Posts Tagged ‘dance’

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I like to set goals before moving to a new country.  Spending 5 months in Brazil this year was no different.  Here’s a review of how I did:

1.  Take forró dance lessons.  I did!  I found a school near my apartment and had classes every Tuesday and Thursday night.  This was basically my only dancing outlet and I was sooooo thankful for it!  (And now back to my regularly-scheduled bachata and salsa obsession…)

(This video is from the June Festivals, before I had taken a single class.  One of the university employees offered to show me how to dance forro on the spot and I did NOT know what I was doing.  I got much better after I actually learned the basic steps – ha!)

2.  Visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.  I did!  Read about it here.

3.  See Iguassu Falls.  Yep!  Read about it here.

4.  Visit The Pantanal.  Check!  And I saw a few jaguars too!

5.  Enjoy some beach time.  So many beaches.  I went to Sao Luis, Jericoacoara (probably my favorite), Natal/Galinhos, and Joao Pessoa/Pipa.  Northeastern Brazil is known for having great beaches, and they did not disappoint.


6.  See Carol.  Hooray!  When I was in Brasilia for the Braz-TESOL conference, I got to meet up with my friend from grad school.  So fun to catch up with her!

7.  Try cashew fruit.  Not only did I get to try cashew fruits, I also had cashew nuts, cashew juice, and cajuina (like a cider, similar to how apple cider is a stronger version of apple juice).


I think this is the first time that I accomplished all of my goals for a country!  What’s next??


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According to indexmundi.com, Ecuador’s ethnic groups break down roughly as follows:
72% Mestizo (mixed Indigenous and White (Spanish colonizers))
7%  Indigenous
7%  Afro-Ecuadorian
7%  Montubio (a rural peasant class found on the coast, which recently became an ethnic classification as well.  I still don’t understand this very well, nor do I know much about this group other than what I just read here.)
6%  White

I would say it’s generally understood that there is a hierarchy to these categories: Whites and Mestizos have the most status/power, Indigenous and Montubios have less, and Afro-Ecuadorians have the least.  Let me recount a few anecdotes that I find revealing about race relations in Ecuador…

1.  As Prepared At Home
There is a popular Ecuadorian fast food chain called Menestras del Negro.  This roughly translates as “The black guy’s lentils.”  It’s important to note here that the Spanish word negro (pronounced NAY-grow), means black, as in the color black, or a black person.  It does NOT have the derogatory connotation of the English word negro.  So the name of the chain is not really problematic in and of itself.  However, you might have other thoughts when you see their logo:


EVERY North American that I have had a conversation with about this establishment is HORRIFIED by this image, and immediately comments on how racist it is.  Interestingly, every Ecuadorian I have had a conversation with about this establishment doesn’t see anything wrong at all.  In fact, one Ecuadorian friend, a lawyer, attempted to give me a language lesson to explain that the word negro in Spanish isn’t racist.  Which I already KNEW.  I asked him to describe the logo.  He said it’s a black guy.  I asked what’s in the black guy’s hair.  He thought about it, and then his eyes got HUGE, and he said I was right, it IS an insulting logo, and he had never noticed it before.  (He is also thinking about filing a class action lawsuit on this, but that’s another story for another time.)  My point?  This is a well-known image all over the country here, and no locals (that I know of) even notice it.

2.  Criminals
One of my Fulbright friends who taught in a town 2 hours south of Quito was mugged a couple years ago.  By two black guys.  When she told her local friends and colleagues about it, many of them asked if (or assumed that) the thieves were black.  My friend started lying and telling people that two mestizos robbed her, because she didn’t want to perpetuate racism.  (Relatedly, when I was recently robbed, no one asked if the criminals were black, but a few people insisted that “they must have been Colombian.”  I’m not sure why, but my reaction is they got my purse – does it really matter WHO got it?)

3.  It’s All Relative
Among a group of friends, it’s quite common that the darkest skinned person will have the nickname Negro or Negra, even if they are not ACTUALLY black.  And the person with the smallest eyes will often be called Chino or China, even though they are not ACTUALLY Chinese.  It’s a way to identify a friend, and is somehow a bonding term, a way to show inclusion in the group.  (I will admit I have referred to my old salsa teacher as El Chinito, but he actually IS half Chinese and half Ecuadorian, so I feel like that’s a little more accurate in his case.)  In a similar vein, two or three of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends have taken to calling me Negrita.  Obviously I am NOT the darkest skinned person among our group of friends – not by a long shot.  Although I do kind of love the ridiculousness of my new nickname.

I got to see the band perform their hit at a salsa club in Quito.  I'm such a groupie.

I got to see 3D Corazones perform their hit at a salsa club in Quito. I’m such a groupie.

