Bare Feet dance tours teach you to salsa, bomba across San Juan

Salsa and bomba stir movement and emotion on a tour of Puerto Rico's sultry capital city.
Published October 17 2013

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico

Among the things I try to avoid: dancing in public.

But I was in Puerto Rico, more than a thousand miles from home, so this salsa lesson didn't count.

For many travelers, vacation affords us an opportunity to try things we would never do in our "real" life — which is how I found myself in the San Juan Marriott's Red Coral Lounge, standing in a line of tourists who'd signed on for a private lesson with Rafael "Rafa" Cancel, an environmental-lawyer-turned-salsa-guru whose weekly classes attract 1,400 people to San Juan's coliseum.

Rafa started with the basics: "Back, middle, forward, middle," he coached us without music. After a half-hour of this, he declared, "And now you're ready for salsa." He cued up his MP3 player and took a turn dancing with each of us.

Rafa said, "To me, the best dancer is the one who smiles the most."

In that case, maybe I had a shot. After all, I was in Puerto Rico — the land of sexy music, frogs that sing through the night and the Bacardi distillery tour with its generous rum samples. I had plenty to smile about.

The 'essence' of experience

Unlike me, Mickela Mallozzi is not afraid to dance in public. Since college, the classically trained dancer has been traveling the world, learning to dance like the locals wherever she goes. Last year, she began documenting her dance adventures as "Bare Feet," a Web video series with the tagline "experiencing the world, one dance at a time."

"It's the essence of what experiential travel is about," said Mallozzi, 31, of Brooklyn, N.Y. "I remember a place by the way my body felt when I was there."

Mallozzi recently launched Bare Feet Tours, allowing other travelers to literally follow in her footsteps. She chose San Juan for the inaugural trip in part because of its accessibility to American travelers. Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, so U.S. citizens don't need a passport to visit. English and Spanish are both official languages, and the currency is the U.S. dollar.

The host hotel for Bare Feet San Juan is the San Juan Marriott Resort, a beachfront property with plenty of modern amenities, a great restaurant, a casino and a Starbucks directly across the street.

Nonverbal cues

I could have used an ice-cold Frappuccino on the afternoon we visited Margarita "Tata" Cepeda's dance school, a sweltering open-air studio in picturesque Old San Juan.

Tata is dance royalty. She's the granddaughter of Rafael Cepeda, who popularized the Afro-Puerto Rican style of call-and-response dancing and drumming called bomba.

Tata tied us into long, heavy bomba skirts. She explained how slave women would raise, wrap and shake the garments to covertly communicate emotions.

The skirts were hot, but Tata's moves were hotter. Backed on barrel-shaped hand drums by her teenage twins, nephew and a family friend, the 51-year-old grandmother held court, waving her skirt, bouncing her shoulders and proving her assertion that in bomba, it's the dancer who dictates what the drummers do — not the other way around.

"This is not choreography," Tata said. "This is an improvisation every single moment."

Cutting loose

On a ski trip, you start out on the bunny slope and work your way to the black diamond. On our dance vacation, we went from counting steps with Rafa to standing in the middle of Red Line Bar surrounded by locals who twirled and swiveled their hips to the music of DJ Guario.

"This is serious stuff," noted one of my companions, as we made a beeline for the back wall.

Then it happened. A guy in a neon green shirt asked me to dance. I was too dumbfounded — or just plain dumb — to turn him down.

"I'm not good," I said automatically, as I allowed myself to be led to the dance floor.

"It doesn't matter," said my dance partner — Yamil was his name. "All that matters is that you're having fun."

I conceded, "It is fun ..."

Yamil led me through a few turns and pretended not to notice when I mouthed the mantra I had learned from Rafa days earlier: "Back, middle, forward, middle."

After Yamil came Luis, Placido and Ivan. By the end of the night, I had danced six songs, stepped on some toes, accidentally poked one guy in the eye and even held my own with Edwin, a deaf man who had no choice but to follow my lead.

More importantly, I had learned to let loose. If what Rafa had said was true, and the best dancer was the one who smiled the most, then on that night — vacation or not — I wanted this to count.

Dalia Colón is a multimedia journalist in Brandon. Her website is