Salsa–Not Just a Sauce

I’m not much of a dancer. Well, I wasn’t much of a dancer before Puebla.

I was fully prepared to get invested in the culinary and cultural aspects of my trip to Mexico, be it in the kitchen, touring markets or interacting with locals; I was not prepared, however, for authentic Mexican dance classes.

Sure enough, after getting our schedules, we saw that we’d be spending Tuesdays and Thursdays after class at the UPAEP School of Bellas Artes to learn a variant of salsa dancing called “cumbia”.

Twice a week, we’d troop down the street, into the the Bellas Artes building and squarely outside my comfort zone.

Cumbia dancers in their traditional regalia

While cumbia originated in Colombia, the genre came to Mexico around the ’50s and has been a staple of the culture ever since. We each paired up with an UPAEP student enrolled in the dance class we were attending and started learning some of the basics.

As we worked our way through four-bar musical phrases, something became very apparent: cumbia is very open to interpretation. All around me, my fellow OU students were toiling to get through the few moves we knew while the natives whirled through pretzel-like maneuvers as if they were nothing. Not a terribly heartening first experience.

The next week, I decided that I was going to make the most of my cumbia experience–after all, you get out what you put in. Filled with street tacos and immeasurable determination, I threw reservations aside and danced with reckless abandon. A real máquina de baile, if you will.

It was far from perfect, but I started picking up on more and more of the moves that the locals were throwing out. We’d dance for an hour, rotating partners every four minutes or so, and I even started to develop certain rhythms with certain partners. By the end of the trip, dance class had become one of my favorite parts of each week.

When we left Puebla, it was a little sad to say goodbye to UPAEP and the Bellas Artes school. However, there was another surprise in store for us; upon arriving in Mexico City, we ate a welcome dinner at El Lugar del Mariachi, a restaurant that featured traditional live music and dancing while we ate. At one point, we were even serenaded by a singing luchador wrestler.

By the end of the meal, the dance floor had cleared and our OU in Puebla class was able to practice what we had learned–we danced the cumbia like pros in the middle of the restaurant while a live mariachi band provided our soundtrack.

I certainly never would have pursued an experience like this without the prodding of my teachers in the program but now that I have, I am extremely grateful. Who doesn’t want to be able to tell a story like that? I’m grateful to GEF and OU Study Abroad for helping me to broaden my horizons…and to my dance teacher for helping get rid of my two pies izqiuerdas. 

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