Salsa lessons reached the top of my to-do list recently, just after yet another date had nearly shattered my foot structure mid-salsa stride. This was just the latest of repeat occurrences by multiple offenders; clearly, I was either dancing with the worst of the worst or the fault was mine. Was I missing out on some significant detail – a count, a step – or the art of following the leader? It’s true that I didn’t understand how I was to anticipate the lead man’s moves, which probably explained why I ended up hopping around the floor, grabbing my throbbing, high-heeled foot. It was time for lessons – if nothing else, I owed it to my podiatrist. Sporting closed-toed boots, I set out to learn salsa at some of the hottest dance clubs/studios in town.
‘Pretend you’re waiting impatiently for a taxi,’ instructed Jackson Tan of JJSalsaRengue – my first stop – as he exaggeratedly jutted his hip to one side and sighed anxiously, tapping his toe for that taxi. The class of about 25 all giggled nervously as we mimicked the move. ‘Now switch your weight to the other leg,’ Tan continued. Critiquing the class from my prime position at the back of JJ’s airy studio, I was comforted to note two things: firstly, I wasn’t the only one who had come alone (phew!) and secondly, I was definitely getting this hip sway ‘exercise’. A couple of rather uncoordinated-looking guys in front had their arms out to either side for balance as they shakily switched from one hip bent at Leaning Tower of Pisa angles. Clearly, the class, the first of a six-week course, is meant for beginners.
We proceeded to try out salsa’s most basic move on our newfound hips: a simple forward-then-backward step. The instructor made it sound like a footballer’s strategy to outwit his marker: ‘We’re going to go forward, but we’re not really going to go forward, now we’re coming back to centre. Now we’re going to back, but we’re not really going backward…’ We all followed suit. At the other end of the long, mirrored studio, a tall, dark (and rather handsome) man was concentrating on the steps so much so that he was actually stamping out the beat with his large feet – quick-quick,slow (pause); stamp-stamp, STAMP.
Our instructor felt we were now ready to ‘partner up’ (gulp!). The women were shuffled into an inner circle so that the men, or ‘leaders’ as Tan calls them, can take turns with us, ‘the followers’. My feminist side cringed at the implication, but there was no time to ponder on this as I was paired with none other than one of the stamping Leaning Towers of Pisa. Instinctively, my toes curled under my feet. The music started and we began. Backwards (pause) then forwards; it was part-salsa, part-shuffle.
Tan came over to adjust our rather sad attempt. Trying to guard my feet, I was keeping at arms’ length. So Tan gently scooted me forward, corrected my ‘spaghetti arms’, and told me that this was the key to following – keeping your left arm firm, forearm against his upper arm. In so doing, it actually felt like I was secured in a brace of sorts, and as soon as my partner moved, I felt it and followed. Ay caramba! Suddenly the Tower and I are no longer shuffling, but dancing salsa.
Salsa swinging in Singapore
Xenbar Lumbia The Salsa Club, in Bukit Merah, can be found through a maze of hawker stalls. A small, four-studio extension of ACTFA School of Dance & Performing Arts, it’s located on a rather inaccessible fourth floor behind racks of flamboyant dance shoes. However, Xenbar’s classes – said to take place nightly – are reserved for members only, so you need to join, or you’ll be turned away.
Azzucar! Latin Soul Party in Clarke Quay (now closed) is the real deal: an authentic salsa club to rival those in Cuba. The club’s management and resident dancers are all dazzling, hot-stepping Cubans. Revealing his collection of necklaces with two buttons left undone and sporting pointy white leather kicks, owner Miguel Morales hails from Havana and is reviving weekly open salsa lessons this month. Ushering me to the dimly lit dance floor, he offered me a one-on-one preview.
Side by side, Morales stepped into the thumping salsa rhythms so naturally, I wondered if he’d learned to dance before he walked. I mimicked his steps to the best of my non-Latina abilities. With a flair only a hot-blooded dancer could pull off, he fluidly changed step to the side-to-side version of salsa. Again, I attempted to mirror his moves in this sweaty game of copycat.
‘Salsa is led by the guy,’ Morales reminded me through a heavy Cuban accent. ‘So the woman only has to keep the beat.’ Thanks to the bass, which was so loud it reverberated up my spine in time, it’s not all that hard. Then he added: ‘And she has to look sexy.’ I think I blushed, because this sudden distraction made me trip over myself and lose count. I should have been embarrassed, but I was having too much fun to care. I threw my head back and laughed, and Morales, from under his cap’s shadow, threw me an approving smile.
This story first appeared as 'Shake your hips'.