Karin O'Donnell, a keen dancer and karate expert, tries out some new moves at a salsa class.
Step by step
Free classes are offered at Salsa Latina in Fitzgerald Ave once a month, so I brave it and go along for my first experience of Latin dancing. Some people go with their significant other or with friends, but that's not necessary - I arrive solo.
Nervous to begin with, I stand to one side of the studio and try to blend in with the wall. At 8.30pm, Salsa Latina owner Reuben Watkins calls us forward and asks us to stand in rows facing him. During the 45-minute class, we learn three basic dance steps.
Reuben and fellow dance instructor Marcela Diacono stand in front of us, facing full-length mirrors, and run through the steps of the first dance with us. Merengue (pronounced meran-gway) is probably the easiest dance, despite its exotic name - initially a step-step-step, left foot, right foot, left foot. Yep, I can do this!
Then we move into a circle, women facing the mirror, men opposite. Reuben counts for us, literally step by step. A few steps later, he tells all the men to high-five their dance partner, then move round to the next one. This way everyone has someone new to dance with, and the singles such as me don't have to stand uncomfortably alone on the dance floor.
Once we have done the moves a few times, Reuben gets us to try our turns. I can do this too, if somewhat slowly. I notice that although some of my male partners know what they are doing, others are as clueless as I. This is a relief - the more experienced dancers are really patient and I find an apology with a big smile works wonders. After a few minutes of the merengue set to music, Reuben moves us on to the salsa. There's a bit more backwards and forwards dancing in this, a little more finesse required. I tend to lead when it's the man who is supposed to, but eventually it all comes together and I can manage the turns, even if not as elegantly as Marcela, who has been dancing since she was seven.
Last dance for the night is the bachata. The basics to this Dominican Republic dance are three steps with a sexy little hip motion, followed by a tap on the fourth beat. Again, quite simple, although it takes me a while to get into the rhythm. We try this out, then graduate to hand and arm movements and turns. I am surprised to pick up the moves, but somehow Reuben and Marcela make it seem easy.
Towards the end, Reuben reminds us that everyone has been a beginner at some stage. As with most activities, the more you do it the easier it gets.
The class wraps up at 9.15pm, by which time people are arriving for the regular Thursday salsa party night, when the studio is open till late. The music is turned up, the lights are dimmed and the disco ball starts twirling.
By 10pm, Salsa Latina is rocking. The party is in full swing and I am reluctant to leave, but tomorrow is a work day and I have things to do.
It's all very social and I dance with another student, a man from Algeria. What I find interesting is the range of nationalities and ages of the dancers. The youngest is a teenage girl; Reuben says the oldest dancer he has had at the studio was a man of 83.
Dancing is a great way to improve fitness. It increases muscle tone and co-ordination and can help with weight management. Joe Verghese, a neurologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, has suggested the social aspect leads to less stress, depression and loneliness, while memorising steps and working with a partner provide mental challenges that are crucial for brain health.
Me? I'm just in it for the fun. Don't start that party without me!
For more information, go to salsalatina.co.nz