Learning To Salsa In All The Wrong Places

Achat, shtayim, shalosh. Chamesh, shesh, sheva!

On Monday night, I took a public bus from Ramallah, through the checkpoint, and into Jerusalem to meet up with a friend of mine. We were going to go salsa dancing, which apparently is big in this region.

For the record, I have never gone salsa dancing. Blues, west coast swing, a little bit of samba in Brazil once, but salsa was new to me. But hey - I pick up on things quickly, and my friend said there was a lesson, so I wasn’t too worried.

We were walking up to the venue when my friend finally mentioned that “the lessons were usually in Hebrew.”

Well, crap. I can say four things in Hebrew - hello, goodbye, peace, and “Lets go!” And “shalom” is three of those words.

So we walk in. There’s probably about 150 people there, and the lessons are about to start. My friend helps me find the first timer group, and we’re off. There’s three guys and three girls, including the instructor. She speaks english, but giving all the instructions twice would have taken way too long. She tells me to just pay attention, and then launches into hebrew.

I pay attention while she talks for a little bit, but it’s really easy to get distracted when you have zero percent comprehension of what someone is saying. My attention wanders a bit as I watch the other groups and try to learn from them, but I snap back when someone takes my hand.

Uh oh.

The woman holding my hand looks at me, expectantly. I throw a sideways glance at the instructor, who starts chanting ““Achat, shtayim, shalosh. Chamesh, shesh, sheva!” She steps each time she says one, so I guess those are numbers. I mimic what the other men in my row are doing, and my partner seems to do the right things.

"”Smola, yamina, smola, yamina!”

Sounds like that could mean “left, right, left, right.” My partner dances in agreement. Alright, this is working!

Which is exactly when every other person in my group starts doing something completely different.

Turns out, the instructor had been teaching them the next move, and then had said “go.” Everyone moved in unison… except for me.

This continues most of the night. We end up learning four moves, and eventually (I think for my benefit) the instructor starts putting up fingers for which move is next. Once she started doing that, I was able to keep up with everyone else.

And that’s how I learned to salsa. In Israel. In Hebrew.

I had two interesting insights from this whole experience:

I’ve been trying to learn some Arabic and Hebrew phrases, but my complete lack of vocabulary means I don’t have context for anything people are saying until the situation is over, then they stop saying the word. There’s no repetition, so I don’t get to hear the word “smola,” see everyone step left, then hear the word again to reinforce. By being taught something in Hebrew, I learned a lot of vocabulary and phrases, saw what they meant, heard them again, and then immediately applied them.

For example, now I can count to seven in Hebrew. I still don’t know the word for four though… (In salsa, they count “one two three, five six seven”)

The second observation is that my instructor used a whole lot of words that were, apparently, largely unnecessary. As someone who has taught a lot (parkour, gymnastics, slacklining, taekwondo, etc etc etc), it makes me wonder if I talk more than necessary. What if using fewer words is just as good, or maybe even better?

Speaking less is something I’m going to be more mindful of next time I teach.

Yesterday, Peter and I went out for a traditional Palestinian meal. We went to a butcher, bought some food, then took it next door to a restaurant that turned it into a beautiful meal for us. We bought steak… and brains. Picture is the brain, cooked and spiced, before we dug in.

Current list of weird foods consumed: balut, starfish, scorpion, snake, brains. (Does durian count?)

Written on January 9, 2013