Moving to the Latin beat
Every year in the spring my school has a rally where students watch performances from the dance clubs. At my first spring rally in March 2011 they were all great, but the salsa performance gave me chills because of the fast footwork and stunts. I’d never seen a person lift a girl so high. It looked effortless. One stunt that really shocked me was when a guy jumped over a girl’s shoulder then she fell back into him.
I have always danced for fun at parties, but I had never thought about taking dance lessons. Once I saw the salsa club dance, it inspired me to see if I could do what they were doing. I was excited. But I’m clumsy and I worried that I would be bad at dancing and step on my own feet.
I signed up at the beginning of the next school year. At my first practice a month later I was nervous because I didn’t know anybody in the club. Thankfully, the people treated me like their friend right away.
That day the boys and girls were separated so that we could learn the basic move, which has six steps. I was thinking, “How will I remember that?” For men it starts by stepping forward with your left foot, stomping in place with your right foot and bringing your left leg back next to right foot. Then you step back with your right foot, stomp in place with your left foot and bring your right foot back next to your left.
We learned a simple routine to “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira. They said to feel the rhythm of the music so you know when to move your hips. I was trying to move my hips but they were stiff. I didn’t want other people to look at me. At the end I was tired but when I got home I practiced for two hours until I memorized the steps.
A team member told me one day when I was curious that salsa originated in Cuba. There are different styles—L.A., New York, Colombian and Cuban (we learn L.A. style, which is more dramatic). Salsa music is fast-paced with trumpets and drums. You have to have a lot of energy to dance salsa.
Later we learned more advanced steps. Then we tried the steps with partners. And we learned part of the routine for tryouts to determine who our partners would be.
I practiced so hard for tryouts. To make things more stressful, our advisor, Mr. Soohoo, told us that Angélica Hernández-Ball, one of Southern California’s best salsa dancers, would be there. I was one of the last people to try out and it wasn’t that bad.
The next day I met my partner, Xia. She seemed like a perfect partner because she was short (I’m only 5’1”) and she’s beautiful with a big smile perfect for performing.
Learning basics was pretty easy, but partner work was more complicated. There are combo moves and handwork that can be messed up by one wrong turn. It took the team months to learn parts of the routine and the school rally was in less than two months. So in late January the club presidents arranged a 10-hour practice.
Our day-long practice was exhausting
We learned the entire routine that day. The presidents were encouraging and patient. We went over every detail, like exactly where our hands were supposed to go. I did all three stunts every time we went through the routine, even though at the end I was shaking when I was lifting Xia because my muscles were sore. We went home at eight that night and I plopped down on my bed and didn’t move until the next morning.
One day close to the rally the presidents announced the people who wouldn’t be performing because they hadn’t attended practice. Xia was one of them. My new partner, Jenny, was a little taller than me so we put in extra practice and I was able to spin her around my neck. The salsa team was always the favorite performance and I didn’t want to be the one who messed up.
On March 15, the day of the performance, we had to be at school at 6:30 a.m. so we could run through the routine. There were like 10 ASB members watching as they set up for the rally and I was nervous then. Imagine what it would be like in front of the entire school! I couldn’t sit still in my classes. I got dismissed early from my fourth period and the team met outside the gym. After the previous performance was done, we walked onto the floor and took our beginning pose. It felt like forever waiting for the music to start over the crowd cheering.
My hands were shaking because I felt like everyone was watching me. I chose one person at the top of the stands and stared at her the entire routine just to make sure I was smiling and looking up. Me and Jenny did great, we were full of energy and we didn’t mess up the stunt where I lift her onto my shoulder and she spins onto the other shoulder and lands with one foot on my knee. When the routine was over we had to hold our partners in a dip for 10 seconds as the crowd cheered. Then we lifted the girls up and walked off the floor. I gave Jenny the tightest hug and went around giving out hugs and high fives to everyone saying, “We did it!”
I never thought I’d get the steps down but I was able to learn the routine. After that I wanted to learn more moves and get better.
After the rally we had four more performances for the school year. At our next performance at USC Jenny and I messed up every stunt. I learned that it wasn’t going to go smoothly every time. The next day we went to a competition at our school. There were salsa dancers from all over California and even Mexico who were really good. This time me and Jenny did everything perfectly. The team placed first in the large group division. It felt great.
This year I’m one the team’s dance captains. My responsibilities are to know the routine and teach it to other people. I’m glad that I can help the team improve like the presidents did for me. We recently performed for our school’s fall rally and now we are teaching that routine to the newcomers.
Some people complain at practice that they’re tired, but I’m always happy to go to salsa because when I dance I’m worry free. It takes my mind off of schoolwork and deadlines. I may be tired, sweaty and thirsty while dancing, but I’m happy because I’m doing what I love. Even when there are no crowds I’m always smiling when I dance.
Other stories by this writer:
Surf’s up. It took months to learn, but now Tyler, 15, loves riding the waves. (March – April 2011)