Some of the best salseros (salsa dancers) in the world come from the Caribbean island I call home; Cuba. During my two return visits to my homeland—in 2001 and 2017, forty years after my parents sent me fleeing Castro’s Revolution to the United States—this joyful and sensuous style of dancing was still front and center in Cuban culture. Like baseball (beisbol), salsa rhythms are part of every Cuban’s DNA (or so I am told).

I recognize from all the years playing baseball that I did inherit the beisbol gene. But, somehow, the salsa DNA must have skipped my generation (or just me). More than once have I elicited the following question from those who have seen me dance my native salsa;

“Is that how you dance salsa? Aren’t you Cuban?”  

Now a sexagenarian, I decided it was time for me to improve my salsa skills before people from my place of origin disavowed me once and for all. For the past months, I have been partaking in salsa lessons. Last night I dared go to a salsa theme birthday party.

This was not a simple decision. I knew some outstanding dancers would be there, and I feared embarrassing myself. Fortunately, I was able to push my fear aside and go to the party.

Salsa and life

I focused a lot of my writing lately on taking on something unknown, even mysterious. Salsa dancing has been that for me. But it doesn’t need to be salsa, anything we dare to challenge ourselves with will teach the same valuable lessons of learning and mastering a new skill. My new effort is proof of why it is so important for us to refuse to shelter in comfort and safety as our egos would like. Here are the lessons I am learning;

Lesson 1) There will always be people doing things better than you, but that doesn’t matter. Because of our cultural bias for perfection, we look at those accomplished in the skills we are trying to master as superior beings. From these comparisons, we deem ourselves to be second rate and cower at the thought of trying the skills we are learning when others are watching.

Comparing ourselves to others causes a fracture in our self-confidence. When this happens, fear of failure and the belief we are not good enough overcome us.

This is nonsense, no one is giving out prizes for salsa dancing (unless you are a contestant on Dancing with the Stars). No one is really watching you; they are busy living their own lives. So, live yours, have fun, try new things, your level of performance is immaterial, the only thing that matters is that you are out there stretching yourself trying new things.

Lesson 2) You will feel nervous and afraid, but to grow in life you must push past your fears. After seeing all of those talented dancers at the party, the fears I mentioned earlier took a hold of me. The women were incredible dancers, and so too were many of the men. For a while, they paralyzed me with their talent. How was I going to ask a woman to dance without her noticing my lack of salsa proficiency?

My immobility lasted for about a half hour until I realized I would not get any better if I didn’t ask a woman to dance. When the frustration of having taken salsa lessons but being too afraid to ask someone to dance finally became greater than my fear of self-embarrassment, it became easier to ask a good female salsera to join me on the dance floor.

As I have learned in other areas of life, fear exaggerates reality by a factor of one thousand percent. A part of me suspected things might not be as bad as I was imagining, and that part was right. Not only were the women willing to dance with me, they were kind, supportive and appreciative of my effort. This situation serves as a suitable metaphor for my life; things are never as bad as our fears make them out to be, but you can only find this out when you move past your apprehensions and do it.

Lesson 3) You cannot master a skill without practice and preparation. It is so easy for us to fall in love with our goals, but not be willing to put forth the effort it takes to achieve them. Anything worth doing demands a sizeable amount of elbow grease. It also requires a willingness to risk our sense of safety and step into the turbulent world of learning by trying. Mastering something is not for the faint-hearted, as it does require a lot of dedication, courage and optimism.

Lesson 4) Sometimes in life you must lead and other times you have to follow. It is a well-known fact that women who love to dance usually outnumber the men of similar interests. This is why it is not unusual to see women dancing in pairs. Since in couples dancing one must lead and the other follow, one woman will take the lead role which is traditionally assigned to the man (I want to be clear, this only applies in dancing, gender should never limit one’s ability to take on leadership roles). This responsibility usually falls on the better dancer of the two women.

We were not all made to lead in all areas of life. Sometimes, we must acknowledge where the strength lies. If not with us, we must succumb to the leadership of others. If you are like the rest of us humans, you are great in some areas, but suck in others. Wisdom is the ability to know the difference, especially when the skill falls on someone else to lead.

Lesson 5) When you make a mistake, find the beat and keep going. We are brutal on ourselves when we make a mistake. We yell, curse, degrade ourselves, pout, cry, feel victimized and stop everything to analyze what went wrong. If you do this in salsa dancing, you look like an idiot. The best thing to do in salsa, and in life, is to find the beat again and keep dancing.

Lesson 6) Everyone was a beginner once. Even the best salseros started out like me. They counted the salsa eight count to themselves while looking at their feet. With practice and perseverance, they got better. In addition, they sought teachers who could show them the magic code of dancing salsa. They also chased opportunities to get better, or that offered them a chance to dance. They were not born skilled dancers, but they possessed the passion to become one. The same applies to every life. We can become anything we want, but we must have the passion for it. With passion, you can master anything.

Photo by Ardian Lumi on Unsplash