It’s after 10 on Wednesday night and the place is almost deserted. It’s just me, a French fellow I’ve just met named Christophe and a huddled table of Ecuadorians downing tequila shots.
Welcome to La Mesa, Cuenca’s hottest salsa club – and unfortunately we’re a little early.
Time to learn salsa
The music is right on time though. The moment you walk inside the nondescript shambles of an entrance and into the low ceilings of the bar and dance floor, the music is a live thing – so loud your eardrums shudder and your chest vibrates with the syncopated salsa beat. Much later, the place will be packed with gyrating hips and sweaty glamour, but for now it’s an echo chamber.
Salsateca La Mesa is something of an institution in Cuenca, Ecuador’s intricate city of culture high up in the Sierra region in the middle of the nation. Salsa can be found throughout the Spanish-speaking world and every city and country has its own variation. In Puerto Rico it’s flamboyant, in Colombia it’s fast and in Cuenca it’s sexy as hell with a local style called ‘casino’.
“Do you know how to dance salsa?” Christophe asks nervously as patrons start to flow in. “I have no idea!”
‘Yes,’ I answer proudly. “I had a lesson last week.” Then I hesitate. The new arrivals are all on the dance floor and they are incredible. Swirling around, shaking their hips perfectly in time, back and forth and around and around, faster and faster and better than anything I could muster, no matter how many lessons I’ve had.
‘I’m not very good though,’ I say quickly, and Christophe laughs, relieved not to be the only one in the joint with two left feet.
At long last Carmen saunters in with our friend Kristin who Christophe takes an immediate liking to, and we all claim a table to hang out at. More friends arrive and the drinks start to flow. All the while the club is getting busier as more salsa dancers arrive and take their place on the ever-shrinking space of the dance floor. I am very reluctant to join them. I’ve had one lesson in salsa dancing at our Spanish language school. I’ll be a lamb to the slaughter.
‘Let’s go,’ Carmen orders and in two shakes of a lamb’s tale I’m in the middle of the dancing pack doing my best impression of Cuencano salsa.
I am terrified.
South Americans are born with salsa in their veins
Everyone else is so good and I am so uncoordinated. I feel very self-conscious, especially when Carmen gets annoyed at me and starts to lead. ‘Come on Dave,’ she pleads. ‘Just loosen up and follow the music.’
But my legs won’t obey and after a few songs I sit back down in a huff. Not my proudest moment.
While sitting back at our table I look at all the locals dancing away and I realise something quite cool. No one actually cares how well or bad you are at salsa dancing.
There are really good dancers and people will stop what they are doing to watch them in action. But the only important thing is that you get up and dance. It’s not cool to just sit back – the thing most Western men do in clubs and at weddings until they have a tequila shot and the DJ drops ‘Baby Got Back.’
The women dancing are absolutely stunning – no questions. But the fellas are all tough looking, shaved headed, knuckle-dragging manly men who nevertheless are as nimble on their feet as a ballet dancer. There’s even a bloke with a mullet straight from the 80s shaking his hips like a young Elvis.
I have no excuse.
‘Shall we dance?’ I say to Carmen and she beams as we get stuck into it again, this time with no foolish embarrassment from me.
We shake our stuff in Colombia
A handful of weeks later and we’re in Cali, Colombia – a cocaine city reputed to be the capital of salsa dancing.
Kristin has decided to come with us and we spend many bright days exploring the dignified old quarter and the ultra-modern centre where BMW’s and Mercedes are as thick as the green tree canopy shading the streets.
When night falls the whole city pulses with possibility as restaurants and open air bars fill the air with laughter, clinking glasses and loud music. “We have to go salsa dancing,” Carmen and Kristin insist in unison.
I agree, reluctantly – I have a feeling this will be the next level of difficulty.
We decide to prepare in advance for this new breed of salsa, and take a dance lesson in the afternoon. I’m a little overwhelmed. I thought Ecuador’s salsa was fast – but Colombian salsa seems as though it’s twice the speed.
Salsa clubs are the opposite to nightclubs in Australia – because people know how to dance
But evening falls and we hit a salsateca called Tin Tin Deo. After paying the small cover fee and getting a rough pat down for weapons from the burly security guard, I climb the stairs and enter another world.
I’m confronted by two tight rooms with low ceilings linked by a long bar rammed with people shouting drink orders above the biblically loud salsa music. I turn in a full circle and see at least one hundred dancing couples swaying and moving under bright red and blue and yellow lights. It’s irresistible. We fight our way to the bar, slam a few shots down for courage and enter the fray.
The way salsa works in Colombia is that people couple up for the fast songs, dance till they’re almost dead and when the slow song follows they break off, sit down and have a drink until the next fast song drops. When the dance is on the couples are totally committed and focussed.
Carmen and Kristin are both dragged onto the dance floor by very skilled salsa men who twirl them around and push them to their limits – then promptly dump them once the song’s over! There’s no “thank for the dance” or men after a woman’s number, once it’s over, it’s over.
“Come on Dave,” Carmen says to me, holding out her hands. We do as the Colombians, as Kristin and Carmen leave their handbags on the otherside of the club to get to the dancefloor. We talk about this later – the girls say they’d never leave their bags alone in a club at home for fear of theft, and yet here they are ditching them in Colombia. Nothing was stolen, from ours or anyone’s bag.
I take Carmen’s hands in the basic Colombian salsa pose – hold both out like a Tyrannosaurus and meet in the middle.
The fast beat begins and I step forward and shimmy my hips then step back and repeat the move, five, six, seven, eight and switch side to side, five, six, seven eight and twirl her around and around again and five, six, seven, eight it’s back and forward, back and forward, side to side and stop.
The music’s over – back to our table for a breather – then we do it again, and again and again until it’s three in the morning and the house lights come on and kick us out.
‘Impressing’ with our newly-found moves
A few weeks after our salsa heavy trip to Colombia, Carmen and I are in Cancun, Mexico for TBEX – a massive travel blogging conference – and the organisers have arranged a beach party.
The dance floor under the stars is filling up with revellers so Carmen and I join in right as the DJ drops a salsa beat. ‘Let’s dance,’ I say and we fall into our newly learned style, two of the few around who know what to do.
In Colombia and Ecuador we were the worst on the dancefloor, but all of a sudden we’re in amongst gringos and suddenly we know how to dance.
‘You guys are incredible!’ our new blogging friend Nick yells, impressed we know how to salsa.
‘If only you knew!’ I think to myself, and clumsily twirl Carmen around.