Cali: A Self Made Salsa Star

Swinging hips, swinging drinks, sequinned dresses and a crisp white piece of A4 paper – Peter Noyce takes on the world’s most seductive activists and swingers in Cali, Colombia.

It was cold, uncomfortably cold – the kind of cold that made me feel like I might never leave the dubious comfort of my fluffy single bed. I rolled over and hooped the curtains open with my big toe. All I could see was a ceiling crowded with charcoal clouds and icy raindrops slowly sliding down the window frame. I put my feet back in the relative warmth of the blanket, closed my eyes, and tried to go back to sleep.

I was in Bogota, Colombia – a mind-boggling mountain metropolis, far from the swaying palm trees and verdant sugar cane I’d hoped to see. I live in the Candelaria district, a pretty area of narrow streets and low-rise buildings adorned with terracotta roofs. The green hills in the distance are like statues, guarding the meager urban bustle below.

I was ready for a night out almost as soon as I arrived. I was filled with that unparalleled sense of excitement that you get when you arrive in a new place at night. I started with a bottle of rum with some travelers from the hostel. Then at around 11pm I decided to ditch the tourists and go out in search of something more “authentic”.

“Take me to a local place,” I said to my middle-aged, heavily bearded taxi driver.

“A local? What’s the local law?” He swung his head around and gave me a startled look.

“Places you might frequent.”

The taxi driver considered my request, then shook his head and turned the miniature yellow car a quick 180 degrees.

About half an hour later, after defying death at lightning speed, we pulled up outside a bar in an obscure corner of the city. I coughed up a hefty sum of money and walked into the chaotic club without looking back from the bouncer in the suit.

Dancing on Ice

When I entered, I was shocked, staring at an entire dance floor the size of a bar. There were no seats or tables – barely even a ledge to lean against. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was dancing – some of the most attractive couples of people I’ve ever seen, swaying, gyrating and twisting to the obscene rhythms of a live band, churning out the best songs.

I clung to the wall, my eyes on the floor, dodging the rampaging Boomers’ waving limbs, and headed straight for the bar.

“Give me a local drink.” I said to a gruff bartender.

He shrugged his shoulders, reached for an unmarked bottle next to a case of ice, and poured a beer-sized drink. I drank it down in one gulp, nearly spitting it out from its nasty explosive anise flavor.

“What the hell is this?” I stammered.

“Aguardiente,” he said, taking a swig straight from the bottle.

Gloomily, I ordered another glass. After that, I ordered a few more. I was nervous, I couldn’t dance! At one point I considered leaving to find something more suitable for a left-footed person like me, but Aguadiente did a good job of lubricating the gears of performance movement. It was time to brace the dance floor.

I pick up my right foot, then my left, then my right, then my left. The music is flowing and so is the alcohol. Somehow, it’s like I’m starting to get the hang of it. Yeah, it felt like I was really starting to move my hips, legs and feet like everyone else. Everything was swaying, everything was swaying; yes, I was really starting to get into the groove. I started to give the most seductive smile to a girl who was dancing by herself and she duly jumped to my side. I almost lost my footing, but I was calm, focused, and kept channeling the spirit of Gene Kelly. She was smiling. Maybe she was impressed.

She put her mouth close to my ear.” You look like a skating horse! Where are you from?”

“I’m British.” I replied.

“Oh…. Of course. I should have guessed. But nice try!” She said, giggling and going back to get me a drink.

The hips don’t lie.

Led by the bed, I tried to shake off the night on the dance floor. I wanted to see that girl again and prove her wrong. Should have guessed? Are we Brits really that uncoordinated? Are we really that embarrassed to share the dance floor with anyone!?” Stupid salsa dancing!” , I shouted, turning over in bed and closing my eyes again.

