The Song, Dance, and Yoga of Language — By Jennifer Shipp
Central America Costa Rica North America

The Song, Dance, and Yoga of Language — By Jennifer Shipp

latin dance class studio Alajuela Costa Rica
The empty dance floor (and a reflection of my chest) prior to our virgin salsa and merengue classes.

Last night we took our very first Latin dance classes ever at Merecumbre in Alajuela. It was a private lesson and we have another one tonight followed by an hour-long group lesson. I was nervous last night, but I expected to be less nervous for our classes tonight having done a class already. But I’m not less nervous. Because tonight, we’ll be dancing with a whole group of other people who understand Salsa and the Merengue a lot better than I do. And, the group class is probably going to be entirely in Spanish.

In Mexico, I was doing pretty well at Spanish by the time we left. I could hear and understand what people we’re saying about 60% of the time without having to ask them to repeat it and I could then respond, usually with errors, but they could still understand me. But the Spanish in Costa Rica is different. They have a different set of words that they use for mundane things like “change” at the grocery store. In Mexico, the word was “cambia”, which made sense to me because the infinitive “to change” is “cambiar”. But here, they use the word “vuelto” for change. The infinitive “volver” means “to turn”, which isn’t quite as intuitive to me. In fact, it confuses me. And to make matters worse, it seems a lot of them sort of slur their words together when they speak. I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing, dialect-wise, but I have to lean in very close and have no other distractions to be able to really hear what they’re saying.

I try to do language warm ups as we’re walking down the hill to the bus to go to yoga or dance. I keep my handy dandy dictionary in my purse and dutifully look up any words I don’t know on our way into Alajuela. But some days, I don’t have to speak Spanish at all. The Costa Ricans place a high value on healthcare and education, or so I’m told, which is why so many of them speak English fluently. They’re taught English in schools so that they can go to work for large North American or European companies apparently. Most of the people who know English here in Costa Rica give us few opportunities to practice our Spanish because…well, they want to practice their English.

This paradigm of having to learn a new set of words in Spanish to identify basic things (like bathrooms, for example), coupled with only irregular opportunities to speak Spanish with people who know enough English to help educate us on the proper way to say things in their language has made it difficult to make a lot of progress on things. We try to watch BabyTV in Spanish when we’re not too exhausted after spending the night doing yoga or dancing Salsa, but I’m still not sure if the Spanish on Baby TV is the right Spanish. (Were the voiceovers done in Mexico?)

MindBody Zone Yoga Class
A photo of the darkened studio where we take our yoga classes.

Needless to say, when we go to things like dance classes or yoga classes in Spanish, I experience some resistance to the process. First, we must walk 30 minutes to the bus stop where we will wait between 0 and 30 minutes for the bus. Then, we’ll ride the bus for between 15-20 minutes to get into Alajuela. It will probably be raining. From the bus station, we have to walk a short distance (with umbrellas) to the dance place (Merecumbre) or yoga place (MindBody Zone) where our classes are located. Then, we have to speak/understand Spanish (unless it’s a private lesson with Randall at Merecumbre).

Not knowing the language very well here in Costa Rica inspires humility. It’s hard to look or seem intelligent when I fail to respond to basic statements like, “move to the right” or “lower your hand”. And then, when I speak, I always say something “wrong” using improper grammar or the wrong conjugation or the wrong word entirely. This language situation is a part of dance and yoga classes as well as going to the grocery store or getting on the bus. It makes things just a little more difficult than they already would be. There is resistance due to transportation issues, language issues, and then issues related to getting off our traseros (butts) to go do something other than watch BabyTV. If the yoga people knew how to say it in English, they’d call it “resistance” and note the similarities between our everyday lives right now and the practice of asanas. The dance people would probably see an apt analogy as well. As a tourist, a person can listen to the beat of the music in the place where they travel and dance to the music in their own style, but the longer you live in a place, the more important it becomes to be able to understand the foreign tune and keep up with the rhythm using the “proper” steps.

It makes sense that I would be nervous for our second round of dance classes tonight because I am neither Spanish speaking nor a dancer, but tonight I will again, do my best to speak Spanish and dance (at the same time).

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