Hips, feet and a Latin beat: In defence of blonde girls

The pub was crowded because it’s always crowded – a dark, careworn, beer-drenched Bogotá public house that was thronged with people grinding and twirling, bumping and salsa-ing. That’s right. Dancing. And you thought that never happened in pubs.

The place was impenetrable until a large Colombian man pushed his way through the dance floor, felling couples in every direction with his height and bulky build. Captain America amid a sea of slender mountain folk. The kind of man you remember.

“I know that guy!” I squealed excitedly.

“What the fat one?” my friend replied, with typical Colombian forthrightness.

“Yes!” I grinned. “He goes to my dance class.”

(I may have lived here for more than two years but I’m still excited when I spot a familiar face among the millions of rumberos who head out on a Saturday night)

As the man mountain progressed through the sea, he passed close to our little table. Close enough for me, with a wide grin and cheery tones, to say hello. He looked startled. Then he scuttled away, like an oversized crab.

“Ha!” my friend snorted, reaching for his beer.

“I knew you didn’t know that fat guy. Why would that guy go to a dance class?”

Why indeed? Well, actually, I dance, so I know the answer to that. I was more preoccupied with why you would blank a woman you’d danced beside for the past 18 months – particularly a woman who is memorably the only blonde in your class.

Perhaps there’s a first rule of dance class and, in his defence, half of my friends have no idea I go to that same little class, week after week, either – doing my bit of salsa, my touch of merengue, my mash-up of cumbia and reggaeton before going home happy. I know the steps so well I don’t even concentrate. I just like that bit of time to myself.

I remember the ‘fat’ guy’s first class too. He’d slunk in looking terrified, hiding himself at the back for six months until he emerged from his personal body-image-laced chrysalis and bopped and glided along elegantly with the best of them. Having witnessed this transformation, I thought he might at least acknowledge me. Apparently not.

Dance is a funny thing in this country. We foreign girls have all been in expat crowds, hearing the same tired old lines: “Foreign girls can’t dance,” we hear them whine. “Colombian girls are just so sexy but foreign girls can’t use their hips. In fact, I find it embarrassing when they even try.”

I roll my eyes because I love salsa and I love salsa clubs and I love watching men and women – generally Colombian – who are amazing at it. They transform tight jeans and knee-high boots, t-shirts and sweaty hair into an art form.  They switch between salsa beats as diverse as J Alvarez and Gilberto Santa Rosa without missing a step. I would pay to watch them. Sometimes, I do.

It’s probably why I started dancing myself. The woman looked so flexible and beautiful, so happy and sexy. It was addictive. Then I met the sort of people who attend dance classes in this country. They are just like me, except they were born here – and they’re embarrassed because they don’t look, or move, like the women in those clubs.

How can that be? How can it be that you grow up in a nation like Colombia and possess no inherent ability to salsa? Can it be that just like in England, where we’re baptised into rock and the rest of it, that some people can dance and others simply cannot?

In the beginning, I was terrible. Unbelievably terrible. I used to grit my teeth – particularly when tutors ‘helpfully’ grabbed my hips – and think of Colombian girls dancing to rock or, better, the time I saw a Colombian girl enthusiastically dance the Argentine tango. That tango is detached, dramatic and entirely wiggle free. You can imagine it.

But eighteen months have passed now and I’m better. A whole lot better, in fact, because I’m one of the lucky ones. Some of the others – including my oversized friend – are a whole lot better too. We’d probably venture to say we ‘can’ dance salsa now (even though I still say: “No, will you show me?” when anyone asks – just in case it’s a boy from Cali. It’s not worth the risk)

There are others in my class though and I love them even though they can’t hear a beat and they can’t move their hips, because they laugh and smile anyway. Dance is exhilarating, transformative and it’s ever so good for your curves. There’s no shame in being bad. Those girls might never dare to dance at Galeria Cafe Libro, but it’s not like they’ll lose their passport. There’s no ‘Colombian girl’ exam… is there?

The other day I danced with a guy and he looked at me in astonishment.

“Wow,” he said, confused.

“You dance like a Colombian girl.”

“Thanks,” I said, feeling chuffed. But then I remembered that I know a little secret.

“Er, sorry,” I continued.

“But exactly which kind of Colombian girl do you mean?”

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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7 Comments

  1. Ceri

    Haha, I always thought that EVERYONE in this country could dance. Just going to clubs or seeing them at public street events, everyone looked like a professional dancer whether they were doing the salsa, the tango or whatever else. I literally took two salsa classes a few months ago and now have the most basic steps down and it’s only now that I realise how little most people actually know here. It’s like I – the weird pale Brit girl – are showing them up for being a better dance than them. So strange!

  2. Leslie

    How fun! I love dancing, too. Strangely enough, my Colombian husband didn’t learn salsa until he moved to the states! We met salsa dancing and he had me fooled…looked like he’d been doing it for years!

  3. Anna

    I used to go a lot to salsa clubs when I lived in Paris, but here in Peru nobody seems to dance salsa…People in their thirties all into electronic music, and there are great parties, but still I find it a pity that people are not more interested in their own musical traditions.

  4. erinfrances

    Love it. I was just in Cali and was amazed by the skill. Then, of course, I turned a corner into other parts of Colombia and met all those people in your dance class! I sometimes get flack for being an Aussie who can’t surf…though, only non-Aussies would think that was strange 🙂

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