Tuesday, August 23, 2011
On Thursday night, Dallas Night Club rocks with the best night of salsa in Austin. I notice Layla, the Brazilian sex therapist, back in town, and ready to dance. Seeing her again made me think about how a seasoned salsera looks and acts. She’s wearing a brilliant orange sleeveless dress, with bare shoulders and cleavage. A short dress , well above her knees, with rows of two inch fringe that stand out and seemingly shimmer of their own volition when she spins. Her smooth, tan legs look yummy against the fluorescent orange. Her light orange, satin dance shoes have two inch heels. Layla, a strong-willed, exuberant dancer, will trample a weak lead. I love dancing with her.
The mental conversation inherent in salsa appeals to me. I love the anticipation and the move, the call and response aspects of just two people, making dance. Some salseras feel as light as a feather. Simply hit the turn signal, and they spin of their own accord. You merely invite a move, and they know what to do; they flow gently into and beautifully out of it.
You know you have a live one on your hands, if when asked if they can salsa, reply: "You lead, I'll follow".
Other, less experienced dancers need a firmer hand to know where to go. Dancers with less than a year in the clubs require that you give them no option but to do the move you expect of them. Dancing with beginners I call "Tipping Cows". If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of their hooves clattering across the dance floor.
"Want a beer?" I asked Layla.
"No," she said, "I don't drink anymore."
"Oh," I replied, "Why not?"
"The last time I drank, I ended up in handcuffs."
"Wow," I said, "you mean when you woke up you were handcuffed to a bed?"
Layla replied archly, "No. I ended up handcuffed in the back of a squad car."
"Oh, well, never mind," I said with a dismissive wave of my hand.
Just then, Raoul walked up, looked at Layla, and said "You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. Let me marry you, and I'll take care of you forever."
Layla looked at him skeptically, and said "I don't trust you."
"Why not?" whined a crestfallen Raoul, with love and hurt in his voice.
Stone-faced, Layla retorted: "You're Latin".
I met Michelle, a new girl I saw at Dallas for the first time the previous week.
I asked her to dance, and she said "Sure, but go easy on me, I have a phobia about salsa."
"Phobia?" I responded, slightly cross-eyed.
"Yeah, five years ago my old boyfriend told me I would never be a good salsa dancer. I recently broke up with him, and I'm trying to get back into salsa."
"Well" I replied, "Let's prove that sonofabitch wrong. I'll tell you what I tell all the new girls I meet: I need you to help me make you look good. You're the picture, and I'm the frame. You only have to do two things to dance with me. One, keep your feet moving, and two, look pretty. Can you do those two things?"
"Sure, I can do that" she said with a smile.
"OK, let's see if you know the basics."
I began the basic step. "Check".
Then I performed a cross-body lead. "Check".
Then a ladies right turn. "Check".
Then a cross-body lead to her right with a left-hand turn. She stumbled and grabbed my arms in a panic.
"See", she said in a plaintive, little-girl voice, "I can't do it!"
I gave her a hug, and said "Don't worry honey, it'll be ok. We'll work on it until you have all the tools you need," and I led it again. And then again.
I have done the same thing with more than ten beginners, and now that they are accomplished dancers, they still remember me as the nice guy who gave them a break when they were just starting out. Time and patience yields excellent dance partners. The following week, I asked her to dance again.
"OK," she scolded me with a finger, "but no scary moves."
After dancing for a minute or so, she leaned closer, and said "I feel so safe and calm when I dance with you. You're like my salsa therapist!" I just laughed.
Later, I danced with a talented, experienced salsera with whom I had not danced before. I did my usual thing, and our backs collided four times in a row. After the fifth time, I stopped and turned with a WTF? look in my eyes.
Unapologetic, she shrugged her shoulders, and said "I don't know what to do. Every time I turn around, you're not there. It's like a magic show!"
She looked down at her satin dance heels for a moment, and then back up at my face. "I know what it is. You dance in a circle, and I dance in a slot."
She had nailed the problem. I came up through the Cuban-style rueda, and she began with the dance school slot routines. After 18 months of non-stop salsa, I took Swing lessons for a while, so I now do swing salsa in a circle. We mutually agreed to take a break.
When I saw Layla the next week, she told me about what happened after she left the club that night. She had stopped at a convenience store in the early morning hours to buy gas. While she was standing at the counter to pay, a young woman, obviously flying, entered the store, and took Layla in with a glance.
"Oh", the girl exclaimed in an overly loud voice, "you must be one of those salsa bitches!"
She wanted to dance right then and there.
Alarmed, the store clerk, in a voice inflected with a strong Bengali accent, asked "Should I call the police?"
"No", Layla laughed, "she's right", and they danced in the aisle together.
Layla left the store with a shake of her head and a smile.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
My martial arts career began more than 30 years ago. Starting with self-defense , I moved on to Shodokan Karate, dabbled in Kung Fu for a year, and finally graduated to Tai Chi eleven years ago. My self-defense sensei was Air Force Colonel Jerry Robinette (Retired). Among other postings, he was Commandant at the Air Force SERE (survival, evasion, rescue and escape) School for two years. When Vice President Lon Cheney wanted to set up a CIA program to torture information out of al Qaeda suspects, he reached out to the SERE School for instructors. The SERE School trainers modeled their tactics after those used by ChiComm interrogators during the Korean War. The instructors intended to prepare present U.S. pilots for whatever detention tactics, including torture, they might encounter if shot down over enemy territory. One of the Colonel's tasks included making sure the trainers received the support they needed to carry out their assignment.
