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Learning salsa caleña in Colombia [video in Spanish & English]

| 19 comments | Category: travel

Last year I was living in Colombia, and while I had a language mission to speak any language despite location, and of course learn Colombian Spanish, one of my main projects in the country was actually to dance salsa.

I’ve finally made the time to edit together the footage to share that experience with you in video form, with both English and Spanish commentary :)

I consider my languages to be a huge asset not so I can just say that I speak them, but because I have learned so many amazing things, had life-altering experiences and made some fantastic friends through these languages. Learning salsa with locals and the experiences I share in this brief video documentary would have been totally impossible for an English-only tourist.

You can see the video documenting my learning experience in English here:

Or watch it in Spanish instead here:

Based on recommendations from Dave, a friend of mine and blogger based in Medellín I found a great salsa school and instructor (note: my instructorhas since started her own school, so if you are in the city and want to get in touch, her address is Carrera 43a  # 25-233 Poblado , loma de San Julian and her email is ytherrera AT hotmail DOTcom) and my typical day in Medellín included intensive salsa lessons there. Yamile, my instructor, was fun and a great friend and eased me into learning the essentials, while making sure I had a blast during the lessons thanks to her quirky sense of humour.

She especially liked playfully taking the piss out of how Peninsular my Spanish is! (When I said something particularly Spanish she’d tease me with joder tío, qué dizzzzes?) Despite that I’ve tried to sound a bit more Colombian in the Spanish version of the video.

Cali – my favourite place of the year

But I have to say that the highlight of the Colombian trip, and I’d go as far to say my entire year, was the short number of days that I spent in Cali, Colombia’s third city.

I stayed at Jovita’s hostel, which included free group salsa lessons (as shown in the video), that I followed up with private lessons. The owners of the hostel brought me out on the town with them and made sure that I got to see a side of Cali that I’d never forget.

As a lone traveller, it usually takes a while before I meet people willing to bring me so deep into their social circle, but after just meeting them, Katy and Carlos could see that I was genuinely interested in getting to know the residents and culture of the city and introduced me to so many incredible caleños and took me out with them to several great venues.

This included an amazing dancing competition for the school associated with the salsa lessons, Son de Luz. The dance school is an important part of the community, giving the poor children of the city something to work towards. You can see in the video how talented they were. Salsa is literally getting them off the streets as they make something of their lives.

Imagine my surprise when Jenni (my instructor), Carlos and Katy had arranged for me to dance in front of the judges and the very experienced dancers! With 10 seconds notice, and everyone cheering the only foreigner in the building on, I didn’t really have much of a choice! So I gave my camera to someone and luckily had an excellent end to the above video, since all my other attempts to record real dancing (outside of lessons) were in too poorly lit dance clubs.

It’s the most intensive memory-filled experience I’ve had in a city considering the short time I spent there – I’m used to bouncing from one place to another all the time, but me costó mucho to finally leave Cali.

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(If you liked the above videos, then check out a similar (but better edited) one I made about my experience learning tango in Buenos Aires – that one can be watched with commentary in 7 languages).

I hope culturally relevant asides like this hint as to why I am so passionate to get people to stop focusing on over-studying of their languages and start using them. The other foreigners you see briefly in the group lesson had a weak level of Spanish, but they were trying to understand the teacher anyway and actually learning to dance well because they were focused on communication rather than hiding away behind their doubts until they spoke it perfectly.

They were using the language in a real life situation before they were “ready”.

THIS is what it’s all about for me. A language is a means to an end. If that end is just to say “I speak Spanish” with no use for it, then in my opinion it’s an empty achievement no matter how good your level may be.

Let me know what you think of this video and anything else in the comments below!

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  • Anonymous

    Benny,

    I really enjoyed these videos. It captures much of the Colombian spirit, and looks like you learned a good bit of salsa pretty quickly! Kudos man!

    I’m probably headed over to Medellin within the next month, but you’ve piqued my interest in Cali as well.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’ll really enjoy Medellín, and there’s more to do there, but Cali just had precisely the right people for me.

  • Jasmine

    I really enjoyed the video! I watched it Spanish and English to help improve my Spanish (my Spanish is not great). I had always heard that Colombian Spanish is among the clearest varieties and as such any Spanish I learned I mostly learned through Colombian TV and music – however being from the Scotland, almost all of my dealings with Spanish speakers are ‘Spanish’ Spanish.

    Do the Colombians pronounce ‘ll’ as (english) ‘j’ more often than other Spanish speakers? I accidentally said cabajjeros (caballeros) to someone from Mahon, Spain and was told ‘it’s cabeyeros!”. I’ve never understood when to say ‘j’ and when to say ‘y’ since then.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      For better practice, try to listen to Colombian podcasts or telenovelas :)

      ‘ll’ is a tricky thing – I went with a ‘y’ sound in the Spanish video because that’s how I remember them speaking in Cali, but actually said ‘j’ in the English one for Medellin since it’s a bit more natural to me.

      In Spain I tend to say ly (something like the ‘ll’ in million).

