If you saw Erika on the street you wouldn’t take much notice. She barely passes 5 feet, her diminutive stature common in the highlands of Guatemala where we met, but do not underestimate this middle-aged Guatemalan woman with red flowers in her hair, she has nunchucks in her purse and she knows how to use them. She is my salsa teacher.
I came to Guatemala a fresh-faced newbie to this Central American country, eager to learn all that I could. I was in Spanish classes through my immersion program, Somos Hermanos, and I thought that would be enough to focus on considering my brain’s proven difficulties in foreign language learning (I had been attempting to learn Spanish ever since high school and had now graduated university, it was taking a while to stick). Then I saw our group schedule. The program had organized a group salsa lesson on Wednesday nights for us and it was free. I’m a sucker for all things free so I ignored the critical voice in my head reminding me of my two left feet and decided to embarrass myself in front of my new-found friends. It was the best decision I could have made.
They say salsa is the dance of love, but I didn’t know that when I showed up at Salsa Rosa, ready to master the hip swaying, luxuriously sexy dance that I had been so envious of in the local expat bar/club, El Shamrock. The way those women could move, it was like salsa transformed them into goddesses of confidence and passion. A diminutive, soft spoken woman would grow into a tantric queen when she stepped foot onto the dance floor, filing the space with her desire for life and for movement. As an awkward gringa, I desperately wanted what these women had while dancing, that poised allure in every hand flick, the self-assurance in every hair toss. I had never been that confident woman on the dance floor, instead I was the shy wall flower, hanging back, watching, wishing from the corner. But here I was, fresh off the plane, with the conviction that I was going to leave my old self at home, that here in Guatemala, I would learn how to salsa.
While I still had the rhythm of a tone deaf rhino and had yet to locate my right foot, classes with Erika were wonderful. She became a bubbly, chattering fountain of joy for me in Guatemala. She helped me find the fun in dance, in moving my body without fear of looking ridiculous. She taught me that if you work hard enough at something, you will get it, be it the proper hip wiggle in one of the many silly, sexy salsa moves that looked infinitely better when she did them or in understanding a foreign language.
After six months of “mueva tus caderas!” (move your hips), Erika had me falling in love with dance and, incidentally, with my dance partner, but that’s another story. However, more than the steps she showed me or the moves she taught me, I will remember Erika for who she was, a woman who radiated joy everywhere she went. She taught me that to love your life, you must love what you do, so she became a Spanish teacher by day and a salsa teacher by night. She taught me that women are strong and that, while men are wonderful, a strong woman can survive and thrive without one. The stories about her beautiful sons, raised by her alone, solidified this in my mind. The stories about the hardships of growing up in a violate country that did not view single women as worthy of even scraps from the boys table taught me about the resilience of women, the fight we all have within us.
Erika took what she was given in life, born into harder circumstances than most of us will know, and she made something beautiful. She built her own business, Salsa Rosa, in a country where machismo pulls women back towards the kitchen. She built a life for herself that, at least to me, it seems like she loves and she inspires me to do the same. When I think back to my time in Guatemala, it will be to her laughing smile as she gently corrects a misstep, forever the picture of strength, grace, and joy.
If you are headed to Xela and are looking for a salsa school, I highly recommend Salsa Rosa. Erika offers group lessons, semi-privates, and privates for very reasonable prices. I loved my lessons with Erika and really feel that she is the best salsa teacher around. She also teaches Spanish if you are looking for language classes. You can find her Facebook page here.