Invitation to the Dance
By Jayne Cooperman
It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m in my usual “this chair in the corner is fine” position on the next stop of my Think I’ll Just Watch For Now Salsa Studio Tour. But this time I’ve moved my seat from the kids’ (beginner) to the grown-ups’ (intermediate) table, and the difference is striking.
I’m on the 12th floor of another one of those invisible to the untrained eye studios on the west side of Manhattan. Piel Canela Latin Dance and Music School, the brainchild of Wall Street refugee Joe Burgos, offers dance classes ranging from bachata to zouk, music instruction from bongo to timbal, language labs from Spanish to, well, Spanish, and a dance company composed of both seasoned professionals and confident students. By immersing the Piel Canela community in this visual and aural bounty, Joe seeks to enrich and contextualize their experience of Latin dance.
All of this may sound a bit lofty, but Joe is refreshingly down-to-earth. Mamboing his way through the bustling Intermediate I salsa class, cowbell in hand, he cracks wise while offering subtle corrections to the dancing duos.
“I’m hearing heels,” he cautions the ladies. “Tell me that isn’t so.”
The students, who have advanced their steps and style to a whole other level, strut and spin with abandon. Clunky loafers and flat sandals have been jettisoned in favor of jazz shoes for the boys and the sparkly high heels of my salsa fantasies for the girls. Although the plaid of earlier studio outings has not entirely evaporated, the men, sporting tight t-shirts and sweatpants, give off more of a “West Side Story” vibe, while the women look more like a cross between hip ballerinas and downtown yoga instructors.
As the music plays and the energy in the room rises, Joe schools the class on the physics/physiques of dance: the centrifugal force required to spin your partner with ease; the he/she complementary elbow angles in closed position; the strong core muscles that keep you from squeezing and fatiguing every other part of your body, which can lead to the exaggerated “cartoon moves” that are the scourge of dance clubs and family weddings everywhere.
Salsa, Joe explains, is an invitation, a fun, flirty give-and-take. The male brings the female close and makes her feel protected before signaling her to let go and challenging her to shine. For the uninitiated, these interludes, in which both men and women break out the moves that express their unique dance personality, are even called “shines.”
“Give me something, mama! Show me what you got!”
If this throwing down of the salsa gauntlet unnerves you, you can use body language— a death grip to the torso, for example— to alert your partner that you need a bit more than the current closeness. But whether you decide to answer the check-me-out call or stay safe in your partner’s arms, here are some tips:
*Eyes up. Eye contact can compensate for a lot, directing your partner to your pretty face and, if necessary, away from your hesitant feet. It also helps to create and sustain a bond between the two of you. You’re in this together, right?
*If fearless, full-on eye contact isn’t an option, focus your gaze on your partner’s shoulder. It offers the illusion that you’re at least looking in the general vicinity of his handsome mug, and gives you a base from which to launch those intermittent, semi-seductive glances that I’m told can be quite effective.
*Avoid staring at your feet. Or counting your steps under your breath. Applicable to all genders and dance situations. No explanations needed.
*Smile big. This will be a huge help should you inadvertently step on your partner’s toes. And when you unavoidably do, smile big and apologetic. Guys, it could be the difference between winning a second dance and losing her to the ladies’ room forever.
According to Joe, employing these small tricks may help you avoid the following damning-with-faint-praise assessment of your skills: “That was something.”
So, ladies and gents, keep your tushes high, your angles sharp, your abs strong, your shoes shiny, and your smiles bright. As for me, I stand in awe and reverence. Well, actually, I sit. For now.
Next time in The Salsa Chronicles, Jayne hears dance advice that sounds an awful lot like relationship advice.
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