Field Notes from a Colombian Dance Floor

by Joe Moore '06

January 11, 2011

The party creeps closer to us, like a vine winding its way around a fence post. Ten feet away and down a few steps, the dance floor pulses with salsa and merengue music resonating from hidden speakers. Couples pair off, dancing as if in professional competition, stuffed together like chickens in an industrial farm, spilling out from the small dance floor, stepping ever closer.
Olive-skinned, dark eyes with hair to match, and provocatively dressed, the Colombian women, with stylishly dressed dance partners in tow, simmer in the space next to our table. They move in sync with steps that seem instinctive. A hip bumps our table. My drink splashes. I feel the water but don’t see it. My eyes are fixed on bare, curvy skin and arousing faces.
Of course, I’m only observing a cultural moment, right? Could I have stared and gawked like this otherwise? Would my fiancée understand then? Is she understanding now?
I try to refocus on the conversation at our table—our chic Colombian hosts Diego and Juliana, their Portuguese friend, plus my fiancée, Juleen, and me. In a place in Bogotá that is, like most of Bogotá, way too cool for us.
The men at our table wear designer jeans, blazers up top. Juliana goes cute yet conservative; she’s the exception to the rule. The rest of the women wear whatever they want as long as it doesn’t restrict movement or cover much.
Juleen and I wear the nicest clothes from our backpacks—Juleen’s shirt is black and fluffy with a flower print. I wear my off-white waterproof running jacket, the one I used to wear on my bike ride to school in Chicago. It’s the warmest clothing item I have and, I hope, cool enough to wear to Andres Carne de Res.
I can’t dance. Instead, I jump around. It has become infamous among my friends back home. They call me Volcano Joe. “Tonight will be fun if Volcano Joe comes out,” they like to say.
But I never jump sober. Tonight we’ve been drinking, but not enough, just burning shots of sugarless aguardiente every 30 minutes between bites of meat—sausages, steak, chicken—laid out on a broad platter. No lava spews tonight.
Bogotenos don’t need liquid courage to get on the dance floor.
“Teenagers in Colombia have to dance,” Sister Carolina, one of the nuns at the Catholic school where we’re volunteering, tells us. She explains that guys have to dance, and dance well, to have a shot at dating. Girls must hold their own, too. At a girl’s becoming-a-woman birthday party at 15, she is expected to perform a series of choreographed dances with an array of partners while hundreds of pairs of eyes watch. I’d seen the same ritual back in Chicago at the quinceanera party of a student during my three Teach For America years.
But understanding dancing’s role in the Colombian psyche doesn’t help. Seeing the professional dancing pairs doesn’t help either. Sober, I am confined to my chair, jostled by the alluring movement of others. I’ll sit here and nibble on the too-small bowls of unfamiliar fruits the waitress doesn’t bring frequently enough. For me, the dance floor might as well be roped off.
Joe Moore and his fiancée, Juleen Rodakowski, spent September 2009 to May 2010 traveling, couch surfing, volunteering, teaching, and learning from people from Guatemala to Peru. Joe and Juleen’s blog from the trip can be found at


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