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What Makes a Great Dance Congress?: Dublin Fever Fest 2015

13 Oct

I danced so hard I caught a cold!

That’s exactly what happened to me a couple of weekends ago when I attended the 2nd Dublin Fever Fest, Ireland’s most recent Latin-dance congress and a show of how popular salsa and a whole spectrum of other dances have become in the Emerald Isle over the past few years.

How do you catch a cold from dancing? Well if you have to ask you’ve clearly never danced hard enough before 😛 . Continued heavy exercise can weaken your immune system and I’ve run myself down in the past after suddenly thinking it would be a good idea to go dancing every night for a week straight (I’m usually a 2 or 3 nights a week kind-of-guy). Fever Fest, however, was my first time catching a cold after only a weekend of dancing… well done Fever Fest.

Despite, running myself into the ground and catching a cold (which I still have by the way “sniff sniff”), I really had a blast at Dublin Fever Fest and I think it’s worth pointing out why; what made it special and maybe what could make it even better.

Size Matters!
Let’s be honest… it does! In the case of salsa congresses, they can be small local congresses with just one class at a time or they can be huge international congresses with thousands of attendees and multiple classes running simultaneously. They all have their own Pros and Cons.

Fever Fest is on the smaller side with about XXXX attendees in total and two classes at any one time. I have to admit that I really enjoy this type of “cozy” congress. By the end of the first day of workshops you get to dance and chat with a good portion of the attendees and knowing more people makes for much more enjoyable nights of social dancing.

One of the great advantages of smaller congresses is getting to know and dance with so many people in such a short time.

One of the great advantages of smaller congresses is getting to know and dance with so many people in such a short time.

Great International Teachers
Most people who go t congresses go for one of two reasons; to dance their asses off or to learn new skills from teachers they wouldn’t normally get the chance to learn from.

The line-up at Fever Fest was a great mix of mostly European teachers who, again due to the smaller size of the event, came together as a mini-family of “dance parents” who happily mingled during the event with their “dance kids”, the attendees.

While I usually don’t condone favoritism I have to mention one of the instructors in particular. The world famous Marco Ferigno, dance partner to the equally famous Karol Florez, gave a Master-class in Mambo Shines and it was simply… masterful. On top of being a simple astounding dancer, he also happened to be a very friendly, approachable and down-to-earth teacher. I was exhausted after an hour and a half of his rapid fire choreography, but happily so.

A great collection of talented and friendly teachers that really mixed with the festival goers.

A great collection of talented and friendly teachers and performers that really mixed with the festival goers.

A Class Act
While the actual teachers at a congress are vitally important, the type of classes they teach are just as important. Everyone is used to doing the good old staples like “LA Partnerwork” or “Ladies Styling” and these were duly represented at Fever Fest. However, they were supplemented with novel classes such as Boogaloo and Reggaeton. This is the kind of refreshing variety that makes a congress worth attending; classes that take us out of our comfort-zone and expose us to new styles and techniques that broaden our horizons as dancers.

It’s full of Dancing Irish People
While I may have the internet rights to call myself “The Dancing Irishman”, the dance-floor of Fever Fest was full of many more Dancing Irish People just as worthy of the title. Fair enough, the dance community in Ireland has a huge expat component but I really think that if you want to party with the Irish, there’s no better place to do it than on home-turf.

Great social dancing is a must at any congress and Fever Fest didn't disappoint.

Great social dancing is a must at any congress and Fever Fest didn’t disappoint.

Show me something new
Last but by no means least, I need to mention the performances at Fever Fest. For most people, the most important parts of a congress are the classes and the social dancing and while I feel mostly the same myself, I was definitely impressed with what I saw. To begin with the first performance of the weekend involved four stunningly beautiful women shaking their ample booties in what could only be described as some form of urban/latin/funk… that got me hooked. On top of that there was the usual mix of excellent performances by both professionals and student groups that one would expect at a congress but one in particular stood out. An original choreography by the MC of Fever Fest, Azael Salazar and Nadezda Antipenko simply blew me away. The contemporary piece that Azael described as being about the desire to be with someone you can’t be with literally left me with my jaw hanging. By far the highlight of all that was on show. One final good point about all the performances is that they didn’t outstay their welcome every night. They kept them short and sweet and they didn’t reduce the actual social dance time too much at all.

Quite possibly one of the best contemporary dance performances that I've ever seen.

Quite possibly one of the best contemporary dance performances that I’ve ever seen.

I’ll be back
All in all, Fever Fest impressed me, especially as a congress that is still in its infancy. Even though I don’t live in Ireland any more I can see myself making the trip to this great event on a yearly basis.

Great classes, great performances and a great dancing… what more could you ask for?

Keep dancing folks!

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To New York

14 Oct

This day, October 14th, exactly one year ago I arrived in New York city… absolutely terrified!

