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Karaoke: Japan’s Gift to the Language Learner

26 Mar

Four years living in a different country will change anyone. Especially if that country is Japan!

If you’ve ever known anyone who has lived (for an extended period of time) in Japan you’re bound to notice that they’ve picked up a few “interesting” habits and I’m no different;

Not wearing shoes in the house, sitting on the floor despite having a perfectly good sofa right next to you, eating salad with chopsticks (Try it. It’s so much easier), not feeling like you’ve finished a meal until you’ve had a bowl of rice (or two), bowing even while on the phone… the list goes on.

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You'll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You’ll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Japanese was the first language that I learned to fluency and I have one of Japan’s greatest exports to thank for that: Karaoke! This article will cover how you can use it to learn any language to fluency “WITHOUT EVER HAVING TO SING IN PUBLIC”!!!

Why Karaoke?
Karaoke in Japan is as much a part of the culture as rice-balls and ramen. If you live there, it becomes part of your life; you go out for dinner with your friends, you end up singing karaoke; you have a staff party with your colleagues, you end up singing karaoke; it’s Wednesday, you end up singing karaoke. And the Japanese take their national passtime pretty seriously so you learn fairly quickly to improve your karaoke game.

I realized that I was going to need to learn some Japanese songs to keep my coworkers happy and in doing so I realized that practicing karaoke is a fantastic way to improve my Japanese in three major areas:

  • Pronunciation: listening to a song and repeatedly trying to match the way pronunciation of the singer is an amazing way to improve your accent and how you sound in your target language. I’ve spoken previously about how important pronunciation and understandability are when speaking a second language. Repeating a song over and over again allows you to practice the vocal chord/lip movements and breath control necessary to imitate a new language.
  • Reading: karaoke involves reading the lyrics of a song in your target language at (what can be) a pretty challenging pace. That challenge and stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to a huge improvement in your reading speed.
  • Vocabulary: learning (or at least practicing) the lyrics of songs inevitably leads to you learning new words and ways to use them and they tend to stick better when you mix in a catchy tune (I can still recite songs in Irish that I learned as a child in primary school)

How to Karaoke!!! (without the humiliation of actually singing in public)
So, how do you actually go about improving your Japanese (or any language) with Karaoke? It’s as easy as following these 3 (or 4) easy steps.

  1. Pick your Songs: Find songs that you enjoy and that are of a relatively easy tempo. It’s important to start with slow songs at the beginning as it’s easier to keep up and follow the lyrics on screen. Starting off by trying to follow the lyrics of a fast paced rap song is not a good idea, no matter how much you like the song. Love songs (cringe) are usually ideal, just like this one below which became one of my karaoke staples.

    Download the songs to your computer/phone or create a specific “Lyrics” playlist on Youtube (some videos will even have the lyrics included) so you can always access them easily.
  2. Find and Save the Lyrics: Thanks to the good old internet you can now find the lyrics for virtually any song instantaneously. Find the lyrics for your chosen songs and save them in some form of file on your computer or on your phone. I personally save them to the memo app on my iphone (check out the picture below) but I’m sure there are better, more organized ways to store them for easy access. At this point you can also look up any new vocabulary or grammar that you don’t understand so you can actually know what the song is really about.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

  3. Practice: Here’s the fun part. When you have some down time just play the song you want to practice and recite the lyrics trying to match the cadence, intonation and sound of the singer. You can do it in the privacy of your own room and no one ever has to know about your new karaoke fetish. You can even practice in public without bothering anyone or appearing to be a total psychopath. For example, whenever I’m using public-transport I pop in my headphones and listen to my “Lyrics” playlist (I have one for Japanese and one for Spanish). Then I either recite the lyrics in my head as the song plays or I lip-sync the song. I consider lip-syncing the better option as you actually practice the mouth movements needed to produce the sounds. People do this on public transport all the time anyway (and it’s only annoying if they actually do start singing out loud).
  4. (OPTIONAL) Rock some Karaoke: When you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of a few songs, why not show your native-speaking friends how you can rock out and sing with the best of them during a night of unbridled, laser-illuminated mirror-balled, karaoke fury…
    …or just sing in the shower like a normal person!

    Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

                                                      Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

Time Efficient and Free
The reason I’m such a fan of this method for learning a language is that it ticks a couple of boxes that are important for me:

  • It can be done whenever you’re on public transport or driving or just chilling out at home

  • It is completely free

  • You can store the songs and lyrics on your phone and have them with you at all times

  • In all my time learning languages I have found this gives you some of the best bang for your buck when I comes to speaking improvement in relation to time invested.

If you’re sitting at home in front of a computer right now you could literally start practicing this method in less than 30 seconds i.e. the time it takes to find a song on youtube and its corresponding lyrics. There’s no reason not to give it a try.

Do I sing well now?
F%&K NO! But I now have a repertoire of Japanese (and Spanish) songs that I can belt out (as long as I have the lyrics to follow on screen) whenever I end up at a Shidax. More importantly it has improved my spoken Japanese and Spanish considerably, which I’m happy enough with.

Get singing folks.

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The Dancing Irishman in Barcelona

25 Sep
Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That's just the local amphitheater, nothing special.

Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That’s just the local ancient-Roman amphitheater, nothing special.

So… I live in Barcelona now!

Which means that in the last 4 years or so this is the fourth country I’ve “officially” lived in. After 4 years living and teaching in Japan I left in 2010, lived in Ireland for a year working at the Japanese embassy, moved to Colombia in 2011 working as a freelance translator, came back to Ireland via Cuba and the US at the end of 2013 and now, after all that, I am resident of one of Spain’s most famous cities.

