From the Bottom of my Feet

It recently came to me the realization that although I love, love shoes, when it comes to dance, I prefer to not wear any.  For the last 5 years of my dancing career I have learned to dance without shoes.  I have been a strong follower of Modern Dance, Capoeira, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban movement.  All of these techniques have required me to bring my bare dancing feet, to feel the floor, to connect, to feel grounded.  One’s feet, whole, flat, expanding and ready to embrace the floor are the key to learning these challenging, yet beautiful dances for they draw up energy from the ground up.

Most Cuban folkloric dances are danced barefoot and they are the grandparents of current styles of social dancing.  From Orisha movement, dances dedicated to deities; to Macuta, the playful celebratory dance portraying the flirting and courting between a man and a woman; to Rumba resembling this same playfulness and in which the woman flirts and also blocks the “vacunados” (vaccinations) coming from her partner; they have all been traditionally danced barefoot.  With colonization and constant Spaniard influences in Cuba, their dances evolved and somehow transformed into Contra-danza, Danzón, Son and the latest to Casino (commonly known as Salsa), a dance of leading and following in which two partners engage to create the dance.  Although it is more common to see these latter dances performed while wearing shoes, they still are strongly influenced by the earlier dances.  This of course is by no means an exact trajectory.

I love when I see Cuban groups perform Salsa incorporating a lot of the Orisha movements, but most importantly when I see them dancing with flat shoes, tennis shoes or even flip-flops.  They are still amazing movers and are able to create length with their bodies without having to worry about their shoes. I have struggled with the stereotype that to dance Salsa one must wear high heels.    I have seen a few of my dancer colleagues dancing with their heels and their movement being well complemented by their shoes.  This is not something that comes natural to me.  I have struggled with this and at some point I started feeling angry and very frustrated with myself.  But then I realized that the kind of Salsa I like to dance is the one that is low to the ground; the one danced in circles with many undulations.  Cuban style most people call it.  I feel it in my heart.  I truly feel it in my feet.  It is exhilarating when I can combine the back and forth of Salsa with the playful moves of Rumba and the power of Orisha movement.  I feel empowered.  I feel joyous.  I feel sexy.  I feel whole.

Also most of the time we think of Brazil we think of women with beautiful feather costumes and big platform shoes, but little do we know that Samba comes from a tradition of barefoot dancing.  Brazilian movement also comes from Orixá movement.  Although I don’t have a clear trajectory, there is nothing like witnessing a Samba de Roda (Samba Circle) in which an old lady is “sambando”, dancing Samba, without shoes.  Everyone in the Samba the Roda, one by one, come to the center of the circle to dance and show their best moves.  At that point the only thing that matters is the movement and playfulness each one is able to draw up from the floor.  Even in the performance stage today, Samba de Roda is still performed barefoot.  I have always said that at least once in my life I would like to dance samba like a Pasista – A Samba dancer wearing feathers, thongs and high hills, yet for the day to day I love knowing that when I go into an Afro-Brazilian or Samba class all I need are my bare feet.  They are more than enough for what I need to absorb.  They are my most precious instrument.

I read a while ago a story in Clarissa Pinkola-Estés book, Women Who Run With Wolves, about a little girl who was poor.  Her clothes were rags and at one point she was able to collect enough fabric to make a pair of handmade red shoes.  She was later taken in by an older lady who “took care of her” and threw away her old clothes and burnt her raggedy shoes.  At one point the little girl found a pair of shiny red shoes.  Every time she wore them she started dancing out of control and was forbidden to wear them again.  As fairy tales will have it, she figured out a way of getting the shiny red shoes back.  Once she put them on, she started dancing out of control until she could no longer take it.  “… the shoes danced her…”  She had her feet cut off to stop the madness in which she lived in.  Pinkola-Estés breaks down the entire fairy tale to show how we sometimes in our naiveté let go of our intuition and wild woman nature represented by the handmade shoes and replace it with shiny red shoes that in the long run make us feel depleted, addicted, obsessed and completely unsatisfied.  The leg traps are so strong that they either force us to live a life out of control or as a cripple, cut off from our feet, our right state of mind and true nature.

When I came to the realization that I love dancing barefoot, I remembered this story.  I read it again and again and what became clear to me is that every time I’ve let go of what is true to me I had become lost.  When I “couldn’t” dance Salsa with high heels I got mad at myself because perhaps I wasn’t “creating the possibility” that I could do it.  I longed to do it and I tried, only to feel more frustrated, disconnected from the people I was supposed to be dancing with and eventually injuring myself.  I doubted myself, my creativity and my value as a dancer.

After three months of reframing what it means to me to be a dancer, I remembered that my body, my heart and my soul feel connected when I am able to directly feel the ground I’m dancing on.  I experience a sensory connection as I expand my bare feet on the floor, first my heels, then my instep, then the ball of my feet and then the toes – they wiggle to relax and to allow my whole feet to take over.  That is the reason I love Modern Dance.   That is why I love Afro-Brazilian movement.  And that is why I become mesmerized when I see and dance Afro-Cuban movement.

When I was younger I used to have dreams that I couldn’t find my shoes.  I either didn’t remember where I had put them or my shoes simply disappeared.  For some reason this caused much anxiety.  Now, after over 5 years of dancing barefoot, I have transformed that fear.  In “real life” too many times to remember, I have walked out of places carrying everything I took, only to realize that I had forgotten my shoes.  When my feet feel so at ease walking barefoot they sometimes forget to grab the shoes that took them to the place they were at.

So as I envision my future and my dancing I see how I don’t really care so much about being a versatile dancer as much as I care about enjoying the dancer that I already AM.  My bare feet need polishing and I’m committed to giving them what they need, knowing that they ARE my handmade shoes.  They are the ones that know where I should be and what paths I should dance.


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