THE FOLLOWING MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE ACTUALLY HAPPENED

What I’m about to publish here is a letter I wrote exactly 1 year ago, at the start of the almost 24 hour bus ride I took to from South Carolina to New York.

I’m publishing it because I want people to know that:
1. Not all my travels have been the “happy go lucky” kind
2. Life can get scary but you can never let that hold you back… ever

In a sense, it’s my confession, that my time in New York wasn’t as spectacular as I may have made it seem.

To New York

13/10/2013

I’m fucking terrified.

I’ve felt this way all morning since I looked in my wallet and found a single hundred-dollar bill.

I needed to use the vast majority of that to buy my bus ticket from Charleston, South Carolina to New York. So, with the change from that and the cash I have in my pocket (and provided I don’t need to spend any more money along the way) I will arrive in New York City (arguably the greatest city on the face of the earth) with a grand total of $14.45.

I also have a €50 note that I’ve had in my wallet for years (along with other foreign currency) as an emergency fund. It looks like that emergency may really rear it’s ugly head.

I actually thought that there would be 2 hundred-dollar bills waiting for me when I went for my wallet so I genuinely think I must have lost one along the way. That’s pretty inconvenient to say the least.

$14.45
That doesn’t buy much in the good old U.S. of A.

When I get to New York, I’ve already decided that most of that money will go towards some essential groceries. Something cheap and healthy. Something to live on for my first week.

It’s going to be quite a change from how I’ve been eating here in the U.S. up until now. I have been eating well (my waistline will attest to that), especially here in Charleston, enjoying the local “southern” cuisine and being as generous with tips as I can, which hasn’t helped my finances but I’m hoping that it’ll bring me some good karma in New York, especially if I find a job waiting tables… I’m going to need it.

The people I’ve met along the way on this adventure have been great and have really helped me out along the way. Especially in Charleston where I hadn’t planned on staying too long. I had decided to get to NYC as soon as possible after I realized how little cash I had left but the salseros of Charleston managed to convince me to stay a whole week.

All the good times I’ve been having along the way have ensured that my financial situation will be dire when I arrive in the city that never sleeps. And I regret none of it.

I have seen parts of the U.S. I had never seen before, I have done things I have always wanted to do and met amazing people all along the way that make it all the more worth while. This has been an amazing journey for me.

I’m just going to have to pay for it when I get to New York.

The only thing that is keeping me from freaking out completely is the friends I have waiting for me in New York. I have a place to stay, with great people and that makes a huge difference when moving to a new city.

I remember when my mother drove me to the bus station over two years ago, just before I left Ireland to go to Colombia. She kept asking me what I was going to do for work, how I was going to get by, where I was going to live. I just kept replying that I “knew” I would find something. I knew that I would find work, meet new people, find a place to live, make a life for myself in Cali, a city where I had one single contact, a friend of a friend.

That said I also went with the confidence of having healthy savings account to back me up should I need it. That savings account is now empty as is my Japanese bank account that I tended to forget about and that had bailed me out on numerous occasions.

So that’s probably why now, I’m not brimming with the confidence that filled me when I left home for Colombia.

All the money I have in the world is $14.45 and a €50 note,

I will do anything I need to do to earn money when I get to New York. Even in Charleston I was looking for odd jobs and managed to earn $60 (and a great meal) by helping someone clean their house. I’m not “too proud” to do any type of work, you do what you have to do. $60, unfortunately, doesn’t last long.

The last thing I want to do, however, is to have to ask my parents for money. It’s not that I can’t, we have a great relationship and they would give me whatever I needed in the blink of an eye. I’ve just always been proud of the fact that I have never needed to ask them for anything since I graduated from university and got my first job. I don’t want to worry them and I don’t want them to think I’m struggling, like I need to come to them with my tail between my legs after all my gallivanting around the world. I am, it seems, “too proud” for that.

Faking composure on the bus to NYC

Faking composure on the bus to NYC

My mam just sent me a text (yeah, I couldn’t believe my mam knows how to send texts now either!) asking where I am and what towns I’m going to pass through on my way to New York. I just replied and felt the urge to send her a picture of myself smiling on the bus and then finished it off with “Love you loads, mam”. I don’t know where that came from but it made my eyes well up a little.

I have had butterflies in my stomach since I realized where my funds were at (and after a thorough search of my pockets came up with nothing else). They’re like butterflies of dread, nagging me “how could you have let this happen?” “you’re supposed to be smarter than that”, “you’re not going to be able to make it on that”.

I don’t have a choice, I have to make it. I have to find work, work my ass off if I have to. If I don’t I have no way of getting home and I have absolutely no intention of outstaying my legal welcome in the United States, I want to be able to come back. I also have the added worry of getting caught working while I’m here as a tourist. That would mean an instant ticket home, but not the happy kind.

The people I’ve met have been encouraging too. Telling me to keep positive and positive things will happen. I appreciate it and believe it too (although I think they may not have been so ready to say it had they seen the contents of my pockets).

