Move to the Rhythm of Your Heartbeat
Salsa dancing--along with being fun--can elevate pulse and burn calories. It's a great way to get an aerobic workout.
By HILARY E. MacGREGOR
Times Staff Writer
SANTA MONICA -- I arrived early, and already there was a crowd waiting
at the door. Minutes later, more than a hundred of us packed into the basement
Boathouse in Santa Monica, tentatively swinging our hips to the swaying tropical rhythms.
Our salsa teacher, Raoul Santiago, stood on the stage in wool pants,
a crisp white T-shirt and a New York Yankee cap. He was teaching us to
move our feet, hips,
knees to the beat--and to smile seductively into our partners' eyes.
"Enjoy your partner," he called out over the recorded congas and timbales. "Enjoy the music."
I've climbed the StairMaster and plodded miles through the asphalt of
the urban jungle. But sometimes, as I work through my daily exercise routine,
I wonder: Does
good exercise have to be painful? Or so boring?
Anyone who's ever done a lot of dancing knows what a great workout it
can be. And I was there as much for the exercise as the fun of it--maybe
more. Though I'm
no salsa queen (I'm an advanced beginner who can follow a good lead), a fast merengue can leave me breathless and sweaty.
Salsa is a variation of mambo, with its roots in Afro-Cuban and Puerto
Rican music and dancing. Merengue, a simple dance composed of side steps,
is the dance of
the Dominican Republic. Cha-cha is similar but involves triple steps (hence the term cha-cha-cha). Most clubs play some mix of the dances.
On this Sunday afternoon at the Boathouse there were people of every
age, race and walk of life. There were girls dressed to the nines, in teetering
pointy heels with
ankle straps and slinky skirts. There were men in old jeans and sneakers. Most people wore outfits with a beachy feel: loose Hawaiian shirts, tank tops and clothes
cool for dancing.
No one keeps data on how many Americans dance salsa, but the numbers
are clearly rising, says Albert Torres, a 45-year-old Puerto Rican from
New York who
has organized some of the most spectacular salsa gigs in Southern California. After long lingering in the shadows of New York's vibrant Latin nightlife, Torres says,
Los Angeles is finally claiming a spot at the center of the salsa universe. "L.A. is becoming the mecca, for various reasons," said Torres, who promotes salsa at three
clubs in Los Angeles, including the Boathouse. "New York is the capital. But even New Yorkers believe the baton is being passed to Los Angeles."
For those primarily seeking exercise, the casual atmosphere of the Boathouse
is an advantage over chic salsa nightclubs such as the Conga Room or the
where patrons are slick, glammed out and hip. Assembling the proper wardrobe can make salsa an expensive hobby.
I wore jeans, leather boots (to protect my toes from beginning salseros
like myself) and a fitted top. Under my get-up was an unusual accessory:
The first hour was the class, which involved lots of starting and stopping.
It was difficult to really pump up my heart rate. When the class ended,
I set out to get a
workout. Whatever they are like off the dance floor, men who take up salsa tend to comport themselves in the spirit of the dance, which requires at least the pretense
of machismo. That means that generally men ask women to dance--as well as take the lead on the dance floor. With my mission to keep moving, though, I had to be
a little aggressive. I propped myself at the edge of the dance floor and shot out those seductive looks I had just learned in class. (Some salsa skills are highly
The music never stopped. That meant you could dance until you dropped,
or as long as you could find willing dance partners. Some partners require
than others. Some are so smooth and fluid that dancing with them feels effortless. Others are so flashy and bold, spinning and dipping you that they leave you
My first partner was a competent and friendly beginner like myself.
We missed a few turns and giggled awkwardly when we fell off the beat,
but my heart rate hit
135, suggesting that this was starting to be real exercise Then I danced with Raoul, our teacher and dancer on the competitive salsa circuit. The experience of dancing
with a great partner is, in itself, enough to make one's heart rate shoot through the roof. He spun himself, spun me, danced with a pole, flirted with the women around
us, flirted with me. My heart rate rocketed to 150. When the dance ended, I was panting, lightheaded from spinning but very happy.
Trickles of sweat dribbled down my temples. But here in the Boathouse
basement, with syncopated rhythms of the Caribbean throbbing through your
skin, sweat is
not something to be concealed but celebrated.
Lured by the music, crowds of beachgoers lined up outside the open windows--a collage of faces checking out the dancers.
As my heart rate steadily climbed, my partners' moves got racier. One
partner, a guy with a pony tail and chiseled features, put on a show for
the crowd outside,
spinning me, dipping me, and leading me through moves so openly erotic I would have blushed if I'd had time to think. I didn't.
During breaks, (I generally danced three dances, then rested one) I
dashed for water and gulped it down like a marathoner at a roadside stand.
I checked my vital
statistics. My heart rate averaged 116, and I had burned 481 calories in two hours of dancing. My less-exciting three-mile run round the Silver Lake reservoir burns
212 calories in 25 minutes.
Later, I learned that the aerobic benefits of salsa are no secret. Laura
Canellias, who teaches a Cardio Salsa class on Saturday mornings at 3rd
Street Dance near the
Beverly Center, takes beginning Latin dance moves and incorporates a few athletic maneuvers--arm circles during salsa side breaks, leg lifts in the merengue and
lunges in the cha-cha. At the Boathouse, I ran into an old friend who confessed to a serious salsa addiction that took her out dancing several times a week. I told her
what I was doing. She was not surprised.
"I ran a marathon in December, and I haven't done anything but salsa since," she said (and she looked very svelte). "I haven't gained a pound."
I wanted to talk more, but I was hungry and had to get fuel.
_ _ _
As part of Health's expanded coverage of fitness, this new twice-monthly
column, Fitness Bound, will offer a personal perspective on the varied
fitness and outdoor pursuits throughout Southern California. Next time: road biking with a pro.
Hilary MacGregor can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.