      Whether I use one or the other doesn’t ever confuse people – you are more likely to get corrected if you say it in isolation, rather than part of a full sentence. Focusing on speaking with a good flow more than getting bogged down on minor accent details like this will help people understand you much better!

      That person shouldn’t have corrected you – it would be like me correcting someone speaking English fine but not with an Irish accent. The exception is if it is clear you are aiming for that accent in particular.

  • Judy

    That was fun. You are inspiring me to learn samba in Brazil.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Samba is fun! Enjoy :)

  • http://www.getintoenglish.com David Sweetnam

    That’s great to see! It shows one thing which I am trying to encourage in my own students – how practice and more practice will get you there.

    You might be interested to know I’ve started zouk, which is an amazing Latin dance. I’m not the niftiest on my feet but my teacher smiles and says something similar – getting better is just practice. I’d add it helps when you enjoy the ride, as you clearly do in the video…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’ve seen zouk – it’s a lovely dance!

      Glad to see you encouraging students to use it!! When I was an English teacher, I absolutely refused to speak the local language when at work, even as I was about to take my C2 exam in Spanish. This was unpleasant pressure, but got my students speaking quicker than anything else, especially when we used it naturally like playing games.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I actually really enjoyed Medellín and had a comfortable and fun stay there. I just happen to prefer Cali.
    I’d suggest you try to look at the city in a new light. I had a very bad attitude towards Paris from living there for almost a year until I tried to see it with fresh eyes.
    I also lived in Patio Bonito – less than a minute walk from Dance As ;)

  • Mowing Out

    Very interesting, Benny. You’re always saying how good it is to travel knowing a foreign language…. Honestly speaking, how much of the language do you think a person should learn before travelling in order of having a much better time? And how much time do you think this person would need to achieve this level. Considering that most of us will have only about one hour a day for language learning, perhaps 2 hours if we really try our best to find some time…

    Thank you for do all this encouraging work for all of us.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      “How much of a language do you think a person should learn?” Seventeen knots or 3.2 leagues. Not really sure how to answer a question like that :P
      But the best answer is do as much as you can and then use it as quickly as you can.
      I start to use a language immediately, after maybe 3 hours of study. I’d highly advise others to do so too because they’d otherwise get caught in the infinite “not ready let” loop.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I was leaning towards Medellín for when I go there, but you may have just changed my mind. Did you have any concerns regarding crime? I have heard that things are definitely worse in Cali in that regard than in Bogotá or Medellín.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I felt safe, but the difference is that I’ve spent over a year of my life in various parts of South America (including the much more dangerous city of Recife) and have learned how to be street-smart in certain places. Speaking the language convincingly enough makes me stand out a lot less – for example, I would absolutely refuse to speak English in the streets, especially near a loud looking American, to make sure I’m not drawing unnecessary attention to myself.

      Medellín is way more comfortable for those not used to having to pay attention so carefully about where they go and how they act. If you live in Patio Bonito in Medellín for example you can act pretty much as you would in an American or European city. Cali definitely doesn’t have this feel to it and because of that it’s much less touristed. While “less touristy” certainly sounds tempting for travellers, there is a price to pay for that.
      But things will improve. Medellín had Colombia’s reputation for being the druglord capital of the world just 20 years ago and now there is barely any sign of that. Medellín has armed police walking the streets everywhere and while it does feel weird at first, you feel safer because of that.

      It depends on what you need – comfort is important, but since my priority is the people I meet, it was worth going to poor parts of the city even with an expensive (pocket) camera to share my experiences. Medellín is so used to foreigners that nobody bats an eyelid anymore at you. That can be both good and bad depending on how you view it.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks!! :)

  • jay dee

    Hola Benny
    Great to see you loved Cali, I was there recently, loved it so much I have already booked for the salsa fair en Navidad, Deciembre. I am going to continue dancing so would really appreciate it if you could recommend a Salsa School or teacher. Thanks! Jay

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Jenny, my teacher works at son de luz I believe. She gives free group lessons to those staying at the main Youth Hostel in town, and I paid for the individual lessons then.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gabriel.k.anderson Gabriel Anderson

    Hey Benny! I’m planning a trip to Colombia this year (2013) and came across your blog… amazing stuff!

    For the past year I’ve been spending 3 weeks in a new location, and combining language skills w/ a practical (social) skill. Colombia is next on my list to learn Spanish and Salsa. I have a couple of questions (I was going to send you an email, but after reading your messaging rules, thought it would be better to post my questions here):

    1. What time of year would you recommend going? I’ll be staying in Medellin and Cali (Cali specifically for the salsa).

    2. How much would you recommend allocating for daily private salsa and spanish instructors?

    Thanks! I really enjoy your blog.
    Gabe

  • whocares

    if you want salsa the last week of December its La Feria de Cali

  • Eleanor

    Hey man, great post. I am an Australian, and was just in Cali. I also fell completely in love with it and salsa. I never thought I’d be able to pick up any dance, being an awkward, rigid gringa, but in Cali they have the best attitude – pick up a class if you like, but most of all just feel it! I’d love to go back.

    Anyway, super respect on being a foreigner and dancing salsa. It’s easy enough for me as a woman to dance salsa because I don’t have to lead. Good on you.