The confidence that I do have comes from my friends and contacts in New York. They’ll help me find a way. Just before I left Colombia, only 6 weeks ago, someone very dear to me, out of the blue, told me that if ever needed money over here, all I had to do was ask. This is someone who is far from well off but it doesn’t matter, friends help friends! I pray that I never have to ask anyone for money (stupid pride) but I can’t begin to describe the comfort it brings to have loved ones who you know have your back.

I will arrive in New York tomorrow. I will take my place on my friends couch. I will start looking for a job from the moment I enter her neighborhood. I will find work and then I can start looking for something I can do more professionally. I will try to find a way to stay in New York (legally) so I can start to really reach the goal of this dance-fueled jaunt around the globe.

I’m writing this now because I really need to get it out of my system. I think I might publish it in a year, well after arriving in New York. I have no idea if I’ll still be there in a year or what I’ll be doing.

Even if I am terrified, I can’t say that I’m not really excited about the whole thing. Fingers crossed!

So, what happened?

I found a job in an Irish bar in Manhattan less than a week after I arrived. I was working only for tips and the place wasn’t even busy at the beginning so the first couple of weeks were rough, one day I even needed to decide if I was going to spend the little cash I had on groceries or on a subway ticket to get me into work. The subway ticket won out!

I worked almost everyday for a minimum of 10 hours, sometimes as many as 13 and put up with one of the most tyrannical bosses I have ever encountered. I put up with it because I had to.

The first decent tip I made. I can't begin to describe the elation I felt when it was slipped into my hand through a slick handshake.

The first decent tip I made. I can’t begin to describe the elation I felt when it was slipped into my hand through a slick handshake.

Anyone following the blog from last year will know that I didn’t write much about the salsa scene in New York while I was there. I simply didn’t have much free time to enjoy it. The couple I did publish while in New York you can find here and here!

I made enough money to buy myself a ticket home to Ireland and the rest, as they say, is history. I never did find a way of staying in New York, but I survived it made it home (unannounced and to the surprise of everyone) and I’m writing this article from my new base in Barcelona. Happy, healthy and safe.

Thank you

To all the wonderful people I met along the way in the states and especially to those who were so good to me in New York (you know who you are) I want to let you know how grateful I am to count you amongst my friends. Thank you and I hope I can repay that kindness one day.

A year goes by quickly!

Keep dancing folks.

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How to Instantly Improve your Accent in a second language

7 Oct

We’ve all met a foreigner who has come up to us to ask a question (maybe directions to the bus station or the nearest bakery… at least that’s what I usually look for in new cities) only to not understand a word they have said to us because of their “heavily” accented English.

Was that some form of Quehua???

Was that some form of Quechua???

They might be speaking grammatically perfect English but their accent signals to our brain that: “This person is speaking some strange language that you don’t understand… possibly Dutch… or Klingon! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!”

It happens all the time. I work part-time in a bar and last week I had an older Finnish guy come up to ask for a drink. I had to ask him to repeat his order 4 times before I realized he wanted a Gin & Tonic. I felt ridiculous and I consider myself to be much better than average at understanding accented English due to over 7 years of living in non-English-speaking countries.

The under-appreciated Importance of Accent
Here’s something that you unfortunately won’t hear much about in your average secondary school language class:

“ACCENT IS IMPORTANT”

Working on your accent in your second language will benefit you in the following ways:

  • it will make you instantly more understandable
  • it will make it easier for native speakers to accept you as a competent speaker of their language

Check out this little video I recorded which shows the difference between Spanish and Japanese spoken in my native Irish accent and then with a much more “neutralized” accent. I think you’ll agree that the neutral accent sounds a whole lot more understandable (but does lose some of its Irish charm 😉 ) 

Eliminate your own accent
So, imitating the accent of another language is not easy. It is by no means impossible but it does take plenty of conscious practice.

What I’m proposing, to begin with, is the much simpler option of just eliminating your own accent.

The easiest way to do this is to focus on what makes your particular accent distinct and then gradually try to eliminate those idiosyncrasies from your second language (where they only help in making you more difficult to understand).

This can run the full gamut from cadence, to pronunciation, to sentence intonation etc. Obviously, the more aspects you focus on, the better.

Let me take a Selfie!
So a great way of doing this is to record yourself speaking your chosen language.

Make a quick video of yourself reading something (newspaper clippings or comics are great). Play it back, analyze it yourself and then decide what parts are making you sound… like a foreigner. Better yet, get a native speaker of your target language to review it for you and help you work on your pronunciation issues.

Then it’s just a matter of practicing the same words or sentences, just without the accent that makes it sound… odd!

Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to improve how you sound, be it in Japanese, Spanish, Klingon or whatever.

Keep talking 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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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

The Salsa Congress Survival Guide

24 Jun

I can’t feel my legs!

Add to that a serious sleep deficit and a feeling of complete euphoria and it’s pretty obvious that I’ve just come back from one hell of a salsa congress.

