Nick & Choose 9: Salsa

Published March 4, 2009

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Lord of the Dance
Is it getting sexy in here, or is it just me?

My mother fancies me as a dancer. She’s exceedingly proud of all her handsome, genius son has accomplished, but were I to win a Pulitzer, I know that at the reception, she’d be disappointed if I didn’t ask Joyce Carol Oates for a waltz.

I don’t know what created the illusion. Perhaps it’s because my sister has the coordination of a newborn mare with Jell-O hooves, and simply walking without stumbling makes me Gene Kelly in comparison. To her, I have a talent that must be shared. Once, in college, I made the mistake of mentioning that my friend Geoff had signed up for a dance class. It didn’t matter that Geoff was a lazy goof and just scrambling for a phys-ed credit. She chose to see Geoff as debonair, and that I was just squandering my gifts, and over the course of the next month, she constantly reminded me of all the girls she was sure Geoff was scoring. (It was very uncomfortable.)

Now, at weddings, I’m prodded to hit the floor with the older ladies. She’s like my pimp, and I’m some impressionable youth in tap shoes she found at the bus station. I know that somewhere in her mind, there plays a bizarre version of Dirty Dancing where I embrace my love for twirling and no one puts her baby in a corner.

Thing is, I like dancing. I can usually find the rhythm, I don’t dance with my thumbs up and I hardly ever bite my lower lip. But I wouldn’t say I actually know how. So after a recommendation from a friend, I went to An Tua Nua, where on Wednesday nights, $20 gets you all the salsa you could want and a little bit more than I could handle.

A trio of lessons began at 7, as did the quick destruction of my confidence. It’s uncomfortable arriving solo to an activity that requires a partner, and that feeling only grew when the beginners gathered. There were five of us. Being a loner creep does have advantages though, as it forces the instructor to dance with you and thus accelerate your education.

My first lesson was perhaps salsa’s most important: Men lead and women just have to look pretty. It sounds sexist, but it’s a tough job, as no matter the number of missteps, ladies have to act like they’re dancing with virility incarnate. Since I danced predominately with the instructor, I was amazing.

My second lesson was more biomechanical. Salsa is about tight, small steps, and I tend to walk like I’m constantly stepping over things. Years ago, a track coach taught me that speed equals stride length plus stride frequency, and I apply that knowledge in my everyday life. It’s another example of the failings of my mind, as I’ve met a lot of wise people, and the tossed-off instructions from a sport I didn’t even particularly like are what stick. But through sheer willpower—and pretending my feet were chained together—I managed to shorten my steps, and the directions I actually wanted to learn began to sink in.

Sports actually began to help in the second hour, as we moved onto casino rueda, which is like salsa square dancing. “But like sexy square dancing, not that square dancing isn’t sexy,” corrected one of the organizers. There’s a lot of pivoting, and my muscle memories from basketball began to surface. There’s also a lot of stomping, and the timing and footwork reminded me of my high-jumping days. Of course, the wear and tear of both those activities have left my right ankle with what my orthopedist charitably labeled “incompetent ligaments,” and as the third hour rolled around, my foot was flopping like a dying fish. But like a sexy dying fish.

Hour three was a return to basic steps, but these lessons were led by Johnny and Kelly, two mariposas del sexy who opened class by shaking, strutting and gyrating on stage, their hips swinging like wrecking balls aimed at the foundation of my ego. By 9 pm, the room was full and the experience level had risen, but thankfully, every veteran in a fly collar was counterbalanced with an unrhythmic rookie.

The wheat once again separated from the chaff, my fellow beginners and I regrouped into a larger circle. Now, with the basics down cold, I could pull my focus away from my feet and observe the group at large. Salsa night is an amazing sociological study and an event where desperately trying to be graceful becomes an allegory for the clumsiness of romance. Some fight to lead, others are happy to follow. Women are either looking for their men to dance or men to dance with, and men are just seeking affirmation. At the end of the hour, my last partner looked up and declared me the best of the circle. With three hours of salsa left, but grateful for the chance to leave on a high note, I grabbed my coat and floated home.

I had fun with salsa and even went to Masa to try it again the following night—with a partner no less. But to be honest, the lessons really weren’t about me. I had a different woman I was looking to impress.

That Saturday I met my mother for lunch, and after discussing one of my recent social faux pas, I strategically played my dance card. “Well that cheers my right up,” she said, rising slightly in her seat. “You know, if you liked salsa, I’m sure there’s lots of other dance classes around town you could take.”

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