4.  Blacks Are In Style
A suuuuuuuuper popular salsa song this year, sung by a Colombian group, is called “Los Negros Estan de Moda,” or “blacks are in style.”  Ironically, the first time I heard this song was during an English summer camp for teens on the coast, most of whom were Afro-Ecuadorian.  The theme of the camp was Black History Month.  During our campfire party the kiddos played this song, and went CRAZY.  In fact, every time I’ve heard this song in a dance club, the black patrons seem to LOVE it.  I do see how the lyrics promote black pride, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.  But I guess, as a white person, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about it.

5.  Who Can Get A Taxi At 4am
Once, after a night out dancing, a group of friends came back to my place to continue hanging out.  Around 4am, when most of us couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, some of them were starting to settle in to sleep on my couch.  They were welcome to stay, but I asked why they didn’t just take a taxi home.  One of them said “We’re 4 black guys.  We can’t get a taxi at 4 in the morning.”  Oh.  That stopped me in my tracks, because I NEVER would have even considered that being a problem.  But it is.  Wow.  I just don’t usually have to think about things like that.  (I ended up calling one of my regular taxi companies to order two taxis to take everyone home.  But I still went outside with everyone to make sure the taxi drivers would accept the four guys.)  I have also chatted with taxi drivers who have told me they will not pick up certain would-be passengers (i.e., blacks and Cubans).

6.  Savage Rhythm
ritmoBy now it’s no surprise that I go salsa dancing a TON.  There are a handful of salsa clubs in Quito, and I regularly frequent many of them.  One of the clubs, Ritmo Salvaje, is what one of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends refers to as “la casa de los negros.”  It’s the black salsa club.  When I go there, I am usually one of only two white people in the entire place (the other being my friend Maggie).  I wanted to check it out when it opened last year because my friend Frank (an Afro-Ecuadorian) and his brother own the place.  So Maggie and I went.  Frank was so happy to see us, but I will say it felt like I was in a cliche sitcom scene:  two obviously-out-of-place white girls stumble into an all black club, the record screeches to a halt, and all of the black people stop dancing to turn around and stare at the terribly lost foreigners.  Okay, I’m exaggerating.  But it felt a liiiiiitle bit like that.  I also felt like I couldn’t ask anyone to dance, because it would play into the stereotype of white women “stealing” black guys.  Plus I just didn’t really know anyone to ask, besides the owners, who were too busy WORKING.  So the first few times I went, I didn’t dance a whole lot.  But they play great music, and Frank is always so happy to see us, so I have returned.  And the more I go, the more I’ve met people, so that now I know a few of the regulars and get asked to dance much more than before.  I’m still usually one of only two whites in the whole place, and I still feel like some people look at me like I don’t belong there, but I feel a lot less uncomfortable going there now.

Dancing here is unlike any other salsa club I know.  People don’t do a lot of showy moves and turns, but instead tend to dance very closely, emphasizing their hips.  And everyone knows how to MOVE.  They FEEL the music.  They ENJOY the music.  It’s not technical, it’s not robotic – this is salsa de la calle (street salsa).  They play a lot of salsa urbano and salsa choke and salsaton, which I love.  And when a particularly popular song comes on, the whole place just ERUPTS – everyone belting out the lyrics and dancing and radiating sabor.  And when they play an occasional bomba song (a musical/dance style from the Afro-Ecuadorian population in northern Ecuador), everyone goes crazy.  And when they play reggaeton – it is a sight to behold.  (An R-rated site to behold, but it’s incredible.)  I don’t think I will ever ever EVER find a place like this anywhere else that I live.  I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to frequent Ritmo Salvaje now, and try to soak up the experience.

Patrons at Ritmo Salvaje tend to get several large bottles of beer (or a whole crate of beer) to share.  But instead of each person drinking their own bottle from the stash, they will all share one bottle at a time, using one or two plastic cups.  One person pours some beer into a cup and drinks it, then dumps the remaining foam on the floor.  Then they pass the now-empty cup to a friend, who pours a little beer, drinks it, and tosses out the foam.  I used to think this was gross, but now I see it as just one more example of how communal Ecuadorian culture is (as opposed to U.S. culture, which is very individualistic).  I haven’t yet figured out if this sharing and dumping of cups is more of a racial phenomenon, or more of a coastal phenomenon, or more of a small-town culture phenomenon.  But this is the only club I’ve been to where everyone is dumping out their cups on the floor all night long.  Which means that the floor becomes quite wet, until everyone is eventually dancing in puddles of discarded beer foam.

And THAT is why my shoes were completely soaked after a night of salsa dancing.

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Esmeraldas is a province in the northwest of Ecuador. It’s predominantly Afro-Ecuadorian, and the reason why is really interesting! According to Lonely Planet, in 1553 a slave ship anchored off Ecuador’s north coast was wrecked during a storm. The 23 slaves on board overpowered their captors and escaped, settling in the northwest. The population grew, and Ecuador is now 5% Afro-Ecuadorian.

