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.

***

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.)

Rest is Not Optional

One of the main reasons I haven’t posted in over two weeks is because right after I wrote about having an “off” night salsa dancing, and needing to get back on the horse again, I got back on the horse again and completely exhausted myself.

Two nights later after that depressing salsa night, I went out salsa dancing again at new place with new teachers. The class broke down the basics in a different way, and I got to dance with some partners who I clicked with. I didn’t mean to stay out late, but I wound up dancing ’till midnight, which meant bedtime at 1 a.m.

Not too bad, except that I had to get up at 6:3 0 a.m. for work. And, that night I had longstanding plans for a friend’s birthday for some all-night drinks and dancing at the Cat Club for 80’s night. We had a blast dancing our butts off until the bouncers kicked us out – and I got home at 3 a.m.

The combination of physical exertion and minimal sleep caught up with me that weekend. I got a cold (fever, sore throat, etc) which was followed by a week or so of congestion and a dry, hacking cough. It took me a while to feel like a normal person again.

All of this was an obvious reminder to me to take care of my body. It’s OK to be in my 30s, in love with dancing, and willing to squeeze it in between normal work and family obligations. It’s OK to have late nights. But I have to remember that I need to rest after exertion – especially if I’ve lost sleep. Otherwise, I’ll suffer – both from being sick and missing out on more dancing!

Today, I exercised for the first time since that dance-crazy week by taking a Zumba class. I decided to consciously give myself some rest (instead of lazing around watching Hulu, playing on my iPad, or stressing about my holiday to-do list). I’m actually surprised by how much I conked out! I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I gave myself the space to rest.

Now I’m awake, about to re-energize a bit with some Rooibos Chai, and writing this post 🙂

Maybe it’s a good reminder to you too. Do you overdo it sometimes and forget to create time and space to rest? I think we all need that – especially with the holidays coming up.

Here’s to good sleep, lots of dancing and plenty of health and energy this winter!