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 Cuba—in 2001 and 2016, forty years after my parents sent me fleeing Castro’s Revolution to the United States—this joyful and sensuous type 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 the game that I have the baseball gene, but somehow the salsa DNA must have skipped my generation (or just me). More than once have I elicited questions from those watching me dance my native salsa,

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

Now, at sixty-eight-years-old, 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 two months I have been taking salsa lessons and last night I dared go to a salsa theme birthday party.

This was not an easy decision. I knew some great dancers would be there, and I was fearful of embarrassing myself. Fortunately, I was able to push my fear aside and go to the party.

Salsa and life

I have focused a lot of my blogs lately on taking on something unknown, even mysterious. Salsa dancing has been that for me. But anything we dare challenge ourselves with will teach the same valuable lessons I am learning in mastering this new skill. My new effort is proof why it is so important for us to refuse to shelter our egos with comfort and safety.

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

Comparing ourselves to others causes a fracture in our self-confidence. When this happens, fears 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 have to push past your fears. After seeing all of those great dancers at the party, the fears I mentioned earlier took a hold of me. Not only were the men talented, so were the women. For a while, I was paralyzed, how was I going to ask a woman to dance and have her notice my lack of salsa proficiency?

My immobility lasted for about a half hour until I realized I was not going to get any better if I didn’t ask women to dance. it finally became easier to ask someone to join me on the dance floor when the pain from the frustration for having for taking salsa lessons but being too afraid to dance finally became greater than my fear of embarrassing myself in front of a good female salsera.

As I have learned in other areas of life, fear exaggerates reality by a factor of one thousand percent. I knew things would not be as bad as I was imagining. I was right, not only were the women at the party willing to dance with me, they were kind, supportive and appreciative of my effort. This situation serves as a good metaphor for my life, things are never as bad as our fears make them seem, 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 yet not be willing to put forth the effort it takes to get there. Anything worth doing demands a large amount of elbow grease. It also requires a willingness to risk safety for the turbulent world of learning by trying. Mastering something is not for the feint hearted, it does require a lot of dedication, courage and optimism.

Lesson 4) Sometimes you have to lead and other times you have to follow. It is a well known fact that women who love to dance usually outnumber the men with similar interests. This is why it is not unusual to see women dancing in pairs. Because in couples dancing one must lead and the other follow, one woman will take the lead role 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 will fall on the better woman of the two dancers.

The point is that we were not made to lead in all areas of life. Sometimes, we must acknowledge were the strength lies and, 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 we wronged. 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 to themselves while looking at their feet. With practice and perseverance, they got better. They also sought teachers who could teach them the magic code of dancing salsa and chased opportunities to get better, or that offered them a chance to dance. They were not born great 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.

I will leave you with these last thoughts. Salsa is an eight-beat count, One-two-three-pause, five-six-seven-pause. Stop looking at your feet and don’t forget to move your hips. There you go! Get after it!

As always, wishing you a life filled with joy, love and serenity.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash