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Following the Dream

30 Jan

Hey folks, you may have noticed that the content on the site is becoming less frequent that before (was it ever truly “frequent”?). I just want to keep you up to date as to why.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I moved to Barcelona to do my Master’s degree in Nutrition and Metabolism. That goal was competed last summer and now I’m moving on the next stage of my plan.

I’m currently setting myself up as an online nutritional consultant based out of Barcelona, basically pursuing my passion of helping people live healthier lives. There’s quite a bit of work ahead of me with website design and content writing for my new site but I’m very, very excited about it.

On top of that I’m also writing articles for Latin Dance Community which I find very rewarding too. All of this means that I may not be dedicating as much time to the Dancing Irishman blog for a while. I’m still here, just focusing on other projects at the moment.

Anyway, I hope you’ll still be looking forward to reading my stuff when I finally get back to it in the future (it could be next month for all I know).

Keep Dancing folks.

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What is La Época? An interview with Director Josue Joseph (pioneer in salsa musicality)

18 Feb
Director of "La Época" and salsa musicality pioneer, Josue Joseph

Director of “La Época” and salsa musicality pioneer, Josue Joseph

So, having returned home to Ireland I managed to go a full 30 days without a single dance (quite possibly the longest salsa-free period in my life since I became a salsero). Being back on the farm in the middle of the Irish countryside means that I’m not exactly spoiled for choice when I comes to dance options.

So I was delighted to break my salsa “dry spell” with a trip to Dublin to attend a screening of the salsa musicality documentaries “La Época” along with a day of musicality workshops led by the director, Josue Joseph. Mr. Joseph was brought to Dublin by the great team at Sun Dance Ireland (nice work guys).

Josue was kind enough to do an interview with me after the workshops in which he talks about his work and the response it has received over the years. You can check out the 2-part interview below.
Part 1

Part 2

My take on “La Época”
“Mind blown, brain melted” is how I can best describe how I felt after a day of workshops with Josue and his partner, Sara.

The reason was due to the fact that I had never been exposed to such detailed information on the music that I’ve been dancing to for years. Josue is a musician (amongst other titles) and his movies open up a depth of latin musicality that most people never consider, even after years of dancing. It really makes you start thinking more deeply about how you should interpret music when you dance and this is probably one of the greatest achievements of La Época.

Whether I agree with all of Josue’s opinions is not important. What’s important is that exposure to his work has made me better informed and much more interested in the musicality of latin dance and that can only lead to an improvement in my dancing (hopefully).

If you’re interested in learning more about musicality I can’t recommend La Época enough. Especially for people teaching dance, La Época finally introduces a definitive way to explain how different parts of music can be translated into body movement while dancing. So its a much more satisfactory alternative to simply telling a student to just “feel the music”.

You can find out more about Josue and his work by visiting his site www.laepocafilm.com. You can also find out where he’ll be holding his next film screenings and workshops (Josue is currently based out of Poland). It will allow you to take the next step in making a big improvement in your dance.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Cuisine of Colombia (The Good & The Bad…but mostly the good)

21 Aug

Life is nothing without passion.

They say that you need to live passionately to lead a fulfilling and happy life and I couldn’t agree more. I live for my passions and of all of them the one that is most evident to those around me in my day to day life is my almost carnal love for good food.

Eating is one of life’s simplest pleasures and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy traveling so much. Going to a new country and trying new foods that I’ve never had before is a real pleasure for me (I have to confess that one of the first things I do when I get to a new country is go to a big supermarket so I can get a crash course introduction to how the locals eat).

I have to admit, I didn’t really know much about Colombian food before I came here. I ignorantly assumed (assuming is never a good idea) that it would be something similar to Mexican food, or at least to the Mexican food you get in California (which may not be the best representation). What I actually got was something different.

WARNING: I am about to give my opinion about Colombian food. I will write some good things and I will write some bad things. Before you do anything else, read through the article completely. Then take a deep breath and go for a walk, maybe grab yourself a coffee or even better, an ice-cream and then go back home and sit down before you even think of flying off the handle and starting an online storm of abuse!!!

Any foreigner who has lived in Colombia knows that Colombians are very proud… almost patriotic about their local cuisine. Any bad talk about it is almost considered a sin… or even… treason. That’s why I’m going to be figuratively walking on eggshells for this article and I’m going to be very careful about how I say things.