I’m beginning to understand why my friends constantly tell me that they can never envision me settling down in one place. I’m not quite sure if I should be worried or not.

The Irish Diaspora
Since 2006/7 emigration out of Ireland (particularly of young people) has increased significantly; part of the great global economic depression. I was always secretly proud of the fact that I didn’t leave Ireland because I had to, because there was no work for me but because I wanted to experience life in other places. Hence my stays in Japan and Colombia.

This time is a little different
This time, I couldn’t find a job that I wanted to do. A job that I could actually see myself doing and importantly, enjoying, long-term. Anyone who has been following this blog will know from an article I posted a little over a year ago, when I left Colombia, that I left because I wanted to start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.

Well, this year, living back home on the farm in the far south of Ireland, I had plenty of time to think. If we want to get all “touchy feely” about it, I wanted to do something that I loved. So I had a few options. The blog itself is actually a pretty decent window into the things that float my boat:

  • Dance: After all this blog isn’t called the “Administrating” Irishman. I do love dance and it is a huge part of my life. I’ve even taught dance before but it’s not what I see myself doing in the long term. I’m much happier working on my own dance and learning as much as I can fit in myself.
  • Languages: I’ve been working as a freelance Japanese translator for a few years now and while I enjoy the freedom it affords me, the work isn’t exactly regular. I may have “future” kids to think about and a “future” family to provide for so something a little more stable is called for. Also, my particular field of expertise, biosciences, while interesting, hardly makes for riveting translation.
  • Travel: I really don’t know how I could make a living just traveling the world. If you do, just drop me an email. That said, I think I’ve come to a point where I’m starting to want just one place to call home (other than my family home).
  • Fitness: I love researching fitness, putting it into practice and helping people get started in the gym or just exercising in general. That said, I don’t think I’d really make it as a personal trainer. I just don’t have the pecs for it.
  • Food: Now we’re getting somewhere. I do spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about food; cooking it, eating it, rolling around in it. However, while I considered becoming a chef in secondary school I pretty much turned against the idea when I realized I would probably be working social hours. That, and Gordon Ramsay in “Hell’s Kitchen” scared the crap out of me.
    Which leaves us with…. Drumroll please
  • …Nutrition: I love being able to improve my health through the food I eat, I love reading up on the latest research in nutrition and I really love helping people with their diets. It genuinely makes me feel fulfilled. Add to that the fact of the western world’s expanding waistline and it looks like it may be a rather lucrative little industry too 😉

Sooooo… I am about to start a Masters degree in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Barcelona & the University Rovira I Virgilli. Further education is going to be my first stepping stone towards the career I really want.

Why so far away, Irish?
Firstly, it’s cheaper than living and studying in Ireland. Significantly so.

Secondly, it allows me to indulge some of my other loves at the same time (we wouldn’t want to neglect those now would we?):

  • Salsa: Barcelona is well known in Europe for having a spectacular latin dance scene
  • Language: I get to do my Masters through Spanish and maybe learn a little Catalan too
  • Food: it’s just sooooo good here

Presenting… The Nutritioning Irisman!!!!
Hmmm, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? Maybe I’ll hold off changing the blog title.

In any case, I’m going to do my best to keep updating the blog and providing you with as much helpful and mildly humorous info as I can… just from Barcelona.

If you have any tips on the salsa scene here I’d be very happy to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Remember Anything, Forever!

5 Mar
Most of us have plenty of "head" room to spare.It's time to start filling it with something useful!

Most of us have plenty of “head” room to spare.
It’s time to start filling it with something useful!

What if I told you that there was a way to learn huge quantities of information, permanently and in only a few minutes each day?

Why I bet you’d say “Good sir, I’d pay you a king’s ransom for such valuable information… or I’d at least read the rest of this article”.

Well my tightfisted friend, today you are in luck. Today I’m going to share with you a secret that will change the way you approach learning for the rest of your life.

Back story
I discovered this method back in late 2007. I had been living in Japan for a little over a year at the time and I had made a lot of progress in learning the language from scratch. However, being a perfectionist (the curse that it is) I was still looking for ways to speed up my progress. With all my online searching for a so called holy grail of learning I managed to hit pay-dirt in the form of a site with the very catchy address of  www.alljapaneseallthetime.com .

This site is aimed at language learning but in particular it introduced me to the “tool” that I’m going to tell you about. I used it and it worked. In only 3 months I had memorized 3000 Japanese kanji (chinese characters) and in a little over a year I was a certified Japanese translator. To put that in context, native Japanese students learn about 2000 kanji over the course of 10 YEARS in elementary, junior-high and high school (that works out at about 60 times faster than an average Japanese native). I often schooled my own students in Japan when they made mistakes writing kanji and my party trick was writing complicated characters that most Japanese people could only read and not even write themselves.

I know I’m tooting my horn here a little but it’s something I’m very proud of and I really want you to understand just how effective this method is.

Tell me more, Tell me more…
Ok, at this stage you’re probably saying “Ok, just get to the good stuff and let the super-learning begin”

What I used was the very simply titled “SRS”.

“What you talkin’ bout Richie?”
SRS stands for Spaced Repetition Software; it’s basically a computerized flashcard system that uses very fancy “spaced repetition algorithms” (God I love that word, it makes anyone who uses it sound like they know what their talking about) to schedule the learning of pieces of information (facts) according to how well you know them.

