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The Pantagraph

Hot Salsa

By Kate Arthur

11 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Salsa is more than a dip. It's a turn and a sway, too. But it's nothing to be afraid of. Not with Cathy Hempstead, who tells nervous first-timers they don't have to have a sense of rhythm to keep in step with the Latin beat.

On a Tuesday night in the dance studio in her home, the lights were up. Although it was salsa, an intimate dance rooted in Cuba and Puerto Rico, there was no gyrating, pounding beat, chilly margaritas, silky shirts or spiked heels. Just stocking feet, jeans and corduroys as 10 people lined up across from each other on a hardwood floor, waiting for their teacher to tell them their next move.

A compliance manager by day and a salsa dance instructor at night, Hempstead is used to people confiding they can't dance because they have two left feet and no rhythm. She asks if they've ever had piano lessons, played an instrument or marched in a band.

"If you've ever had to keep a beat, you can dance," she said.

On a bitter February night, she congratulated the group for showing up for the two-night class offered by Heartland Community College. "There are probably 30,000 people sitting home tonight watching Seinfeld reruns," she said. "Anyone ever danced before?"

The class was a Valentine's Day gift for Jim Crowley. His wife, Darla, was hoping they could get some footwork down before traveling to Mexico for their 10th wedding anniversary. Last year, they took a Spanish class together.

"We both really like the culture," he said.

For the past few summers, they've flirted with the idea of salsa lessons.

"We love the music," his wife said. "We listen to it outside at night in the summer. We thought it'd be nice to be able to actually dance to it and not look like you're having seizures."

Jason McPeak of Normal dances "freestyle" at clubs on weekends. The investment analyst has taken swing classes but has always been intrigued by salsa, the Latin version of swing.

"It has a different flavor. Salsa is a bit more intimate than swing, more personal."

Since he's also in the entertainment business, he'd like to convince a local club to book a salsa night. Bloomington-Normal isn't exactly a hotbed for salsa, Hempstead said, but the dance is popular in Champaign-Urbana and metropolitan areas.

As she took her place in front of the class and put her right foot forward, she asked the class to follow. All was quiet, except for the sound of jeans sweeping the floor. She asked the class to think of the basic step as a diamond pattern, putting the right foot forward and returning it to home base. When they had it, she put it to music.

"My feet don't do what I want them to do," Jim Crowley said, as he kept trying.

Hempstead stopped the music and reviewed the steps. This may be a showy dance but it's not a showy class. She asked them to change partners, moving to the left to face a stranger. The purpose in that is to learn from each other and avoid picking up your partner's bad habits, she said.

"We also say it saves marriages. People tend to be more patient with strangers."

Learning from someone new "vastly improves their leading and following skills," she said. "I compare it to golf. If you're trying to learn golf, you don't play the same hole all the time."

Dancing is a sport, she says, and it burns calories like any other aerobic activity. Serious dancers rarely drink alcohol at clubs, she said, but sip water to stay hydrated.

She started teaching Latin-influenced dances nine years ago through her studio, Dance Partners, and Bloomington's Parks and Recreation Department. She also teaches ballroom dancing, swing and nightclub steps. The average age of her students is mid-40s but salsa tends to attract a younger crowd.

About a half hour into the session, something happened. The nervousness and self-consciousness seemed to disappear. The group was relaxed, smiling, joking with their new partners.

"It's like the first day of school," Hempstead said. "We're all nervous learning something new. I just tell them to have a good time, enjoy each other and be patient with me."

She asked them to move closer, simulating a crowded dance floor. "Imagine you're alone in the dark. Get within a few inches of each other," she said, as she played a soft rhythm from "The Lion King."

With the basics down, they were ready for a 360-degree turn. She told them what could happen with a too-enthusiastic partner, mentioning a torn rotator cuff. The women were asked to place their left hand on their partner's upper arm. The pressure she applies controls the leading and following, Hempstead explained.

"She's pushing him away with her left hand. He's pulling her in. We've all had relationships like that," she said, as the group laughed.

To encourage the men to lead and the women not to, she asked the women to close their eyes. That seemed to work for Loretta Elenewski of Normal, who was dancing with her husband, Bob Carter. When they took ballroom dancing "it didn't go too well," she said, but she seemed to have no trouble with salsa.

At the end of the night, Jim Crowley said he got the basic steps down but found the turns difficult. "You just have to not think about it," he said, "and try not to look at your feet."

By definition

Salsa, a Latin dance that originated in Cuba and Puerto Rico, was popularized here in the '70s by Latinos in New York City. It's unclear who coined the term "salsa," but it's become a generic term to describe Latin-inspired dances, including the mambo or rumba and songs with a Cuban rhythm.

Salsa is the Latin version of swing, said dance instructor Cathy Hempstead. Salsa steps are very small, moving in a diamond pattern. The faster the music, which is typically 180 to 210 beats per minute, the smaller the steps. The dance also includes turns and "Cuban motion," or hip movement.

Salsa dance, which has its roots in Cuba and Puerto Rico, starts with basic steps and turns, as instructor Cathy Hempstead, right, demonstated with student Karen Colclasure.Loretta Elenewski and her husband, Bob Carter, took ballroom dancing and have moved on to salsa.

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