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Gen Y Speaks: Salsa taught me about life, leading and loving

Growing up, I hated dancing. It was just too cheesy.

Gen Y Speaks: Salsa taught me about life, leading and loving
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Growing up, I hated dancing. It was just too cheesy.

During my junior college’s orientation, I remembered how we had to do cringe-worthy moves that I thought made me look like a dork in some of the activities.

I promptly escaped from these activities by leaving. I thought I was too cool to dance.

One day, whilst having a Zoom call with my motivational coach, he shared about how the three keys to getting a lady’s heart was to lift, dance, and cook.

Having been single all my life, I thought it was worth a try.


I still remember the first time I walked into a salsa studio eight months ago.

As a complete beginner, I was startled by the teacher’s instruction to hold the lady’s hands. At the time, I had never held any other woman’s hand, except my mum, and this was a big step.

My palms were sweaty, and I remember being nervous that my dance partner would find out.

Luckily, after a few steps of the dance, the instructor would ask us to switch partners.

Being in a room full of people I didn’t know made it easier.

For the first time, I didn’t have to manage impressions of how I would look. I could tap, and step, without worrying about what the other person thought (unless I stepped on her foot).

Whilst my first time was scary, I wanted to go back. Sure, dancing seemed un-masculine. Sure, it was difficult to ask another lady for her hand to dance. Sure, some of the moves made me trip over myself.

But for all the fears I had, dancing salsa allowed me to embrace a different side of me that I had never discovered before.


Salsa is an interesting sport. For one, the male has to take the lead, and the female follows.

This had big implications for me because I had always been a passive person.

Growing up, it was the women in my life who often took the lead, and this became something that I have come to learn over time.

My mother was the person who was always telling me what to do. Even when I didn’t necessarily agree, I would end up following her instructions.

Later in life, when I started to date women, I would seldom suggest where I wanted to go. I would ask what the lady wanted, and follow her to where she wanted to go.

Some ladies weren’t too happy with this approach, which ultimately hurt many of the relationships that I had.

This passiveness, and inability to speak up for what I wanted, resulted in me losing the chance to move forward in courtship and finding love, even after much effort had been made. 

It was after salsa that I found out why, because I never took the lead at any point in time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this to discredit the role of women in taking the lead in life and work.

But what I am saying is that both man and woman have to take turns holding the reins in a relationship, and I’ve fallen short in the past.

There is wisdom in knowing when to cede ground, and when to take the lead. Like in salsa. When to step forward, and when to step back.


Salsa taught me to be responsible for my desires. In my case, it was to take the initiative to seek out a dancing partner who didn’t mind me being bad at dancing.

This was a difficult mindset shift for me, as I grew up learning that it was better to know my place than to chase my dreams. It was better to be responsible than to be reckless in pursuing what one wanted.

For example, when I decided to leave a job to work as a writer, I would be filled with doubts when people ask me about how long I could last, and whether it was better to stay in my job and continue contributing to my Central Provident Fund.

I learnt to silence my heart’s desire, the nagging feeling that there was more to life than a normal nine-to-five.

It was a learned helplessness, that I should not scratch the itch to do something that matters to me.

Whilst salsa wasn’t the catalyst that prompted me to quit my job, it reinforced my decision to go all out for what I wanted.

Salsa also changed the way I saw myself in life and in my career.

In the first two years of my full-time job in social work, I thought I had to be "Mr Nice Guy", and that I had to please everyone.

So when I received some feedback telling me that I was too brash with my ideas, I clammed up.

I simply let others take the lead. I would listen to ideas flying about and sit there silently, rarely offering a suggestion.

Over time, even when this didn’t make me happy, I thought it was better to not rock the boat with my ideas.

My salsa lessons gave me a different perspective.

The beauty of salsa is that there is no fixed chronology of moves, meaning that you can combine different moves together.

When I first started putting dance moves together, partners would look at me strangely, wondering what I was doing.

I had to push on. Sometimes, putting my own spin on a dance routine works out great, and sometimes it doesn’t, in which case I will be given feedback on how to improve.

The important thing is to try.

When I first started out dancing, I was always afraid to look into my partner’s eyes. I would look everywhere except into her eyes.

But the day I fell in love with salsa came one afternoon, when I was dancing with a partner. It was a bad dance. I didn’t know the moves well, and kept getting her stuck. I constantly apologised for my missteps.

She looked at me, and said: “Hey, it’s okay.

“Really, you’re doing well.”

Salsa taught me that sometimes, in dancing and in life, we can make mistakes and it will still be okay.

Thanks to dance, I’ve learnt to live a little more.



John Lim is a motivational speaker and career coach for millennials as well as author of the book, One Day At A Time. He blogs at

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