I’m going to word the next sentence very specifically: The food consumed regularly by the majority of average Colombians i.e. the food that is seen most often in common eating places in Colombia…is disappointing!

Let me clarify, in general, Irish food is nothing special (although it has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years) but I’m not comparing Colombian and Irish food. I’m speaking from a more international perspective. Generally speaking Colombian food is over-cooked, under-seasoned and a lot of it is deep fried (a lot like some Irish food when ya think about it).

BUT!!!!!
And it’s a “big butt” (teehee) ladies and gentlemen, Colombia still boasts an incredible repertoire of spectacular dishes that I have fallen in love with in my two years here. The thing is though, they are not “as” readily available (they’re generally more expensive and sold less commonly) as the poorer quality foods I mentioned above.

The great thing about living in a mountainous country that straddles the equator is that the varied climate zones here mean you can grow almost anything you want. Walking through the fruit and vegetable section of a Colombian supermarket is a true pleasure to the eyes (although it is a real pity that Colombians don’t take full advantage of all this produce; vegetable use is few a far between here). Add to this great produce the indigenous, European and African culinary influences and you end up with some truly memorable dishes.

For the rest of this article I’m going to haphazardly introduce you to some of “MY” FAVORITE Colombian foods. Enjoy!

Soups
When I first arrived in Cali (where midday temperatures hover around a sweaty 29°C) I found it unusual that lunch was always served with a piping hot bowl of soup. In the majority of places this caldo (broth) is nothing to write home about. However Colombia does have a few soups that I definitely think deserve a mention.

Ajiaco

There's a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

There’s a lot of eating in a bowl of Ajiaco

Ajiaco is a hearty soup made with no less than 3 different varieties of potatoes, chicken, corn and cream, seasoned with a local herb called guasca, topped with a handful of capers and served with slices of avocado. As an Irishman who knows his stuff when it comes to potatoes I have to say this is one of the finest potato soups I have ever tried. There’s eatin’ and drinkin’ in it!

Sancocho

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

Sancocho de pescado, I never thought I would fall in love with a fish soup!

This is a soup made with either chicken, beef or fish with big chunks of potato, plantain and cassava inside, seasoned with fresh coriander (cilantro) and lime. My favorite, by far, is the sancocho de pescado or fish version that is made extra creamy from the use of coconut milk. I never thought it would have been possible for me to like fish soup.

Pacifico Food
The western coast of Colombia is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the region is mostly inhabited by the descendants of African slaves that arrived during colonial times. To this day, access to the area is difficult due to poor infrastructure and because of this the area has managed to retain a great deal of its unique culture, in particular music, dance and food.

The cuisine of the pacifico is heavily seafood and coconut based and has easily become my favorite regional cuisine in all of Colombia. Here in Cali I’m blessed to live near a neighbourhood called “La Alameda” which specializes in food from the pacifico. I’m further blessed in that the brother of one of my best friends happens to own one of the best restaurants in that neighbourhood (for those of you visiting Cali it’s called “Punta del Mar”).

Apart from the sancocho de pescado which I just mentioned a few other typical dishes include:

Cazuela de Mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

Creamy and delicious cazuela de mariscos

A casserole of mixed seafood cooked in an incredibly seasoned, creamy sauce, topped off with cheese and served in a heated clay dish. The extra weight you’ll gain from eating it is totally worth it.

Arroz  de Mariscos

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it's full of shrimp like this

This seafood rice (arroz de mariscos) is spectacular, especially when it’s full of shrimp like these babies!

A Colombian version of mixed seafood fried rice that would put any Chinese restaurant to shame.

Ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

The ubiquitous Colombian salsa, ají

Not so much a food as a sauce or condiment ubiquitous in Colombian restaurants. Ají is super easy to prepare (it’s just a mix of finely chopped scallions, tomatoes, chilly peppers, fresh coriander and vinegar) but it transforms boring foods into a taste explosion. You can often see Colombians eating empanadas (deep friend pastry parcels of rice, potatoes and meat) with one hand while spooning on generous dollops of ají with the other.