This is pretty much how I feel the day after a congress! (just not as cute)

This is pretty much how I feel the day after a congress! (just not as cute)

The 9th Irish Salsa Congress (formerly and nostalgically “Salsa School”) was a roaring success and my thanks and respect go out to everyone who made it so. You did a spectacular job folks 😀 .

I had forgotten how much a congress can take out of you so I decided to write up this quick little survival guide made up of my observations, some of the things I did right and a LOT of the things I did wrong.

NAP!!!
Anyone who has gone to a salsa congress can tell you that you will work up a serious sleep deficit over the course of a few days. Add that to all the dancing and you will quickly wear yourself out.

Grab a nap whenever and wherever you can. An hour here and an hour there will go a long way to keeping your energy levels up for the long, late nights of dance mayhem.

Not a nap person? Neither am I but I learned through necessity at this last congress. Dancing through all the way to breakfast isn’t unusual at some congresses.

If you're not a natural napper, a sleep mask is a great help.

If you’re not a natural napper, a sleep mask is a great help.

Pace Yourself
It’s perfectly understandable to feel that you need to go to every class on the schedule to “get your money’s worth” at a congress. However, you’ll quickly wear yourself out that way. There is nothing wrong with skipping one here and there to have a little extra sleep or to grab a nap in the afternoon.

Do some research and prioritize
Before you go, find out what teachers are doing what workshops and ask around about what classes to do from people who’ve taken their classes before. Then prioritize the classes that you feel you’ll get the most from.

For example, this past weekend I focused mostly on Musicality and On2 classes; two areas that I feel I really need to work on.

Remember that some of the teachers may have come from quite far away so this is your opportunity to learn from some fantastic dance-instructors. Prioritize things that you may not be able to learn in your local salsa scene.

Eat well
This will vary at every congress and depends a lot on where you stay. If you have self-catering accommodation you can bring your own food and “cook”. I’ve also heard of other congresses where the only food some people eat all day is the breakfast buffet.

Either way, remember that if you eat healthy you’ll feel much more energetic and enthusiastic dancing. If you eat crap, you’ll feel crap and sluggish and no one wants to dance like that.

Bring healthy foods that are quick to prepare like fruit, instant oats, cottage cheese, protein shakes, eggs, ready-to-eat salad bowls and you’ll feel a lot lighter on the dance floor.

Healthy, Quick and Easy. Healthier food will keep you dancing longer!

Healthy, Quick and Easy. Healthier food will keep you dancing longer!

Make new friends
Congresses are a great chance to meet other dancers from other cities and even from other countries. You’ve all got one thing in common, dance, so take advantage and get chatting to people in the workshops during the day. It’ll probably get you more dances at night.

On top of that it’s great to get to know dancers in other cities; if you ever visit you’ll have a contact with info on the best places to dance and maybe even a couch to sleep on.

Dance with strangers
Don’t confuse this with “dance with strange people”!

As I mentioned above, congresses are your chance to dance with people who normally you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to dance with again. The more and varied dancers you dance with, the better you’ll become.

Play safe 😉
Again, in relation to the fact that you’ll be meeting lots of new people at the congress (some of whom you may never see again) and coupled with the sensual nature of latin dance… it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring a few packs of condoms with you… just in case 😉

Know Your Etiquette
If you’re new(ish) to salsa don’t forget to study my Guide to Salsa Etiquette. It’ll keep you from committing any of the faux pas that might otherwise cause some awkward moments on the dance floor.

Bring a SSK (Sasla Survival Kit)
I’ve covered these already in my guide to salsa etiquette but they’re so important that there’s no harm in mentioning them again.
I carry a courier-bag with me everywhere I go and in it I have my SSK:
  • Spare T-shirts
  • Chewing gum
  • Wet-wipes
  • Deoderant
  • Handkerchief
All guaranteed to keep you smelling nice even after hours of craziness on the dance floor.
Everything you need to stay fresh on the dance floor!

Everything you need to stay fresh on the dance floor!

Dress Well
This may seem irrelevant but you may end up getting more dances if you show a little fashion sense. We all know that salseros have “quirky” fashion styles so feel free to put in some extra effort at a congress. That goes for the workshops during the day too. Make a good impression there and you’ll have plenty of dance partners at night (I wasn’t aware of this but it actually turns out it’s a topic of conversation amongst the ladies at congresses)

If you're wearing something like this, don't expect too many dance offers!

If you’re wearing something like this, don’t expect too many dance offers!

Practice what you learn
All that amazing stuff you learn in the workshops is no good if you don’t put it into practice on the dance floor.

Record
If you’re anything like me you may not be able to remember new patterns or styling tips after an hours class. If that’s the case make sure you record the moves you’re taught in the workshops so you can go back and review them later.

You can also share videos with people who have done different workshops from you (another reason to not worry too much about missing classes here and there).

