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.

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.)

Feeling Intimidated? Ask Them to Dance Anyway

My friend and I were talking the other day about guys not asking her to dance salsa. A lot of times she’ll have to ask them to dance and at some point they’ll tell her, “I never asked you before because I was too intimidated!”

This frustrated and confused her a bit, because she is a very friendly, modest and down-to-earth person. She’s not dancing from her ego or showing off, she’s genuinely enjoying herself and usually smiling the whole time! So, to her, the fact that she could be perceived as “intimidating” didn’t make much sense.

I got it though. When I first saw her dancing, I was completely intimidated just as another female follower in the same room!

The thing that makes her dancing intimidating is that it is immediately obvious that she knows more than just the steps. Her movements are fluid and complex, stemming from her knowledge of African dance, and more specifically Afro-Cuban dance – the roots of salsa. When I see someone who clearly embodies the richness of a certain dance style, it inspires me to step up my game, but it also makes me think twice about whether I’m ready to dance with that person.

Sometimes you just have to go for it though.

In my experience with salsa, most dancers are friendly and non-judgmental (and they remember when they were beginners themselves!). I wouldn’t ever try to monopolize a more advanced dancer’s time, but from time to time it’s definitely important to step out of your comfort zone and ask someone better than you to dance (leader or follower).

You may surprise yourself and dance quite well! You might also be completely out of your element and get the chance to recognize your weak spots – and that’s a great opportunity to focus your ongoing study of dance.

And don’t forget one of the most important elements of partner dancing that has little to do with your level of technique – your energy! Your unique personality and way of expressing joy and humor all comes through in the way you dance. Let it! This is the essence of our connections to our partners and it is just as meaningful as technique for your partner’s enjoyment of the experience.

So, next time you’re out dancing, I challenge you to a little experiment: Put a smile on your face and ask that intimidating person to dance. Who knows what you might discover!

***

Tell me in the comments – how do you deal with feeling intimidated by another dancer?

A Little Salsa Inspiration: Life Eternal through Music & Dance

Celia Cruz was fucking awesome. ¡Azucar!

One of my favorite Celia Cruz songs is “Yo Viviré”. If you don’t know Celia, she was one of the most accomplished and beloved salsa singers of our time (and hearing her song “La Vida Es Un Carnival” in Costa Rica for the first time started my love affair with salsa dancing).

She released the song “Yo Viviré” shortly before her death in 2003. It sounds like a salsa version of the Gloria Gaynor disco hit “I Will Survive”. But if you listen carefully to the lyrics, you’ll hear that Celia isn’t saying “I will survive”; she’s saying “I will live on”.

En el alma de mi gente, en el cuero del tambor

En las manos del congero, en los piés del bailador

Yo viviré, allí estaré

~

In the soul of my people, in the leather of the drum,

In the hands of the conga player, in the feet of the dancer,

I will live on, I will be there.*

The entire song is a tribute to the eternal love, language and relationship between singer, musician and dancer. Every beat, every step, every note that we experience came from somewhere. And when we sing, play or dance, we embody it all – the people, the culture, the history, the emotions – and we create a new legacy.

It’s not a little thing. It’s a part of the human experience to enjoy, savor, to revel in. Take a few minutes to listen to the song and dance, sing or play wherever you are. Know that it’s not just you dancing, singing or playing –  it’s all of us.

 

*My quick Spanish translation, may not be perfectly accurate, but it’s damn close.

When Your Dancing Feet Betray You

More often than not, when I go out salsa dancing, I have a blast.

But last night, I felt “off”. As soon as I stepped on the dance floor I sensed it.The floor seemed slippery and I felt unsteady on my feet.

One problem was that I didn’t really click with my partners. I felt a bit unbalanced and they felt rough in their leads. Complicated moves, which I can often follow very smoothly, were requiring immense concentration. I felt like I had to think a lot.

I watched other women dance and so many of them were dancing effortlessly and improvising with the music. One woman was killing it while wearing little glasses perched on her nose! (How was she doing that without them flying off?!)

Usually, salsa is a blissful combination of focus and surrender. Last night just felt like tiring work. I was barely noticing the music and certainly wasn’t having tons of fun.

I came home sweaty and tired, but feeling bummed out rather than tingling with joy.

I’m still feeling it today and I know I need to shake it off. Here are the steps I’ve come up with:

  • Chill. Everyone has a bad night. Just because I wasn’t dancing my best doesn’t mean that I’m the clumsiest, unsexiest, uncoordinated dancer in the world. I was just off. It happens and it’ll happen again. But I’ll still have “on” nights too.
  • Physical exhaustion makes for sub-par dancing. I was pretty tired and thought I’d get a second wind (it was 9:30 pm on a work night, after all!) I downed some Pepsi before starting, but I don’t think I really had the physical energy I needed to be on my game.
  • Sometimes dance partners don’t match. I really wasn’t feeling much chemistry with my dance partners. Some were too goofy, some were too rough, some were too soft. It’s nothing against them, it just wasn’t clicking. In a partner dance like salsa, chemistry is crucial.
  • Rest and then get back on the horse. My dancing confidence is pretty low right now, but I know I need to keep trying to feel good again. Tomorrow night is another salsa night at a club that I haven’t tried before. There’s a lesson and a new crowd of dancers to get to know. I’ll rest my body, warm up with a lesson and then approach it with an open mind.
  • Enjoy life as a dance student. I’ve been salsa dancing on and off for 10 years, but I still haven’t reached the advanced level that I’d like to be at. I see other dancers and get frustrated and jealous because I’m still messing up, dancing sloppy or having off nights (which I assume they never have!). But I think it would be helpful for me to shift my perspective and try to enjoy the process of getting better, realizing areas for improvement and then learning more.

Has this ever happened to you – either with dancing or something else that you’re really good at and usually brings you relaxation and joy? How do you bounce back from an “off night”?