Pole Positions

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Stephanie Mee’s two left feet take to the dance floors of Bali.

IT’S Monday night, and unlike most bars in town, this one is packed. People of all nationalities (admittedly more women than men), are laughing, flirting and dancing to upbeat Latin rhythms. As a slow, sultry song comes on, the men make the rounds of the room, picking out women to join them on the dance floor. A good-looking man catches my eye and heads my way. He’s clean-cut, dressed all in black, and has a body most women would throw themselves at in a second, but the only thing I can think is, “Shit. Don’t, pick me. Pick anyone but me”. He extends his hand and asks me to dance. “Sorry, but I don’t know how”, I say. “No problem. I’ll teach you”, he says. And thus begins another round of awkward movements, fumbled steps and mild humiliation on my part.

Welcome to Salsa night, a craze that has been sweeping through Bali like wildfire over the past few years. It’s easy to see why people are attracted to Salsa dancing. First of all, it’s an incredibly animated and dynamic form of dance. Simply watching the dancers move, seductively shaking their hips and twirling gracefully around the dance floor is entertaining in itself. Then there is the social aspect. Salsa is primarily a partner dance, so dancers have the opportunity to meet other enthusiasts and learn new moves by choosing different partners. As long as you know the basic steps, you can dance to pretty much any song that comes on, with any partner you can find. Unless, of course, you have two left feet and cannot carry a beat to save your life. Like me.

Salsa has it’s roots in Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, although the style has been influenced by many different cultures and traditions. When the French fled Haiti, they brought the Danzon Contra (country dance) to Cuba, which then mixed with African rhumbas, and the Cuban Son. As Afro-Cuban and Latin music evolved, so too did Salsa, and it eventually spread throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States, taking on different forms in each place. At the heart of the dance is the music – which might be a mix of different styles, including rhumba, guaracha, mambo, cha cha cha, bomba and merengue, but the basic dance steps always follow the beat of the wooden claves in a pattern of six steps per eight beats of music.

In an effort to join the ranks of the rhythmically gifted, I enlist the help of Made Alfa, dance instructor extraordinaire, and one of the first people to bring salsa dancing to Bali.

“There are many different styles of Salsa,” Made says.

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“The most popular is the Cuban casino style, but other styles include the Colombian Cali, New York, Miami and Los Angeles styles. Let’s start with the Cuban style.”

Made walks me through the basic Mambo steps, which seem simple enough at first. The woman starts by stepping back with the right foot on the first beat, as the man steps forward with his left foot. The dancers alternate feet for eight beats, pausing on the fourth and eighth beats and stepping in place. Already I’ve screwed up. I keep wanting to step forward on the pauses, and I quickly lose the rhythm. Fortunately, Made has the patience of a saint.

“You have to feel the rhythm in Salsa dancing,” Made says.

“You need to feel the music to be able to dance. You learn the steps to follow the pattern, but after that, it’s all about the music.”

Fortunately for me, the man leads in salsa, so I let Made guide me as best he can. Salsa is all about reading your partner and following subtle cues for when to spin, side-step and shake what you’ve got.

The name Salsa came from Cuban composer Ignacio Pinerio’s song Echale Salsita. He coined the term as a protest against what he considered bland food that lacked Cuban spices. The word quickly caught on, and people began to use the term for any type of Latin music that you could dance to. Just like Latin food, Salsa is meant to be fiery, vibrant and bold. Unlike the subtle and elegant movements of Balinese dance, Salsa is in your face, interactive, and fast-paced.

“When I learned Salsa in 2001, no one else in Bali was doing it,” Made says.

“I was working at the Intercon Hotel, and the owner there liked Latin music, so he wanted to start up Salsa nights and have the staff perform Salsa and teach the guests.

“In the beginning it was difficult, because we only had a video to learn from.

“It took about six months to get the hang of it.”

Since then, Made has become one of the forerunners in the Salsa scene in Bali. Over the years, he has taught hundreds of dancers and watched the scene grow from just a few enthusiasts to entire nightclubs packed with dancers in Seminyak, Sanur and Ubud. He is also one of the main organisers of the Bali Salsa Festival, an annual event that takes place in Kuta every March.

“Most students are expats, and mainly women, but now I’m seeing more and more Balinese people joining the classes,” he says.

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“In Seminyak especially, more men want to learn salsa. Maybe they have girlfriends who dance, or maybe they see people doing it in the clubs and they want to try.

”This is good news for the ladies, as men are few and far between at Salsa nights in Bali. Usually, there are just two professional male dancers at the events, and a slew of women waiting in line for a chance to dance. Some women even pool their resources to hire a male dancer for the evening, and patiently wait their turn for a spin on the dance floor.”

Made says in Sydney there are a lot of men dancing Salsa; many more compared to Bali.

“Maybe we need to look there for inspiration and market Salsa as a masculine dance.”

He says that Salsa will continue to be popular in Bali and abroad, but that: “You can never predict what will catch on. Global trends in dance are always changing. For example, right now, Zoop from Brazil is quite popular, as is Bachata from the Dominican Republic. I’m not the type of guy who just sticks to one form of dance, but Salsa is my favorite.”

With Made’s handy hints, and the Salsa steps fresh in my mind, I hit another Salsa night, determined to use my newly gained knowledge to rip up the dance floor. My first request to dance is from an elderly Canadian man who looks like he knows what he’s doing. As the music starts, I silently count the beats in my head, “1, 2, 3, pause, 5, 6, 7, pause. As I focus all my attention on my feet, I’m pleased to see that they are actually following the rhythm. Maybe I can actually do this.

