February 27 2020
Salsa here is huge. It's on the same level as plantains, rice, and the diversity of fruit. I probably should have known this prior to my embarking and arrival, but to be completely honest, I was charmingly caught off guard when I discovered just how big salsa is in Medellin, Colombia.
I am not a dancer. That simple, thoughtless elegance that is dancing has never been my God-given gift, so I was a bit wary of learning to dance salsa. Which, by the way, you have to learn. Why do you have to learn salsa, you ask? Because otherwise you will spend most of your weekends and the odd weeknight sitting at a table bored out of your mind. Most every club and bar I have gone to, at some point, turn their vibe to dancing salsa. The early part of the evening might give way to easy-drinking music and your classic club music, but it will take a turn a few hours into the night.
You will, and must, dance salsa. But more then that, it's fun and cultural. Which are two things everyone wants to be, right?
The lucky thing for me (and all who are undertaking the process of learning) is that salsa steps are easy, patterned, and put on repeat. This is where YouTube or Google can get you there real fast.
The language school I am studying Spanish here in Medellin had a salsa and empanada making class last week which I happily signed up to participate in. Within an half an hour, most of us were dancing, and if not well, at least not badly. Most people here seek out private classes, and it's fairly easy to find a teacher nearby for hour lessons daily or weekly.
People here want to be masters of the salsa. They will go out of their way to study, learn from their betters, and spend hours mastering the different styles of salsa. Why? Because going out and being that good makes it all so much more fun. (I wouldn't yet know this feeling, but watching the good ones on the floor has led me to believe such.)
My experiences thus far in practicing my hard-learned steps has been really positive. Friends and strangers alike want to teach you and help you look effortlessly graceful. It also helps that I'm a lady and having a good lead makes all the difference.
And after a few songs if you just can't bring yourself to step-step along, grab a beer and watch the experts go at it. There is something so graceful, simple, and energetic about watching a great couple dance salsa. It's both beautiful and subtly sexy with the closeness of hands, the spinning of bodies, and the swinging of hips.
Medellin is not the place that is known for Salsa (though you will find it here and anywhere in the country.) That award goes to a different city 16 hours away by bus: Cali.
But before the music got to Colombia, it all started in the 1900's in Cuba. From there it spread to the United States in places like New York and Los Angeles, and then south into the Latin American cultures.
Everyone knows Colombia’s history with cartels and narcotics, but while these dubious activities are part of the country’s history, they also made salsa popular. In the ’70s and ’80s the influx of money to the city allowed for a large number of bars and clubs to be created. Live bands were normal, and popular artists were flown in by private jets to play in swanky clubs and mansions. After the elimination of the drugs and violence, the city’s economy fell and so did the luxurious music venues and live shows. Although this is true, it was the local record stores, general stores and libraries that preserved the city’s salsa roots and maintained the rhythms that kept the city’s love for the music going.
Having never been into salsa before arriving here in Medellin, it's been amazing to watch and learn. I've been floored by the amount of expats taking private lessons, and then watching them hit the dance floor like pros. Whatever you do, don't leave Colombia without gathering your courage for at least one night out dancing. You'll have a blast, and it will help to offset your heavy consumption of fried food.