Hydrate
Carry a bottle of water with you. If you get dehydrated you’ll feel crappy, tired and grumpy. Who’d want to dance with someone like that?

Ask questions
If you’re at a workshop and something isn’t clear… ASK!!! More than likely you’re not the only one who’s a little confused. A good teacher will be happy to clarify any points.

Look after your Feet
You’re going to be on your feet pretty much all day so make sure you’re wearing comfortable dance shoes that will help you take the punishment. This goes for practice footwear at the workshops too.
Ladies, I know style is important but there are plenty of dance shoes out there that look great and go easy on your footsies. Ask other salseras what they wear. Make sure you break them in too. A congress is probably not the best place to field-test a brand-new pair of shoes that may end up causing you some serious foot pain.
Also, a good friend of mine swears by a 30 minute foot-bath with Epsom-salts after a hard night of dancing: give it a try. Look after your feet and they won’t let you down when it counts.

OK, so you may not be able to manage the flowers or the personal masseuse but taking care of your feet should still be a priority.

OK, so you may not be able to manage the flowers or the personal masseuse but taking care of your feet should still be a priority.

And most importantly, Have Fun!
Congresses are amazing. You make new friends, dance until the sun comes up, learn loads… it’s some of the best fun you can have with your clothes on (even though they probably won’t be on all the time 😉 ).
Keep Dancing Folks.

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

The Salsa Community: All Warm and Fuzzy

5 Mar
If you're in a salsa community you're in one of the best communities around.

If you’re in a salsa community you’re in one of the best communities around.

Let’s get all warm and fuzzy.

Salsa offers us many benefits; new friends, exercise, a new social outlet… I’ve written about them before and the list is long.

Like many others, I started salsa years ago and I’ve stuck with it all this time to reap all these benefits but recently I’ve been appreciating one of them in particular; the sense of community.

I was born and raised in the countryside, in a small village where everyone knows everyone (for better or worse). I was BORN into a community. Whatever social events I went to I would see the same people. I’d see them at mass or at a football match. If ever something happened in my life, good or bad I knew people in the community would always be there with a word of encouragement or congratulations or whatever I needed to hear.

When I moved away from home at 18, my classmates in university became my community. When I worked as an English teacher in Japan, the people doing the JET Programme just like me, became my community. However, as someone who has moved around more than their fare share in life I’ve come to realize that as we get older and move to new cities, it becomes harder to feel part of a community. I think many people will agree with me that the places with the most people are usually the places we feel most alone.

That’s where salsa has helped a lot in my life.

Salsa: Community in the City
I recently moved back to Ireland after almost two and a half years abroad. I’m back home in the countryside but I’ve been going back up to Dublin a lot lately and I love being there. Despite the fact that a lot of time has passed, I simply slotted right back into the salsa community. There are a lot of new faces but there are plenty that I recognize from before and they couldn’t have helped me feel more welcome after my time away.

It’s not just Dublin either. When I lived in Colombia, my main group of friends were those I went dancing with regularly. I would see the same faces out dancing every week. Exposure breeds familiarity and those faces became friends, my Colombian family.

When I lived in Japan, during my final year, I started organizing salsa parties in an attempt to start building a community. I guess it worked because that community is still going strong in semi-rural Miyazaki and I’ve maintained my strongest links, amongst my Japanese friends, with those people whom I danced with.

That sense of community doesn’t even have to be confined to a place where you live either. It can just as easily be formed while traveling.

During the course of my three weeks in Cuba I spent virtually all my time with the instructors from the salsa school I went to. We ate meals together, chatted throughout the day, visited the beach and of course danced our asses off every night.

The best example probably comes from my time in Charleston, South Carolina. When I arrived there in mid-October last year I had only intended on staying a couple of days and moving on to New York. Luckily for me, my first night there I went dancing and met a great bunch of people in the small but close salsa community that is growing there. They welcomed me with open arms and I ended up staying for a week, doing workshops, eating out, going for drinks and dancing our asses of every night (I see a pattern emerging here).

When I was in New York, I was lucky enough to have friends who I knew through salsa who gave me a place to stay and even helped me with some of my first steps into dancing On 2.

I had no connection with virtually any of the people above apart from one thing: We All Love Salsa!

And that’s the real amazing thing about salsa. It brings everyone together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, the color of your skin, your religion, where you’re from or whether you love Marmite or not. As long as you want to dance, you’re golden!

Love it or Hate...It doesn't matter as long as you dance salsa.

Love it or Hate…It doesn’t matter as long as you dance salsa.

When I go out dancing in Dublin I get to spend time with the most diverse group of people you can imagine; gardeners, tennis coaches, bakers, truck drivers, doctors, geologists, bankers, immigrants, parents, students and manly men with beards (grrrrr!). All brought together by our love for shaking our booties in time with music. It never ceases to amaze me the incredible mix of people I find at a salsa night and eventually end up calling my friends.

