Day 136 – Every Day’s a Learning Day – Salsa and Spanish Lessons in Colombia

When I finished university finals I naively assumed that completing my formal education would mean I would never again need to study.

Just a few years later I realised an accountancy qualification would be a necessary evil if I was going to get the job I wanted. Sacrificing countless summer evenings and long weekends to sit in sweaty little classrooms was miserable, although the euphoria upon finishing each round of exams almost made the pain worthwhile.

Looking back, it wasn’t the studying per se that was the problem – it was the topic. I didn’t particularly want to be an accountant, and even when I understood my debits and credits I took very little pleasure from balancing balance sheets or building financial models.

Who’d have thought that by changing the topic to something you actually enjoy and want to be good at, studying gets a lot easier and maybe…even…fun?

Well, in recent weeks I have been an extremely diligent and well behaved little Spanish and salsa student, completing somewhere in the region of 25-30 hours of personal and group salsa lessons, and at least the same again in Spanish classes and homework time. Am I too old for a gold star?

Doing ‘home’ work while travelling is a bit of an oxymoron, the last thing you would expect from a fun-seeking backpacker, and really the last thing I expected from myself, but for the first time in years I have felt really engaged and motivated by studying.
Salsa Update 

My salsa quest started at DanceFree, a brilliant little dance studio in Medellin popular with both gringos and locals, who take cheap private lessons during the day before practicing their new skills at evening group classes. It’s a great model and the atmosphere at DanceFree is always fun and welcoming.

With mirrors everywhere the school was intimidating at first but after a couple of sessions my inhibitions were gone and I was bouncing around like an extra in Glee. Warm-ups for the group sessions tended to involve a lot of hip thrusting which I found very natural.

salsa lessons 1.jpg

My first instructor was Felix, an amazing dancer with a smile that could melt icebergs (I know what you’re thinking mum, but I’m still not gay). It helps to dance with both male and female instructors to understand both sides of the partnership.


The man always leads, so regardless of how many moves you have in theory, if the woman can’t read from your hands, body and face what it is you’re trying to do you’re more likely to give her a dislocated shoulder than a good time.

After learning various moves with Felix I tried them out on a number of female instructors with varying levels of success. I twisted a few arms into knots and got one of the smaller instructors into what could only be described as a headlock, but am pleased to report no hospitalizations thus far.


From dancing with teachers in what was effectively a controlled environment it was a huge step up to dancing with strangers, with much faster music, in actual salsa clubs. El Tibiri in Medellin was a baptism of fire; being surrounded by people who were salsa dancing in the womb is unnerving, but more often than not the locals are pleasantly surprised and impressed when you can pull out a few basic moves. Even Jonesy senior did well, despite his reluctance to be photographed.

Dad salsa

The etiquette in salsa clubs seems to be that if a man politely asks a woman to dance, she is generally expected to join him for a song. As a result you see all manner of unlikely partnerships on the dancefloor. A grandad spinning around a 21 year old is standard practice, and usually great to watch as the old boys can really dance.

I have grown to love the atmosphere in salsa clubs – the ‘asking a girl to dance’ thing is kind of formal and often feels a bit like a school disco, but there is also something very charming, traditional and classy about it. The regular switching of dance partners also helps to integrate different groups and makes for a really friendly environment.

While this post is by no means the end of my salsa journey I feel some evidence of my progress is required. While there are many videos of me dancing well with my teachers, I found out early that that doesn’t really prove anything.

The real test and what I had been building up to was my trip to Cali, often referred to as the world capital of salsa, where we visited La Topa Tolondra – a famous local club which has hosted many better dancers than I over the years.


While I don’t expect a signed photo of Oliver Jones will be going on their wall any time soon I did pretty well. A few nods of approval from surprised locals and smiles from dance partners was all the encouragement I needed.


It’s not really the done thing to take a video of yourself dancing in a salsa club, but thanks to a random Kiwi guy who was impressed with my moves I do have some grainy footage from a late night venue in Cali.

Starting off in the ‘Colombian style’ with lots of his-and-hers spins I throw in a couple of open breaks at the end. It’s lacking some flair but I think I managed to look the part for 45 seconds, mostly thanks to my partner. I’ll let you judge for yourselves…

Spanish Update

The 4 days of group Spanish classes I took in Madrid late last year were quite demoralizing, mostly because I didn’t try very hard. After some sporadic effort with Babbel and Duolingo (two mobile apps both worth a look if you want to learn a language on the cheap/free), I decided to give school another shot, 3 months later, signing up for a week-long immersion course in Medellin.

There are many language schools in Medellin but the approach at Blink is great for backpackers – it’s a hostel, restaurant, language school and even a launderette rolled into one, meaning you can get a week’s accommodation, two meals a day, 20 hours of group lessons, 2 hours of one-on-one classes and some clean underpants for under £200. It’s a pretty stellar deal and the teaching is great, with class sizes of 5 or less.

Speaking a foreign language is very rewarding when it goes well, and after finally learning all the main tenses (subjunctive aside) I have been able to have some proper conversations with locals. Just today I managed 45 minutes of almost continuous chat in a cab, covering the classic Colombian taxi driver discussion topics of politics, women and football. I was exhausted but pleased with myself on arrival.

Again there have been some lows to go with the highs. During my Spanish lessons in Medellin I inadvertently asked my teacher to ‘get me hard.’ That was entertaining, but just a few days ago I managed to upset a friend who was on her way to meet me by texting “I have forgotten you” (No me acuerdo de ti) when I meant to say “I don’t agree with you,” (no estoy acuerdo de ti), so much so that she turned around mid-journey and went home. No puedo gañar a todos.

The Three S’s

The things that unite my three S’s – learning Spanish, Salsa and Surfing – and possibly the learning of any new skill, are the need for perseverance and regular practice. The more waves that have landed on my head, the more times I have frozen on the dancefloor and the more locals I have confused or offended with my broken Spanish, the more I have learned. The bigger the fail, the more likely you are never to do it again.

Still, despite the many challenges and bumps in the road there have been far more ups than downs and I am delighted to be making some real progress, with hopefully a lot more to come.

Next Stop: Getting Spiritual – Salento, the Cocora Valley, and San Pedro

What is The Gump Method

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