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Learning to dance salsa was the last thing on my mind when I arrived in Colombia. I'd taken lessons at a studio in Washington, DC a few years earlier, but I was far too shy to start asking strange women to dance outside of the classroom.
It was par for the course. My parents had enrolled me in ballroom dance classes when I was a little kid. We learned the Waltz and Foxtrot at a local country club. Thankfully, I had a few friends in the classes so that took the edge off, but outside the classroom, I would remain a wallflower.
Summer camp, middle school, and high school dances weren't much better. I went to a few, to be social and get out of the house, but I was far too afraid to ask my female classmates for a dance. Even the last song of the night, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" wasn't going to do it.
After college, I began getting into electronica, including trance, house, and jungle, but it was a rare night out that I'd be dancing in the discoteca. I was going to hang out with friends, drink Red Bull and vodkas, and listen to the music.
As I entered my mid-20's, I was resigned to living in fear of the dance floor for the rest of my life.
And then I arrived in Medellin, where salsa music filled the streets. I noticed it immediately, coming out of tiendas and taxis, bars and restaurants. Even the supermarkets would have salsa playing when I'd wander through them midday.
Of course it wasn't the music alone that inspired me to begin inviting people from Medellin's Couchsurfing group to join me for salsa at El Eslabon Prendido. I was equally inspired by the beautiful paisas. I knew learning to dance would be important if I wanted to ask one out.
So instead of investing in Spanish classes to learn the local language, I invested in dance lessons. I started with group lessons twice a week, and once I had the basics down, switched to private lessons.
I learned a lot faster with the private lessons, and at only about 25,000 pesos ($14) per hour, they were a steal. By comparison, private lessons start around $50 an hour around Washington, DC.
By the end of my first 6 months in Medellin, I'd danced with dozens of women. Most were Colombian, and few spoke English. It didn't matter than my Spanish was basic, as long as I could lead them on the dance floor for a few minutes at a time.
I found every opportunity to practice. My last week before returning to the USA, I went out 5 of 7 nights, spending my last night out with friends at La Rumbantela on La 33. Once back in the USA, I continued going out 2-3 times per week to the same salsa club where I'd previously been to shy to ask anyone to dance.
I learned to dance because I wanted to assimilate in Medellin. I wanted to be able to take girls out and show them a fun night. Heck, I wanted myself to have a fun night, and the more I danced, the more I loved it.
My confidence and self-esteem grew steadily, as I continued to prove to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to, even if I'd feared and avoided it all my life. And that confidence spilled over into other aspects of my life, it wasn't just limited to salsa and the discotecas.