Not surprisingly, African roots are still evident in much of Esmeraldan culture, one example being marimba.  Marimba is both a musical instrument (a type of xylophone) and a type of dance (accompanied by said instrument and lots of drums).   A few of my Esmeraldan friends are involved in a marimba group, and their 8th anniversary performance happened to coincide with a recent work trip I took to Esmeraldas.  I was so excited to finally see this dance in person!

And this duet – I absolutely ADORE how flirtatious it is.  The guy is my friend Fercho – I wish the video quality had uploaded better so you could see how expressive his face is during this dance!

PS – I really love being able to see traditional dances in their places of origin.  For example:

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I made a list of 13 goals before I moved to Ecuador.  Let’s check my progress, shall we?

  1. Really improve my Spanish.  Fail.  I mean, it IS better than when I first arrived (when I had a jumble of Turkish, French, and Indonesian tumbling out of my mouth).  My fluency, vocabulary, and grammar have improved, and I’ve picked up some Ecuadorian features of Spanish.  But honestly, I haven’t studied or practiced as much as I should have.  For my job, I almost always use English since I work with English teachers.  And most of my friends, including the Ecuadorians, speak English.  Obviously I get by, but my Spanish can still use a lot of improvement.  Que bestia.
  2. Learn a few words of Quechua.  Technically I guess I accomplished this – I know 4 words:
    guagua = baby
    chuchaqui = hungover
    yaguar = blood
    cocha = lake
    Why these 4?  Because they’re commonly used among Spanish speakers or for location names.  I had been thinking more along the lines of “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” etc.  Oh well.

    This family speaks Quechua. I do not.

  3. Become a better salsa dancer.  I’m proud of this one.  HUUUUUGE win!  I took classes at a dance school for 2 months, then hired a private instructor for my remaining 8 months.  I usually went out dancing at least once a week (sometimes more).  In fact, I’ve become a regular at TWO salsatecas!  I LOVE that the bouncers greet me and let me in free now.  I LOVE that I can show up at any salsa club and know or at least recognize other regulars.  I LOVE when a new guy asks me to dance, assuming I’ll be bad like most gringas, and then realizes I know what I’m doing and starts doing more complicated figures with me (and says something like “You dance well!”).  I LOVE when I’m dancing really well with a partner and a little crowd watches us (cuz that has happened – more than once!).  I ABSOLUTELY LOVE that I have worked myself into the salsa community. 
  4. Visit the Galapagos Islands.  Did I ever!  I spent 2 weeks on the islands (visiting 6 of them) – partly for work and partly for fun.  This was a life goal – accomplished.
  5. Take more people pictures.  A work in progress…
  6. Go snorkeling.  Did this in the Galapagos.
  7. Go hiking.  I went on a few hikes around Quito, and in Mindo and Cajas National Park.  But I’d like to do more hiking in the future.
  8. Eat lots of Ecuadorian food.  Check, definitely.  This one was easy because I like most Ecuadorian dishes I’ve tried.  I’ve eaten several bowls of locro de papas (cream of potato soup).  I’ve enjoyed more batidos (fruit shakes) than I can possibly count.  I’ve had all sorts of ceviche (it’s much better on the coast than in the highlands).  And I ate cuy (guinea pig) twice.  I know a ton of traditional dishes, have learned about many exotic fruits that don’t even have English names, and recognize most offerings on restaurant menus.  I know my way around Ecuadorian food.
  9. Learn to cook some Ecuadorian dishes.  Check.  I took an empanada cooking class, and I got an Ecuadorian cookbook when I attended a second cooking class organized by the Embassy. 
  10. Visit local markets. Yep.  Went to the big one in Otavalo twice.  And went to local markets in Quito several times. 
  11. Travel to Cuenca.  Double check.  I spent a weekend there for fun, and later spent a week there for work.
  12. Not get malaria.  Not a problem living at 9000 feet, but I also managed not to contract any tropical diseases when I went to the coast or Amazon regions.  Whew.
  13. Have some gosh-darn visitors.  Señor Adam visited for a month, and Señorita Maura joined us for 2 weeks.  And mi hermana Carolyn came for 2 weeks.  Win, win, win!

Inspired by a post some Peace Corps Volunteers in Ecuador wrote, here are a few other statistics to recap my first 10 months in Ecuador:

Workshops given:  57

Volcanoes seen: 11.5
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Ruminahui, Tungurahua, Illiniza Norte, Illiniza Sur, El Corazon, El Altar, Cayambe, Imbabura, Pichincha, Cotocachi (well, part of it)

Chimborazo Volcano, the tallest in Ecuador

Provinces visited:  13/24
(Esmeraldas, Imbabura, Pichincha, Manabi, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Bolivar, Guayas, Santa Elena, Galapagos, Azuay, Napo).  Granted, some of the provinces I didn’t visit are kind of off-limits to Americans due to FARC activity, drug trafficking, and other not-so-pleasant border issues.  But I hope to visit more provinces in my second year.

