Both of the orientation programs I had when I came down to Costa Rica (one through KU that lasted an entire month and one through the Universidad de Costa Rica that lasted one day) involved dance lessons.
I have to admit when I was learning the basics of salsa, meringue, and cumbia I thought it was (essentially) a waste of time. A fun ice-breaker to throw at the exchange students so they have to pair up and talk to each other. Like the equivalent of teaching foreigners in the States how to fox trot, swing dance, and waltz—something that was “culturally important” to the country, but not something that we would actually use.
Well as it turns out, I was very very wrong.
Classical dancing in Costa Rica isn’t just something they pull out at events like weddings and quinceaneras; it’s everywhere. It dominates night clubs, concerts and parties. When someone asks me to dance they don’t mean grinding or awkwardly swaying side to side. They mean they want to salsa.
And maybe it’s because my sisters and I grew up watching old musicals and dancing with our Dad in the kitchen; maybe its because I used to love dance in high school but haven’t been able to do it in college; maybe it’s because my cousin and I definitely went through a phase when we were obsessed with the movie “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”—but I really, really love dancing here.
Even though I’m not very good at salsa-ing, merengue-ing, or cumbia-ing (making up verbs here), but.
There is just something intrinsically fun about being spun around by your dance partner and moving in unison without having to have your entire bodies glued together.
Dancing in pairs here is not as overtly sexual as it is in the US. It’s an art form. It’s beautifully playful and innocent. It requires a certain about of skill. And with a partner, or by themselves, Latin American men are proud of the fact that they know how to dance. They take pride in swaying their hips and cha-cha-ing (for lack of a better word) around.
Despite our best efforts, my friend’s and my inability to dance is one of our most obvious “tells” that we are not from Costa Rica. Most of the time I just try to fake it, but I almost always end up stepping on my partners feet, not realizing what way we were supposed to be moving, or even forgetting that I am supposed to let the boys lead.
It’s not that American music, American grinding, and other types of “American dancing” don’t exist here. In fact, when an American song comes on the Tico’s love to point at us and say do it, do it, dance like an America—to which I will almost always respond to by my rolling my eyes, but then nevertheless enthusiastically jump into some rendition of Beyoncé’s single ladies routine (I’m sure I look JUST like her).
I appreciate the Tico’s continuation of traditional dancing, it’s a beautiful testimony to their culture and I love doing it while I am here. However, I’m not suggesting we start a movement to bring back the Fox Trot and swing dancing to bars and night-clubs in the US—because as much as I love dancing like a Tico, sometimes it just feels really good to do a little thizz dancing or shamelessly belt out some Ke$ha.