Anna Salleh is seduced by the Latin rhythms of salsa dancing. Not only is it sexy, it’s great for your body and soul too.

Published 8/02/07

Image: Getty Images

My friend Sarah and I are at a birthday party when suddenly everyone is asked to gather on the terrace for ‘the birthday dance’. An infectious conga-based rhythm ignites the evening air. Then a blast of strident horns, a cascade of uplifting piano chords and feisty Spanish lyrics.

The birthday girl appears in a magnificent frock in the center of the crowd. She’s joined by a partner and the two start swaying their hips in perfect unison. Stepping light and quick one minute, slow and sensuous the next. A dramatic thrust of an arm here and a proud flick of hair there. I look over at Sarah and yell with sheer enthusiasm: “I want to do that!”

Like millions of people worldwide I caught the salsa bug.

Tomato sauce history

Salsa music is a fusion of Afro-Cuban and other Latin American music with jazz – the word is actually Spanish for a spicy Mexican tomato sauce. Salsa dancing involves a partner and uses very short fast steps.

The very earliest salsa steps are said by some to have been taken by African slaves who danced to transcend their confinement. The short chains they wore between their ankles meant they could only take short steps and to keep the dance interesting they sped up the rhythm.

Salsa dancing evolved from its street origins to the showy style it is today by blending in features from ballroom and tap.

Getting into it

Soon after the birthday party experience, I took myself off to dance lessons and within weeks I felt like a salsa queen. Within six months I had my partner learning how to dance salsa. And within a year I was a serious ‘salsaholic’ (no kidding, there are websites for such people!).

When the dance school closed for holidays, I was terrified of withdrawals so I quickly discovered the salsa clubs around town. And that’s when I really learned how to dance. I learnt how to co-operate with a partner (quite a feat for a control freak like me), to stop thinking, and to really enjoy the flow of the moment.

The music in the clubs is often fast and furious. Before you could say ‘salsa’ I was doing regular three-hour cardio workouts without even trying.

Salsa can be a nice gentle exercise, says Sherylanne McLeod of Salsa Republic school in Sydney. But as you get better, you are drawn to the faster tunes.

“The music is infectious and enticing. It makes you want to move and dance,” says McLeod.

And salsa clubs tend to be friendly and safe environments for your aerobic exercise. This is because people who do salsa don’t tend to drink, says Marcia Pinheiro Percival, of Latin Dance Australia in Sydney. They just dance, sweat and drink copious amounts of water.

After a few months of regular salsa workouts, I was standing taller and slimmer and enjoying the compliments from those who noticed.

Salsa as therapy

But salsa doesn’t just boost your physical health. There’s something about the music that irrepressibly lifts the spirits.

“It’s a happy sound,” says Percival, who thinks people associate it with the fun-loving aspects of Latin American culture. And like any exercise, dancing releases feel-good endorphins in the brain.

Dance is even used as a form of non-verbal psychotherapy to treat people with serious psychosocial and behavioral problems, including schizophrenia, depression, autism and eating disorders. One dance therapist in the South Bronx by the name of Dianne Duggan uses salsa to help teenagers with severe emotional disabilities.

Dance is all about moving to a rhythm, says dance therapist Laurel Bridges of the Wesley Institute in Sydney. She says dance is therapeutic because it is a unique way for people to express themselves and make connection with others. There’s a cathartic aspect to dance, says Bridges. It also helps people regain lost pride and feel good about themselves.

But you don’t have to be seriously unwell to benefit from the therapeutic effects of salsa – as I found out from talking to some fellow dancers.

Improving self esteem and dealing with grief

Kylie, an academic and mother, got hooked on salsa eight years ago when her marriage was on the rocks. She had very low self esteem. Her husband was always at work and they had no physical intimacy. “Salsa was hot and lively and everyone was so friendly,” she says.

Kylie describes the dance floor as a “simple and innocent” place where she could play and feel good about herself again. “It made me feel happy, alive and excited,” she says. “I came away on such a high.”

For Kylie it was like having an affair without breaking any marriage vows. But, more importantly, says Kylie, salsa gave her the self-confidence to end a relationship that was no longer healthy. And it then helped her deal with the grief of the split-up.

Kylie says she much prefers the physical connection salsa provides over the solo dancing of ecstasy-fueled raves “We don’t need ecstasy,” she says.

But while she has had a few dance floor relationships, Kylie says combining the intimacy and sensuality of salsa with sex can get complicated. These days Kylie is in a relationship with someone who isn’t into salsa. She still loves to dance but only goes one night a week instead of four. It’s important to keep things in balance, she says.

Energy, intimacy and a metaphor for life

Tony is a builder who has caught a severe case of the salsa bug. He dances four or five nights a week – and whenever else he’s not on a work site. “It totally consumes me. I love it.” He says salsa is uplifting, even after an exhausting day of pouring concrete. “It taps into a store of energy I didn’t realize I had,” he says. “It electrifies me.”

Before Tony started salsa he was the sort of guy who felt completely inhibited on the dance floor: “I wouldn’t breathe. I’d turn blue. Dancing to me seemed impossible.” Yet now he’s headed for a school performance at a Los Angeles salsa congress.

Tony also says salsa has given him a safe space to interact with new people without the usual sexual and other tensions. “You’ve got some common bond which helps in breaking the ice,” he says.

He says learning how to dance well with another person and accommodate their individuality has also made him appreciate other people’s perspectives in life more. And, as a single person, Tony says salsa dancing gives him much needed physical contact with others without being misread.

On another level, Tony sees salsa as a metaphor for life. Practicing hard to reach performance standard has made him feel anything is possible and he’s less daunted at new things. “If I can learn how to do this, what else can I go out and learn?” he asks.

And the downsides…?

Of course salsa dancing can have its downsides, not least having your foot speared by the high heel of a badly trained dancer on the crowded dance floor.

And all that hip movement needs strong abdominal muscles if you don’t throw your back out. If you’re not already fit, you might want to consider doing a bit of Pilates or some other muscle strengthening, before you get too carried away.

Of course there are the more dramatic injuries, like tearing ligaments but these only tend to happen once you’re at the performance level.

But like most physical activity, the benefits to your health and well being of salsa are bound to far outweigh the risks. So, as they say in salsa, “See you on the dance floor!”

Article by Anna Salleh

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