There are many different ways to adapt to a new culture. You could learn the language, savor the local cuisine or live with a host family. Anique, a WorldTeach Ecuador volunteer, chose dancing as her path to immersion.
Then recently, I went to my little host nephew and niece´s Christmas program, naively expecting to see a nativity pageant and listen to off-pitch Christmas carols as one would see at any U.S. elementary school. Even after 8 months of learning to expect the unexpected from Ecuadorian culture, I was a bit shocked when suggestive reaggaeton music started blasting from the speakers, and the second-grade class swung their hips down to the floor and back up again in unison. I was expecting baby Jesus, and I instead I got baby José and his sesame street possee breaking it down MTV style in front of their proud parents. That day, I learned that my 8-year old host niece Arianna and her classmates can swing their hips better than I could ever hope to in my life…
Which brings up the well-known fact that North Americans can´t dance—los gringos no pueden bailar—and after spending time in latin America, I understand why. We don´t really have the opportunity to dance until we´re in middle school—just the time when puberty is pulling our body in different awkward directions, and we´re too self-conscious to risk looking stupid in front of our braces-clad classmates. By then, it´s too late—we´ve already lost years of potential practice—years when we could have been shaking our hips carelessly, before we cared what people thought. Not only that, but when a guy can dance in the U.S., his friends promptly question his manhood… whereas in Latin America, the guys who CAN´T dance are the ones under ridicule.
Salsa class for our group of volunteers from the U.S.A.--part of our cultural orientation in Quito, the capital city
Furthermore, the music we dance to in the United States (i.e. techno) makes us look like awkward robots anyways. On the other hand, Latin American music is dynamic and danceable—it has an energetic rhythm and melody that inspires hip-shaking—even in the dance-handicapped gringo. At the dance clubs here (¨discotecas¨) they play different genres of music—reaggaeton, salsa, meringue, cumbia, and musica nacional—in sets of about 5 songs each, so that you never get bored. Which is why dancing here is so much fun!
But it wasn´t easy to get to the point where I could enjoy a night out dancing with my Ecuadorian friends. I thought the biggest challenge of living in Latin America would be learning Spanish (hah! yet another demonstration of my northamerican naivete). Learning to follow the steps to all of the different dances while attempting to mimic the swift, suave hip movements that come so naturally to Ecuadorians has been no easy feat. But, after several host-family salsa lessons and Saturday nights at the discotecas, I think Blair and I are starting to catch an eensy weensy bit of Latino rhythm. On new years eve, for example, a guy friend congratulated me on no longer dancing like an awkward gringa—a big confidence boost to start off the new year! And earlier that night, when I was at our family´s new years fiesta and I started dancing with my host dad, the Venezuelan in-laws were shocked:¨Look, a gringa who knows how to dance! Where´s the camera, we´ve got to film this!¨--as if I were a rare specimen at the zoo. After months of trying to shake off my ingrained awkwardness, I took this as a huge compliment.
So, learning to dance has proven a big part of my rite-of-passage as an assimilated gringita in Ecuador. I doubt I´ll ever measure up to Arianna´s elementary school music video moves, but at least I can defend myself on a dance floor. Step by step, I have overcome my cultural handicap. Perhaps the most important part of this is embracing the true spirit of dancing: shake it like you mean it without caring who´s watching. I only hope that when I´m 80 years old, I´ll still be twisting my replaced hips alongside the youngins… (with a little awkward twitch, just to stay true to my gringa roots ;)