Dance clubs visited in Quito: 15ish (there was a lot of dancing these past 10 months)

Hearing loss sustained from all that dance club time:  What?

Books read:  20
Morning runs in Parque Carolina: about 2-3 per week

Illnesses: 5 or 6 head colds plus some sort of upper respiratory thing that had me coughing for a month (this is way more than usual for me.  I suspect Quito’s pollution and the custom of greeting people with a kiss on the cheek were contributing factors).  A few cases of upset tummy (about normal when traveling/living abroad).

Earthquakes felt:  3 (one in February, and two in October)

Number of men seen urinating in public:  Unfortunately, this is a weekly occurrence – I lost count way back in February.

Crime victimizations:  2 cell phones pick-pocketed on the bus (one in May and one in October) and 1 jacket stolen at a dance club (although I was stupid to set it down on a speaker instead of using the coat check).  I guess this would also be the appropriate place to note my friend Adam’s “comically non-violent” mugging when he visited, although I wasn’t with him at the time.

Cost of pirated DVDs: $1.25 – $1.50

Average taxi ride cost: $1.50 – $2.00 during the day (when taxi meters are in use), about $3 at night (when I have to negotiate with the driver)

Cost of a local bus ride:  $0.25

Average high temperature in Quito: about 68 degrees F, year-round!

Average low temperature in Quito:  about 50 degrees F, year-round!

Blog posts written about Ecuador:  27 counting this one

Number of times I felt lucky to live and work in Ecuador: nearly every day!

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Operation Salsa: phase 5 (success!)

If you’ve been following Operation Salsa, you know that I started private salsa lessons in March with a local salsa DJ, Brian.  For our first meeting, we danced for a few songs so Brian could get a sense of what I could do, how I moved, and what I needed to work on.  After each song, Brian would say something like “That was pretty good for an American” or “That was good, for a gringa.”  I finally stopped him and said “Okay, here is my goal: I want you to say ‘That was good.’  Period.”

My personal goal, set at that very first lesson, was for Brian to judge me as being just plain good.  I didn’t want to be judged on a special scale for non-latinas.

It’s now September.  After a 2-month hiatus from lessons (due to my busy work, travel, and visitor schedule), Brian and I finally met again.  As usual, we started by just dancing to a song to warm-up, without focusing on any particular move.  This was our conversation after our first warm-up dance:

Brian:  How long has it been since we danced together?
Me:      For a lesson?  A couple months.
Brian:  You’re good!
Me:      For an American?
Brian:  No.  You’re GOOD!
Me:      What?
Brian:  You know I DJ four nights a week, and I dance a lot when I’m at the clubs too.  But it’s hard to find girls who are good.  Really good.  Who know how to dance, know how to follow and can do a lot of turns with me.  But you can.  You’re GOOD!
Me:      Really?!?!
(and then I proceeded to jump up and down, squealing and clapping my hands)

Finally!  No qualifications, no “gringa handicap.”  I’m just plain good!  🙂



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Operation Salsa: phase 4

I quit my group salsa classes because the group was shrinking, not incredibly social, and we were missing guys.  It just wasn’t as much fun to practice rueda de casino when 2 or 3 girls always had to sit out or wait for a partner.  But I have continued with my private lessons with Brian.  Brian is a college student who DJs at one of the popular salsatecas I frequent on Wednesday nights.  He’s not a professional, but he’s good to practice with, and I’ve learned a lot of figures and techniques from him.  Here’s a video of us practicing recently.  You’ll notice that I tend to laugh or squeal when I mess up.

I still have a lot to work on, but I’m squealing less than I used to, which means I’m making fewer mistakes.  And when I go to salsatecas I get asked to dance more than I used to, including repeat askers, which I take as a sign that I can follow better than I could before.  That’s what we call progress.

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Operation Salsa, phases 2 & 3

Phase 2:  I’m now in Salsa Level 2 at my dance studio, learning rueda de casino.  This is fun, and sociable, and I’m learning new steps.  But since it’s a group dance I am unlikely (and not yet proficient enough) to do rueda de casino when I go out dancing at salsa clubs.  Hence…

Phase 3:  I’ve hired a private salsa tutor to help me work on my partner dancing.  A friend hooked me up with a DJ from one of the salsa clubs who gives individual classes.   We’re going to start meeting this week.  I hope to improve as a follower and learn more turns, plus raise my overall confidence as a dancer.

And no, I did not move to Ecuador to become a professional salsa dancer.  I DO still have a day job teaching English.  Although, if the lessons go well…

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