Think of it like this: An SRS quizzes you on certain facts by showing you a question (a question and it’s answer together are known as a card… from flash-card). When you reveal the answer you score yourself on a scale of how well you knew the answer. If you knew the answer very well, the algorithm will schedule that card to be shown again at a date in the future (days, weeks, months even years). However if you didn’t know the answer and score it accordingly the algorithm will schedule that card to be shown again very, very soon (maybe within 5 minutes). This way you spend more time reviewing facts that you don’t know well and don’t waste time reviewing stuff you already know.

The whole idea of the algorithm is to allow you to review a particular card just before you are expected to forget it. In this way you strengthen the memory retention effect maximally.

One of the great things about SRSs is that many are accessible from the internet so you can basically study anywhere you can connect to the net. With most mobile phones these days, that means you can literally study anywhere, whenever you have a couple of minutes free.

The screenshots below should give you an idea of what an SRS looks like (the particular one I use is called Anki and I definitely recommend it)

ピクチャ 3

This is what a Japanese “Question” looks like. I read it, try to answer it and then click “Show Answer”

ピクチャ 4

Here’s the same card with the answer shown in blue (it’s an explanation of new vocabulary in the sentence) (I prefer to study using a Jap/Jap Dictionary).
Below I have various options to score myself which will result in the card being shown at different intervals (1 minute, 1 day or 4 days) (This is a new card I haven’t learned yet).

Here’ an example from my Spanish deck

Here's a similar style of card, with a "question" in Spanish.

Here’s a similar style of card, with a “question” in Spanish.

And here's the same card with it's "answer" shown below in blue.

And here’s the same card with it’s “answer” shown below in blue. The scoring options will result in intervals of 10 months, 11 months, 2.1 years or 3.7 years (that means I know this card well).

The idea is to review your cards (study) for about 20-30 minutes a day. The real magic starts to happen when the intervals between seeing a particular question get long (many months). That’s when these “facts” start getting locked into your long term memory (thanks to the wonderful, magic algorithm).

I highly recommend you check out the wikipedia entry on SRS for further information.

Pfff, Bulls#!t
No, seriously, this is the real deal. To give you a little example: I don’t get to speak Japanese here in Cali all that often so I felt that my spoken fluency was suffering. Two weeks ago I met a bunch of Japanese folks and we got talking and as the conversation went on I was talking about something that happened to me in the gym. I just casually said that my thigh started to spasm when I was exercising. The word for spasm in Japanese is keiren (痙攣) and as it’s a medical term I probably have used the word less than 3 times in my entire life. The reason I remembered it is because it’s included in my SRS deck. I had reviewed it casually many times when I studied Japanese regularly back in Japan and it had become locked firmly into my long-term memory. To give you an idea of how long-term: I haven’t studied my Japanese SRS in any serious manner in about 3 years! This happened with a whole load of other words too, during the conversation.

So what can I learn?
The question should be “What do you want to learn?”.

Decks (collections of cards) can be completely customized to allow you learn anything that you can think of.

  • Use it to learn the vocabulary or sentence structure of a new language
  • Add photos and use it to learn the names and details of regular clients or workmates
  • Use it to memorize facts for quizzes from geography to quantum physics
  • Add sound and learn the pronunciation of difficult tonal languages like Chinese
  • Build a list of motivational quotes
  • Learn the nutritional values of the foods you consume most often

It really is up to you! You can find many pre-made decks online or you can create one completely by yourself and to your likings. For example, the front of your card could be a simple question (e.g. Who was the first man on the moon?) in which case the back of the card would be a simple answer (e.g. Neil Armstrong). On the other hand, if trying to learn the grammar of a new language you could write a short statement in the target language on the front of the card (e.g. Yo voy a la tienda cada mañana) in which case the back of the card (the answer) would be a explanation of new vocabulary or grammar in the sentence (e.g. tienda=store, cada=every/each). You can vary your question/answer style to your own needs.

This is what making your own cards looks like.It's as simple as writing in what you want to be on the front of the card (the question) and what you want to be revealed on the back (the answer).

This is what making your own cards looks like.
It’s as simple as writing in what you want to be on the front of the card (the question) and what you want to be revealed on the back (the answer).

The best way to start out would be to visit the website of whatever SRS you chose to use and read their instruction guide and FAQ to educate yourself about how to properly use their program. At first the learning curve can seem a little steep but within 30 minutes of downloading the software you’ll realize how easy it really is.

As I said previously, I really like Anki; it’s relatively easy to use and the best thing is it’s FREE!

Tips for using an SRS
Having used SRSs in one form or another over the years I’ve learned what works and what definitely doesn’t. Here are a few tips to make your learning experience more efficient.

  • Use it regularly. This may sound obvious but many people make the mistake of being very irregular with their SRS use. Remember, you only need a total of 20-30 minutes a day.
  • Keep questions simple. The shorter and simpler your questions are the faster you’ll get through your deck and the more you’ll enjoy it. Trying to cram too much info into a question is actually counterproductive and hinders fact retention.
  • Use it whenever you have a few minutes to spare. Especially if you use the online versions with your mobile phone you can study on the bus, waiting in line at the supermarket, during commercials while watching TV etc.
  • Keep cards interesting. If you make your own deck (which I recommend) make the cards as interesting and relevant to your own interests as possible. You retain interesting information much more easily than something you have no interest in. My language decks are full of cards about cooking, science and travel. It’s interesting (for me) and it’s in my target language (the majority of the language used is transferable to everyday conversation)
  • Grade yourself fairly. This one is a big stumbling block for newbies. If you don’t understand a question then score yourself accordingly. Otherwise you’ll only be lying to yourself and your progress will suffer. No one will know if you get it wrong anyway.
  • Have fun. Nothing will sabotage your learning more than if your study isn’t fun. Look at it as a daily game where you try to get through as many cards as possible in a set amount of time. Do everything you can to keep it interesting and fun. Make sure you want to come back to study.

