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Lissa Coffey Headshot

Life Lessons Learned From Salsa

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Summer 2014 will go down in my personal history as the "Summer of Salsa!" I've spent the past seven weeks going from 0 to 60 in learning this particular style of Latin dance, and I've loved every minute of it!

This all came about because of the Oxnard Salsa Festival, held every year near my hometown. As a part of the festivities, they hold a "Dancing With the Community Stars" Salsa competition. Community "stars" are matched up with seasoned professional dancers and then the pair comes up with a dance routine to perform at the Festival. All of this helps local charities raise money as the charities campaign for their stars through the various events. Of course, when I found out about this, I loved the idea, and was thrilled to take up the challenge! So I'm dancing for my favorite nonprofit organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ventura County.

My partner, Lovie Hernandez, has years of experience and his own studio in Santa Paula. Before meeting him I had never danced a step of Salsa in my life -- wouldn't even know where to start. The two of us hit it off quickly as we were faced with the same goal: get this girl dancing and win the contest!

With Lovie's background and teaching experience, I knew that, despite my awkwardness, that somehow he'd get me to looking at least a little bit like a Salsa dancer. But what I didn't know is that Lovie would become my own personal Yoda, sharing with me the wisdom of the Salsa philosophy. While I learned to dance, what surprised me is how much I learned about life through this whole experience. Over the course of our time together I got some great takeaways and I want to share them with you.

-- Mix it up. Salsa dancing is actually a mix of different styles from different countries. That's how it got its name, after the famous spicy salsa dip that's made out of a mix of different ingredients. Mixing things up to create something new is a good thing! The combination as a whole can be absolutely amazing. Life is like that. We don't always have to stick to a formula, we can try things out to see what we like, what works. Whether it's adding new elements to a recipe or a dance or anything, we can always be unique in our self-expression.

-- Dancing is communication without words. Lovie says this over and over again. And it's absolutely true! The body is an instrument, and partners can tell when either one is nervous, unsure, tired, or distracted. You don't have to say a word, it comes through in the way you move. Relationships are like that, too. We learn to read our partners such that a sigh or the twitch of an eyebrow speaks volumes. We go through a dance with everyone we meet, but those who really know us can sense when something is amiss. The body just doesn't lie.

-- Take your time. Every one of us is going to have our own pace. We can't compare ourselves to other dancers, or other people. We need to be patient, and gentle with ourselves. Just do your best and trust in the process. When we keep going, we eventually get there. There are many paths to any destination. Once I took Lovie's advice and was easier on myself, I could enjoy the dance so much more.

-- Be in the moment. Choreography is like following a map. You know where you're going, but you can't focus on that end goal, you have to be present for every step along the way. If you race ahead, or have your head in the next move rather than the current move, the whole thing is going to fall apart. Not that you can't recover! A good partner, like Lovie, can help you get back on track. We don't even realize how much we're missing out on in life when we're not paying attention. Be mindful, pay attention, and you'll be surprised at what you can do.

-- Trust your partner. I knew I could trust Lovie from the first moment I met him. We were posing for a photo, and he asked me if we should do a dip. I gave an enthusiastic "yes!" and he proceeded to turn me heels over head. Literally. What fun! I knew that Lovie was strong, and would not let me fall no matter what. When Lovie says "look at me" during our dance, it's a reminder to me to "spot" so that I don't get dizzy. At the same time, it's a reminder to me that we're a team in this thing, and he's got my back.

-- Keep your eye on the prize. From the very beginning, our motto has been that we are "in it to win it!" And it's definitely been our goal to win this competition and make as big a splash as possible for Big Brothers Big Sisters. I hope we do win, but I know that all of the other dancers have also put in their work and want to win as well! Now that I've been through all this training, spent so much time, sweat, and energy working on this dance, I realize that I already have gained much more than any win. The real prize is the new-found knowledge and skills that I now have. The real prize is all the wonderful people I've met who have share my enthusiasm. The real prize is my terrific new friend, a dancer and philosopher who has taught me so much.

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