Lechona

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

The flavored rice and meat are cooked inside the skin of the pig which is served on top of the rice for a crispy treat

Imagine a huge delicious pig hollowed out and then stuffed with a delicious combination of well seasoned rice, peas and pig meat roasting in an oven for 10 hours. Then imagine a portion of that rice-mix that has soaked up all those glorious juices from being roasted inside the pig, topped off with a square of crispy pig skin. That is pure piggy perfection right there.

Chorizo Santarosano

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Nothing like a good Chorizo

Chorizo is a type of sausage common in most latin countries. Chorizo, like most sausage, is good. Chorizo santarosano is simply spectacular. I have no idea what they season it with to make it so good but it has made the town of Santa Rosa famous for producing them. In fact you can walk around the town from stall to stall trying all the different versions of the famous chorizo just like the locals do; with a dash of lime juice.

Arepa
Arepas are cornmeal patties of indigenous origin, cooked on a griddle that are served alongside virtually every meal of the day in Colombia. They are the quintessential “Colombian” food and they take up whole sections in the supermarkets.
Uncooked and cold (just as they are often served with other foods)… they taste like Styrofoam. Heated up on the griddle or even spread with a little butter they begin to taste a little better but I honestly have no idea whey they’re so popular here.

However there are two types of arepa that I have come to love and that prevent the word “arepa” from falling from grace.

Arepa con Todo

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Arepa con todo: the kebab of Colombia

Literally an arepa with everything. The contents can vary but generally its an arepa filled with pulled beef and chicken meat, pork-rinds, quail eggs, cheese and an assortment of sauces. It is in my opinion the pinacle of Colombian fast food and it’s my “Go-To” “I’m in a hurry” food in my neighbourhood.

Arepa de Choclo

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

I could eat arepa de choclo until they came out of my ears!

Choclo is the word used for yellow sweet corn which is used to make these, the sweetest and most flavorful of arepas. A fun day out for me is to go up the mountains outside Cali to a place called “Kilometro 18” where it actually gets cold because of the altitude. Once there, I order a hot chocolate and an arepa de choclo smothered in butter and filled with fresh cheese (on my cheat-day of course). Heaven.

Fritanga
There are a whole host of foods in Colombia that fall under the umbrella of fritanga; basically battered and deep-fried. Some of them can be delicious (like the papa rellena; a battered and deepfried ball of seasoned potatoes, rice and meat. They “can be” amazing and “papa rellena” was actually the first word I learned after I arrived in Cali). However in general they are very “hit and miss” with most just tasting like an oily mess.

There is one however that I cannot leave unmentioned;

Maduro Aborrajado

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it's almost sexual.

Maduro aborrajado, it looks so good it’s almost sexual!

A maduro is a “mature” or ripe plantain (a member of the banana family) that is sweet and delicious, just like I like them. The plantain is split open along the middle and filled with cheese (mozzarella or doble crema is the best in my opinion). It is then battered and deep-fried to crispy perfection. Now that’s how you cook a plantain.

Almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

The best accompaniment to a coffee is a fresh almojabana

They only bakery product that you will find on this list as living here in Colombia has almost put me completely off eating breads. The almojabana is a special little guy though. When made right, they’re light, airy and moist with a very subtle sweetness and a mild cheesy taste. Amazing with your cup of coffee in the morning, when they’re fresh out of the oven.

Arequipe

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Arequipe: Pure Caramel Sinfulness!

Colombian desserts don’t really do it for me. I won’t get into it but there’s nothing special about them. Colombia does, however, have one little sweet trick up it’s sleeve. Arequipe, known as “Dulce de leche” in other parts of South America, is a thick caramel sauce that is hugely popular here… for good reason. You can put it on anything from fruit to biscuits to arepas. If there are any Colombians reading this try spreading some arequipe on a hot arepa de choclo with butter and cheese… you can thank me in the comments.

Fruits and Juices
No article on food in Colombia would be complete without mentioning the amazing fruits and fruit juices that this country is blessed with. On the corner of virtually every busy street you can find a cart or stall selling freshly cut fruit salads and a variety of juices made with water or milk. Pineapple, mango, papaya, blackberry, strawberry, orange, passion-fruit, guava, guanabana, lulo, curuba and a whole host of other fruits I had never heard of before. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a passion-fruit juice in milk.

On top of that, Colombians have managed to come up with a great many “original” drinks too;

Salpicon

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Salpicon, the liquid fruit salad!

