THE SALSA CHRONICLES: HOW A GIRL WITH A PAIR OF
HIGH HEELS AND A DREAM BECAME A SALSA DANCER*
By Jayne Cooperman
It’s a sweltering September evening, the last hurrah of the hottest New York City summer in the history of weather. I’m sticking to my seat at a teeny table among the tall trees and office refugees in Bryant Park. The heat, relentless, has conquered my makeup, defeated my hair, and vanquished my capacity for rational thought. How else to explain what happens next?
“So, Natalie,” I say to my ponytailed, sundressed companion. “I think I have an idea for a column for SALSEEK.”
Natalie, by the way, is SALSEEK’s founder, a woman who believes that every moment, somewhere in the world, someone should be salsa-ing. Her big brown eyes widen as she leans forward expectantly.
“What if I learn to dance salsa and write about it for the website?”
I begin to share the details – how I could take lessons at studios throughout the city, acting as a sort of stand-in for eager yet intimidated readers who harbor a secret desire to move to a Latin beat ¬– when she bursts in.
“I LOVE IT!!!”
“Great!” I reply.
Notice, if you will, that there are far fewer capital letters and exclamation points in my response than in hers. This is because I don’t dance (don’t ask me). I sway, I step, I groove, I appreciate. Friends and family tell me that I can “move,” but some of those moves haven’t been dusted off since my best friend’s bat mitzvah. (Is salsa like the hora?) Well, there were those club nights downtown at Heartbreak or in the Hamptons at Marrakech. But those were a long time ago in a tube top far, far away. As for the whole partner thing, I’d probably have to go back to the awkward, exploratory slow dancing of senior prom. You see, I come from an era when people danced near each other, but not quite with each other, to steps of their own making. So when I say that I don’t dance, what I mean is that I have basically zero experience moving my feet in a prescribed manner while in the arms of someone who is doing the same.
I played that CD long after the basket had been emptied; entranced by the passion, pain and joy she brought to every song. Her soaring voice, the driving beat of the congas and timbales, and the staccato of the horns as they accented each phrase energized and warmed me. One of the numbers, a duet entitled “Vivir Lo Nuestro,” introduced me to the incomparable Marc Anthony, so when I heard that he would be playing at Latina’s launch party I made sure to get an invitation.
¡Qué maravillosa noche! The pride that the Latino community felt in the magazine was palpable, and Marc Anthony was the perfect combination of MC, bandleader and host. The orchestra played for hours, and the guests danced until the last cowbell had been struck. Couples whirled across the floor in unison, a dizzying mix of richly colored dresses, shiny suits, crimson lips and white teeth. I watched the women with a mixture of awe and envy, wondering if I could ever follow in their strappy-sandaled footsteps.
Cut to that day in Bryant Park, many years later, the day I dare myself, out loud and with a witness, to learn to dance salsa. I worry, even before the first class begins, that my feet won’t do what I ask them to, that I’ll be a clumsy klutz and an object of pity to my classmates.
But maybe I could look at it another way. What if, to start, I try to revel in the small steps I take rather than wallow in how far I have to go? Not care so much about being perfect and just be present? Recognize that this is a journey, and journeys can be bumpy? And that the destination is often besides the point?
So I’m committing to dancing salsa and writing about it, and I hope you’ll come along. I promise that I will never tell you that the trip is easy, unless it truly is. I’m not like Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, the Dancing With The Stars contestant who doubted her undeniable skill all the way to victory and the coveted mirror ball trophy. Or, for you fans of So You Think You Can Dance, there will be no surprises along the lines of Alex “Freaking” Wong, the classically-trained dancer who did the nastiest hip to ever hop before his run was cruelly cut short by a Bollywood-related injury. Instead, to paraphrase the lyrics to the song that brought Alex his greatest triumph, I’m going to try to get outta my mind and, in the immortal words of Paula Abdul, just shut up and dance.
In the next entry of The Salsa Chronicles, Jayne learns how to (watch other people) dance salsa from the safety of her chair.