I tried to focus on the absence of sound, sight and smell. I tried to find my happy place, but all I could hear was the cheerful ringing of trumpets and the syncopated notes of timpani-the trombone spreading through my mind like wildfire. Then my feet began to tap the end of the bed. I got up and walked to the bathroom, where I began singing lust-filled salsa notes in the shower. It wasn’t until I started swaying my hips as I waited in line at the breakfast bar that I realized something strange was happening inside of me. I felt, somehow, different.

I spent the day taking in the sights of Bogotá – the mighty cube government buildings; the incredible Gold Museum, with all sorts of art and treasures. It was all impressive, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the way I would spin on the dance floor. Although the night before hadn’t gone so well, I was determined to break the record and prove that the British really know how to dance.

So I decided to go to the same salsa hall that night, determined to dance again. The same band was there again and the dance floor was still packed with energetic couples, young and old. I walked up to the bar, this time with my head held high, and bought myself a beer. I was tempted to just order one to take care of my growing nervousness, but I kept my cool and instead focused on studying the dancers. It can’t be that hard, I thought: left foot forward, right foot back; left foot forward, right foot back; spin, spin, leave, together, left and right. Simple! I finally got up the courage to spend an evening going from partner to partner, practicing the basic steps to perfection. I can’t do anything else, but I can move forward and backward like a true professional.” ‘Look at me!’ I felt myself screaming, ‘I did it!’ .

Exam paper time.

“If you want to be a real salsa dancer, you should be able to dance with a piece of paper between your thighs without wrinkling it.” A nice girl in twenty-story heels told me.

“Barkeep, bring me your best paper!” I said out loud.

We got several sheets of paper before I managed to run clean. The smile on my face spread across the bar like butter on hot toast.

“I think you might be ready for Cali.” The girl said to me, shaking my hand vigorously.

“Cali?”

“The salsa capital of the world. It’s about a ten hour long bus ride from here. You should go!”

shining moment

Cali is completely different from Bogotá. Cali is closer to the sea than the capital, 1,500 metres above sea level, hot, warm and steamy, like your favourite aunt giving you a sweaty hug.Cale?os strut around in strapless tops and tank tops, their hips greased by the sexy heartbeat of the city. As I stepped off the bus, it was clear that temptation was not in short supply.

“What’s the salsa like here?” On the way to the hostel, I asked the taxi driver.

“You can dance?” He asked in surprise.

“I’m almost there.” I said, looking at the passing towers and colonial housing complexes.

I found a hostel in the affluent Granada neighborhood and immediately went for a walk, rehearsing the dance steps in my head. I even picked out a sequin dress from one of the many small shops in the city center. This was going to be my night and I could feel it.

When I returned to the hostel, the owner asked if he could entice me to take a free salsa class.

“Thanks, but I think I’m good.” I said with a wry smile.

I showered, picked my teeth, rinsed my mouth, and smoothed my hair back with an amount of gel that only Latin America allows. The onesie was on and I was ready to go.

I took a taxi to the Juancito area where I was told I couldn’t move and dance. I chose Chango – a small club that, according to my cab driver, had “excellent live music.” I quickly made my way to the bathroom, unfolded a piece of paper and rehearsed my dance steps: front, back; front, back. After centuries of suffering, Britain was about to explode onto the salsa scene; the hope of the entire country rested on my shining shoulders.

I kicked open the bathroom door, padded over to the bar, grabbed the hand of the nearest girl sitting on the dance floor and flung her onto the dance floor. I start my moves, and I’m sure she’ll be impressed. It might just be forward and backward, but I don’t think it can go any further than that. I’m on fire and she must know, despite the confused look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“You…. I’m sorry to be rude, but you’re doing something completely wrong.”

“No, I didn’t. Look!” I said pulling the paper out of my pocket.

“No, look at the others.” She said pointing to the happy couples dancing from left to right.” We don’t dance back and forth salsa here. This is Cali, it’s totally different!” She said, and a sprightly man turned her to safety and danced the world’s most exuberant and fast-paced salsa.

My head sank as I looked down at my sequined legs and freshly shined shoes. I sighed heavily, then slipped quietly to the bar and ordered myself an Aguardiente.

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