Me: So what do you do?
Him: I just got back from Africa, where I was a microbiology researcher.
Me: Awesome! What did you study?
Him: Watch out, here comes a dip. I studied meerkats.
Me: OMG! I have been compared to a meerkat more than once.
Him: (squints) Hmm. There are some similarities. You’re taller, though. Here, try taking smaller steps — you’re all over the place.
Welcome, welcome, welcome to the life of a chatty salsa dancer.
In some ways, salsa class is the perfect place for an amateur people scientist, a.k.a., a writer such as myself, to study humans in their natural (or for many, unnatural) habitat.
For instance, I have noticed:
Observation #1: Beginning salsa dancers who have not grown up listening to salsa music or with any influence of salsa dance in their home are sometimes there because somebody (hint: new significant other or BFF) dragged them there.
Observation #2: Leads (men) embarking on their salsa journey for the first time go in with chests puffed out, leave looking dejected. It’s hard to be a lead. But those who stick it out find it worth it.
Observation #3: You can predict who’s going to be a great salsa dancer before you start dancing because a) they have style, b) their cologne is a level 8 pungency, c) they’re hands are very soft, and d) they possess a quiet dignity rather than a grand swagger.
This past Wednesday, as the wind howled and the dark settled in, I found myself sitting in my car in a parking lot, waiting outside a dance studio for 8 pm to roll around. I live in Bozeman, MT now, where these types of gatherings have to happen in secret. At 7:58, I began to wonder if the class was cancelled. But then, sure enough, a distinguished bald man walked up to unlock the door. The couple making out in the car next to mine headed inside, and I followed.
We entered a foyer and then trotted into the dance room and tried to look casual. The instructor, a soft-spoken native Spanish speaker from Butte, sauntered in and flipped on some music. Assuming we knew the basic step, he paired us up and started walking us through the cross-body lead.
My first partner was a bubbly blonde-haired guy with a name like Brian.
Me: Hey, I’m Mariah. What’s your name?
Him: Name. (Breathes Schnapps onto my face).
Me: Cool. So, uh, how long you been salsa dancing?
Him: Oh, off and on a few years. (Does complicated arm movement, spins me wildly with no warning). Hey-OHH! Let’s try this!
The instructor called our attention. “OK,” he says softly, grabbing the hand of a female student and twirling her effortlessly. She took graceful steps, and her lythe stature was that of an experienced dancer. Several of us stood up straighter. We moved on to the next partner and tried another move, an inner turn.
This time I was paired with a guy who had been brought along by his super-enthusiastic girlfriend. He was having a bit of a hard time, but keeping a good attitude.
Me: You’re doing great! I think we’re supposed to go like this here.
Him: What? Oh yeah. Here — damn it!
Me: Don’t you worry, you’re doing fine. Keep up the good work!
In retrospect, my words of encouragement might have been along the lines of someone congratulating their 5-year-old on his or her latest cardboard-and-glitter art project, or maybe those unwelcome words of encouragement that someone else gives you when you’re really struggling at something. (“Great job climbing up that hill today. I know it was super hard for you!”). But my intention really was to give encouragement, sheesh.
I went from the novice to a dark-haired guy with soft hands, and I knew I had reached the height of the experience in the room. He introduced himself as an Eastern Indian man with a British name, chuckling softly to himself at his own ironic joke. His shoes were shined, he wore all black, and he definitely did not look like a Montanan.
And that’s when I realized just how overly confident I had been about my, ahem, rusty salsa skills.
Him: It’s a double turn, my dear. Take smaller steps. Don’t let go of my hand. Here, let’s try it this way. Keep your body straight. Why are you scrunching up your face like that?
Next in line was the no-talker, that silent man who spins you suddenly and without warning, who talks so you have to lean in, but doesn’t meet you halfway.
Me: So, you having a good night tonight?
Me: So, you been dancing salsa awhile?
And it was at this point in the night that I remembered what I love about salsa. It’s not the anticipation or memory of each step, and it’s not even the people-watching. As cheesy as it sounds, the true gift of salsa is just being able to be present in your own body, to listen and respond to the movements within the music and in you partner.
For the rest of the night, instead of talking, I actually concentrated on consciously allowing the balls of my feet to connect with the floor and propel me forward. I thought about shortening the length of my stride. I thought about turning my head and looking forward as I turned my body. I thought about the beat. I thought about my hips. I felt the music within my muscles and kept dancing.