Salsa On 2, or: How I Learned to Stop Holding Back and Love the Mambo
Sometimes when I’m walking down the sidewalk, I time my strides so I don’t hit any cracks (my mom’s back, you know). My legs are not the longest; I have to pop into a skip every couple steps. My hips twist a little to accommodate my bounce, and my earbuds block out all the rest of the world. On comes a quicker pop timing, and sometimes I feel a gradual build in energy. The song shifts and with it my mood, and now blaring is a sudden convergence of conga, clavos, cowbell—guitar, keyboard, horn. My fingers flick in a small, makeshift dance. Waiting to cross the street, my knees might begin to drop into a slight bend, my ass might shake in a motion that is not inconspicuous. I dream inside my head about someone I know passing by and noting my rhythm, wondering at my body in contrast to all the other hurrying, solitary commuters.
Not counting a stint in pre-K ballet at a local Methodist church—(“I’m a TOMBOY, Parents!”)—I took my first dance class in my last semester of undergrad. An older white lady dance teacher who had lived in the Dominican Republic for a number of years taught our “Latin Dance” class. Why would I expect a fly dominicana, or nuyoriqueña, or cubanita conveniently on staff for a dance class in Durham, NC? Not ideal, I had thought, but she’ll know more than me.
And she did. I learned a basic salsa step, which I had not been able to successfully replicate all my life despite seeing my mother, seeing my tias, seeing my friends, casually swipe their feet in a motion easily recognizable as something that so obviously belongs with Celia Cruz. In five minutes, I too could tap and swish my sneakered feet into a motion I never wanted to ask someone to show me.
By the second week of my first dance, I still did not know how to salsa, but maybe I could salsa-pass. Do the basic step and bend your knees a little; if you stop after two-seconds, who but a trained and attentive eye could tell you’re at the end of your road? And I felt sexy.
Men typically leer wherever I go, but here, in this space partnered with sweaty-palmed white boys and stiff international students, I suddenly was the little, lithe and knowing, Latina bitch. Clumsy but locked grasps half-heartedly guided or violently threw my form around the gymnasium, and either way I could continue to twist my upper-body into the illusion of good timing, and bump my hips to a particularly satisfying chord. I was entranced with my unwieldy speed-partnerships.
I watched longingly at the infinite dancers performing their routines on Instagram as they preen in their moves, twirling and kicking to cowbell in their little satin heels; their beat sneakers, their sleek, leather jazz shoes flashing poses. I didn’t know the language, couldn’t translate what I was seeing. My class had ended, but I still couldn’t dance like that. Later, I found a small studio right off of the Pulaski Skyway, and I discovered the individual sets done at the mirror are called “shines.”
For me, and for the rest of the salsa on two beginners—mambo beginners—shines were simply 45 minutes of solo practice. Uninhibited by a learning lead, shines let loose what sometimes leaks out on my walk to class. Blaring Machito, Tito, Celia, congas, clavos, horns, the boricua instructor from Hoboken shouts the names of recognizable movements as he performs them in front of the mirror.
Here you go. Here is a place. Here are some moves. The idea of a body moving to withhold expression, of a body existing in restraint, fades further into the background with each new bar.
And the excitement! Feeling my suede soles slip just right. Looking into my own reflection and actually seeing it match what’s happening inside my head. The sudden revolt at my body’s surprise appearance waits for me somewhere else. Here, I like what I see. I want to keep looking.
I greedily anticipate partnering, but it is never the Old Copa reenactment of my fantasies. A delicious anonymity follows me to dance—or at least, when I dance with leads. No one knows each other, so everyone dances with anyone. The men fumble with barriers to the classes’ progression, looking at the instructor in frustration and me with blaring chagrin. Their boxy brown hands hold onto me as the hoboqua lectures through a turn. My lifeless arm is lifted, then slowly, slowly lowered again. A clammy hand remains awkwardly clasped around my fingers.
A man waits to the side to re-enter the rotation. Though there are more than ten leads, and I danced with him three rotations ago, he returns. I count aloud—an obedient student—and begin to stare forward blankly, rather than re-greet every partner. In three more rotations, the same man returns. Now we have a shared joke. “You really do count.” He is smug. Why don’t you just move, he seems to mean. The rotation moves on in a few spins, and I relax at my next partner, whose undercut stares vacantly through my chest.
We just dance. When they push my back, I go with a slither of my silver heels (they’re bedazzled) and a jut in my hip. They pull me back by a shared, shifting grasp, and I return. My free hand falls to their shoulder. They respond to what they hear, and I do what I want. They answer to me, and I listen for them. We rotate again.
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