Chop up a whole variety of different fruits into small chunks and put them in a bowl. the juice seeps out from the fruit creating a liquid fruit salad. It’s one of my favorite on the go snacks.

Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Another Cali favorite, the Lulada

Coarsely chopped lulo mixed with sugar makes this strange looking green juice very popular in Cali.

Champus

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

Champus may look like vomit but it is paradise in a glass

A Cali classic and definitely my favorite drink. A fermented mix of corn, pineapple, lulo and panela (unpreocessed cane sugar) flavored with orange leaves, cloves and cinnamon. Paradise in a glass.

Cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

Cali is famous for its snow-cone/fruitsalsad combination, the cholado

The best way to describe this concoction is as a cross between a fruit salad and a snow-cone drenched in fruit syrup and condensed milk. The perfect way to celebrate a hot Sunday afternoon in Cali.

A Taste for Home
Any body who has lived in a foreign country knows that you eventually develop a taste for the local cuisine. I’ve lived outside of Ireland for 6 of the past 7 years and I’ve grown to love some of the foods in my “new homes” away from home. I have no doubt that in a few months I’ll be craving all sorts of delights from Colombia.

Colombia does have a rich food culture, you just have to look for it a little harder and ignore all the not so nice stuff on offer. I really do hope some of you reading this will get to try some of these dishes if you come to Colombia. I just hope that I’ll get to try them again sometime in the future.

SIDENOTE: It’s 7.30am here in Colombia and I’m just after finishing this article after working through the night since around midnight. I actually completed this article at about 4 am and lost everything with the click of a button. You have no idea how filled with rage I was when I realized what I had done. I simultaneously wanted to cry and to break everything in my vicinity. I’m pretty damn proud of managing to “play through the pain” and write out the whole article all over again. Moral of the story: “be careful how you save your work”.

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You Know You’ve Been in Cali Too Long When…

9 Apr
"Cristo Rey" that looks over Cali from the mountains.

“Cristo Rey” that looks over Cali from the mountains.

I’ve been in Cali, Colombia for over a year and a half now and I can genuinely say that it’s become home for me. I’ve come to love many things about Cali (even though there are a few little things that grate on my nerves every now and then).

Every place in the world has it’s own little quirks (you could write a whole book about the quirks of the Irish) and Cali is no exception. No matter how strange these little differences appear to us at first, over time we can find some of them becoming part of our own daily habits.

Here’s a few of the little idiosyncrasies that make the Caleños (the people of Cali) and Colombians in general, the special bunch that they are.

You know you’ve been in Cali too long when…

You point at everything with your mouth
I once asked the cute receptionist in the Library where the science section was and she replied by pursing here lips together and doing a little kissing motion, slightly off to the right. I naturally thought “Yup, still got it”. As I was still standing in front of her like an idiot she did the same little kiss followed by nodding her head firmly in the same direction. I turned around to see the sign for science.

I soon learned that in Cali, when you want to point at something, you just kiss in its general direction. However I did think I was rather popular amongst the ladies (and some of the men) before I figured it out.

You carry at least 2 phones
It’s expensive to call from one mobile phone operator to the other (Claro, Movistar, Tigo, Uff) so people often carry 2 (or even more) phones with different operators to make phone calls. I have to save multiple numbers for some of my friends into my phone so things can get confusing.

You can’t remember the last night out that you didn’t dance salsa
Salsa is the life blood of this city and can be heard everywhere from taxis to supermarkets and virtually every radio station you find. Apart from a few exceptions, in Cali Nightlife = Salsa!

Every second word out of your mouth is “marica
“Marica” is a word that actually means “gay” and is used like a punctuation mark by the youth of Cali. Be it the start, middle or end of a sentence, “marica” is a word that you can instantly use to sound more caleño.

You do a double take whenever you see a foreigner on the street (especially tall, blond women)
While tourists do come to Cali (especially for salsa), compared to other Colombian cities the tourist industry here is far from booming. So when ever you see someone who doesn’t look Colombian (and that you don’t know personally) you tend to do a little double take. If the person looks really out of place, like a tall, white blond woman, people tend to look even harder (go figure).

