“Venga, venga! Baile!” – Come, come! Dance!

In a crowded café in Old Havana, I was jostled into the arms of a big black Cuban woman. That was how I first danced Cuban Salsa.

The singer of the band kept waving in passersby from the street, insistent that more could be accommodated no matter how crowded the café got, while gregarious locals rounded up anyone sitting or standing to join them in dance; no one was spared. In the same spirit, I pulled in a foreigner who seemed intent on only observing. My forwardness shocked us both, but the music and the atmosphere dispelled our shyness and we realized just how infectious this dance was.

In that moment, I suddenly understood how this simple dance and its music spread like a contagion in western culture. Cuban and Latino immigrants first introduced dance styles such as Son, Chachacha and Rumba to New York in the 30s and 40s. The dances developed a strong following that spilled from the dance clubs to mainstream culture and by the 60s and 70s, ‘Salsa’ was the widely accepted term for this craze. The origins and definition of the word ‘Salsa’ are debated. Some believe this generalization of Latin music and dance was a marketing ploy for the American audience; some cite that the word was shouted during Latin music performances at the climax or to increase the tempo, while others assert that ‘sauce’ is the word’s only proper meaning. Nevertheless, when I say ‘Salsa’ in the context of dance and music, I am certain that you think of sexy hip swiveling dancers, the Spanish language, ‘Dirty Dancing – Havana Nights’, catchy rhythms and sweat.

Cuban Salsa is known as a unique style due to the influence of Cuba’s ethnically diverse population. The basic Salsa dance steps – three steps to three counts and hip swivel – are danced in a number of ways: From African styles representative of Cuba’s large African population, to ballroom styles – head tall, shoulders back – of European influence, funky styles influenced by Hip Hop to sensual styles that can only have come from Latin America, Cuban Salsa is a sexy fusion of cultures. It expresses the dancer’s identity, unlike other dances that dictate moves based on its history or music.

For many who did not grow up with Salsa in their blood, taking a class helps bring out their own style. Tony, from Havana, was a professional dancer and instructor of all Latin hip-swiveling dances. He was a perfect combination of patience and candor. “It’s like I’m teaching you how to walk,” he remarks in a thick Spanish accent, which could have meant that Salsa was as natural as walking, or that he was appalled at my struggle in something so easy. I was inclined to agree with the latter. I’ve observed many Cubans for whom Salsa is as natural as walking, but for me, that hip swivel is one of the hardest moves to achieve – it must be apparent without being overtly deliberate, flow with the rest of the body yet seem to move in isolation from the body. Go ahead, I challenge all you non-Salsa dancers to watch a YouTube video and try to move like them on the first attempt! Sensing my frustration, Tony lets me in on a trade secret and attests that every suave looking dancer practices a lot and in front of a mirror, though he or she may deny it. Upon my inquiry, he assured me that he too practiced in front of a mirror.

In addition to practicing, Tony advised me to watch other dancers and experiment with different dance partners. Since footwork plays a lesser role than do style and expression, there is only so much that can be taught in the first class. With his helpful tips fresh in my mind, I couldn’t wait to hit the dance clubs. His last remark, “Salsa makes you very hot,” will always amuse me. Did he mean that I had become very attractive to the opposite sex, or was he was referring to temperature as dancing was very good exercise? I resolved to find out for myself.

The most revealing snapshot of Cuban culture is found wherever there is dance and music, be it in the streets, cafes, dance clubs, or any impromptu setting. There, you’ll see energetic, showy couples dancing alongside old and lovely ones, as some learn their first steps and others display moves like you’ve never seen. The atmosphere is fun, diverse, welcoming and distinctly Cuban. If nothing else, Cuban Salsa will definitely make you very hot.

After returning home, Cuban music was running through my mind and I was itching to dance. I found some Salsa clubs in the city that I will be trying soon. When I’m there, and if I see you standing around, I’ll be sure to invite you like only a Cuban would – ¡Venga, venga! Baile!