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.

Act Like a Dancer

For me, stretching regularly is always a challenge. It feels like such a chore – especially since I need it so much, so it is rarely comfortable or relaxing.

I know I should take rest and stretch breaks from my computer during the day at work, but I find myself forgetting, putting it off, or just feeling kind of demoralized and apathetic about the state of my body.

Over the last three years or so, as I’ve become more immersed in a 9 to 5 computer-based office job (previously I was self-employed and spent less time sitting at a computer all day), I’ve gained around 15-20 pounds, lost strength, flexibility and muscle tone, and become more prone to fatigue and minor colds.

This depresses rather than motivates me, so I continue my routine of sitting with my laptop all day.

Then, last week, during a massage for neck and jaw tension, a thought popped into my head:

What if I identified as a dancer first, and an office worker second?

It would be a priority to move and stretch regularly throughout the day because I’m a dancer and that’s what I need – and more importantly – want to do.

As a marketing specialist, I need to answer emails, research sales data and run conference calls. As a dancer, I need to take five minutes here and there to stretch my neck, massage my feet and do a few pliés, as well as taking a walk break to move and get fresh air.

I knew I would need a reminder of this to keep it top of mind and start a new routine, so I drew this and placed it near my computer at work:

It’s been about a week and I’m happy to say – it’s working!

My mindset has shifted. I don’t feel bad about having tension and tightness (“boohoo, my computer is slowly killing me”) and needing to stretch it out because if I were a full-time dancer, I’d be doing the same thing and probably dealing with painful injuries to boot.

Without those negative feelings, in the past week I have enthusiastically:

  • Taken several walk breaks at lunchtime
  • Gone to the gym twice
  • Taken a Reggaeton Fusion dance class (and heading to another one tonight!)
  • Done yoga on my own at home and taken a power yoga class
  • Taken time to step away from my laptop to gently stretch

There’s such a difference between “should” and “want”. As an employee with a desk job, I “should” take breaks to care for my body and prevent chronic computer-sitting tension and weakness. But as a dancer I “want” to move and stretch and bend. It’s such a simple part of who I am and what I do. Easy!

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Do you have a similar challenge when it comes to what you “should” do for your body to stay healthy and feeling good? How do you deal with it? Tell me in the comments!