You flirt at every given opportunity
I thought Irish people were good at casual flirting but Colombians really have polished it to a fine art. Flirting is so natural here that it almost seems like a discourtesy not to flirt with someone of the opposite sex during daily interactions e.g. buying your morning coffee from the girl in the cafe, asking for directions from the nice police woman, getting an injection in the bum from the pretty doctor… it’s all good.

You have strong opinions about the colors red & green
Cali has 2 main soccer teams: América de Cali (called América) which has a red uniform and Deportivo Cali (called Cali) which has a green uniform. Colombians are passionate about football and show it in the colors they wear on a game night. God help the poor soul who gets caught out on the streets wearing a red t-shirt on a night when the green Cali fans are out.


You think of Chocolate, you think of this

It even comes with collectible stickers inside too!

It even comes with collectible stickers inside too!

 

You can’t remember even your closest friends real names
In Cali it’s perfectly normal to call someone a nickname based on their appearance e.g. flaca, gordo, negra, blanco (I get called “blancox”, it’s a type of bleach 😦  Yeah they’re real jokers here) and it can be quite easy to forget what people’s real names are.

If you’re a guy, tight jeans and a tight white vest are a perfectly legitimate fashion choice out on the street
If you’re a girl, tight jeans, ripped until there’s almost nothing left and skimpy florescent tops are all the rage

You can’t have your morning cup of coffee with out a “pandebono” to go with it
Pandebono are little wheel shaped, salty, cheesy pastries that are almost the symbol of Cali. One of my strongest images of Cali will always be a little cup of black coffee with a freshly baked pandebono at its side.

Esto es Cali!!!!

Esto es Cali!!!!

You get people’s attention saying “mirá” and finish your sentences with “
Cali has a particular dialect of Spanish that sometimes is called Caleñol and the defining phrase of the city is undoubtedly “mirá vé” which literally means “look look” but is used for emphasizing your sentence or just getting attention. It is an essential part of the local lexicon

You’re completely unfazed by jumping out of the Mio station doors
The bus service in Cali is called the Mio and buses pull into special, elevated stations with sliding doors. To leave you usually have to walk out the main entrance and wait at the traffic lights to cross the street. To avoid this long walk people jump from the platform into the bus lane and run across the street. I’ve done it a couple of times myself (nearly got hit by a bus once).

You can have an entire conversation with just gestures
Every country has it’s own physical gestures that can be completely different from their meanings in other countries. The funny thing is though, you usually learn gestures faster than the spoken language.
Here’s a nice great video with some gestures that you see virtually every day in Colombia:

You visit a “finca” every weekend
A finca is basically a country house, usually with a swimming pool and a little bit of land. It is the done thing to go to the finca (either your own or rented) to chill out or party with friends for the weekend. In Cali you’ll probably get an invite to a finca every second weekend.

You finish people’s sentences with the lyrics from salsa songs
If you live in Cali long enough the lyrics of all the salsa songs you hear every day eventually soak into your skull and when ever you hear someone starting a sentence with words resembling a song it’s just a natural reaction to add on the remaining lyrics (with a little bit of a salsa wiggle too).

You put cheese in your coffee…
… or hot chocolate or hot aguapanela (a drink made with raw cane sugar). I don’t get it myself but it is perfectly normal to put chunks of fresh white cheese into your hot drink and eat it out with a spoon.

Yes that is hot chocolate and yes that is cheese. Got a problem with that?

Yes that is hot chocolate and yes that is cheese. Got a problem with that?

You’re idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon after a night partying is “Sancocho de Pescado”
In Ireland the traditional cure for a hangover is a huge fried Irish breakfast of sausages, rashers, eggs and whatever will fit in the frying pan. In Cali they’re much more refined and people instead go out for lunch to neighborhoods like “La Alameda” to eat the African-influenced seafood from the Pacific region. One example is “sancocho de pescado” a coconut-based, coriander-infused fish soup that is easily one of my favorite foods in Colombia.

Every word out of your mouth ends in “ito” or “ita”
In Cali, diminutives are used almost more than the regular form of the word and it’s something I absolutely love about the language here. So remember to order a cervecita for your noviecita when you’re out dancing salsita. And remember, if you’re a beautiful woman and you call me papasito, I’m butter in your hands.

