The basic rule of dancing salsa: Never forget to be happy

The palm of my hands were already moist when I stepped onto the dance floor Monday night for my first salsa lesson in years.

Arriving on Tico-time, I walked into a weekly dance lesson at a language school to find about 25 fellow Gringos and Gringas had started to learn basic steps and also those of the mambo and cumbia. Just like back home in the States, the women outnumbered the men about three to one.

Although I walked in with confidence from the Latin dance lessons I had taken in the past, my German ancestors had only equipped me with a dance moves necessary for a polka and the rhythm necessary to walk in time with a march. More complicated steps and rhythms have always been a challenge.

I tiptoed past the other students into the far corner of the classroom converted into a salsa dance club. There I could catch up without being seen by the rest of the group.

“I just see feet shuffling around,” said our Tica instructor, Jessica Cascante, who appeared to be looking for a more gentle way to observe our progress on a new quickstep that she was teaching but gave up and put it bluntly.

Ms. Cascante, 23, has been dancing to seemingly every Latin rhythm since she was 13 years old, and now doubles as a dance instructor, usually out of her own home, and as a self-employed fashion designer.

Although Ms. Cascante studied to be a fashion designer, becoming a salsa teacher was something thrust upon her.

“At my 16th, I started going out with my friends, and people started asking me about classes, so I first had two or three people, then I had groups of people asking at my house about it,” she explained in an email. “So that’s how I did it . . . and people liked it.”

After an hour of teaching the steps, Ms. Cascante coupled off her students, and several more men trickled into the room.

With all of the elegance of pre-teens at a junior high dance, the men and women had been separated on two sides of the room when Ms. Cascante told them to find a partner.

I ran into a young American named Kiara and we agreed to dance together out of convenience.

“Men: place your hand firmly on her shoulder-blade and keep your elbows up,” Ms. Cascante said, looking around the room.

“No,” she said when her gaze fell on Ms. Kiara and me. “More like here,” she said as she walked over, grabbed my hand and firmly it placed on the center of Ms. Kiara’s back, pulling me six inches closer to my partner.

From there, a dozen or so couples tried to put our newly learned steps into practice with varying degrees of success.

“I need to stop trying to lead you,” Ms. Kaira told me as we attempted to move time after time.

Eventually we sought help from Ms. Cascante, who eventually began leading me in order to demonstrate the importance of keeping a firm arm to not only clearly signal to my partner where to go, but also to guide her movements.

I later learned that Ms. Cascante earned first place in the Costa Rica Salsa Open in 2010, and occasionally still competes with her partner. Her exploits on the dance floor are plain to see by simply typing her name into a YouTube search.

After about 45 minutes, she cut the music and called for us to wrap up, but she invited all of us to come to El Observatorio in Barrio California, not her favorite place to go except on Mondays when the bar has live salsa music by Madera Nueva.

“I’m a salsa lover,” said Ms. Cascante. “So I prefer live bands.”

On weekends, she prefers Pepper Disco Club in Zapote,
where she says there are two or three salsa orchestras per night, or to the Jazz Club in San Pedro. Some of her other favorites include places like Fiesta Latina in El Pueblo, La Puerta de Alcalá in San Rafael de Heredia, Casa Zeller north of the Guacamaya traffic circle in San José, and La Rumba Disco Club in Belén.

However, for newer Gringos she recommends starting off with Salsa en Linea en Costa Rica at either the Centro de Artes Promenade or Rincón Salsero.

“It would be better to join with some people and start together if we’re talking about foreigners,” she said. “I would say Pepper’s is been a good spot for Gringos to meet Ticos, but it’s better in groups, because normally people go there together with friends, although they’re really friendly.”

As for finding good salsa music on the radio, Ms. Cascante says that Gringos and Ticos alike are out of luck except for one hour on Saturdays, starting at noon on 89.1 FM a distant second choice is 95.1.

Whether practicing at home, taking lessons with other Gringos or diving in with the locals at a club, Ms. Cascante says to practice, but more over to relax and have fun – the rest will come with time.

“Enjoy it, don’t get frustrated if something doesn’t look like you wish, keep trying and it will!” she said. “Practice, practice, practice, hear the music and try to feel it with your body, watch tons of videos, go out and look at people, and never forget to be happy!”

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