I know this is a lot of info to handle at first. It was for me too a few years ago. But if you give SRSs a chance and put in a genuine effort at the start to wrap your head around how to use it, it really could be one of the greatest learning tools you’ll ever encounter.

So no more excuses for not learning the names, capitals and flags of every country in the world or the lyrics to that song you love or those few key phrases in Spanish to impress that pretty latina girl at the salsa club 😉

What are you gonna learn first? Let me know in the comments.

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The Etiquette of Salsa (All the stuff you need to worry about besides the dancing)

27 May

I take my “Golden Rule” to extremes as I don’t even refuse dance requests from men.
(Even if I don’t appear too pleased when I realize one of my friends is taking photos)

Salsa is not just a dance but a social outlet.

Be it the ubiquitous night out dancing that salsa represents here in Cali or the seemingly hidden sub-culture of salseros in non-Latin countries like Ireland and Japan, salsa is a way to enjoy yourself with other people, to socialize and to make friends.

And, as with any other social phenomena, there are certain rules that, to a greater of lesser degree, one must abide by.

Of course, these rules never get written down nor are they ever explained to you at your first salsa class or at the start of your first social night. You learn them yourself, over time, sometimes through trial and error, sometimes through the words of a friend and they begin to form part of your behaviour whenever you step out on the dance floor.

I write them down here today so that you won’t have to go through the whole (embarrassing) procedure of trial and error, hopefully helping you integrate into your local salsa scene much more smoothly.

Obviously the rules will vary depending on the social norms of the country/culture where you are but I feel that these pointers here represent a pretty decent guideline to follow wherever you are in the world. Feel free to add more to your own list if need be.

Shower
The very nature of dance means you are going to be in close physical contact with other human beings. There is nothing worse than beginning to dance with someone only to catch the whiff of BO and have to endure it for the next 4 minutes or so.

Shower well before you plan on going out dancing, put on some deodorant (I use baking soda) and wear clean clothes. Otherwise you risk developing a reputation as a “smelly dancer” and let’s face it, no one wants to dance with that guy.

Brush your teeth
For the exact same reason as above, it is not pleasant dancing with someone who has breath bad enough to strip paint off walls. Brush those pearly whites.

Carry a Salsa Survival Kit (SSK)
To combat issues with the above two points I started to bring a salsa survival kit with me whenever I go out dancing. While you can wash yourself as much as you like before hand, the fact of the matter is that you are going to dance, which means you are going to sweat (if you are like me, you are going to sweat a lot). Thus, you may not smell that same as you did at the start of the night. This is where the SSK comes in. It consists of the following 3 items:

  • Handkerchief: (or any small cloth you can fit in your back pocket or handbag) You will sweat and you will touch other people’s sweat when you dance. It simply can’t be helped. It is nice though, if you can wipe the sweat from your face and hands after every dance. Carrying a “sweat-rag” is a handy little habit I picked up to deal with the shockingly humid Japanese summers.
  • Antibacterial wet-wipes: If you notice that you’re starting to smell as the night goes on, you may have to take emergency action, run to a toilet cubicle and give your underarms a quick cleaning. Antibacterial wipes should help ensure that you don’t start to smell again for a few hours. Nowadays you can get wet-wipes in handy pocket size packs, perfect to carry along on a night out.
  • Chewing gum: (preferably sugar-free) If you go out to eat with friends before you dance or if you smoke, you may need to freshen your breath during the night. Chewing gum is so portable too that you have no excuse not to bring it along.

This is my SSK and is probably one of the simplest there is. I know of other people who add other “essentials to their list; cologne/perfume, a spare shirt, deodorant, make-up etc. (my friend Imi recommended that I also include Pepper Spray! I’ll leave that choice up to you). It all depends on your own necessities and how much you can carry. Men obviously don’t have the luxury of a handbag, although I rarely leave the house without my courier bag (notice how I didn’t call it a man-bag!!!).

Asking for a dance
Both men and women should make the effort to ask out the people they want to dance with. It should not be left up entirely to the men and thankfully in Europe and the U.S.  women feel a lot more comfortable asking men out to dance.

It’s not rocket science either, just remember to be polite and smile. Simply approach the person you want to dance with, smile, say something along the lines of “Excuse me, would you like to dance” and when they say yes, take them by the hand and gently lead them out to the dance floor. You may now begin to dance. That’s it.

If you know the person already you might get a little playful and do what I do; from a distance, grab their attention with your eyes, give a cheeky little wink and a little head nod in the direction of the dance floor and voilà, time to get your dance on. This is guaranteed to make you feel like pro.

DO NOT REFUSE A DANCE! (The Golden Rule)
I would prefer to say “NEVER refuse a dance” but I rarely use the word “never”, as life is full of exceptions. However, my sentiments on this point verge on those conveyed by the word “never”.

The reason; IT HURTS!

