Colombia

Cali: A Self-Made Salsa Star

by Peter Noyce  |  Published November 15, 2016

Swaying hips, swigging drinks, sequin jumpsuits and a sheet of crisp, white A4 paper – Peter Noyce takes on the world’s most seductive movers and shakers in Cali, Colombia.

Vista of Cali, Colombia (Photo: David Alejandro Rendón via Wikipedia.org)

Vista of Cali, Colombia (Photo: David Alejandro Rendón via Wikipedia.org)

It was cold, uncomfortably cold – the kind of cold that made me think I might never leave the dubious comfort of my saggy single bed. I rolled over and hoiked the curtain open with my big toe. All I could see was a packed ceiling of charcoal clouds and icy drizzle slipping slowly down the window pane. I pulled my foot back into the relative warmth of my blankets, closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

I was in Bogotá, Colombia – a mind boggling mountain metropolis, far from the swaying palms and verdant sugar cane I had hoped to see. I was staying in the Candelaria district, a pretty area of narrow streets and low-rise buildings decorated with terracotta roofs. Green hills sat as statues in the distance, guardians of the insignificant bustle of the city below.

I had readied myself for a night out almost as soon as I arrived. I was full of that unrivalled excitement you feel when you reach a new place at night. I started by making my way through a bottle of rum with a couple of travellers at my hostel. Then at about 11pm, I decided to ditch the tourists and go out in search of something a little more ‘authentic’.

“Take me to somewhere local.” I said to my middle-aged, heavily-mustachioed taxi driver.

“Local? How local?” he said, swinging his head round and giving me a look of consternation.

“Somewhere you might frequent.”

The taxi driver took a moment to consider my request, before shaking his head and giving the miniature yellow car a rapid 180.

Some half an hour later, after defying death at lightning speed, we pulled up outside a bar in an unknown corner of the city. I coughed up an exorbitant sum and head past the suited bouncer into the chaos of the club.

A Street in Bogata's La Candelaria District (Photo: Tijs Zwinkels via Flickr)

A Street in Bogata’s La Candelaria District (Photo: Tijs Zwinkels via Flickr)

Dancing On Ice

I was shocked when I got inside and gazed across a dance floor the size of the entire bar. There were no seats or tables – there was barely even a ledge to lean against. Everyone, I mean everyone, was dancing – couples of some of the most attractive people I’d ever seen were swaying, slaloming and wiggling to the salacious rhythms of a live band churning out the greatest hits.

I kept close to the wall, my eyes glued to the floor, dodging the flailing limbs of rampant boppers, and made straight for the bar.

“Give me a shot of the local drink,” I told a surly barman.

He shrugged his shoulders, reached for an unmarked bottle next to a chest of ice and poured a shot the size of a beer. I gulped it down and nearly retched on its sickly explosion of aniseed.

“What the hell is that?” I stammered.

“Aguardiente,” he said, taking a giant swig straight from the bottle.

Grimacing, I ordered another. And several more after that. I was nervous; I couldn’t dance! For a moment I considered leaving and finding something more befitting of a two-left-footer such as myself, but the aguardiente was doing a great job at greasing the cogs of expressive movement. It was time to brace the dancefloor.

I picked up my right foot, then my left, then my right, then my left. The music was flowing and the alcohol too. Somehow, it seemed like I was starting to get the hang of it. Yeah, it felt like I was really starting to move my hips, legs and feet like everyone else. Everything was shaking, everything was swaying; yeah, I was really getting in the groove. I started giving a girl dancing on her own my most inviting smile and she duly danced her way over to my side. I almost lost my footing, but I composed myself, concentrated and kept channeling the spirit of Gene Kelly. She was smiling. Perhaps she was impressed.

She drew her mouth close to my ear: “You look like an ice-skating horse! Where are you from?”

“I’m British,” I replied.

“Oh … of course. I should have guessed. Well done for trying though!” she said, giggling and going off to fetch me another drink.

Salsa dancers (Photo COD Newsroom via Flickr)

Salsa dancers (Photo COD Newsroom via Flickr)

Hips Don’t Lie

Led in my bed, I struggled to shrug off my night on the dance floor. I wanted to meet that girl again and prove her wrong. Should have guessed?! Are we British really that uncoordinated? Are we really that embarrassing to share the dance floor with?! “Stupid salsa!”, I shouted, turning over in my bed and closing my eyes again.

