This blog is lifted from my draft novel, Trouble in Lagos. Tara Scott, my protagonist, is a blogger who learns to dance salsa. While The Temple (a Lagos nightclub) and Valentine (Tara’s dance teacher) are fictional, it mirrors some of my real experience. I danced at The Vault (now defunct) and my teacher was Buddy Agedah of Dance & Art Alive, who amongst other credits, was indeed an instructor on the Nigerian equivalent of Dancing With the Stars. So, strap on those dancing shoes, and get ready to salsa …
Expat life often takes us out of our comfort zone and sometimes this leads to new passions. After a spin on the dance floor at The Temple, a popular Lagos nightclub, I fell madly in love with salsa and the magic of partner dancing. Regulars danced with incredible flair. I longed to reach their level of mastery and signed up for classes.
The mention of salsa conjures images of fiery romance, flamboyant spins and beautiful costumes. Fun, sexy, fast. So what makes this Aussie chick think she has what it takes to mix it on the dance floor in a salsa club in Lagos? Let’s be honest, stereotypes of Australian women are not exactly those of stylish Parisians or steamy seductresses from Latin America. Don’t get me wrong, Australia has produced more than our share of dazzling stars—Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Kylie Minogue to name a few—but we are more likely to be the sporty swimsuit girl than the smouldering tango dancer. I’m shrugging off this cultural stereotype as I begin lessons with Valentine Udoh, an instructor on the Nigerian reality TV show, Celebrity Dancing.
Salsa music originated in Cuba and was further developed by the influence of New York jazz, but it’s rhythm, the clave beat, is rooted in African (Yoruban) music. So, it’s not out of context for me to learn a Latin dance from a Nigerian instructor. The dance is performed using six steps over two bars of music. One, two, three, wait, five, six, seven, wait. If you can hold this rhythm, everything else should fall into place, or so Valentine tells me. But there is much more to the dance than counting to eight.
When the accomplished women dance, their hips sway and their eyes take on an intense, sultry look. I decided to use that come-hither expression on my husband, but fortunately I tried it out in the mirror first. I looked as if I’d developed a bad squint. As for the hip wiggle, it’s taken some weeks to develop a movement that doesn’t make me look like I badly need to go to the toilet. This lack of natural hip flexion has turned out to be my Achilles heel.
Another cultural issue in partner dancing is the role of gender. The man leads, the woman follows. In our feminist age this poses something of a dilemma.
“Don’t anticipate,” Valentine scolds, “I might decide to do something different. You need to wait until I push you into the move.”
When learning to dance, feet get stepped on and arms get tangled. There’s even an occasional elbow in the face. But Aussies are a nation of battlers; we’ve weathered droughts, floods, cyclones and bushfires. We’ve produced leaders in science, sport and entertainment. We love to barrack for the underdog and if we decide to do something, we persist until we find a way to do it. So, Lagos, look out. Lack of Latin or African genes notwithstanding, this Aussie girl will learn to slink her hips along with the best of them.