“Para bailar la cumbia tica…”
Written by Crystal Powell – University of Nevada, Reno student studying in Heredia, Costa Rica – Spring 2015.
“Costa Ricans like to jump a lot,” I thought, slipping atop the linoleum in my three-inch salsa heels. You know, the ones that smell like unwashed shin guards and whose suede soles I’ve worn down to oblivion. My classmates looked more stable and confident in their sneakers behind me.
I stared at my instructor, Carlitos Oviedo, for hints. I noticed he wore sneakers too.
“Cambia!” he shouted, pivoting from one foot to the other and bouncing the newly free one over it. I boing-ed along, trying not to impale my standing foot with my flying heel.
This was a Costa Rican cumbia.
I’d performed Latin dances for a year before studying in Heredia with USAC. I knew them all: Salsa. Cumbia. Merengue. Bachata. Even the stranger, two-step kizomba that was basically frontal grinding in disguise. I’d expected the elective, “Dances of Latin America” class to repeat them.
It would be an easy A. An exercise class I could earn credits for.
My Tico dance partner from home, Gerzon Chaves, had even given me tips before I left.
“Costa Ricans really like to dance cumbia!” He shouted at me over the loud speaker. We were dancing—dancing cumbia—inside Bodega Nightclub, a shady, concrete warehouse known in my hometown for playing deafening hip-hop and rap. A mutual friend was deejaying Sonora Dinamita from the mixer onstage.
“Well, at least it’s not merengue!” I shouted back.
He said nothing. I want to say he laughed; we’d both performed on salsa teams, a dance we agreed was the most complicated and the most fun. It’s all 8-counts, speed, spins and progressive steps (which is jargon for saying one foot pushes the opposite foot forward during foot-to-foot weight shifts). Each beat is more entertaining than the last, blowing away the simple repetitive, two-step pitter-patter merengue. And it’s sexy: watch the romantic dramedy “Dance With Me” on Netflix when you get the chance. You’ll see what I mean (His name is Chayanne, and he’s the Adonis of Puerto Rican pop music).
But anyways, I don’t remember what else Gerzon said.
What I do remember is him clutching my hand in his fist and holding it halfway between our bodies like the beginning of a bro-shake. Then he bounced his right foot back and forth underneath them, nudging me to follow.
I felt like a pogo-stick on replay, struggling to keep the step smooth. He laughed and told me he was impressed I could do it in hiking boots (Remember: we were in a hip-hop club). I assumed dancing it in Costa Rica with proper shoes would be easier. Maybe I’d even impress my instructor.
The move wasn’t any easier in heels.
“I think this Costa Rican cumbia is different from the cumbia I know,” I told Carlitos during the class water break. “I’ve been told it comes out of Mexico City.”
“Yeah, there are different styles for different regions,” he stated, giving me a look that said, “Duh.”
So much for impressing the Tico dance instructor.
“So what’s this then?” I asked.
I demonstrated the cumbia I knew, crossing my right foot behind the left, moving the left to the side and repeating the sequence in the opposite direction, like a side-to-side Grapevine.
“That’s swing criollo,”Carlitos said, condensing months of practice and swollen feet into a name I’d never heard before.
“Oh.” I said. “I didn’t know that.”
Suddenly I felt very, very naked. And very stupid: I had told my classmates I was a dancer walking to class earlier that day. In a loud voice and with a big smile on my face:
“Finally I get to dance! It’s been two weeks and I’m going nuts!
“I danced with a dance company called Gozalo last spring. It means “Enjoy it!
“We performed choreography with the number one salsa company in the world, Alma Latina. They’re based out of Tijuana.
“But I’m just average: I’ve been told Costa Rican cumbia is a totally different animal.”
Combine that with the splits I threw during stretches: I looked like a know-it-all show-off. Which I have been guilty of before. And here I was, completely out of my element.
It felt like a fair consequence.
I stood in the front row the rest of the hour, staring at Carlitos’s feet hard enough to burn holes through them. Every dance I thought I knew was tweaked: bachata pointed the toe when we popped our hips. Salsa added a tap where the weight shift should have been and moved in a circle like cumbia. Cumbia bounced our legs out from under our shoulders, so we looked like splayed-open Running Men. And our thighs in merengue rubbed really close together with our partners’. Like thisclose.
Tico dancing was a whole different language. One I only thought I knew.
I tip-toed humbly to my water bottle when Carlitos turned the music off. The other students were congregated together, new dancers with whom I’d created a rift with my big mouth and tall shoes. I looked at Carlitos, gaging if I could follow him when we went to Tipico Latino, a local club, in four weeks for practice.
His boyish face made the thought more intimidating.
“Can you please show me how to move like you do?” Asked a female voice.
I turned to look at Jaime, a tall, smiling blonde from North Dakota. She was sincerity incarnate. I’d liked her when I met her.
I looked back at Carlitos. And then back at her.
Have two left feet? Set off to Heredia, Costa Rica and learn traditional local dance from some of the best!
– USAC –