Ever since I watched Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights as an awkward 15-year-old, I've wanted to move like Romola Garai. Of course, I was still growing into my body and could barely run down the basketball court without tripping over myself. I tried ballet when I was seven, but couldn't deal with the fact that my younger sister was The Nutcracker's Clara while I was cast as a mouse. The first time I danced with a boy in middle school, I put my hands around his waist. High school mixers and college dances were a blur of alcohol-feigned confidence—the result of which was a torn MCL—and that pretty much sums up my attempts at coordinated movement. It was then, as I sulked in the corner of a bar with ice on my knee, that I decided it was time to learn how to actually dance.

When I moved to Santa Fe a year ago, I found myself in a world I knew little about. I was an athlete in college, and while I gravitated toward outdoorsy circles, I felt drawn to a local culture rich with art, music and history. Dance—and particularly salsa—offered a unique appeal and challenge. In many ways, I was still the same graceless teen, but now I actually had the courage to do something about it—with the help of a few margaritas, of course. So despite my reservation, I signed up for salsa lessons.

When I first met Tony Perez, founder of Mambo Fe Dance Company, I walked right past him. We'd agreed to meet at Starbucks. He was standing outside wearing tight black pants, an Armani shirt and designer sunglasses, a surprisingly chic contrast to his scraggly gray hair and gold tooth. I figured he was just another loony local; I never suspected that he would soon become my salsa guru. A half-cup of coffee later, he was telling me how he danced with Miss Universe in 1991.

"There are two kinds of salsa, and they both mean the same thing: tomato sauce," Perez explained over coffee that day. Salsa, he said, is the umbrella that encompasses a whole pot of different Latin rhythms: cha-cha, bachata, cumbia, mambo, etc. Though salsa combines myriad instruments, the "clave" is the tomato in this sauce, the fundamental rhythm that holds the other pieces together. To Tony, it's "the lifeblood of salsa music." Without the clave, salsa doesn't exist.

"If you don't have blood, you're dead," he says.

The word "salsa" was born in the 1960s, when a Dominican musician named Johnny Pacheco collaborated with an Italian-American producer to create the legendary Fania All Stars. Gathering the best Latin musicians around and fostering emerging talent, the label played an integral role in creating the distinct flavor of Latin music known as salsa. Salsa took off in New York City and spread quickly, with each region developing its own style. New York salsa takes influence from jazz and breaks "on 2," meaning dancers step on the second beat; Los Angeles salsa dancers step on the first beat, or "on 1," and follow a straight line, like ballroom and swing dances. In Miami and Cuba, salsa rueda de casino is danced in a group, with moves called out by a leader.

Local salsa guru Tony Perez teaches the New York-style salsa according to a simple mantra: “open your heart.”
Local salsa guru Tony Perez teaches the New York-style salsa according to a simple mantra: “open your heart.”

Perez is Santa Fe’s only New York-style salsa instructor. He begins every class at the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet with the same saying: “Open your hearts.”

Perez' Tuesday night beginner class is all about repetition. He teaches the basic steps until the entire class has absorbed them, slowly building upon each new move to create a dance sequence. The steps were relatively easy to learn; it was the whole stepping-with-a-partner thing that confounded me. At my first class, Perez told me that I have heavy feet and take monster steps.

"Be light, like a ballerina," he instructed. (If only he knew that my dad's nickname for me was once "stomper.") The solution, apparently, was a pair of heels. They're not really part of my wardrobe, but I bought some nonetheless—and despite some severe blistering, they actually worked. Forced to dance on the balls of my feet, I took baby steps and learned to move with only the slightest noise.

The other half of moving with a partner, of course, is upper body sync. Most of my partners were strangers twice my age, and salsa was asking me to open my heart to them. With their sweaty palms, I had a hard enough time opening my hands, but salsa required me to press them against my partner's palms. Eye contact was the next awkward order of business, for which I quickly developed an alternative: staring at my partner's collar. (I tried looking down at my feet, but after an elbow to the face, I realized that pretending to look the guy in the face wasn't so bad.) The last speed bump was dealing with inevitable bad breath, for which I attempted a fake smile, while glancing at the mints I wanted to shove in his mouth.

After a few classes with Perez, I overcame the typical beginner-dancing anxieties and learned to accept all the tiny mishaps. It helped that Perez burned me salsa CDs and sent me lists of documentaries to watch. He understood my reservations, but wouldn't let me dwell on them. 

Carlos Mora didn't waste any time chatting when I walked into his salsa rueda class one Friday evening.  Ten other (equally clueless) students and I launched straight into warm-up, which is basically a game of Simon Says. It took five minutes of mimicking Mora for me to realize how much he embodies the energetic style of salsa he teaches. Rueda, Cuban casino-style salsa, blends the formal "on 1" steps of LA style with a more social circle dance.

"It's great to be able to dance with a partner, but it's a whole different experience to dance in a group where everyone is in sync," Mora says. "It's like multiplying the energy of one couple by 20."

