Salsa dancing – as any foreigner knows – is a difficult business.
First, the men have to learn how to lead and, particularly difficult for independent women, the girls have to be prepared to follow.
Then there are the turns – the signals for when to start and when to stop – the fast bits, the slow bits, the dramatic final flourishes.
Well, if all that wasn’t complex enough: imagine having to negotiate Colombia’s famously fast footwork on a pair of 6ft wooden legs. That’s right, salsa dancing on a pair of stilts.
It’s an art that has to be seen to be believed, but it’s one of the many brilliant acts in Cali’s salsa circus and alone, probably worth the 90,000 peso ticket fee.
Delirio – the salsa circus’s official title – is celebrating its five-year anniversary this month and its new show, Bombo, is the perfect way to start a weekend of rumba in Colombia’s salsa capital.
Of course, there are the clowns, the devils and the daring trapeze artists. Then there are the tiny sequin dresses, the winning smiles and the principal dancers whose feet move so quickly they almost cease to exist.
Throw all of that into a huge circus tent on a balmy night in a city park, add a bottle of rum and 1,000 enthralled Colombians and you have yourself a party.
Probably the best thing about starting your Cali weekend at Delirio – which has shows on the last Friday of every month – is that every peso spent there will be doing this troubled city some good.
The circus is a not-for-profit organisation that recruits its child performers from across Cali’s salsa schools, including those found in the deprived areas that are so dangerously ripe for gang recruitment.
The circus’ founders – four Cali women – hope they are offering some of those children an escape route.
But don’t be fooled into thinking these children are in the circus for charity. Oh no. They are undoubtedly among the evening’s most talented performers, moving with the same precision, flight of foot and rhythm as any of their adult colleagues.
You don’t have to be a salsa fan to enjoy this show but, if you’re not, you may be feeling slightly nervous by now at the quality of dancing Cali has to offer. It can be a highly intimidating start, particularly as Delirio is based in the city’s Parque del Amor, a mere stone’s throw from some of the liveliest bars in the Menga district.
The trick, it seems, with Cali is not to show any fear. Enter any of Menga’s bars – the half outdoor Café Mi Tierra is particularly good – and you will see dancers so exquisite they could almost be professional.
(Just remember they are still Colombians and as keen as any of their countrymen to show their visitors a great night.)
My friend and I – both of us so obviously blonde and blue-eyed – were happy to sit quietly at our table, watching the spectacle unfold. We both love salsa but this is salsa and well, it would probably be enough just to watch and absorb.
But, of course, there is always someone brave enough to ask an obvious foreigner to dance and, once the floodgates are open, it’s downright churlish to refuse any of the partners who come your way. It’s the only way to improve, we told ourselves, negotiating the heady switches between salsa, merengue, bachata and reggaeton.
The night passed in a blur and the party was still raging at long gone 4am when we decided it really was time to make our farewells.
A few of our dance partners pulled faces of mock disappointment.
“But this is Cali,” they grinned. “The night is just getting started.”
It might well be, but so was the dawn and flights home to Bogota won’t wait for anyone, not even two exhausted rumberas.
Our promises to return though, were genuine.