I felt the need to write this after the past few weekends in Dublin. Whenever I visit, I always end up crashing on the couch of a salsa friend (thanks Dave). When I go out for coffee, it’s with fellow salseros. When I randomly bump into someone I know on the street there’s a 90% chance they’re someone I know from salsa.

This weekend I went to birthday parties for salsero friends, went dancing and met people who I haven’t seen in years and was greeted with the warmest of hugs, made new friends with people more recent to the community and even learned a load of bad words in European Spanish… all thanks to salsa. I even went out to brunch on Sunday with a huge group of people of whom I had only met two before but ended up having an amazing day and instantly making some new friends because… just because everyone danced. It was beautiful!

Diversity united through salsa!

Diversity united through salsa!

Dublin may not be a huge city by international standards but it is still a city and in any city it’s easy to feel alone or lacking a sense of community. Salsa gives us the community that we need. It makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger, something special and I think that we’re all looking for that… to feel part of something that’s bigger than us.

This may sound ridiculous but I genuinely feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I go into a salsa club alone and spend the first 5 minutes shaking hands and hugging and kissing all my friends who I may have seen as recently as the night before. There aren’t many situations in cities these days that allow someone such a sense of intimacy and belonging amongst the masses. Salsa is a true blessing in this sense.

Nothing’s Perfect…
…nor will it ever be perfect. Just like every community in the world (or just like every family) there are issues. We can however chose to ignore them and just focus on the good (which is what I’m doing with this article).

Basically, what I’m trying to say is: if you’re part of a salsa community you should feel damn proud of it. Appreciate it. Appreciate the wonderful things it has brought you in your life, not least the amazing friends it has probably blessed you with.

Be happy that you have found such a healthy, wholesome way to spend your time.

Keep Dancing Folks.

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Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 2)

18 Dec

Happy Wednesday folks, some of you may have already noticed that The Dancing Irishman is now back on Irish soil for the first time in two and a half years. I arrived in Ireland in secret (and incognito) last Friday and surprised my old salsa crew and later my family.

I have a whole post about that little adventure coming up but this week I’m going to continue with my travel post on what to do in Havana, Cuba and how to do it without breaking the bank. You can find the first part of this post right here.

Little annoyances
Just like any city with a thriving tourist industry, in Havana you will encounter MANY people who are out to take advantage of tourists.

These folks will appear in many forms but by far the biggest annoyances are the people who approach you randomly on the street. These guys are masters and have refined what they do to an art.

The three most common “openers” you will hear are:
Do you have a light?
Do you have the time? (even if you’re not wearing a watch)
Happy Holiday

The only function of these lines is to catch you off guard and get you into a conversation. I particularly disliked the last one, “Happy Holiday” (I was bombarded with this multiple times every day for 3 weeks so I had time to build up a grudge against it!). The phrase is only used in the U.S. where’s it basically means Merry Christmas. I explained this to one guy who approached me with this opener and he was astounded when he found out this was not a common phrase in English (especially since it’s so commonly used in Havana). It’s just a direct translation of “feliz vacaciones” which literally means “happy vacation”.

Anyway, once these guys have you in conversation they’ll start asking you where you’re from and then they’ll tell you that they have family there and they may even know the name of some lesser city (these guys are pros afterall). I must have met 50 cubans, by pure chance, who had family in Ireland. Amazing!

Eventually the offers will start. You’ll get invited to go and get a drink as they show you the local sites and tell you about the country. Your new friend may order multiple drinks while telling you how difficult life is for Cubans. The bill will come and your jaw will drop but you still have to pay it. He will get his cut from the bar later and you’ve been had.

Ashamedly folks, I’m speaking from experience. I’m overly trusting and friendly with people and always like to give them the benefit of the doubt and it bit me in the ass in Cuba. Be warned!

Your best bet, when approached with these lines is to give a quick one word answer and keep moving. Honestly it’s very difficult for me to be that blunt but you’ll have to do it in Cuba. Some people might say that you’re rude or that you don’t like talking to Cuban people but you’ll have to deal with that. Just tell them that you’re running late or  something and keep moving.

Mojitos, one of Cuba's signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Mojitos, one of Cuba’s signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Cigarros? Chicas?
You will also constantly encounter people on the street trying to “recommend” you something be it cigars, restaurants  or women. If you look remotely like a foreigner you are a target for this and you will be approached. A common scam is for someone to tell you that today is the last day of a particular sale on cigars at the “cooperative” (what luck to meet this guy on the last day of the sale). They’ll be really friendly and even offer to take you. My advice is to not buy anything off the streets from random people who approach you, especially cigars.

