¿Bailamos? The unspoken code of salsa etiquette
If you’ve got a few salsa lessons in Cali or Medellin under your belt, and you’re ready to shake it in one of Colombia’s legendary dance clubs, we’ve got great news. As a leader or follower, you can walk into pretty much any salsa bar in Colombia, invite a complete stranger to dance — and odds are, they’ll smile and shimmy out onto the floor with you.
In Colombia, part of salsa culture is saying yes to a first dance as much as possible. Sound shockingly non-awkward, easy and fun? It is. But it only works because of an unspoken code of salsa etiquette that keeps the dance floor as comfortable and inclusive as it is sweaty and fun. We’ll do our best to speak the unspoken and give you a rundown on how the code works.
In your average top-40s nightclub, the prospect of asking a stranger to dance can be sweaty-palms-kinda awkward, and agreeing can be equally tricky. When it’s uncomfortably ambiguous whether are you asking / agreeing to a dance — or to a prelude to a hookup — it sometimes feels easier to just retreat to a barstool and nurse a mojito. We thank the salsa gods daily for salsa’s refreshingly clear expectations around how to invite someone to dance (as either a leader or follower!) — and what it means to agree.
Here’s how it works: a leader or follower may invite someone to dance by smiling and extending a hand, or verbally asking: “¿bailamos?” The salsa code makes it easy for your prospective partner to say yes because it’s understood that all they are agreeing to is a dance: 3-5 minutes of spontaneous connection, silliness, creativity, maybe even some sexy moves if you’re both comfortable with it — that’s it. When the dance is over, the idea is to thank your partner, and show you’re in the know with the non-creeper clause of the salsa code by not asking again for a while. Let them approach you, or try again later in the night.
A note on saying “no”
While the salsa code encourages you to say “yes” the first time someone asks you, it is of course, totally fine to politely decline a second dance — or say you’re tired, want to chat with friends, or need to collect yourself after being knocked out by the ineffable power of Celia Cruz’s voice. Just try not to immediately dance with anyone else that same song.
If someone turns you down, or says “ahorita” (“later”), don’t take it personally. If you’ve ever been to Medellin’s beloved, furnace-like basement salsa bar, Tibiri, or taken salsa lessons in Cali heat, you probably get that sometimes you really just need time to sit with a cold beer and catch your breath.
Do right by the dance floor community
Within the vibrant, red walls of Cali’s fabled salsa club, La Topa Tolonda, you get the feeling: everyone is dancing with everyone. A frenzy of footwork and contagious smiles, the dance floor is a community in motion, and we its sweaty citizens. Some tips on salsa citizenship:
You’ll get the feeling the dance floor vibe isn’t about singling out your next one night stand. Quite the opposite: it’s about finding the connection you share with a wide range of cool people, and creating a lively, impromptu community on the dance floor. So don’t be shy — both leaders and followers are encouraged to fuel that community and invite many new partners to dance throughout the night. Of course, it helps to ask people around your same skill level, but don’t get too hung up on it! We all have to start somewhere.
Leaders, manage your space
Another way you can show some TLC for your dance floor community is by mindfully managing your space. It helps to watch your followers back and not send her off careening into some other couple’s intimate moment.
It’s all about connection
We know it took us by surprise when we first started dancing — how quickly you can feel a playful connection with someone you’ve just met. This doesn’t require flashy moves, just a willingness to meet your partner where they’re at, and some solid eye contact and body language. (And, of course, it helps if you don’t smell like dead eels.)
Meet your partner where they’re at
Jazzed about the rapid-fire footwork you picked up in salsa lessons in Cali? Before you try it out on someone new, you’ll want to gauge your partners skill level. (This is more true for leaders, but can also apply to followers.) Dancing is more fun when you meet your partner where they’re at, and focus on finding the unique connection you share on the dance floor — perhaps through unspoken jokes, sensual moments, goofy playfulness, or enthusiastic belting-out of the lyrics.
We’ll state the obvious: it’s easier to connect with someone when you aren’t distracted by their scent of funky hot wings. Try to be one of the good smelling people. Things that help: showering, mouthwash, and clean clothes.
Eye contact is vital to a strong dance connection — keeping followers balanced as they brave swift spins, and giving both leaders and followers a read on their partner’s level of comfort with things like personal space, touch, dips, or whirlwinds of consecutive spins. Let eye contact and body language be your rutter as you venture into unknown seas of spins or sensual moves with someone new.
Try not to read into it
The salsa code is all about reading your partner’s body language — without reading into it (especially here in Colombia, where people often interact in a closer, more intimate way). Maybe in the world beyond the dance floor, eye contact, touch, or closeness can sometimes signal sexy times to come — but on the dance floor, they are just part of the lifeblood of salsa. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
From salsa lessons in Cali to nights out dancing…
As you pioneer your new moves on dance floors and group salsa lessons in Cali and beyond, remember — the fun, open vibe we love so much about salsa is only possible because of the unspoken salsa code, which keeps things comfortable and inclusive. The code opens up salsa as its own dimension of play and fantasy, where we can share creativity, fun and intimacy with people we’ve just met – and drop the awkward palm-sweating.
Enough talking. Let’s go out! Wanna join us out dancing with local pro dancers and maybe take some salsa lessons in Cali and Medellin? Why not hit a Night Out on the Town?