It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are feeling a little freaked-out and cranky, you must immediately put on the hottest clothes you own and go out dancing. I received an impromptu invitation to go salsa dancing at the Century Ballroom last night from a co-worker and you best believe I was all up on that. I got home at one-thirty this morning, drenched in sweat and limping from a dance-related foot injury, with makeup running down my face and a huge hole in the thigh of my fishnet stockings. By my standards, which normally count a nice lavender-frosted cupcake and a Jane Austen novel as thrilling Thursday night fare, this was an excellent night.
The last time I went salsa dancing was over two years ago so I think I was pretty justified in warning my various partners that I was a beginner. I took the half-hour “combat salsa” class beforehand and felt like I had a pretty decent idea of the basic, although something I noticed throughout the night, with and without helpful commentary from my partners, was that I was taking very big steps and wasn’t keeping my feet underneath me very well, which is possibly a holdover from my swing dance days, but was sure annoying and which I blame in part for how much my knees and back hurt today. Well, that and the fact that I did three hours of cardio in heels.
After the class I asked my coworker E how we got people to ask us to dance. She’s taken classes at the Century and was wearing a dress so hot that it actually gave off electric sparks, and I was a little worried that I might a) either cramp her style or b) be completely passed over in favor of her charms. She looked at my shirt, which was red and lacey, (she’d instructed me to bring along “at least three inches of cleavage,” which was interesting because I had no idea that that’s how you measure such a thing) and said “Just stand here,” and what do you know, someone asked me to dance, just like that.
I sat out a couple of songs, to be sure, but I was on the floor pretty much the entire night. It really reminded me of how weird it is to dance and touch someone when you do it, because of course in tribal we don’t, except for this one move we’re working in intermediate class which I totally forget the name but it’s when you are doing an Arabic and face full-on to the audience and then you push down with your hands and that signals everyone to form a facing-outward circle, all holding hands and Arabic-ing to the left, looking left. You know the one I mean. I’m very used to partnering with someone and leading and following, but I’m not so used to cueing by touch instead of visually. I think of dance as something women do, for and with other women, so I’m especially not used to dancing with men…almost the first thing I thought when we walked in was “Why are there so many guys here?”
I’d just been talking to my friend Kat a couple of weeks ago about Salsa Hierarchy, how a lot of salsa leads want to, like, teach you while you’re dancing for some reason, instead of just being a good lead and trusting that you’ll follow as best you can (which, in my limited experience, is often the best way to learn to dance anyway, assuming you have some knowledge of the basics and can hear the beat) Many of my partners were very nice to me in that regard; I made sure to alert them that I was totally a beginner at the start so’d they know what they were getting into and also so that I could hear, I don’t mind admitting to you, “Wow, for a beginner…you are very good!” Most of the guys I danced with were much more experienced than I was, of course, but they fell into two pretty distinct camps: Just Go With It and No! Step On The One!
The Just Go With It guys would smile when I confessed I was pretty new to this and they’d keep their moves within some realm of reason for a beginner, and if I messed up or they messed up they’d just smile some more and wait for me to catch the beat. Sometimes they’d give me a little hint, like “Grab my hand underneath my other hand,” or “Spin once, not twice,” and I’d try to follow and do what I was supposed to do and generally enjoyed myself. They were the ones who were pretty complimentary about my nascent skills and who encouraged me to dance more. Nice, right? I noticed they also kept eye contact and chat a little while we were dancing, which I think is always a nice touch. I had one guy tell me, in this crazy awesome Czech accent, “Ah, the lady in red! She is dancing with me!”
The No! Step On The One! guys, on the other hand. I would tell them that I was beginner and they would take this as a cue to, like, critique my performance . This one guy asked me to dance and was trying to do this crazy turn that I didn’t really get…I would keep not getting it, and he’d keep stopping in the middle of the song with a sniff of exasperation and giving me this tight smile and saying “No, try again!” And I kept trying, and not getting it, and he kept cueing it, as if I was not getting it because he simply hadn’t tried to make me get it enough. The really crazy thing was that he gave every indication of having a terrible time, sighing and rolling his eyes and huffing around…but kept me with him for what was either four whole songs or a reeeeaaaaaalllly long one. And then! He asked me to dance again later. I was sporting the requested three inches of cleavage, yes, but I don’t think that can explain why he would put himself through the purgatory of dancing with such a clearly inferior partner.
Later in the car that night E and her very cool friend L and I were talking about this sort of behavior.
Chiara: It is just all about the lead, man. Good lead, good dance. Suck lead, suck dance .
E: This one guy actually pushed my shoulders down and told me I needed to relax.
L: This one guy was making comments whenever I messed up and I was like, Well, maybe if you weren’t such a soft lead I’d know what to do!
E: : Seriously. YOU ARE THE LEAD. Whatever happens here is your fault. Not like I can read your mind, Mr. Soft Lead Guy.
L: Oh, I know. If you’re soft, it’s just not going to happen.
[pause while everyone considers the implications of that statement.]
Chiara: If I had a nickel…
Partner inadequacies aside, it was just so much fun. I don’t usually buy too much into the If You Look Good You Feel Good thing but last night I thought there might be a little something to it. It was so fun to get dressed up and to hang out with pretty girls and to be asked to dance and to be complimented on my mad beginner salsa skillz (and also, bizarrely, to be told “Ah, you’re Italian! That explains it!”) and to listen to awesome music and watch some truly phenomenal dancers do their thing. Such a good thing to do last night. We all have issues and we all need to deal with them, right, but I can’t help thinking that dressing up and being awesome on the dance floor is a really good way to do that.