Cali’s Seductive Dance Culture

A viejoteca plays old salsa classics, and may or may not attract an older crowd.

Traveling is not necessarily that relaxing. Being on the move all the time, unpacking and repacking every two or three days, getting up for early buses, meeting new people every day. The rest comes when you find a place where you want to stay for a while.

I have always been fascinated by travelers who unpredictably wound up staying in a place. One Swiss woman told me her story of going to Honduras’ Bay Islands for cheap diving. She fell in love with a German diver and became a dive master herself, working for the diving school. She wound up staying for two months and loved both things—the diving and the guy. I wanted to fall in love unpredictably (with a place). Cali and Caleno-style salsa and tango have been those unpredicted loves for me. Call has lulled me into a dream world of constant dancing.

Cali is not a very pretty city. In the end, a beautiful environment doesn’t matter so much as a beautiful activity. I never realized how much I absolutely love dancing. I don’t call myself a dancer because that sounds like professional dancer; but being in Cali and consistently studying salsa and tango has made me realize that I am capable of dancing faster and learning much more technique than I believed possible. It just takes sustained practice. And I never felt such dancing highs before as I have felt here. I wouldn’t say every night has been that way, there have also been real downers. But there have been some truly magical spells, spins on the dance floor when I thought, wow, I didn’t know dancing could be so much fun.

Dancing at La Matraca, a favorite nostalgic mostly tango (with some salsa) club. Pre-lessons. I would never look at the floor now! (Right.)

Cali is a party city but it’s a party city based around an artful activity. I’ve visited party towns like Praia de Pipa in Brazil where it seemed all that people did was stay up all night, drink, do drugs, and start dancing to electronic music at 3 am and it all seemed pointless to me. Boring. Cali has this huge nightlife but it’s built around a real passion. Going out is a lot more interesting when there’s something do beyond just getting a beer and talking.

I’ve gotten a little obsessed with figuring out how long I have been in Cali. The fact that I didn’t even know how long I have been in Cali disturbs me. I have the sensation that I have lost control of my life. In the end I will have spent about six weeks here if I can execute on my plan of actually leaving. Funny how dramatic that sounds but when you are traveling and get comfortable in a place it takes a lot of emotional energy to catapult yourself into the traveling mode again.

The words unbeautifully seductive run through my mind when I think about Cali. I only planned to spend a few days here. That was five weeks ago. I always say, just one more week. That’s a common story in Cali: it’s not just me.

Mauricio, a national Tango Champion, and one of our tango teachers, performing with partner at La Matraca

Cali is a city driven by a singular passion: to dance salsa (and bolero, cha-cha, bachata, doble paso, fox, and tango). On more than a few occasions, we go out and someone points out a Salsa World Champion on the dance floor. Or a Tango World Champion. (Sometimes you start to wonder how could there be so many?) The recent salsa festival showcased the talent of Cali’s kids and adults, and my, can they dance. People tell you stories of learning to dance from their parents and grandparents and I feel jealous that the U.S. doesn’t have this strong tradition of partner dance. We have lindy hop, swing, Charleston, but I can’t think of any parents who taught their kids these dances.

Cali calls itself the worldwide salsa capital. For a long time, I didn’t really believe it.

Caleno style salsa isn’t widely recognized in the way that Cuban salsa or Linea (LA-style) salsa are. If the rest of the world doesn’t know what Caleno salsa is, how could it be the capital? The recent Mundial (Worldwide) Salsa Festival in Cali featured almost exclusively couples and gropus from Colombia, if not Cali. I discussed this with a guy who runs a salsa video show from London, and he said it’s because the Calenos absolutely live salsa in a way that no other city does, and they incorporate styles and music from all over the world. The audience for salsa is greater here than in any other city because the passion is so pervasive. I walked into a grocery store the other day practicing some salsa steps and a man in his mid-50s or so smiled at me and said, Yo bailo tambien–I dance too. And he showed me his steps.

Caleno style is so diverse and varied that the dance, when danced well, is never boring, and finely attuned to the music. Almost every cab or grocery store is playing salsa music, and it’s about the music just as much as it’s about the dance. I rarely hear Top 40. Once in a chi-chi club in the chic neighborhood Granada, but I had the feeling, how boring and soulless.

A gentleman celebrating his birthday at La Matraca, and his dance partner of the moment

There are dozens of dance schools to choose from and more salsatecas than I will visit. Some of the clubs are reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever, with florescent lights lining the floor and the ceiling, others are nostalgic and like a club in Havana or Buenos Aires. I am a fan of the viejotecas that play older music and attract a more mature crowd. I love watching people in ther 50s, 60s, and 70s rule the dance floor.

Sometimes it seems like dancing is too important in Cali. My favorite dancing nights have been at Tin Tin Deo where there are a mix of Colombians and foreigners, great dancers with a variety of styles and no pressure. Sometimes at other places a dance can feel stiff as if the men are humorless and seem ego-driven. They really want to teach you and look good, and if you mess up, you can’t laugh about it. For me, messing up is often the best part. It’s a chance to laugh together.

Dancing plays a central role in dating. A Colombian friend Angelique tells me Caleno women will go out with guys they don’t like that much because they are good dancers.

During the daytime I sometimes wonder what I am doing here. Rio was a city where I loved the luxury of taking a cab–the city was beautiful if sometimes overly stimulating to watch go by. In Cali, taking a cab is much cheaper but the view is boring. The streets all kind of look the same, blocky, cinderyblocky new buildings. And unless I am in a dance class, or enjoying the friendships I have made here, I get confused, What am I doing here?

But at night (or in almost any dance class) the appeal of Cali becomes more clear. The wheatpasted posters for Viejotecas (salsatecas playing old salsa classics) and other salsa nights give hint to the pulse of the city, and to why so many people stay here much longer than they expect to when they come to visit for a few days. Cali is one of Latin America’s cities with the greatest African influence (other big ones are Havana, Salvador, Rio). The African influence shows up in the city’s obsession with dance.

Now that I am actually getting more skilled and confident in my salsa I am enjoying dancing more and more. It’s getting to be a true high. Before coming to Cali I always felt kind of bipolar with salsa: sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. It all depended on the night and my dance partners. If I had partners that I loved, being spun around and connecting with someone could be a total joy. But if I got asked to dance by men who were rude or threw me around like a doll, I felt manhandled, and wondered why I had put myself in that situation on a Saturday night.

But I never actually took classes. I never trained the way I am training now, practicing steps over and over again, as an individual and in partner work.

Now that I am taking so many classes, practicing the steps so much, I have developed a much stronger sense of rhythm. You can always keep your rhythym is what people have told me here, and now, in week three, I’m happy to say that’s actually true. I don’t quite feel quite as much at the effect of every partner.

My Belgian friend Wooter who is a bit of a fact boy (one of those guys who always has a study to cite) tells me that dancing all the time makes you happy. I still want to see the study and understand the science, but it’s not hard to believe.

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One response to “Cali’s Seductive Dance Culture

  1. I only planned to spend a few days here. That was five weeks ago. I always say, just one more week.

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