To start every hour-long class, Mora takes his 10-20 students through a series of basic movements, then splits the class into two levels and shares his time between the two groups. After each 10-minute instruction period, he plays a song so that students can practice what they've learned. The final 15 minutes are devoted solely to dancing; occasionally, the more experienced Level 2 dancers join the beginner group for a more festive ending. The fun and excitement of rueda is contagious.

Throughout the class, Mora throws in his own spicy words of salsa wisdom.

"If you don't like touching, you're in the wrong class," Mora said one sweltering afternoon. "Loosen up, man," he urged one of the new guys. "You're walking like Frankenstein." At the same time, he's more than encouraging to anyone making an effort. During my fifth class, Mora halted everyone abruptly after seeing me show my partner his steps.

"I know there are a lot of strong women in Santa Fe," he announced, looking at me. "But, ladies, you must submit to your lead." I thought that helping my partner through his steps was just the nice thing to do. "If you help him, he will never learn to do it on his own," Mora told me. "He is supposed to guide you, not the other way around."

This was my wake-up call. By nature of personality and as an eldest child, I enjoyed being a leader. But it wasn't working here, so I took a deep breath and handed control over to my partner. Even when the steps were wrong, I let him guide me—or try. He stepped on my feet, turned me the wrong way and couldn't get the counts right, but I went along with every mistake. I was learning to surrender.

Mora's classes are geared toward people who want to engage in Santa Fe's larger salsa community. You must commit to several months' worth of classes; Mora won't take drop-ins after the first few Fridays. His goal "is to bring different kinds of people together that wouldn't normally socialize with one another," and his rueda students don't just dance together—they eat, play and party together. That includes dancing at the two main salsa venues in town, El Farol on Wednesday nights and The Lodge on Friday evenings, after class.

"There's no reason to take the class if you don't get to show off your skills at night," Mora explains. "It's part of the deal."

The Lodge was everything and nothing I expected. When I arrived around 9:30 pm, the DJ was blasting music in the corner of the lounge, but the smallish dance floor was surprisingly empty.

It only took two minutes before I was asked to dance. Patrick was his name, and, by the looks of his gangly figure, I never would have thought he could dance. But his movements were fluid, never static or awkward, and I was constantly trying to keep up. This was confirmation that having a good leader makes all the difference; I actually felt like I knew what I was doing, even though it was all him. I no longer felt awkward dancing with strangers (hell, I even danced with someone my grandpa's age) and had come to accept sweaty hands on my back as part of the deal. I didn't worry about the steps, but rather focused on connecting with my partner and feeling the music.

Going from one partner to the next, there wasn't a moment to breathe—nor to drink. In Santa Fe's salsa culture, dance is the sole objective, so dancers stick to water. It's no fun to dance with someone who's falling all over the place.

Unfortunately, the absence of alcohol seems to have a direct correlation with the lack of venues in Santa Fe. Most bars have realized that they can't profit from a bunch of sober dancers, which many of the instructors cite as the reason Santa Fe has only two steady salsa venues. Some also blame the mediocre salsa scene on Santa Fe's transient nature. Even so, The Lodge and El Farol have evolved into significant pillars in the salsa culture here and continue to attract dancers every week.

The Lodge is where I first danced with Darrin Visarraga. Maybe it was the way the divorcées swooned or how he made a point not to correct me, or maybe it was just the way he carved his own dance floor out of the existing one: I could tell he was an instructor from the start.

But Visarraga wasn't always this suave. He was an athlete growing up and wanted nothing to do with dance—that is, until he moved to New Mexico and started working upwards of 12 hours a day at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He figured salsa would be a good release, and after about six months of classes, something clicked—salsa made sense all of a sudden—and eventually Visarraga became a teacher. For the past 10 years, he's been teaching salsa "on 1" in White Rock and Santa Fe.

Maybe it was his athletic background or the fact that, like me, he spontaneously decided to learn salsa, but I more closely identified with Visarraga than with most of the other salsa teachers. Having been a beginner once too, he understood how hard it was to surrender to the foreign movement.

Like most instructors, Visarraga emphasizes repetition, but he also encourages students to expand upon what they learn, play with it and add flair to every step.

"If you practice a move long enough, it eventually gets to the point that it becomes comfortable—and when you've reached that point, it becomes your own," he says.

Now that I was familiar with the steps, it was time to take ownership of the movements. I had to step like I meant it, flick my wrist with attitude and work my hips into the equation—all the while adding my own flavor to the mix.

The greatest thing I took from Visarraga was his light-hearted attitude. "Mistakes are the best thing you can do for yourself on the dance floor," he noted when I twirled in the wrong direction. "That's when you learn so much more." When I was frustrated, he wouldn't let it get me down.

"Don't take salsa so seriously," he said as he took my hand and showed me the right way. "Laugh. Smile. Feel the energy flowing between you and your partner."

Not surprisingly, once I stopped trying so hard to get it right, everything fell into place.  Showing how dance extends beyond the floor is part of Visarraga's lesson.

"I'm a shy person, and salsa has brought me out of my shell. That's what I want for my students," he says. Though I wouldn't consider myself shy, I've noticed a similar change in my approach to new situations. To dance well, you have to let go of any expectations and let the movements connect organically. "One thing that helps," Visarraga points out, "is not necessarily feeling like you have to be in control. Everything is on the fly. If it happens, it happens; and if it doesn't, no big deal."

