When I moved to Costa Rica in 2003, I got to test an axiom I’d often heard: that you should be able to take a dance class anywhere in the world and follow along, no matter the local language.
The studio near my neighborhood’s Más Por Menos grocery store was in a second-floor walkup with bars on the windows and the muffled thump of bass and feet audible from the class down the hall; it felt instantly familiar. I was invited to try a teen hip-hop class led by a short, buff b-boy named Andre. Although I was a non-native Spanish speaker and practically old enough to be someone’s mother, he and the other students welcomed me warmly. And while I didn’t catch every last word (especially the local slang that always seems to flavor hip-hop terminology), I was able to follow along kinesthetically, marking steps and taking corrections. By the end of class, I felt more articulate, and more at home, than I had in weeks. We sweated. We laughed. We ran the combination several times—and the class that was to follow ours applauded from the doorway.
During my two-year experiment with dancing in another language, I also arranged an intercambio—an exchange—with a web developer who moonlighted with a folkloric dance company. We met on Saturday afternoons in his office, where I gave him an hour-long English class and he gave me (after pushing the furniture out of the way) an hour of instruction in salsa, cumbia, and merengue. He administered exams at a nearby salsa club, where a series of partners “talked” me through each dance with their hands, shoulders, and hip bones.
From hip-hop to ballet, dancers who don’t speak the same language on the street find a way to share the love, and the lexicon, of movement. It’s a community I’m glad to claim. —Heather Wisner
DSL managing editor Heather Wisner is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She has written about dance for SF Weekly, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and Portland Monthly, among other publications.