Salsa, self esteem, and feeling stupid

In 2016, I decided to pursue a life dedicated to being the fanfiction version of myself. Essentially, the most authentic, bravest, self-possessed version of Sydelle Leanne Barreto humanly possible. A large part of this involves doing things that make me want to stress vomit (in a good way). This has included: getting a tattoo, traveling for 10 days in Europe alone, making new friends, wearing things I thought I couldn’t “pull off”, ending toxic friendships, etc. So far, it’s worked out pretty great! 

My latest endeavor was unexpected. My roommate and I were supposed to grab dinner and then check out this art exhibit. It turned out after the exhibit she and another one of my roommates had designs on a salsa night at a bar downtown. 

I wouldn’t classify myself as a bad dancer, but the closest I had gotten to dancing salsa was moving my hips more vigorously than usual when Gasolina came on during a night out. Overall, I would give myself an A+ for enthusiasm and maybe a solid C for skill. 

But that first night of salsa was one of those experiences where you feel like there’s another dimension to being alive that no one told you about. My roommate kindly showed me the basics, but I was too afraid to dance with anyone. So I leaned against the wall, and watched. A live band provided the music, fronted by an elaborately made-up middle aged woman with brassy red hair. The room was packed and hot. The air was a curiously intimate aroma of sweat and jasmine – the smell of your friend looping her arm around you at the end of a night out. The women seemed to spin effortlessly, small tight circles, they stepped out of and back into the beat without missing a step. There were a handful of couples who had obviously arrived together, but for the most part it was strangers clasping hands anew with each song. The energy was palpable, rhythmic like a heart, with a keen edge of sensuality. It was the grown-up, more fluid version of what you felt dancing with your friends at the club. This feeling had steps, moves, turns and dips. It knew what it was doing.

Unlike me, who even now, with several salsa nights and a couple of classes tucked underneath my belt, still have to count in my head and concentrate so I don’t lose the beat. My initial response was to feel frustrated, uncomfortable with my incompetency (I’m a Libra rising so being clueless is really not a cute look for me). And then there is the second feeling, the more important one in my opinion. It’s learning for learning’s sake. Not to further my career or get a good grade or improve my day to day life. It’s to learn something new, move my body in an unfamiliar way. Let myself fail. Laugh at myself. There’s the childlike wonder of doing something new for the first time, of feeling like a stranger in the land of people-who-can-do-this-thing-well. 

The other challenge of salsa is that failing at it doesn’t happen alone. It happens with a partner. And if you’re a woman, it most likely happens with a partner who is leading you. Being the person that I am, it is very, very difficult for me to let a man tell me what to do with my body. Especially since he is leading me through physical cues – he steps forward, I step back – rather than instructions. I can follow instructions from a man. I’ve made several of Bon Appetit’s Andy Baraghani’s recipes. But there’s something about being maneuvered on a dance floor that makes my limbs lock up. There’s definitely 1000 ways to read into this, but I’ll give that distinct pleasure to my therapist. Simply put – it’s a trust exercise I’m not doing so well in. 

Salsa is more than a way out of my comfort zone, it’s a way into trust. Trusting a stranger to guide me, trusting them to know better than me, trusting them not to step on my feet. There’s an art to it – not thinking about their next move or trying to subtly subvert their “lead privilege”, but rather taking your brain out of the equation and letting yourself be led, by the music, by a stranger. At least for the next few songs. 

My salsa class is for absolute beginners and takes place on Monday evenings. My salsa teacher is a diminutive and flamboyant Latinx man who pronounces club like “cloob”. His name is Mario and I love him. Most of the students are still in what they wore to the office today, and there’s an unusual amount of Indian people in the class. Actually, there’s an unusual amount of Indian people even when I go out salsa dancing. Is there some secret community of desis who love salsa I just didn’t know about? 

Anyways, this is not the first dance class I’ve ever taken. In elementary school I tried out ballet, and then after a year, switched to jazz. 

Memories of those dance classes are crystal clear. From the lollipops in the dance clothing store to the feel of the opaque white ballet tights to the series of flamboyant male jazz teachers who never stayed more than a few months before moving to NYC and pursuing their dreams of being a Broadway extra.

The other thing I remember well? How much I hated it.

I remember one day my mom had to rush me to jazz class. I didn’t have time for a snack so she had given me one of those Chewy granola bars, which I sat happily munching on in the changing room before class. One of the other girls came up to me, a scrawny red-head, her thick hair in a perfectly coiffed bun. “Do you even know how many calories are in that?” she asked. Me, being a normal seven year old, did not know what calories even were, let alone how many of them were in my food.

All of the girls in my jazz class also did ballet, and they all looked like they did ballet. They were slim and graceful and elegant. I was chubby and clumsy and not really all that well coordinated. They usually paired up with each other, and I was left to buddy up with our resident horse girl or the one boy in the class, the latter of whom everyone feared and loved in equal amounts.

Part of warm ups would involve floor stretches, and I would notice how concave their stomachs got when we laid down. Mine was just flat. I would watch myself in the full length mirrors that are a fixture in any dance studio and hate the way that the body I felt so intensely uncomfortable in moved. I would spend the class fixating on the way I looked compared to my leotard-ed classmates, instead of learning the steps or simply enjoying myself.

And again 10 years later, I’m in a dance studio, worrying about how my body looks, thinking maybe I should skip next week’s class just to avoid feeling big and ungainly and wrong. But unlike when I was 7, I have the vocabulary and wisdom to know where these feelings are coming from and to tell them that they’re wrong. 

Like a lot of things in life, all that matters is that you try your best and have fun. I wish I could tell 8 year old Sydelle that she won’t get that much better at dancing, but whether it’s a grimy college bar or a salsa night or her bedroom on a Tuesday night, she will be having so much fun she forgets to worry about how she looks. 

Or how many calories are in that granola bar. 


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