But once I was in rehearsal, if I could shut out the outside world, there was no other place I’d rather be. I loved everyone in my group – we got along great and all shared a sense of fun and humor while being conscientious about doing our best. I feel like we really bonded and I truly miss seeing them every week.

  • I need to perform more so it will scare me a little bit less each time. Did I mention I was nervous about this performance? I was REALLY nervous. I think performing in an official salsa festival put more pressure on me because I felt that I had a bigger obligation to deliver something terrific for the organizers, teachers and students. I know that if I perform more often, those nerves will be less nauseating.
  • I’m inspired to organize my own performance. I think I have a pretty even split of creativity and strategic/organizational thinking. I’d like to put my theory to the test – that I could choreograph and collaborate in a creative way, while also being organized and goal-oriented so that the process of preparing for a performance isn’t so chaotic and stressful.

All in all, it was an amazing experience. When we performed, the energy of the crowd was fantastic and I had my husband and a few close friends in the audience who encouraged and inspired me so much. Once I walked onto the floor, I just went into performer mode – I felt confident, I stayed calm, and I just focused on having fun with the crowd. It was a blast!

So, here it is, Hot Timba’s performance at the 2015 Salsa Rueda Festival with the amazing Miguel A Vazquez (our teacher and choreographer), Tola Williams, James Wiester, Hebert Aguilar and Mellissa Katarina! I’m very proud of what we accomplished together. (Special shout out to Diana Manning, a fellow dancer who helped us with almost all of our rehearsals while she recovered from an injury, and recorded this video!)

(E-mail subscribers – please click above on the title of this post to view the video.)

Weekend Inspiration: From Dystonia to Dance

This is an incredible snapshot of how dance can help us heal – not just emotionally, but physically.

Federico Bitti suffers from dystonia, a disease that causes involuntary muscle movement. His condition was not improving, despite traditional medical treatment, until Madonna entered the picture.

Yes, you read that right. Check it out:

Giraffes CAN Dance and So Can You

I read a kids’ book this weekend while visiting a girlfriend who was my inspiration to learn salsa. It’s called “Giraffes Can’t Dance”.

It’s about Gerald the giraffe, who’s awkward and clumsy when he tries to dance. He goes to a party with his animal pals and while the lions can tango and the warthogs can waltz, he embarrasses himself with his graceless moves.

He’s convinced he can’t dance and he runs away while the other animals laugh at him. (Very mean animals!)

It reminded me of people I’ve talked to who have told me, “I can’t dance.”

That always breaks my heart just a little bit.

Not because I think everyone should be as in love with dancing as I am, but because, more often than not, I quickly learn that they CHOOSE not to dance because they don’t THINK they can.

They’ve come to accept a belief about arts and creativity that is very harmful, which is: “You’re not good at this. Therefore, you shouldn’t do this.”

It’s not true. Because the truth is something closer to, “I choose not to dance because I feel insecure about my skill level.” But instead we say, “I can’t.”

Now, if dancing is not something you enjoy, and you don’t want to do it, that’s cool. But if you don’t dance because you’re convinced there is some skill or talent level you have to reach before you’re allowed to do it, then I’m here to tell you – No.

And, you’re not getting off the hook that easy.

There are many different ways to explore life as a dancer. Your journey may be to find the confidence to just enjoy dance. To dance at weddings, on the street, or in your living room and not care what anyone thinks – to just have FUN moving your body to music, technique be damned.

Or, you may be fascinated by specific styles and you want to learn the technique, the language of the dance. You may come upon a dance style that grabs a hold of your heart and inspires and transforms you. And then you can study with different teachers, experiment with new moves and try performing. You may turn into a dancer that other people look at and think, “Wow! She’s amazing!

Either way, you’re a dancer.

So, back to our sweet, sad giraffe who wants to dance but “can’t”.

He runs off from the party and happens upon a cricket, who wisely advises him to concentrate on the beauty of the moon and the gentle night breezes. Gerald breathes and sways while the cricket plays his violin and before he knows it – he’s dancing!

The other animals take notice of this “miracle” and are captivated by Gerald’s boogy-licious leaping, flipping and turning.

And then Gerald speaks the truth:

“Then he raised his head and looked up

at the moon and stars above.

‘We all can dance,’ he said.

‘When we find music that we love.’

Giraffes can dance. And so can you. Find the music that you love, dance your butt off, and don’t let “I can’t” stand in your way.


Getting Honest

I’ve been working on honesty here at Follow My Lead.

A big part of the reason I started this project was to encourage and support anyone who wants to dance to feel empowered to do so. The thought that anyone would WANT to dance but hold back because they’re embarrassed or afraid breaks my heart.

For most of my life, I’ve talked about how much joy it brings me, how much I LOVE to dance. And my friends, family and colleagues all know that and have seen that love and passion in action.

But it’s not so easy to talk about the other emotions that seem to flare up so easily: the envy, the insecurity, the body hate.

It’s necessary though. It helps me learn and heal, for sure. But I also want to be real. I don’t think it means much to have someone who has studied dance for their entire lives to encourage everyone to “just get out there!”, “have fun!”, “feel the joy!”

Because it’s scary to dance. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people and feel like you’re coming up short. It’s hard to feel comfort and love for your body.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to just talk about how dance is joy in motion, how it’s a form of human communication that spans our globe, how it’s a spiritual experience, how it is so much FUN. It is all of those things.

But it ain’t easy.

I know you have to get over some fears and make yourself vulnerable. You’re not alone. My fear is that if people really knew what I was thinking, knew how insecure I was, they wouldn’t like me. They’d think I was negative and weak.

So I write about it. The times when I dance and I feel love, freedom and joy. And the times I feel unworthy, envious and insecure.

Those feelings are scary for me to admit. Maybe as scary as it is for someone who’s never danced to get out on that dance floor at his cousin’s wedding. Or for someone who doesn’t fit society’s extremely narrow definition of physical beauty to put on some tights and take a ballet class.

We’re all scared sometimes. Dance is frightening because it’s so powerful. I think we can make it less so by sharing the journey together. And I can only share it with you if I’m honest about it all.