For those of you who are more experienced dancers, try to imagine how nervous you were when you first started dancing. For beginners, it takes a hell of a lot of courage to work up the nerve to ask someone out for a dance. Imagine yourself trying to work up all that courage and finally asking that person you’ve been wanting to dance with all night, only to get shot down. For guys, it ranks pretty close to castration (at least it did for me) and I’d imagine it feels worse for ladies who have the extra hurdle to get over, of not being the sex that normally requests a dance (which I personally believe shouldn’t be the case. I love it when a girl asks me out for a dance).

I remember the first time I was refused a dance all too well. I was in a salsa club in Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong on the second leg of my first salsa training expedition. I was pretty green but I knew a few moves so I decided do ask a dance of a girl I’d seen dancing really well earlier. I walked up to her, smiled and politely asked “Would you like to dance?” to which she responded, without so much as a smile to dull the blow, with “no”, followed by a halfhearted “maybe later”.

After recoiling form the initial shock of (what felt like) having my internal organs ripped out and stepped on in front of me, I picked up what was left of my testicles and scurried away to a dark corner to hide my shame. I did however recover and go on to have plenty more dances that night but I will never forget how I felt.

Beginning salseros need to be encouraged especially  by dancers with more experience. I will dance with anyone (I’ve even danced with men who want to practice their following. That usually gets a few odd looks) because I know how it feels to be refused a dance. I’ll even dance with someone who tells me before hand that they’re not the best dancer or that they’re only a beginner. I’ll just modify what I do to make sure they have as fun a dance as possible.

There are a few situations, however, where it’s ok to say “no”, for example if you don’t like dancing a particular style (like merengue for me), if your last dance was particularly vigorous and you want to take a breather, if you need to go to the restroom etc. You should always smile and explain the reason and tell the person that you will dance the next song with them instead. Be nice.

I try to imagine myself in the shoes of beginners and I try to encourage them with salsa as much as possible along with trying to help them avoid any of the “unpleasant” situations I’ve experienced in the past.

Don’t pester people for dances
One of the great things about social dancing is the chance to dance with many other people.

However, even if you’ve really enjoyed a dance with someone, that doesn’t give you an excuse to repeatedly ask them out over the course of the night. Give them and yourself the chance to enjoy dancing with different people. They may even come and ask you for a dance later, saving you from doing it. If not, wait for a while after your last dance and then ask again.

Also, on the rare chance that someone says “no” the first time (or any time) you ask them, just leave it at that and don’t ask them again that night. It’s their loss.

Don’t clog up the dance floor

If the dance floor looks full, just “F#$K @FF” (I don’t normally swear at all but this point really gets to me).

I’m feeling particularly livid about this point as I write this post right now as someone did it to me last night (which was otherwise a spectacular night of dancing). There is nothing worse than when, while your enjoying a dance with your partner, some inconsiderate idiot decides to “squeeze in” next you and suddenly all that lovely space you had to do your tricks and patterns (along with that of everyone else’s around you), disappears.

I’m a fairly easy going guy but when this happens I feel like rolling up my sleeves and unleashing pure, unadulterated fury on the eejit who just did the salsa equivalent of “cutting me off”.  Not only does it mean that both pairs (probably more) have less room to perform certain moves but it also increases the risk of collisions. This is more relevant in LA or New York style salsa as they both require a relatively long “slot” and room at the sides for complex hand movements and turns. In Latin America, people are used to dancing much more closely so the style of salsa (i.e. lack of intricacy) accommodates this.

So, do everyone a favor and either, find an area with more room to move or sit it out, wait for the next song and grab a space on the dance floor early. Otherwise you’ll have an angry Irishman to deal with.

If you’re not dancing, stay off the dance floor

Don’t be that rude, clumsy idiot who forces his way through a dance floor full of quick spinning couples, bumping into every one of them along the way and basically pissing everyone off.

I will admit, that depending on the salsa club itself sometimes traversing the floor to get to the bar, the restroom or even the exit , is unavoidable but you should always try to move around the outskirts of the dance floor avoiding the dancers as much as possible.

The same has to be said for people hanging out on the fringes of the dance floor; make yourself as small as possible, avoid the dancers and don’t get annoyed if some of them bump into you. Remember, you’re in their territory.

Acknowledging and Apologizing for a collision

Salsa is a free-moving, high-speed activity carried out by multiple pairs in a confined space. Collisions will happen.

The best way to deal with this is to acknowledge it, apologize and keep on dancing. Usually both pairs are, at least partially, to blame so both usually apologize to each other. When I say apologize I don’t mean that you need a long winded verbal apology either. When a collision happens simply catch the eye of the other pair, give them an apologetic look and mouth the word “sorry”, end the interaction with a smile and keep on dancing. An apology should not require you to stop dancing (unless someone is sprawled out convulsing on the floor, which is quite rare).

The rudest thing you could do is not to acknowledge it. This is not the case in Latin American culture where in general the dance floors are much more tightly packed and light collisions are much more common.

Amongst a dancing couple, incidents (stepping on someones toes, the odd elbow to the head etc.) happen too. In this case, providing you haven’t incapacitated your partner, just apologize, smile and keep dancing. Stopping would just draw too much attenuation to the incident. Also, you only need to apologize once as constant apologies during a dance can be really annoying and take away from the fun.

It is always the man’s fault

The lead is the one responsible for guiding the dance and the lead is virtually always a man, thus logic states that if something goes wrong, it’s the man’s fault.