You think it’s perfectly reasonable when someone suggests you go to a disreputable salsa club on the outskirts of the city on Monday night
There is an institution in Cali called Las Brisas de Jamundí, well outside the city, that goes wild on a Monday nights. It has a bit of a reputation for being popular with drug traffickers (who else can go and party on a Monday night?) and some spectacular salsa dancers. It appears that I am very weak to persuasion by beautiful women and despite my early start to work in the morning they still manage to convince me to go at times. Like last night (I am so tired right now).

You get really annoyed when people spell Colombia with a “U”
Let this be the last time I have to say this, ever. This country is called ColOmbia not ColUmbia. Get it right!!!!

These are just a few of the things that make Cali and Colombia so special for me and I’m very proud to call myself an honorary Caleño.

Can you think of anything I might have left out? Let me know in the comments.

Keep dancing folks.

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A little bit of fun!

25 Oct

I posted a video of myself dancing with a friend of mine earlier this week on my YouTube page.

I met my friend Francy by chance after a dance class and she wanted to know if we could do a quick, impromptu video together so she could put it on her Facebook fan page(she’s one of the most well known salsa dancers and instructors in Cali). Never one to disappoint a beautiful woman, I agreed and this was the result.

I decided to add it as a post on the blog to help reiterate a point I made in an earlier post about how to improve your dancing.

I made the point that video taping yourself dancing is a great way to take note of two things:

  • how much you have improved, and
  • what you need to work on

It’s not something that we think of doing all that often because we don’t want people to think we’re vain but making videos of yourself dancing is the only way you can see what other people see when you dance and show you all the parts of your dance that you need to improve on.

This is really important when you think about it because although you may think you’re dancing like this…

Do you think you’re a Michael Jackson or…

… you may in fact be dancing like this…

…a McLovin (do you really want to take the risk?).

Bear that in mind the next time your practicing and then grab your camera and find out for certain whether you’re an MJ or a McLovin. There’s a pretty big difference! Probably best you find out sooner rather than later 😉 .

Put your camera to good use!

Keep dancing.

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How to find that goddamn “1” beat in salsa.

9 Aug

With a few tips and a little practice you can find the beat and you won’t have to worry about these signs anymore!

You’re getting better.

You’ve nailed the basic step and you can even lead a basic turn and a cross body lead.

You’re confidence is up (a little).

Then your big moment comes: time to dance with someone.. to real music.

The song starts. You get a little nervous. This is all up to you. You listen carefully, desperately trying to hear that elusive “1” count.
Was that it? Just there? The milliseconds feel like minutes. You break into a sweat.

You’re not sure if you’re right but you decide to go for it. You do it, you step forward praying that your partner is going to follow the same beat as you, pleading with all the gods above you can think of that you’ll both be in time together, wishing that this will be your moment to shine!

It’s not!

You move forward on a random beat and take her by surprise; she reacts too slowly. You start together but it’s far from synchronized and you both know it. Her eyes meet yours and you can see the look of pure terror that has taken her over. You know what that look is saying: “Why have you done this to me? Why did you dance on the wrong beat? Whyyyyyyy?”

You look around and see everyone in the club looking at you, some staring in horror, some shaking their heads in shocked disapproval, the rest laughing. Laughing at you! Laughing so hard that your unborn children will have to go to therapy to get over it. All because you can’t find the beat.

The laughing gets louder and louder and finally….
… You wake up screaming, breathing like you’ve just run a 100m sprint, drenched in a cold sweat.

If you’re anything like me you’ve had this dream at least once (or maybe I just have mental issues, I’ll have to discuss it with my shrink).

That damn “1”
The truth is, when you’re starting out, finding the beat in salsa can be a bit of a nightmare. You listen to the music trying to hear that magical “1” so you can get your boogy on but somehow it seems to elude you.

Let me tell you friend, you are not alone! For many people not exposed to salsa music from a young age finding the appropriate beat to start on can be tough. At least initially.

But just remember: if that bloody bearded Irishman can do it, then so can you!

There are two ways to find the beat in salsa:
There’s the
1:  dance, dance and dance some more until you finally pound the beat into your skull method.

and theres the
2: learn all about the instruments and intricacies of slasa music so you can specifically pinpoint that god damn “1” count…method (pretty catchy titles eh!!)

I’ll try and try and keep them short and sweet.