“You’re too stiff!”, says my dance partner. “You’ve got to move your hips! Feel the rhythm. It’s like I’m dancing with a wooden board!” I try to take his advice, but my mind gets muddled trying to keep in step, follow the music, and shake my hips at the same time. I fall completely and hopelessly off beat. “Well, maybe you should take a lesson”, says my dance partner kindly. Pfft – I give up.

PARCELING my wounded pride up into a tight little ball, and shoving it back into the recesses of my mind, I decide to move on to something new. Maybe what I need is something a little more liberating, something that will build my confidence and maybe something with a bit of sex appeal. Pole dancing seems like it will fit the bill nicely.

Just a few months ago, Natalie Kashani opened the first pole dancing studio in Indonesia.

“I knew that it was somewhat of a daring move to open a pole dancing studio in Indonesia, because pole dancing is notorious for being a very sexy form of dance,” she says.

“However, it’s also very athletic and gymnastic – a great way to get fit and build self-confidence, and an art form in itself. I thought that people might be hesitant to try it at first, but the response has been great, and everyone who tries it seems to love it.”

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Although pole dancing may be better known as an exotic dance that takes place mainly in cabarets and strip clubs, the art form originally began as a form of acrobatics that can be traced back to Asia over 2,000 years ago. The Indian mallakhamb is a centuries-old traditional sport where gymnasts (primarily men) perform mesmerising moves on a wooden pole or a rope. China too has a long-running pole tradition that dates back to the 12th century.

Reserved for male circus professionals, performers climb, slide, hold poses, flip and jump off the pole, very much like today’s Cirque du Soleil performers do.

During the 1980s, pole dancing began to appear in strip clubs in North America, which is where it gained its less than salubrious reputation. However, the fitness benefits of pole dancing soon caught on with the mainstream. In 1994, Fawnia Dietrich opened the first pole dancing school, where people could learn the art form in a safe and supportive environment.

People took to the pole immediately for its ability to build strength, increase flexibility and test endurance. Today, there are many amateur and professional pole dancing competitions around the world, and the International Pole Dancing Federation is pushing to have competitive pole dancing included in the 2016 Olympics.

Natalie has only a few rules when it comes to her pole dancing classes. First of all, participants must wear short shorts and tight shirts. It may sound like a bizarre guideline designed with aesthetics in mind, but it is actually safer to have more skin exposed in a pole dancing class, as it prevents slipping. Which leads to the next rule; no lotions, oils or sunblock and no jewelry. Natalie’s final rule is no judgement of any kind, including being hard on yourself.

“I try to create a totally non-judgemental environment here,” she says.

“So many of us live in our heads, and students always want to look in the mirror to see the moves. I encourage people to delete the internal dialogue and stop worrying about how it looks. Just move and feel the music. You don’t have to be sexy or outgoing to do this, in fact, everything comes from within, and that’s what I try to inspire in my students.”

After just one session at The Art of Body, it is clear that pole dancing is so much more than just a sexy dance. Natalie starts the class with a warm-up session with lively music, and instructs the students (two girls and one guy) to hold onto their poles and roll the shoulders and neck, bend the knees and circle the hips. To get into the groove, students move around their poles using big steps, stopping every so often to bend at the waist, and undulate back up the pole. Seems easy enough. But that’s just the beginning.

The first move involves grabbing the pole with both hands, walking around the pole to build up momentum, and then lifting the legs off the ground and swinging the body around the pole. This requires serious upper arm and core strength, something my daily regimen of sitting in front of the computer and occasionally going out to practice some beer-lifting bicep curls has definitely not prepared me for. Luckily, I’ve decided to sit this one out.

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The next move is even more challenging, as it requires students to grab the pole above the head, swing the legs around and up into the air in a fan kick, and bring the body around to the other side of the pole. Those with a knack for it make it look graceful, but the move is actually incredibly difficult.

“I really encourage beginners to start with the fundamental classes and the workshops,” Natalie says.

“This is where you can learn the basics, simple things like how to walk around the pole, and pole safety. The Level Two and Polenastics classes are more for people who already have experience pole dancing or who come from an athletics or gymnastics background.”

The majority of the classes here are made up of women, especially those looking for something different than simply lifting weights or doing cardio. Many are also looking for a confidence boost, and a way to tap into their sexuality.

Natalie says: “I see all types of people joining the classes, from confident 70-year-old women to shy 18-year-olds who have never had a boyfriend before. The most beautiful thing is seeing these women of all ages and backgrounds come together and celebrate their sensuality. ”

As for men, Natalie has no problem with men joining in, as long as they truly want to learn.

“Sure, I’ve had random guys call up and ask to hire some of our ‘girls’ or ask to watch a class, but that’s not what we’re about. I never let outside people watch the classes, and, so far, I haven’t had any problems with the people in the class. We’re open to anybody of age who wants to try pole dancing for the right reasons.”

Pole dancing is definitely not easy, but it helps that the classes are laid-back and designed so that students can progress at their own pace. There is a lot of laughter, and by the end of the class, even the students who started out with awkward, clunky, moves seem to be getting into the groove and executing seductive steps and spins in time with the music.

As renowned modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said: “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.”

As I’ve come to learn, dancing is not only about rhythm, confidence and sex appeal, but also about loving what you do. Will I ever be a star Salsa dancer or win a pole dancing competition? Not bloody likely. But for those who truly enjoy dancing, it’s not about being the best. It’s about getting out there and expressing yourself through movement.

As for me, I think I’ll stick to words.

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