Usually if something goes wrong (an ill-timed move, a collision with another couple etc.) it is due to a lack of foresight or planning on part of the guy so gentlemen, just accept it and don’t get into an argument over it. This is why it’s usually the men who apologize to each other when something happens.

I will admit that there are occasions where the follow is clearly to blame for an “incident” but my policy is just to accept the blame and keep on dancing (anything for a quiet life). Suck it up guys, you’ll be taking the fall a lot.

Tie up your loose ends

This is one for the ladies (mostly). Although I think that hair spinning freely during a dance looks beautiful it can be a serious safety hazard. Do your partner a favour and tie it up or otherwise keep it under control. Getting a face-full of hair moving at full spinning speed during a dance really stings (and a plaited ponytail in the face feels somewhat similar to getting hit with padded nunchuks). This can really mess up a leads concentration not to mention the risk of hair getting caught in someone’s fingers or watch strap during a spin. Keep it under control ladies.

While on the point of wildly spinning hazards I should mention this;
DO NOT DANCE WITH A HANDBAG.
They are not only a hell of a lot harder than the most unruly ponytails but their long straps mean they pose a risk to surrounding couples too. Either leave it with a friend or, as salsa scenes in Europe, Asia and the U.S. are quite safe and friendly places, leave it at your table, maybe under a coat and go and enjoy your dance without the deadly weapon. Really, handbags have no place on the dance floor.

Help your fellow man

If someone ever asks you for your advice or guidance on salsa matters, consider it a compliment that they admire your abilities or style of dancing and do what you can to help them out.

I know that when I started out, I was full of questions (I still am) and I am very grateful to all the people who have helped me to improve my salsa over the years. The same is probably true for you so do the right thing; be friendly and help out the next generation of salseros.

Don’t start teaching on the dance floor

I’ve witnessed this scene many a time; a couple are dancing together, usually for the first time, when suddenly one of the partners notices the other is not behaving the way they would like them too and decides to stop the dance to “teach” them how to do it correctly. They have just ruined a perfectly good dance.

I know one particular guy on the Dublin dance scene, a spectacular dancer and highly regarded amongst other dancers in Dublin, who does this constantly. So much so that the image of him stopping a dance to “teach” his “inexperienced” partner, is burned into my mind. I’ve spoken with some of these girls after the fact and all of them have said the exact same thing “It’s nice to learn something new but it’s so annoying when he stops the dance”.

I’m not innocent of doing this myself, but only when I’m asked to explain it by my partner and usually the most “teaching” I’ll do during a dance is to say “try relaxing you shoulders a little”.

A dance is supposed to be enjoyed and it’s hard to do that when your partner keeps stopping the dance to point out how badly you’re dancing. There is a time and a place for it but it most certainly is not during a social dance.

Smile

Salsa is meant to be fun so show your partner that you’re enjoying yourself with the easiest method possible; smiling.

For a lot of people, however, it’s not as easy as it sounds. When I first started dancing I used to concentrate so much on getting the moves right that I constantly needed to be reminded by my partners to smile (I still forget to do it sometimes).

It may not seem like much but showing your partner that you’re enjoying the dance makes them feel more secure that they’re dancing well.

Off the dance floor, smiling also makes you a lot more approachable and increases the chance that someone will ask you to dance. I know one regular on the scene in Dublin who I have never asked to dance because she never smiles (and because she scares me a little).

Don’t dance TOO close

Pair dancing, by it’s very nature, means that 2 people need to move together in close physical proximity while holding on to each other. This is not an excuse to take advantage. When dancing with someone for the first time you should always be more conservative and maybe later, if your partner gives you an indication that it’s ok to do so, gradually move a little bit closer.

I learned to dance salsa and bachata in a small city in Japan where close physical contact is not the norm. So, you can imagine my surprise when I first saw people dancing bachata, almost erotically, in a club in the metropolis that is Hong Kong. Then I got to experience it first hand with a local woman who insisted on dancing closely. Thank God the dimmed lights in the club hid how much I was blushing.

Here in Cali, dancing close is the norm and it was here that I learned to dance close salsa (Salsa de la alcoba i.e. bedroom salsa) and now I love dancing it with my close friends. But at first, dancing close did make me a little uncomfortable so don’t dance too close to someone that either you don’t know or that is not used to it. Don’t be like the woman who I once danced with at a salsa congress in Ireland who during a dance, suddenly thrust my body towards hers, practically forcing our crotches together and insisted that that was the “real” way to dance bachata.  I finished the dance and quickly shuffled off the dance floor feeling a little dirty and with a face that told anyone who saw it “I have just been violated”. I was so innocent before that dance.

On Flirting

Salsa can be a very sensual dance. I said CAN, not SHOULD.

Unfortunately there are some people who misunderstand the close proximity of dancing as an excuse to “try it on” with every girl who agrees to dance with them. If you’re one of those people, stop being a creep give up dancing and give speed dating (or something like that) a try.

I’ll happily admit that a little bit of flirting can really add to the fun of a dance but I’ll only do it with someone who I know well and who I know is comfortable with it. The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of the people who go dancing are there to dance and not to pick someone up that night (not entirely the case in a lot of places in Colombia where dancing is the social norm).

Adjust your level to your partners

You can never really be sure about someone’s level until you dance with them for the first time, especially if you haven’t even seen them dance before.