Santa Fe native and former professional dancer David Lopez (right) teaches the author to harness her “mind-body-music connection.”
Santa Fe native and former professional dancer David Lopez (right) teaches the author to harness her “mind-body-music connection.”

A pair of heels and two months of classes later, my ramble through Santa Fe’s salsa world continued with Mary Brennecke, who takes a different approach to teaching than many of the others. Her philosophy, and that of the larger dance company she works for, is to “teach people to be dancers, not just salsa dancers.”

Brennecke was a dancer in college and picked it back up again when she saw an ad for Dance Station in the local paper. After six years of intense training, learning the full spectrum of partner dances, she now teaches several Dance Station classes per week, one of which is salsa. Rather than focusing on form, Brennecke emphasizes learning to be comfortable moving with another person.

"Whether they know the steps or not, it's more important to learn how to be in sync with a stranger," she says. "Then the steps will fall in place."

Dance Station accepts students who know next to nothing and teaches them to perform in shows, but the beginner salsa class seemed somewhat rudimentary after I had mastered the basics. But if you consider yourself uncoordinated, have never danced with a partner before and know next to nothing about dancing, this class is for you. One highlight was Dance Station's Thursday night Practice Party. From 7:30-9 pm, Dance Station plays different kinds of music so that students and instructors from all classes can practice what they've learned. It's almost like going to The Lodge, except that there isn't a bar and everyone is there to learn. The whole concept of a large, social practice venue is meant to relieve some of the nerves people experience when going to dance clubs for the first time. That's what the Dance Station is all about—trying to make you feel comfortable in any situation, dancing any style.

My final class was with David Lopez, the first and only Santa Fe native of the bunch. After competing professionally for 15 years, Lopez rediscovered his love of social dance and returned home to foster a greater dance community in Santa Fe. Lopez offers a unique spiritual approach to salsa, teaching his students how to harness that "mind-body-music connection that's inside all of us." Now that I had developed the skills and the mindset for salsa, I needed that almost existential element to bring it all together.

The first step, as I first learned from Perez and now again with Lopez, was "opening my heart." A friend once told Lopez that the key to really connecting with a salsa partner was to tell her you love her. Not out loud, of course—but every time Lopez danced with a partner after that, he looked her in the eye and, in his heart and head, told her that he loved her.

"It may sound weird," he assured me, "but it actually works. I've watched people blossom on the dance floor after telling them my secret."

I wasn't exactly ready to tell a stranger that I loved him, even in my head. It's one thing to be comfortable embracing strangers, but it's a whole different ball game to give your heart to someone you don't know. Maybe that's why so many serious salsa dancers have a steady partner; after years of dancing with only one person, you must know every muscle in their body—including their heart.

And maybe that's what I was missing: a partner. Salsa requires such an intimate connection that you almost have to work at it, just as you would any other serious relationship. But if you just want to dance socially, I think you just have to open your heart and mind enough to let that connection find itself. Though I couldn't quite bring myself to practice Lopez' love mumbo-jumbo, my mentality definitely changed after talking to him. I've never declined a dance again, no matter the age, sex, appearance or breath. I let myself surrender to my partners, more so than I had with Mora. I pretended I was a rag doll on a rollercoaster ride, letting them take me wherever he wanted—and that was when I had the most fun.

In the end, salsa pushed me out of comfort zones I didn't even know I had. Though it sounds juvenile, I've become comfortable with touching and embracing people I don't know. I'm open to dancing with everyone now, because anyone who has the courage to ask deserves a dance. I have a new confidence in myself as well—the particular type of confidence it takes to surrender oneself to another. It requires me to let myself go a little bit and trust others. Losing control like this is also when you learn the most about yourself.

I take dancing more seriously now that I've seen people turn it into an art. Unless it's a choreographed dance, nothing is ever planned or staged in salsa, but is instead a series of spontaneous questions and answers.
Salsa taught me to be present for the here and now, to take whatever my partner threw at me and make something beautiful out of it. Whether I will continue learning salsa is still up in the air, but I am sure of one thing: Salsa's flow, soothingly chaotic as it is, has become the new rhythm to my life.

Salsa Events

Aug. 8:

Santa Rueda Dance Team performs at the Santa Fe Bandstand, 7 pm, free

Aug. 17

: TIEMPO LIBRE, Grammy-nominated Cuban music band, at the Lensic, 8 pm, $12-$42

Aug. 21

: Open Salsa Night @ Heart and Soul Dance and Fitness Studio, 1091 Siler Road, 699-7473

Aug. 23-26

: Albuquerque Latin Dance Festival, abqlatinfest.com

Oct. 6

: Havana Nights Dance contest, The Inn at Loretto, 6-10 pm, $100

Salsa, Weekly


Tony Perez @ Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, 7 pm


Mary Brennecke @ Dance Station, 7 pm


Carlos Mora @ Odd Fellows Hall, 6 pm; David Lopez @ Heart and Soul Dance & Fitness Studio, 7:30 pm


(every other): Darrin Visarraga @ The Studio, 2-4:30 pm