Why? Well one thing is that they can often sell you fake cigars. The most famous brands of cigars in Cuba are Cohiba and Monte Cristo which can cost a pretty penny. In the local tiendas (stores) you can pick up a cheap, run of the mill Cuban cigar for a grand total of 1MN. Yes that’s 5¢(US). The only difference, to the untrained eye, between these and the more expensive cigars is their little paper wrapper which is very easily changed. If you must waste money on cigars please bare in mind that if you’re passing through the US after Cuba, there is a chance that they’ll be confiscated (especially if you’re a US citizen).

As a man traveling in Cuba, you will also be bombarded with propositions for sex… constantly. Before I got there I wasn’t aware of Cuba’s (unfortunate) reputation as a “sex-tourism” hot-spot and I was astounded by how many times I was either directly approached by girls or by men asking me if I was interested in “chicas”. The fact that I was travelling alone and walked around alone for the majority of my stay there only made matters worse. Actually, the most pleasant walks I had were those I took with some of the female dance instructors from my school. Everyone left us alone because they thought I was already taken.

You will also notice a lot of girls that will “accompany” male travelers, kind of like a temporary girlfriend with the expectation of getting something in return. I also found it very interesting that it wasn’t just foreign men taking out Cuban girls. You will also a huge amount of older foreign women “accompanied” by strapping young Cuban men. People do what they have to do to get by in Cuba.

Anyway, when you are approached (and you will be approached, be you man or woman), just excuse yourself with a “No thank you” (best not to let them know you speak Spanish if you do) and keep moving. I should also mention that I was told that going to “matinee” salsa evenings (starting at around 5pm until 9) was a good way to dance with regular Cubans and to avoid the Jineteros (“escorts”) as the prices are lower so regular Cubans can afford it.

A note on safety
Before I went to Cuba I had lived for two years in Cali, Colombia and this has made me rather “cautious” when navigating cities. However, Havana surprised me by being incredibly safe to walk around not only during the day but at night too.

That’s not to say that it’s the kind of place you want to walk around without a care in the world. Be smart and always ask someone (in a hotel or your casa) if a certain part of town is ok to walk around. Also don’t walk around non-tourist areas flashing your wealth with fancy jewelry or expensive cameras. Havana is safe but if the opportunity arises anything is possible. Be smart and be safe.

Food
Just like any tourist town, in Havana you can find places that cater specifically to tourists (with nicely elevated tourist prices) and you can find places where the locals eat.

However, let me get something clear, you can find some excellent restaurants that provide delicious Cuban food for lunch at prices from 3 to 4 CUC (without drinks). This will usually include a soup and then a main dish of rice, beans, meat and vegetables. You may even find a place that includes a small dessert in the price. Many restaurant in Habana Vieja will even offer main courses for dinner from 4 to 5 CUC. I highly recommend trying out 2 restaurants located in the same building across from the “Capitolio” building in the old town called “Los Nardos” and “Asturianitos”. Great food and very reasonable prices (although not strictly low budget). If you visit the “Vedado” neighbourhood in Havana, try out a restaurant called “La Roca” for lunch.

However, as I have been one myself, I realize there are some super low-budget travelers out there that will want some super low-budget options for food and Havana is full of them. Street food is everywhere and while it won’t blow your mind gastronomically it definitely won’t blow your budget.

You will regularly see small windows with lines of people selling snacks, the three most popular being burgers, sandwiches and fried rice. You should be able to get any one of these for around 10MN (about 50¢ US) (and it’s really important that you have a supply of MN in your wallet to pay for such expenses. While they may accept CUC, they may not give you a great exchange rate). I have tried all of these foods and they’re quick, relatively tasty and in my experience safe; in 3 weeks in Cuba I didn’t once suffer any stomach upsets which is unusual when traveling in developing countries.

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

I really recommend only buying street food from places that already have the prices displayed out front, this way, if someone tries to cheat you on the price you can just point to the price they have displayed. I remember one morning after exercising in my casa I wanted something quick and I saw a guy making and selling omelette sandwiches from window. I asked him how much and he told me, without a twitch, “2 CUC” ($2 US). I knew something was up straight awayn (the eyes of one of his workmates nearly popped out of his head when he heard it)  so I called him on it. He repeated that the price was 2 CUC and I said no thank you. I moved to the side and was able to hear the next customer, a little old lady ask the same thing I had. The guy looked ashamedly at me and then back to the old lady and told in a very low voice “5 pesos” (5MN or 25¢  US).

So remember, a price display is a pocket saver.

If you want to go even more low-budget (and healthier in my opinion) you can visit some of the produce markets that you will find scattered randomly around the city (although I recommend visiting the market at the corner of 17 and K in Vedado, if just to do some people watching and see real Cubans going about their shopping). At the markets you won’t find a huge selection of fruit and veg (plantains, bananas, mango, guava, limes, avocado, tomato, scallions, onions, squash, cabbage, bell peppers, chili peppers, garlic and some herbs and spices) but they are very cheap. You can also usually find eggs (but I’ve been told their availability varies). If you have cooking facilities at your casa you can do what I did and make omelettes and eat them with some fruit at lunch time for a very healthy and very cheap meal.