You should always start out slowly and with the basics, get a feel for how your partner is reacting and then, gradually and slowly start incorporating more complex moves. If you get the feeling that your partner isn’t handling those complex moves well it’s time to ease off the accelerator and continue the dance with slightly more basic moves. If you don’t control the level you not only risk hurting someone’s pride but you also risk physically hurting them if they don’t know how to react to a certain move.

When dancing with someone with a lower level you should do all you can to ensure that they enjoy the dance so that doesn’t mean you should try as many intricate combinations as possible. This will only end up with them feeling incompetent and disheartened. Lead them through moves they can follow and they’ll finish the dance feeling great and feeling that they’re improving.

Say Thank You

It’s common courtesy. When the song ends and you stop dancing, smile, look your partner in the eye and say a sincere “thank you”. Then take them by the hand or the shoulder and lead them off the dance floor.
Congratulations, you’ve just completed a successful dance… +100 EXP Points.

After reading over this again it’s pretty clear from its frequency of use that “smiling” is one of the most important things you can do while dancing so get those pearly whites working for ya guys.

Keep smiling folks (and keep your eyes open!)

What do you think of this list? Is there anything you feel I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.

Keep dancing folks.

P.S. I spent a fairly solid 5 hours writing the first draft of this post only to lose it all at the click of a mouse. I now know what true rage feels like.

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How I ended up in Colombia (or “Thank you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!”)

14 May

First off, don’t worry, the title will make sense eventually. I promise.

I moved to Colombia in September, 2011 arriving first in Bogota and then, after 3 days of rain and cold far too similar to Irish weather for my liking, taking the 12 hour bus through the Andes to Cali, the world capital of Salsa. My Mecca.

That off course neither explains why I went there nor the title of this post. For that we need to go back, way back to my chubby childhood. To a period lost in the annals of mediocrity. Back to the nineteen nineties!

I like many easily influenced kids at the time used to spend my evenings after school sat in front of the telly watching cartoons until the children’s programming ended and that waste of air-time known as “the news” started. One day, a new cartoon began that was to captivate me every subsequent Friday afternoon and affect me profoundly (albeit unknowingly, initially) for the rest of my life. That show was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The show had everything; crime fighting, turtles, comedy, sci-fi and most importantly, martial arts. I was hooked. I managed to get my parents to buy me turtle video games and even a turtle costume complete with super-breakable plastic swords that I used with my younger brother who had a pair of super-breakable (although super-painful) plastic nunchuks. I didn’t manage to get them to buy me the pet turtles I wanted which in retrospect is probably a good thing, considering I would probably have tried to mutate them with something in an attempt to have my own mutant play friends (I loved science too which meant it was a genuine possibility).

However, I did manage to get them to send me to the local Shotokan Karate club so I too could be a crime fighter (I would have to try and work on the mutation stuff later). I imagine that many martial arts clubs at the time saw a jump in enrollment when the Turtles first aired, with so many kids wanting to emulate their heroes. A jump that was probably as short-lived as it was sudden.It was the first sport I ever really gave a go at and I did it for a couple of years, getting my purple belt after which I just stopped going, as children are wont to do.

The next stage of my journey with karate began in my 4th year of secondary school (1999-2000). I went through a lot of changes that year. I had decided that I no longer wanted to be the chubby kid who regularly got bullied by the other kids so I started to eat healthily, bought a cheap set of barbells and dumbbells and returned with a new passion to Karate. I practiced diligently and became relatively decent, winning a few trophies in competitions, getting my brown belt and gaining a new found confidence in myself that I never had before.

It was during secondary school that I started reading books about karate and other martial arts and this obviously led me to learning about the history and culture of Japan. I began to understand the origins of many of the things I did in my karate training and most importantly I learned and really came to appreciate the Japanese concept of “dou” (written in Japanese kanji as 道) which means road or way and is used as a suffix to signify the “the way of…” in numerous Japanese art forms such as sadou (茶道) “the way of tea” for the study of the Japanese tea ceremony or shodou (書道) “the way of writing” for Japanese calligraphy and of course in martial arts like karate-dou (空手道) “the way of the empty hand”.

I liked the fact that in Japan there was traditionally a correct process, a way, to do things and this left me with a strong desire to go there and experience it for myself. So strong in fact that I even asked the school guidance counselor about it and she let me know about a teaching programme called JET that paid university graduates to go to Japan and immerse themselves in Japanese cultures (this also happened to be the only time that the guidance counselor provided me with anything useful in my six years at that school). I was 16 years old and completely sold on the idea. Once I graduated from university, in 5 years, I was going to Japan.

When my final year of secondary school came around I decided to focus on my studies (as I was I good boy and deep-down, a total nerd) so I put Karate on hold. I did well in my final exams and got into the university I wanted, University College Cork, studying biological sciences (the sci-fi aspect of the Turtles leaving its mark in yet another way I believe. I also learned that mutation in real life was nowhere near as cool as it had been portrayed in the Turtles).

In college, I took the opportunity to try out the various clubs that were available; boxing, scuba-diving, gymnastics, break dancing and I even went to a couple of salsa classes thanks to their clever advertising campaign pointing out the shockingly large ratio of women to men (in my 2 classes I neither learned to dance nor met any girls, imagine that!). I did however become a pretty dedicated member of the kickboxing club and to a lesser extent, due to scheduling conflicts, of the karate club. I remained a brown belt throughout college, as I never took the opportunity to try and advance further while I was there (i.e. like many college students, I was just too lazy).

