The basement is cramped and sweaty. The floor is sticky with spilt alcohol and the squelch and pivot of a hundred shoes. Yet the energy is palpable. Salsa, bachata, merengue, reggaeton – rhythm pulsates across this tiny space, casting a possessive trance over the tipsy and the lively. Some sway, some twirl, some simply enjoy the sight of others losing themselves in music. Men, women, young and old find themselves in a beautiful, spontaneous choreography of alternating partners. Together we spin and fly into the arms of dawn, and together, we succumb to the magic of dance.
This is where my love story begins. In a tiny dig called “El Cafe Latino” in Roppongi, Tokyo, I discovered the joys of Latin dancing. The highlights of my days (or nights) of that Japanese summer were the hours spent in pure joy as my body moved to the power of a foreign beat. The music cascaded in rhythms that demanded a physical response; melodies that played over and over again became familiar sounds that awoke an energy inside me I never knew I had.
I departed Tokyo with one conviction only: I want to be a dancer.
The thing about falling in love with Latin dancing is whether you look for it or not, it follows you. Just days into my stay in South Korea, I found myself in another salsa club, “Bulldog” – that infamous hub in Itaewon that is known for its sketchy men, tequila shots, and flaming dancefloor.
The trouble is, shaking it out to Danza Kuduro and Romeo Santos’ innumerable love songs will only get you so far. After stepping on too many toes and bewilderedly trying to follow the steps of my unfortunate dance partners, I realized that I would have to take classes if I was going to pursue this more seriously.
I joined JDC Dance Academy in Seoul and can honestly say that it was one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made. My passion grew. On top of the stress of my academic load, two internships, and the general angst of being a young adult in the modern world, dance became an energizing escape where I could switch off the overworked side of my mind and become alive to that part in me that responds to energy, music, people, and feeling..
I began with two hours of dance classes twice a week – 8 pm to 10 pm – usually followed by one or two hours of social dancing, and then another good 5 to 6 hours spent at salsa clubs on the weekend. In other words, I threw myself into dance-overload!
But oh, the joy! The pure ecstasy of those midnight hours! The funny thing is, I found myself in situations that in any other context would unnerve. Imagine getting up close with a man 40 years your senior and surviving - in fact, actually enjoying - three sets of songs that take you through a whole range of bodily motions. Imagine having to stare your barely acquainted partner deep in the eyes while your Colombian instructor implores you all to “really feel each other, show that conne-shon” and constantly reminds the males to “make your ladies feel extra special”.
Let me not be misinterpreted - partner dances are not all harmonious moves and romantic gazes. There are definitely some partners who make you yearn for the final note of the song, and adamantly cast your gaze past their shoulders to avoid all eye contact. But generally, the beauty about dances shared with strangers is that they provide a context in which the expression of confidence, the flair and joie de vivre know no bounds. It generally is entirely safe and entirely safe, your confidence knows no bounds, is entirely safe and works down in breaking down the barriers that so commonly hold us captive.
Latin dancing taught me to be comfortable with moving my body around other people - an act so basic and human that it seems insignificant. Yet it is an essential counterbalance to the confined, overly cerebral lives so many of us live, either schooled in academia or spending long hours in offices. It frees us.
Dance was an outlet for expressing my femininity, and having that demeanor received with respect and admiration. I enjoyed smiling more, making an effort with how I carried myself, and sharing an unspoken, exciting, yet safe physical experience with a fellow human being in which there was no pretence and no expectation. The boost in confidence, especially around the opposite sex, is unimaginable. You feel in possession of your own energy, and that boundless energy seems to work a powerful attraction on others - yet it is always under your own control.
Progression of dance between June 2018 and December 2018
If I were to sum up my experience of learning Latin dance, it is in the word joy. How often do we get the opportunity to lose ourselves in a social activity that is exercise, skill, relationship, and emotional energy all in one? It’s so important to find something that wakes you up on the inside; reminds you that the fullness of life is shared with others, and that you have the capacity to experience those heights of happiness that seem so unattainable when you are wallowing in your lows. Some turn to substances for this drive, others simply never find it due to their own aversion to risk and uncertainty. I found it in dance, and for that I am forever grateful. For now, it’s a personal love story constantly unfolding.