Just so you get a little idea of the prices I paid:
30 Eggs cost 33MN
1 banana cost 1MN
1 large Mango cost 6MN

Another possible lunch option is to find the restaurants that the locals eat their lunch in. In these places (virtually always in someones house and without signs outside) you can get a meal which will consist of meat, beans, rice and some vegetables for just 24MN or 1CUC. It’s a great price to pay for such a substantial meal.

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

And if you ever do feel like splurging, you can’t really go wrong with the Buffet Breakfasts in either the Hotel Nacional (13CUC) or the Hotel Parque Central (15CUC). Fill up on some spectacular food for breakfast and you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

A note on the black stuff: Cuban Coffee
As I am now a coffee drinker (honestly, never saw that one coming) I did my best to find cheap sources of the black stuff while in Cuba. 

Now, you can go into the many hotels or tourist cafes and buy yourself a cup of “Americano” starting at $1.50 US a cup or you can do what the locals do. You will regularly see windows on the street lined with tiny little cups next to a thermos. At these windows you can get a shot of seriously strong Cuban coffee for 1MN. You can also usually chat with whoever is selling it nice a freely if there isn’t a line forming behind you. Be warned however that this thermos coffee is usually very sweet so if you take your coffee unsweetened like me you’ll have to ask if they have coffee “sin azucar”. Most places don’t but you can find it, just look for windows that have a small sugar pot next to the coffee thermos, this means that you can sweeten the coffee yourself.

How to have and instant group of friends
My time in Havana was really made so much better by the group of people I hung out with, namely the dance teachers from the school I attended. They were a great bunch of people to hang out and dance with but not only that, they also gave me a huge amount of “Local” advice on Havana too. This was invaluable because once you are in Havana you will find it very difficult to get information on things to do and when you do get information it will be heavily motivated by the financial gain of whoever is giving it to you.

The people at the salsa school were able to give me advice on where to eat, what to visit, where to go dance, how to get transport, how to find anything I needed around the city and how to do it all on the cheap.

It was also through knowing the the people at the dance school that I got to do certain things that regular tourists would never get the chance to do like attending a Cuban wedding party, joining a Santeria religious ceremony and going to load of dance parties and venues where there were very few other foreigners to be seen.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

When you arrive in Havana, make sure you start taking classes in a dance school ASAP so that you can get to know the teachers and start hanging out with them in the evenings. You can find my recommendations for dance schools in Havana here.

Internet in Havana
Here’s the good news, if you ever wanted to take a vacation and completely disconnect from social media, Cuba is a great place to do it.

The bad news is that once you’re in Cuba, staying in contact with the outside world by internet is not cheap.

You can connect to the internet in some of the larger hotels like the Hotel Nacional but it will cost you about 5CUC an hour although you can also purchase a weeks pass that allows you to use their Wifi but that only helps if you’re staying in that hotel and let’s be honest, if you’re going to stay in that hotel, you will not be reading this “Budget” guide.

A few little recommendations for Havana
I want to finish this (overly long) post off with a few things to do around the city, to fill that time when you’re not dancing. Honestly, there are a huge amount of sites and things to do in Havana but here are just a few of the things that I particularly enjoyed.

  • Walk along the Malecon (the promenade) from Habana Vieja to La Rampa in El Vedado. Do it around sunset to get some great pictures (and to avoid the heat of the day). You can then people watch as the locals hang out chatting and drinking on the wall.

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

  • Visit the Plaza Vieja and people watch from the shaded comfort of El Escorial cafe.
  • Enjoy the thickest Hot Chocolate ever and breath the heavily chocolate scented air of the Museo del Chocolate.

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

  • On Sundays from 12pm check out the Rumba show at the Callejon de Hamel. It’s a total toursit trap and you will be bothered by numerous people asking for money and donations but once the show starts they quiten down. It’s a cool look at Cuban dance and culture but keep your wits about you and watch out for pickpockets.
  • See the most beautiful stained-glass windows ever in la Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.
  • Dance in Club 1830, it’s open-air, right on the waterfront and one of the coolest places I’ve ever danced and watched people dancing. I think it only costs 3CUC to get in on Thrusday nights.
  • Visit El Barrio Chino (China Town) if you feel like a break from Cuban food. Tien Tan (天壇) is particularly good and boasts a native Chinese chef.
  • Escape the city and hit the beautiful white sand beaches of Playa del Este (20 minutes). You can grab a return ticket by bus for only 5CUC. The buses leave from infront of Hotel Inglaterra in Habana Vieja every 30 minutes. Just check the weather forecast and make sure you don’t go on a day like I did.

I hope you all enjoyed the post, if you have any more questions, feel free to drop me an email and ask.

Right, that’s it for me today folks. I’m off to enjoy some down time here at home in Ireland, after two and a half years away, I think I’ve earned it.

Keep dancing folks.

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

Fiona Uyema

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