I tried to focus on the absence of sound, sight and smell. I tried to find my happy place, but all I could hear was the joyous ring of trumpets and the syncopated punches of timbales – trombones spread through my head like wildfire. Then my feet began to tap the end of the bed. I got up and walked over to the bathroom, where I started singing lust-filled salsa notes in the shower. It wasn’t until I started swaying my hips as I waited in line at the breakfast bar that I realised something strange was going on within me. I felt, somehow, different.

I spent the day taking in Bogotá’s sights – strong, cubic government buildings; the incredible gold museum with its unbelievable array of artefacts and treasures. It was all very impressive, but I couldn’t stop thinking about swirling my way across the dance floor. It hadn’t gone well the night before, but I was determined to set the record straight and prove that Brits really can dance.

So I decided to go out that night to the same salsa joint, determined to give dancing another shot. The same band were there again and the dance floor was still packed full of energetic couples, both young and old. I went to the bar, this time holding my head high and got myself a beer. I was tempted to order a shot straight away to settle my creeping nerves, but I managed to keep my cool and focused instead on studying the dancers. It can’t be that hard, I thought: left foot forward, right foot back; left foot forward, right foot back; spin, twirl, away, together, left and right. Easy! I finally plucked up the courage and spent the night working my way from one partner to the next, perfecting the basic step. I could do nothing else, but I could move forward and back like a real pro. ‘Look at me!’ I felt like screaming, ‘I’m doing it!’.

It was time for the paper test.

“If you want to be a real salsa dancer, you should be able to dance with a piece of paper between your thighs without creasing it,” a kindly girl in twenty-storey heels told me.

“Barman, fetch me your finest paper!” I exclaimed.

We got through several sheets before I managed a clean run. The smile on my face spread across the bar like butter on hot toast.

“I think you might be ready for Cali,” the girl said to me, vigorously shaking my hand.

“Cali?”

“The world salsa capital. It’s about ten hours by coach from here. You should go!”

David and Paulina - Salsa Pros (Photo: David Zepeda via Flickr)

David and Paulina – Salsa Pros (Photo: David Zepeda via Flickr)

Time to Shine 

Cali was nothing like Bogotá. Set 1,500 vertical metres closer to the sea than the capital, Cali was hot, warm and steamy, like a sweaty hug from your favourite aunt. Caleños strut around in strapless tops and vests, their hips greased by the sensual heartbeat of the city. As soon as I stepped off the bus, it was clear seduction was not in short supply.

“What’s the salsa like here?” I asked the taxi driver on the way to my hostel.

“You know how to dance?” he asked in surprise.

“I’m getting there,” I said, watching the passing collection of tower blocks and colonial homes.

I found a hostel in the salubrious Granada neighbourhood and instantly went for a walk, rehearsing the steps in my head. I even managed to pick up a sequin jumpsuit from one of the many tidbit shops downtown. It was going to be my night, I could just feel it.

As I arrived back at the hostel, the owner asked if he could tempt me to a free salsa class.

“Thanks, but I think I’m good,” I said with a wry grin.

I showered, flossed, mouthwashed and slicked my hair back with an amount of gel only permissible in Latin America. The jumpsuit was donned and I was ready.

I got a taxi to the Juanchito district, where I was told I wouldn’t be able to move for dancing. I plucked for Chango – a smallish club with ‘excellent live music’, according to my taxi driver. I made my way quickly to the bathroom, unfolded a sheet of paper and rehearsed my steps: front, back; front, back. After centuries of misery, Britain was about to explode onto the salsa scene; the hopes of an entire nation were on my sparkly shoulders.

I booted open the bathroom door and paced over to the bar, grabbing the hand of the nearest girl sat on her own and flinged her onto the dance floor. I started my moves, confident she’d be impressed. It may have just been forward and back, but I don’t think it could have been any more forward, or any more back. I was on fire and she must have known it, despite the quizzical look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“You’re … I’m sorry to be rude, but you’re doing it completely wrong.”

“No, I’m not. Look!” I said pulling out the paper from my pocket.

“No, look at everyone else,” she said pointing to the happy couples dancing side to side, left to right. “We don’t dance the front-back salsa here. This is Cali, it’s completely different!” she said as a sprightly man spun her off to safety and burst into the most enthused, fast-paced salsa dancing the world had ever seen.

My head sank as I looked down at my sequined legs and freshly-polished shoes. I breathed a heavy sigh, before quietly slipping off to the bar and ordering myself a round of aguardiente.

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