Episode 2: The Joy and Pain of Salsa in Havana

Salsa dancing in Havana is a dream come true – and a big challenge if you want to keep up with the sexiest salsa dancers in the world – Cubanos!

Join me as I navigate the ups and downs of improving my salsa styling and my following skills – in the classroom and at the hottest dance spots in Havana.

(Can’t see the images or video? Click here to watch it on YouTube)

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There are six episodes total – come with me on this journey! Join the conversation on Facebook AND subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Dreams Don’t Have Deadlines

Follow My Lead dreams don't have deadlines

For years I dreamed of studying dance in Cuba.

And not just on vacation. But really settling in and IMMERSING myself.

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be – physically and emotionally.

But I gave myself the gift of living this dream. Not because I’m 25 and “this is the time to do it”. But because I’m NOT 25 anymore and THIS is the time to do it!

I didn’t want to wait anymore. I didn’t want to do what I thought I “should” do.

I wanted to do what I desired more than anything in the world.

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And now I’m sharing my experience with you – in the hopes that it will inspire you to follow your own sense of adventure, wherever it may take you and no matter where you are in your life (and it looks different for all of us!)

Join me on this journey: Episode 1 of the Follow My Lead: Havana web series is live on Facebook (/melissadances).

AND you can subscribe to my YouTube channel (/FollowMyLeadTV).

** EPISODE 2 COMES OUT ON MONDAY, FEB 19!! **

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.

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.

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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?

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.

Weekend Inspiration: Take Me to Church

I love this song and I love this video – and I’m certainly not alone! As of this posting, it had racked up over 7 million views on YouTube.

If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now and get ready to feel a painful longing to just quit your job, start over, and devote your life to being able to dance like this man. (Or was that just me?)

It features “ballet bad boy” Sergei Polunin dancing to Hozier’s hit song “Take Me to Church”. Polunin’s grace, strength, and precision combine powerfully with his emotional expression of the dance. It’s enthralling.

(Email subscribers: Click through to the blog post to see the embedded 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!

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

Learning the Steps is Easy

Something I realized recently is that most of the challenges I have studying dance have less to do with any actual styles or steps I’m learning and more to do with just dealing with my own shit.

The steps are simple, in a way. It’s clear to me that if I commit myself to learning a dance and I keep practicing, I will improve. This has happened before and it will happen again. So the easy thing would be to keep going to classes and blissing out to that fascinating process of gradually learning and mastering new steps, secure in the knowledge that I’ll keep improving and becoming a better dancer. This would be very fun!

But, no.

My mind loves to fixate on what’s wrong.

I learned the steps of the choreography, but didn’t get the style right.

I’m so tight and inflexible that I can’t properly do all of these steps and I bet everyone thinks I’m old and pathetic.

Ugh, my teacher loooves that other dancer so much. Sigh. She should love her – she’s an awesome woman inside and out and I adore her too! I’m the one that sucks.

Sprinkled in with the joy and exhilaration of dance are so many other painful feelings: insecurity, jealousy, frustration, self-loathing, disappointment.

But there’s an upside to this. What dance illuminates, I can heal. If it weren’t for my dance classes, I wouldn’t necessarily get such stark reminders of how much I need to practice loving and accepting myself – being KIND to myself. When so much insecurity and jealousy comes up for me, I know that’s a part of myself that needs healing.

Dance truly does make me feel joyful and blissful. But it does more than that. When I’m open to looking at ALL of the feelings that come up when I dance – the good and the bad – that’s when dance transforms me.

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Do you find that dance brings up joy and pain for you too? How does dance transform you? I’d love to hear from you – talk to me in the comments!