Colonel Robinette was a strict sensei who demanded excellence. Aspects of the the Colonel I admired included the fact that although he understood the power of carefully applied violence, he did not share the military's disregard for human life. For example, Major General Johnson, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq's Anbar province, described civilian deaths as a "cost of doing business".
The Colonel had sayings he had accumulated over a lifetime in the martial arts. He would show us a move, and then say "OK, now repeat 10,000 times."
Or: "The more sweat on the practice field, the less blood on the battlefield."
Or: "You're not a loser until you quit."
Or : "What you're trying to do is replace your opponent's consciousness of you with the consciousness of PAIN."
Or: "If you can sit up and get out of bed the morning after a fight, you weren't fighting hard enough."
One of the Colonel's comments profoundly affected my life. His advice: "Spend at least one hour a day on a subject, any subject, and after a while (he didn't say how long) you will become a world's expert on that subject." I followed that advice in my day job, and ended up with six patents.
As a former F-4 fighter pilot in Vietnam who flew close air support for ground troops, the Colonel liked the brutal, linear attack style of Shodokan karate. Anyone knowing the nature of the Japanese schools of martial art, including karate, would not find the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor surprising. Do not telegraph your intent, just attack as hard as you can, as fast as you can, and as soon as you can. After the Colonel passed away, I continued my study of Shodokan Karate with the Colonel's sons, one of whom was Micheal Dell's children's bodyguard.
One Tuesday evening, the Colonel stopped by to check on our progress. The tempo of the dojo quickened when he entered the room. He slowly made his way around the mats, asking each of us individually how things were going.
When it was my turn, I said "Yes, Sir, my skills are progressing, although more slowly than I want."
About six months before, the A.P.D. S.W.A.T. team had invaded our school for a year's training in proactive self-defense, and I had been sparring with them on a regular basis.
"I have a hard time keeping up with these younger guys," I continued.
He smiled at me, and said "Robert, young men as a rule are faster, stronger, and have more endurance that us old guys. So, in order for us to win, we have to cheat."
"Oh," I said, and returned to my workout, an enlightened grin on my face.
Eleven years ago, I began studying the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi, which is a slow-motion form of kung fu. Guy Forsyth, the Austin singer, songwriter, and musician, leads a free class every Monday and Thursday at ten o'clock at Strange Brew. Want a one word description of Tai Chi? Subtle. The Tai Chi masters operate under the assumption that a beginning student has already spent twenty years or more studying other forms of martial art, and now stands ready to study the fundamentals underlying martial movement. One day after class, I discussed the nature of karate, kung fu, and tai chi with Guy, who agreed with my assessment. Using karate, you take your arm, and beat your opponent to death with it. Using kung fu, you take your opponent's arm, and beat them to death with it. According to the tai chi master's world view, to oppose your opponent's force with force is considered rude and uncouth. Rather, one merely assists one's opponent in moving in the direction they were already going; preferably face first into a tree. Using tai chi, your opponent takes their own arm and beats themselves to death with it. Subtle.
Eight years ago, I stumbled across salsa dancing. Salsa has has now joined martial arts as my main hobby. I really love the universality of salsa. The salsa dance floor represents the most integrated piece of real estate in the City of Austin . On any given night, every race, every nationality, every religion, and all five sexes, including heterosexual male and female, gay and lesbian, and cross-dressing transsexuals (you can do amazing things with duct tape) are accounted for when the music starts. Come to the clubs, and you'll see what I mean.
After a while, I began to understand how my study of Tai Chi could inform my enjoyment of salsa. Many martial art moves embed themselves in salsa, like the pattern called Wax On, Wax Off. Tai Chi, for me, involves foot placement, so that if one gets one's foot in the right place, the rest of the move flows naturally. The same insight applies in salsa. Another similarity between Tai Chi and salsa revolves around the sparring mat and the crowded dance floor. In salsa, you not only have to dance with your partner, anticipate her moves and lead her to the next one in a smooth fashion, but you also have to interact with the other dancers on the floor. Avoiding collisions in salsa is just as hard, and takes just as much concentration, as sparring in the dojo. Multiple dancers and multiple sparring partners impose the same requirements for mental anticipation and physicality to perform safely.
"Louie", a former A.P.D. under-cover narcotics officer, was my karate instructor for two years while he studied for his black-belt exam. At the beginning of each class he would say:
"O.K., Ladies, listen up. We didn't come here to practice bleeding, so take care of your partner". I try to do the same on the dance floor.
Soon after I began dancing salsa at Ruta Maya, I said to myself, 'Self, you can work out at the dojo, and wrestle with hot, sweaty men, or you can work out at the clubs, and dance with hot, sweaty, beautiful women. What's it going to be?'
Now when I get home after a night of salsa , my hands smell like women and perfume, instead of boxing gloves and sweat. Verdict ? See you at the clubs.