During my 4 years at college I had almost forgotten about going to Japan although the idea must have kept hold somewhere in the back of my mind. Luckily, at the careers exposition of my final year I stumbled across the JET information booth, remembered my teenage dream, applied and was eventually accepted (it was not quite as easy as I’ve made it sound and MAY have involved lots of scrambling for deadlines and a little bit of crying. MAY!)

So in late July of 2006 I was shipped out to Japan and to my final destination of Miyazaki prefecture (which I had never heard of in my life) where I would spend 4 of the best years of my life.

At this stage you’re probably wondering “What does any of this have to do with salsa or living in Colombia?”. It’s coming, bear with me.

In Japan, I did so many new things; learning Japanese, Japanese archery, calligraphy, surfing, organizing Irish cooking classes and phenomenal St. Patrick’s Day parties that I almost completely forgot about Karate until my final year there when I found a great club with some great people, started training again and finally got my black belt, almost 15 years after I started karate for the first time (never let it be said that I don’t get the job done… eventually).

While in Japan, one of my best friends, Nahoko, a very international girl who was very socially active invited me to a salsa party that she was hosting at a local bar. I went, a little reluctantly, with my girlfriend at the time. There was an introductory lesson given by two people who were to become very important in my life; Yano-papa and Yano-mama (as they like to call themselves).

Here’s the thing, I had always wanted to learn to dance as I always watched jealously whenever I saw a couple dancing on TV, moving in perfect unison and harmony with the music and pretty much just looking much cooler than I ever could with two-step, back and forth, Irishman sway. My girlfriend at the time had danced ballet when she was younger and so had no problem picking up the rhythm instantly during the lesson and I have to be honest, watching her dancing in front of me, smiling and gently swaying her hips with to the music was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen (I, however, was a little less than coordinated).

We had a blast at the party, and “danced” (as well as an Irishman with no rhythm can) until the party ended. I made a pledge to myself that night that I was going to get better at salsa, dance well with my girlfriend and impress the hell out of her.

Now, as you can imagine, finding regular salsa classes in a rural prefecture in Japan is not the easiest of tasks but I managed to do a few classes, kept secret from my girlfriend, where I picked up a couple of new “moves” and some “dodgy” rhythm. Over the next year and a half, thanks to new found motivation and few journeys abroad for “training”, I improved a lot (how and why I’ll explain in some other posts) eventually organizing and teaching at a monthly salsa class and party in my city to try and promote salsa to the masses. I can proudly say that that party is still going strong in Miyazaki city thanks to the help of my Japanese salsa friends.

In my final year in Japan, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I began to look for new challenges (filling the void that develops after a breakup is something I’m sure many of you are aware of). I was pretty happy with how I had progressed with Japanese so I wanted to try a new language and Spanish was the obvious choice thanks to my desire to actually understand the lyrics of all the salsa songs I regularly listened to. I gave it a shot (without much dedication) and began to think about what I might do after I left Japan, where I would go etc. and all the signs (Salsa, Spanish and a desire to experience a culture completely different from Japan’s) pointed to South America.

Around the same time I met a very beautiful Colombian woman, living in the neighbouring prefecture, who I mentioned my idea to. She told me straight away that I had to go to her hometown, Cali, the world capital of salsa, to truly live the “cultura de la rumba”. After asking my reliable and knowledgeable friend, Wikipedia, all about Cali, my mind was made up. I was moving to Cali, to learn Spanish and real salsa (I also learned that Cali is apparently home to some of the most beautiful women in the world and that didn’t hurt either).

I finished my contract in Japan and moved back to Ireland where I worked for a year after managing to get a great job at the Japanese Embassy that I thought would look nice on my CV and would help me smoothly readjust to western culture. It did.

I was more than happy to discover, when I moved back, that there was a very healthy salsa scene in Dublin and I became a regular at the various events and parties around the city and was very lucky to befriend some amazing salseros and salseras, both from Ireland and abroad. I learned and improved my salsa a lot that year and really came to appreciate Dublin (as it was my first time living there). However, my mind had been made up and I made all the arrangements to travel to Colombia as soon as my one-year contract at the embassy finished.
And so, after a little holiday back to Japan to visit my friends and get my fill of sushi I returned back to the family farm for a couple of weeks to get my affairs in order and say goodbye to my family and friends once again.

After a week’s layover in New York, relishing the chance to reconnect with some old friends, enjoying good food and dancing salsa I arrived in Bogota and then made my way here, to Cali where I’ve been ever since, bailando, rumbeando y gozando all that this very special city has to offer.

There’s a great deal more to tell you about but I guess that’s what a blog is for. I can’t wait to write the next post. Stay tuned.

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Who am I?

7 May

I’m an Irishman, with a beard!

I live in Cali, Colombia, the world capital of Salsa.

I dance.

Basically I am living my life the way I want to live it right now and I am very happy the way it’s working out.

Everything that has happened to me in my life has brought me to where I am right now and I am enjoying being taken along for the ride (while making sure I’m staying on the right track). I’ve lived around the world, met many incredible people, seen some unforgettable sights and taken up some really fun hobbies.

So, on the advice of some friends and out of feeling the necessity to share some of my insights and experiences with the world (which apparently is waiting for me) I’ve started this blog.

I hope to talk about everything that interests me, everything that makes me tick so I’ll be covering a lot of topics. From food to world travel, language learning to skill acquisition, nutrition to exercise science and maybe even how to make a good cup of tea (because I am, after all is said and done, an Irishman).

Oh yeah, and I’ll probably mention something about dancing too.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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