11/04/2014 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cuba: One Woman's Transformational Journey


Have you ever been to Cuba?

It is a wild, hot, and SEXY place. The energy writhes off the pavement, like waves of heat. Young girls the age of 10 walk with more sass and sensuality than most grown women, the streets alive with young men playing football as if they were on center field at the World Cup.

Passion, passion, and more passion.


Walking down Neptuno one sultry September evening as the sunlight turned pink-orange in the sky, light hitting the deep black asphalt in skids of bright yellows and oranges, I heard a loud whistle (something Cubans are notorious for in seeking your attention) come from across the street. A fitness gym sat in that spot.

As I sauntered past, feeling warm and relaxed, I could hear the hum of large fans working furiously inside the dimly lit gym. Several people stood outside taking a breath of fresh, 1950's, Cadillac filled air on this warm, September evening.

One man caught my eye. Huge, hulking, muscles bulging out of his skin. I had never seen a man quite like him, nor have men who looked like this paid much attention to me in America. Cuba is a different place I had come to discover.

As he caught my eye, he brought his right hand up to his mouth, fingers brought together at his pursed lips, and he sent me a huge kiss, as if I was the most delicious thing he had ever seen.

"Wow," I thought, with a smile of gratitude and slight embarrassment at his public display of appreciation. A feeling of warmth, as well as some disbelief, poured through my body.

"Is this guy talking to me?" I thought.

Laughing to myself, I turned around and kept walking, feeling a sense of appreciation I had not experienced in a long time.


The first dance class I took in Cuba was a momentous occasion. I had NO IDEA what I was in for. As a Salsera (a salsa dancer) for over 11 years, at the time, I thought, "Oh, I know this dance!"

Yulian was my first Cuban dance partner. He was more like a Soul Brother: tall, gorgeous, chocolate brown skin, so loving. He treated me like a sister. He must have said, "Ahi nama" over 100 times while we danced together during those amazing two weeks. I loved his sent: clean and fresh, and he wore a towel around his neck to catch the sweat dripping off his body.

It was hot.

We danced around the floor, Yulian giving me slight instructions on the steps and movements. When I would really get it, he would say, "Ahi nama," which quickly became one of my favorite Cuban phrases, so sweet, sexy, and a beautiful form of acknowledgment (ahi-nama is Cuban slang meaning "here it is/ this is it" - with the suggestion of having reached the best or ultimate. Probably originally from spanish "aqui nada mas".) .

When I first danced with the head instructor of our group, Lazaro, I remembered feeling SO alive. We were whirling around the dance floor and I felt like nothing could stop us. Everyone was watching. Upon asking him to dance that night he replied, "This song is fast!" in his Cuban accented English. I looked at him like, "Yah, so let's go!"

Whirling and twirling, he had me moving across the large, muted, teal green and beige tiled floor. Really putting on a show, feeling so good, I had an attitude of: "See, look, I can dance with the pro. I'm good at this. Watch me now!"

When the dance was over, we were breathless. He gave me a smile and a light hug as we parted ways off of the dance floor.


During one of our last dance classes, another instructor was explaining to me that the styling I did while dancing was throwing him off on the timing of the dance. He was speaking in Spanish and I didn't completely understand him. Feeling frustrated with still "not feeling like I was getting it right" and not understanding what I was doing "wrong", I huffed and puffed, walking away to take a break.

At the end of class Lazaro and I sat next to each other on the faux leather couch. Asking him more questions, I was trying to understand the technical feedback several lead dancers had given me over the past two weeks in Cuba.

Doing his best to explain himself honestly and respectfully, he said, "You look so good when you are dancing. People want to dance with you. But when they do, they will be disappointed because you are very difficult to dance with."

My heart dropped.

"Did you feel this way when we danced together (that first night)?" I asked him, both reluctant and wanting to know the truth.

"Yes I did," he replied softly.


I leaned over to my right and looked away in disbelief. How could I have thought that dance we had was so much fun and he was experiencing something so different?

I sat back up and covered my face, hot tears bursting from my eyes as I struggled to hold back the emotion of years of "trying" to do it "right".

I felt devastated.

"Look at me," he said. "Sarah?"

I dropped my hands and looked him in the eye, listening to what he had to say.

"You are like a wild stallion. You need to be tamed and I want to tame you."


A week prior during dance class, Lazaro said some words to me that broke through a barrier: "Sarah, you look so good when you are dancing that everyone will want to dance with you, but when they do, they won't want to dance with you again because they don't feel that connection with you. We are Cuban men, we like to feel that connection."

I got it. "You style too much," was a familiar sentiment I had heard over the years. (Styling is adding flavor to the basic steps and body movements of dancing.) And you know what, I did. I styled so much while dancing, and the fact that this instructor had the guts to say something to me brought about one of the major breakthroughs I had while studying in Cuba: I styled so much to prove myself, "See, look, I can do it."

Being the sexiest, biggest, cleanest, most creative, original dancer was a constant goal I strove to achieve. I completely lost touch with my own authentic, soulful expression. I was trying so hard to prove myself and to be acknowledged as a great dancer that I was affecting how and who I danced with. I got away from the purity of el baile (the dance).

So here I was, teaching my students to "feel it in your body" and "connect with yourself, your partner, and the music on the dance floor," and I was missing an integral part of this equation: to open up and become vulnerable enough to connect with my dance partners on the dance floor.

The truth was, it was far and few between that I was really connecting with my partner.
I felt scared. All the styling was like a smoke screen that ultimately put a wedge in between my true self and the person I was dancing with. It also affected the way I danced and connected with others while dancing.

It was hard for me to imagine that even some of the most amazing dances of my life were possibly not what they seemed to the other dancer. They were great to me, but how did the other person feel?

This brought me to some crucial questions: Who was I without all this styling? Who was the real Sarah on and off the dance floor?

I remember standing in my friend's room in Cuba crying my eyes out as the realization of this awareness hit me full throttle. It was like peeling back the layers of large colorful paper: each one revealing another layer of color and depth underneath it.

I felt sad, embarrassed. I felt compassion for myself. I never realized why I had done all this styling while dancing and now I started to see the light.

It was all about proving myself because, to a part of me, when I had others approval, somehow this meant that I was loved.

New Beginnings

Lazaro kept saying, "You need to completely relax so that you can receive the energy the leader is giving you so that you can follow his lead."

Three days before I left Cuba, I got it.

As we danced the basic steps around the floor, I started to feel the sensation that my relaxation offered him as the leader. When I relaxed, my arm became a receptacle to receive the energy he wanted and needed to give me so that I could follow his lead. In following his lead, I was giving him my energy, my presence. We were connecting and I could see the response as a wide grinned smile spread across his face.

It was easy and effortless. When I relaxed, I became more present and had more fun, and by the looks of it, so did he.

What is one profound transformation you've experienced while traveling?

Tell us your stories below in the comments section. I want to hear!

With Deep Gratitude,

Sarah Haykel