Dance, Dance, Revolution
Since returning from this trip, I’ve flirted with the idea of salsa dancing in San Francisco. And so I set off on a search for a taste of Cuba…and a halfway decent dance partner.
Saturday nights at Roccapulco you pay admission and if you get there early, you take a salsa class and dance for the rest of the night. Me and my crew – Amanda, Courtney, and Alec – were completely fearless. And Alec had actually been sent on a mission from his family: learn to dance before you injure someone.
The club itself made us immediately feel like we were in a developing country – a place with a wild dictator, Cokes with cane sugar, and interesting snack chips. The dance floor was large, and we initially thought we were the only people there for the lesson. But soon after our instructor’s first shimmy, we were surrounded by aspiring salsaleros .
We learned the basic eight-count move – one, two, three, rest, and five, six, seven, rest. Back and forth, with a rotation of our hips, we repeated the steps. I watched Courtney and Amanda – both had taken baton and tap lessons as kids and it showed; they were quick studies. Poor Alec, on the other hand, was working on finding his hips.
The instructor slowly built on each step until we were in a large circle, each with a partner. Some dance partners were better than others, some more experienced, and some smelled really bad. There were plenty of partners for everyone, but I quickly learned that salsa was much harder for men than women; they needed to lead and legitimately know what the hell they were doing.
After the class ended, we watched as the dance floor filled. The crowd was mixed – Latinos, middle-aged men from Cupertino, geeky college students, and elderly men who looked like old-school dance instructors. There were also couples who looked straight out of Dancing with the Stars – men with oily hair and polished shoes and women with thighs like drumsticks and skirts that barely covered their rumps.
Alec was in heaven. He quickly found a table full of 24-year-old bachelorettes. In turn, the three of us ladies rarely sat down – it was as if once the men realized we were willing, our dance cards were always full.
A band came on, brass and all, and the dancing became more frenzied. There was sweat dripping everywhere! I danced with a small man from Stockton who smelled like an old tire. There were a few guys from the dance lesson, some college students, and a man who looked like a Cuban cowboy.
My favorite was Sam – he resembled a Latino linebacker gone to rot. He had zany facial expressions and tossed me around like he was throwing a steak on the grill. He knew how to lead, and I could’ve danced with him all night. He dipped me so close to the ground he had to catch my head with his big paw before my skull cracked against the floor. Yes, Sam knew how to dip a girl, and he made me look good. This was the lesson for the night – I was really there for the dips.
We talked to a ton of people at Roccapulco, learning about lessons and other dance clubs around town. One guy, a great dancer, recommended ODC’s classes in the Mission.
At ODC’s Tuesday class with Victoria we learned a few things we didn’t catch at Roccapulco. For a start, how to move like we meant it. Women were told to make circles with their hips on the fourth and eighth count, and men were told to do the macho thing and stomp out a cigarette with the soles of their shoes.
Victoria had a thick accent and she made us all feel like we could have the sort of booty worth shaking on the dance floor. She talked about how men and women worked together to salsa dance and how important it was to listen to your partner.
Toward the end of the class, we again formed a circle and rotated around the room, getting the chance to dance with everyone. Victoria taught the men to guide their partners with their fingertips, holding their hand over their partner’s head to indicate turns while using the other hand to help provide direction.
Again, the students were a motley crew – businessmen, jocks, potential gangbangers, and a few Mission hipsters. The ladies ranged from mini prima ballerinas to Marina housewives. As we moved between partners, the intermediate students filtered in and the dancing became more interesting. My crew was clearly improving, and we all made a pact to continue until we were intermediates, too.
My friend Mauri has taken salsa lessons with Edwin for two years. She’s a pro, excelling at everything she ever attempts and, though she veers away from salsa clubs, last year she actually entered a few salsa competitions. And won. Based on her recommendation, I decided to sign up for a private lesson with Edwin.
Edwin teaches out of the large ground-floor studio space at Cheryl Burke Dance studio. This means during a lesson you’re surrounded by other dancers – all these couples practicing everything from tango to modern dance.
Even without the music, Edwin helped me get the salsa rhythm in my head – back and forth, my hips moving. He said his goal was to help his students be receptive. And though I was learning the whole time, it felt like I was simply dancing with a friend, following his lead. Afterwards, Edwin said, “You have good rhythm. You aren’t afraid to move.” I knew I was starting to get this salsa thing – and leaving the studio I found myself moving my rear like I had one.
For Café Cocomo, I pulled together a posse of 10, including a few novices, our regular crew of salsaleros , Mauri – her first salsa club outing! – and her husband, Justin. Oh, and there was me – with a game first date in tow. From the club’s website, we knew there’d be a salsa lesson at 8 p.m., so we got there a tad early for $2 tacos and beers.
Cocomo’s atmosphere was reminiscent of a tropical tiki hut with twinkle lights, outdoor seating, and an upstairs hangar where you could lounge or practice your dance moves. The 8 p.m. class at Cocomo was pretty crowded – the floor somewhat smaller than Roccapulco’s, but the dancers were slightly more experienced. The instructor’s were slick; they wore Garth Brooks–style microphones and taught the lesson from a stage.
The initial steps were familiar, but then they quickly became much more complicated – maybe because the class was actually a beginning/intermediate level. But the consensus was: challenging, though a good challenge.
Again, we formed a circle and rotated through partners. This time there really seemed to be more ladies to men, so there were a few odd folks out. Justin complained that a lady barked at him: “Why can’t you get it!?!” And Mauri pointed out that a few of the men were, um, “ Crazy! ” I noticed a few dancing dictators, though most folks were kind, patient, and helpful.
When the band came on at around 10:30 p.m., things really started to change. Ladies couldn’t stand in place for a minute without being asked to dance. One guy turned out to be a similar dancer to Sam from Roccapulco – although he was more wiry, he had wild expressions, crazy dance moves, and he knew how to dip me until I almost kicked a poor woman in the head. He was so good he convinced my friends I knew what I was doing.
My hair was frizzy-huge, my brow dripping with sweat, and I thought about how it seemed that the only men who asked women to dance were actually really good at it. There was none of that tell-tale passivity San Francisco guys are notorious for – these guys knew what they wanted, and were confident. They were direct and they wanted to dance. And, as my instructors taught me, in salsa you just need to be fearless enough to follow.
So, you want to salsa?
Check out the ODC schedule and drop in for a beginning class – first class is free and all others are $12. Big salsa nights at Roccapulco and Cocomo are Thursdays and Saturdays and lessons start around 8 p.m. Check their schedule – both clubs have great live bands.
Want something more intimate? There’s also salsa dancing on Wednesdays at Little Baobab, and on Sundays there’s free salsa in the afternoon at El Rio.
Want to become a salsa pro? Take a private lesson or set up a group class with a bunch of friends with Edwin Marrero; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.