Salsa Dancing in Harlem

It’s been about 2 years since I moved to Harlem. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I moved here. I grew up in a very white neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where ethnic meant someone that wasn’t blonde. The neighborhood here is so multicultural and the lighter your skin color the more you stick out. You never know what to expect walking down the street.

At the Harlem Children’s Center, there are free salsa classes on Thursday night. One time I went by myself to check it out. Let me preface this by saying I’m not that white. My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is Italian so I grew up in a house with a lot of arguing and cooking, usually over loud music playing. However, I didn’t grow up with nearly the same Spanish influence as people from the neighborhood.

Even though it was an open class, a lot of the people there clearly knew how to salsa dance already. Not only did they know the steps, they could spin backward and forward and all over the room. The entire time I was gasping for air and trying not to trip over my feet. Even though I can dance all right at a club, I was barely keeping up with the 40-50 year olds that knew how to move.

About halfway through the class, the instructor told us to free dance with partners and get into the music for a while. The class portion was over, but we were welcome to dance around and practice for another hour until we had to leave the building.

At that point a five foot tall Mexican man decided he was going to help me. He took me to the side and showed me the same pivot. Over and over, turn on the ball of your foot. It’s a snap, you shouldn’t fall over. You need to keep your balance.

He spoke rapidly in a mix of Spanish and English getting frustrated that I wouldn’t understand him. As I’ve explained before, my family is Puerto Rican so I’m all too familiar with Spanglish shouting about what I’m doing wrong with my life.

“You’re not sexy!” he repeated.

“I’m not sexy?” I asked him.

“No you move like a noodle. Hold yourself up.”

“I can’t move like this?” I moved my hips side to side even more noodle like than the last time.

He sighed and demonstrated the way a real salsa dancer would move. I tried to follow. He spun me and got annoyed when I didn’t keep my torso straight, ignoring the fact that I was half a foot taller than them. An hour or so later, I finally started to get it better. Pivot and snap. Don’t lean to once side. If you move quickly you don’t fall over. He was delighted, well exasperated, but mostly excited that he had turned me into less of an embarrassment.

On my way out, he told me to practice at home so I could get better and they would be there on Saturday for another class.

Honestly I learned more from him in that hour than I did from the instructor, who decided I was a lost cause in the first 5 minutes.

When I try to think of any similar situation from my hometown, nothing comes close. The great thing about New York City is the sense of community. In Los Angeles, no one feels connected. Most of the people moved there for work and stayed for the sunshine. You drive around alone in your car and only talk to people you know.

NYC is the opposite. Even though it’s stuffy and crowded and loud, the people that were born here will die here and they can’t imagine life anywhere else. Everyone is thrown together on the streets and subway so they’re forced to interact all the time. They are not as rude as what is shown in movies or old episodes of Law and Order. In my experience, the brash comments usually come out of a concern for newbies.

“Get out of the way!”

“What are you doing?”

“You’re dancing like that?”

You’re a stranger in their land. They expect you to follow their ways and are quick to whip you into shape. At times, it’s unexpected and aggressive.

It’s really unlike any place else. Yet I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart.

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