Method 1:
Get out there and dance song after song with someone who knows the rhythm until you finally “get it”.
This is the method that has been used for years by virtually 99.99% (disclaimer: may be a completely made up figure) of salsa dancers.

It is completely unscientific and this pisses a lot of people off because we all would love a more definite marker in the music. But it works.

The only caveat is that you have to dance with someone who already knows how to dance well. Otherwise it’s a true case of the blind leading the blind and you may end up with something reminiscent of my nightmare above.

Just give it time and practice and you’ll get it. I promise.

Method 2:
For those of you who aren’t content with the wishy-washy, unscientific, new age, hippy, “natural” method above, there’s a more in-depth (read: complicated) method.

Salsa’s rhythm comes from two percussion instruments: the clave and the congas. The clave is basically 2 sticks struck together in either a 2/3 or 3/2 rhythm. Clave literally translates as key or code and is the original base beat of cuban son (the precursor of salsa).

The congas are the tall African style Cuban hand drums that you may have seen if you’ve ever seen live salsa music. Congas provide the back beat to salsa music.

If you can only hear the clave or the conga you can hear the beat and dance to salsa music.

In order to use these instruments to find the beat in salsa we need to understand a little more about salsa itself.

Salsa Beats 101
Salsa is danced to 2 measures of 4 beats each making a a total of 8 beats. Of these 8 beats we step (or transfer weight) on only 6 beats (1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7…). The 4 and the 8 beats are used for a slower weight transfer (i.e. we don’t actually step on them but can transfer our weight more slowly between each measure). Salsa generally starts on the 1 count with the directional change (break) occurring “on 1” or “on 2” (depending on the type of salsa).

No with this knowledge we can use the instruments to help us find the beat i.e. to tell us when to start dancing.

With the clave
With the 3/2 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first three beats is the “1” count.

With the 2/3 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first two beats is the “2” count. The 3rd sound of the last three beats is the “8” thus you will start dancing immediately after that. Here’s a song with a nice clear 2/3 clave for reference:

Of course, often the clave can be difficult to hear, so….

With the congas
In my opinion it is far easier to hear the congas in a song and the truth is we (inadvertently) wait for the congas to start before we start dancing.

The basic salsa beat for congas can be seen in this video. It consists of three parts: gentle slapping with the left hand called “masacote”, a heavy slap with the right hand called “quemado”, and a hollow sounding double tap with the right hand called “abierto” (I’m sure there are terms in English for these but my conga teacher only speaks Spanish so we’ll have to make do).

It is the “abierto”, that double tap that is easiest sound to pick out in salsa music. It occurs on  the 4 and 8 beats which means you need to step immediately after it (the double tap) to hit your “1”.

Now, I said that it’s a double tap (and it usually is) but occasionally it may only be a single tap or it may be a combination of a single and a double tap (or sometimes something more complicated). The fact of the matter is: that prominent hollow beat in a salsa song is the conga and is perfect marker of the 4 and 8 beat. Here’s a nice song with a clear example of the conga beat (and a 2/3  clave):

Disecting the music
All of this technical talk about claves and congas and beats, however, requires that you actually distinguish them form each other in the song. Salsa bands are usually huge meaning a great many instruments are used which makes picking out individual instruments tricky, especially to the untrained ear.

The best homework you can do for yourself is sitting down and consciously listening to salsa music. Pop on some headphones and try to pick out the different instruments in the song. Follow them all, especially the percussion instruments; the drums, the cow bell, the congas and the clave. All help you to maintain your timing during a dance. If you have trouble finding the beat then ask someone to give you a hand.

Technology: the final frontier
Luckily, other people, who are far more tech-savvy than me, have thought of different ways to find the elusive “1”.

Some have even created these great videos that mark the “1” for you in a specific song you can practice with it and never have to worry about losing your place. Here’s one featuring one of my favourite songs “La Pantera Mambo”:

You should be able to find plenty more such videos on YouTube.

Practice makes perfect
As I’ve mentioned countless times before. this type of information is worthless unless you put it into practice. Practice with real salsa music (and an experienced friend) and I guarantee you, finding the beat in salsa will become as automatic for you as walking…or your money back (can’t beat that now, can ya?)

Oh, and if you have any other tips of finding the beat that have worked for you then let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about them.

Keep dancing folks.

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Fiona Uyema

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