When I’m putting together a playlist for a dance class, I get into. Way into it. For me, music is the whole point of dancing. Or dancing is the whole point of music? It’s hard to say, but I know that if I’m not in love with a song, I won’t use it in class.
I can’t get excited about moving to a piece of music that I’m lukewarm about. It’s the way you can’t get quite as amped about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread as you can about a gourmet three-cheese grilled cheese on homemade ciabatta.
I always feel like the guy in Slumdog Millionaire (and not just because sometimes I use “Jai Ho”)—you know how he had a story for why he knew the answer to all of the trivia questions? All the songs I use in my classes mean something to me—every single song has a story behind it.
Here are some stories culled from one of my recent “Baila Barre” playlists:
Gloria Estefan was my first introduction to Latin music. My mom used to play “Conga” by Gloria Estefan and I would actually jump out of bed and start running around the house and dancing. Something about Gloria’s smoky voice and use of Latin rhythms plus '80s synthesizers just spoke to my soul. I have mixed opinions about Pitbull, but I do admit (somewhat ashamedly) that I understand all of his dirty muttering in Spanish sometimes better than I do beautiful poetry in Spanish in other artists’ songs. Whatever, I know all the useful words.
Qva Libre is a Cuban band that has this crazy fun blend of salsa/hip-hop/funk/rock/pop/ that I saw perform a handful of times when I was traveling in Cuba. The first time I saw them perform was at a government-run music venue in Havana. Can you even imagine a government run club in America? I don’t want to try to, but the venue—and Qva Libre—were a blast.
My whole Salsa dancing journey in Charleston began with DJ Luigi of Latin Groove at Southend Brewery on Thursday nights, a party that is still going strong. I remember hearing this song, a Salsa-fied version of the Pink Panther theme song, at a Latin night with Luigi one time and just having to stand there and watch the music video in awe. I LOVE The Pink Panther. I had a Pink Panther-themed murder mystery party when I was a freshman in high school, and it was every bit as awesome as it sounds. Note that when I say The Pink Panther, I mean the original with Peter Sellers. God bless Steve Martin, but his Clouseau was lacking.
Everyone has their “thing,” and I have a thing for Latin remixes of early 2000s pop songs. I can’t help it! I just think they are hilarious and awesome. I first heard this mix in a Zumba class with instructor Lisa Brown—my fitness instructor role model—in Daphne, Alabama. She packed out a roller-skating rink with 100+ people several times a week with her Zumba classes, and she was always a huge inspiration for me.
I’m honestly not sure how I came across this song originally, but it’s just the right amount of sexy and dirty to be really fun to dance to. Lil Wayne is a ridiculous individual, but I love him. Anytime he jumps on a song, especially with a Latin artist, I just have to use it.
This song also throws me back to my early days of learning Latin dance at Southend. Aventura is like the Backstreet Boys or N*Sync of Bachata (a sensual latin dance). I’m pretty sure they are the reason that we are hearing Prince Royce and Aventura’s former front man, Romeo Santos, on the mainstream radio stations (and in Starbucks!) and collaborating with artist like Usher and Drake.
I’m not sure I really need to say anything about this song, but I will. Because it’s awesome. Shakira has a knack for making anthems for the World Cup, and this one was no different. I didn’t think she could do any better than “Wakka Wakka,” but the electro beat she threw in "Dare" made the song. Shakira holds a special place in my heart for being a tiny lady with a lot of bang—she’s 4’ 11” and I’m 5’ 2”, but I like to think good things come in small packages.
I will never forget my high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Saltz, busting through the halls of Fairhope High School, kicking open doors, yelling at students in Spanish, and refusing to translate the words of this song for us on the grounds that they were "too dirty." This song also reminds me of the time I went to ballet camp in upstate New York and got kicked out for sneaking off the farm-like campus. My partner in crime in the sneaking out was in love with Daddy Yankee, and after a long day of class and rehearsals to stuffy classical music, rocking out to some filthy reggaeton was just what the doctor ordered.
I always use this song for arm toning, which in a Baila Barre class, is doing classical ballet arm positions to thumping EDM beats. I get such a kick out of doing port de bras to dancehall/house music. I like to think I’m making ballet relevant in the 21st century, but even if I’m not making a big statement, I am somewhat torturing my participants with really difficult arm toning (no weights needed).
There are so many good things happening in this song—Prince, Salsa, Cha-Cha, and local artists (and friends). I can safely say that if it weren’t for dancing at Voodoo every week with Gino Castillo and crew, I would not have gained the confidence to strike out on my own as a professional Latin dancer. The song is amazing, but it’s even better when I can identify every instrument and it’s respective player by name.
Kizomba is the trendy dance hitting the Latin dance scene—it’s from Angola and danced extremely close, which can be awesome or not awesome, depending on the partner. My first exposure to Kizomba was at Orlando Salsa Congress in 2013 at a pool party—imagine being in a bikini and having a strange man grab you in a close embrace, make you listen to some song, and start teaching you the basics of this before unheard of dance. Suffice it to say, it took me a while to warm up to Kizomba after that experience, but now I’m down with it. And the beat is addicting.
This is a Buena Vista Social Club song, but the first time I heard it, I was in the upstairs room of a theater in Cienfuegos, Cuba, after having spent the day out on a boat with my boyfriend at the time, his family, an older gentleman named Lazaro, Lazaro’s extremely hot wife (she was at least 70 and had a ROCKING body and personality) and their grandchild. Lazaro was a trovador—a sort of Bob Dylan type who sang about the times. He played and sang “Silencio” as a tribute to his grandson at his show that evening, and I fell in love with the song.
The Spanish version of “If I Were a Boy,” this song got me through Spanish class my sophomore year of college. We were studying the conditional tense – think “If I were a millionaire…I would buy two sharks and pit them against each other in a giant aquarium.” Almost the entire song is in the conditional tense… “If I were a boy…I think I could understand,” and listening to it ad nauseum got me the grade.
If you haven’t heard this song from the first half of Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, YOU ARE MISSING OUT. It’s absolutely gorgeous and really does evoke that feeling you get when you’re laying at the bottom of a pool or the ocean. Everything kind of fades away and gets quiet, and it’s just you…sort of floating. It’s a beautiful song and I love ending class with it because it gets everyone into such a relaxed, centered space.
So there you have it. That’s a sample of a playlist that I use for my Baila Barre classes. I have dozens of songs at the ready to mix-and-match into a playlist and every single one of them has meaning or a story. Have a listen yourself here or come to class and check out the tunes!