Unlike those who draw their confidence from their physical appearance or the affirmation of others, my source of confidence is heightened when I dance. The style of dance that heightens this confidence is one that can be traced back to African roots and overtime has evolved into what is now known as Latin dancing.
My love for Latin dancing goes beyond the music and moves, it traces back to those of Latin origin in my life who have taken the role as close friends and have become like that of a second family. Born and raised in Florida, the school systems I attended were predominately Hispanic. Students ranged from Latin American to the Latin diaspora. Specifically, my close friends were Colombian, Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban and Mexican. Every time I was invited to family get-togethers, I couldn’t help but feel right at home.
I don’t know if it was the food, music or familiar atmosphere, but I never felt uncomfortable. It was in Middle School when a Colombian friend of mine, Gina, had invited me to attend her family’s BBQ that I first came in touch with my ‘inner Latina’ (as my friends call it). Prior to this BBQ I had gone to many of Gina’s family BBQs and every time Bachata music would play, I would find a spot near the living room where everyone was dancing and watch. Several times, one of her uncles or male cousins would come over and extend their hand out to dance with me and I would shake my head and refuse. There was no way that I would make a fool of myself in front of her family. They would never invite me to a BBQ again. Usually after the first three times I would refuse to dance, I would be left alone, but on this particular day, they wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
If I recall, I refused to dance with Gina’s cousin Juan at least five times before he walked over to Gina’s mother (whom I affectionately called ‘Mami’) and whispered something in her ear in Spanish. I don’t know Spanish but I imagined him telling her to stop allowing Gina to invite me over since I never wanted to participate in the dancing. I now know those words never came out of his mouth, but at that time it was all that was running through my mind. Not too long after conversing with Mami, Mami walks over to Gina, who of course was dancing, whispers something to her and the two walk over to me. “Come Kiki”, were the words that came out of Gina’s mouth. With slight hesitation, I walk with her to the dance floor and long story short Gina teaches me the basic moves of Bachata, which would eventually become my first love. The lesson took approximately 2 minutes and came pretty naturally to me, especially the hip action.
In the time that Gina was teaching me Bachata, everyone had stopped dancing and was watching. Believe it or not, their gazes did not intimidate me or make me feel embarrassed in any way. Their expressions appeared to be of surprise and many of them seemed rather impressed. Not too long after dancing with Gina to a Prince Royce mix, I walked over to Juan and asked him to dance. It wasn’t to long before the style of music changed to salsa that one of Gina’s uncles grabs me and starts teaching me basic salsa. Just that night alone I learned Bachata, Salsa, and Merengue. From that moment on, you couldn’t keep me off of the dance floor when Spanish music came on.
Fast-forward a few years into my freshman year of high school, Gina tells me of salsa team tryouts taking place for the on-campus salsa team. I remember running straight from my last class to where auditions were being held because I had track practice right after. When I walked into the dance studio, I was handed a card to fill out. Moments after filling out the card the instructors asked everyone to gather on the dance floor to learn the choreography. It was a fairly simple piece to learn but had a lot of sexual appeal and required a strong connection with your partner. My partner went by the name of ‘Chupi’. He was already on the team and the head captain. After performing the choreography piece with him he gives me a slight nod, a smile, walks over to the judges table where three of the instructors were seated, writes something on a piece of paper then hands it over to them. As I’m leaving, I walk past the judge’s table to thank them for their time and see written on the paper ‘That Dominicana can dance!’ Just to make things clear, I am not of Latin origin and am in fact African-American. With that being said, I saw the comment as a compliment and came to realize I truly had found my ‘inner Latina’. Later that night I not only learn that I was the only freshman that made the team but also that I had the highest scores of those that auditioned. The only other person to have received scores that high was three years ago when Chupi tried out for the team. I stayed on the team for about 3 months before Track and Field took up a majority of my time. Giving up salsa was one of the hardest decisions that I made in high school but at the time Track and Field was my life and it a sacrifice I was willing to make.
It wasn’t until I entered the Fall semester of my freshman year at CornellUniversity that I was given the opportunity to perform Latin dancing again. In between that time, I had danced Bachata, salsa and merengue at parties, but it just wasn’t the same as performing in front of a large audience. It was at Clubfest, a day dedicated to publicizing and promoting every club and organization that Cornell has to offer, that I saw a big sign that read ‘Palante Salsa en Rueda Dance Troop’ and heard salsa music playing in the background. It was there that I met Michael and Rosa. Michael was the instructor for Palante and Rosa was one of the dancers. It wasn’t until my first Palante practice that I learned I had a huge back-leading problem. It took me about a semester before I broke that habit. Three years later, I am proud to say that I am still dancing for Palante as well as Sabor Latino Dance Ensemble where I will serve as one of the head captains for the coming Spring 2015 semester.
While Latin dancing seems to be almost inherent at this point in my life, I never realized how extraordinary my love for it was until I performed with Palante at an event hosted by the Latino Civic Association in the Ramada hotel. It was right after I was dancing with a friend of mine when Hugo Acosta pulls me over and tells me how he was impressed with my dancing and was surprised to learn that I wasn’t of Latin descent. He assumed I was Cuban or Dominican and upon hearing that I was American asked me to write a paper about my ‘Latin story’ and the origins behind my passion for Latin dancing. I may not be a Latina, but I never intend to let go of my love for Latin dancing. Many of my non-Hispanic friends don’t really understand why I love Latin dancing so much, but the truth to the matter is that it is one of the few dancing styles that is both sensual and respectful in nature. I never feel violated and feel so confident when I’m dancing. I may not become the professional Latin dancer that I aspired to become so long ago but it is now a part of my life that my significant other must respect and understand. I may not be Hispanic, but I do love and respect the various cultures that make it up, especially the dancing. I guess it’s my “inner Latina”.