Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Eye of the Beholder



A couple of weeks ago, I joined more than 150 other dancers to attend Robbie’s salsa event “Salsa Under the Stars”.  She booked an outdoors venue right on Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.  The moon shown on the water, gentle breezes rippled the lake, and a trio of D.J.s played a string of wonderful salsas.  In other words: a gorgeous evening. 

I sat with a salsera I call The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.  We danced several tunes, and when we returned to our front row table, I could see her empty wine glass, and that the beer fairy had finished my beer.  I asked her if she wanted another glass of wine. 

She said: “Yes, please.”

I asked: “What are you drinking?”

“A Spanish rioja”, she replied.

“Ok, I’ll be right back.”

So I went into the service area.  A young man of about 25 tended bar. 

“What would you like?” he asked me.

“The lady I’m with wants another glass of your Spanish rioja” I replied.

Holding up a bottle in each hand, he responded: “We have two.  Which one does she want?”

I considered him for a moment, then asked: “Which one did the Most Beautiful Woman in the World have?”

He instantly thrusts forward the one in his right hand, exclaiming: “This one!”

I returned the drinks to our table with a smile and a story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Last Thursday night, Favian Bustos and Fabricio Aleman led their first On2 mambo, salsa, cha cha cha class.  Entertaining and informative, the class comprised about 30 On1 dancers seeking to expand their dancing repertoire.  Robbie Sky leads a similar class, and as she pointed out last class, we must challenge ourselves to be the best dancers we can be.  Austin dancers, as a group, primarily dance On1, as this format is taught to beginners in most Austin dance schools.  On1, in my opinion, is easier to teach, and easier to learn, than On2, so the dance schools teach that way to maximize the early success of entering students.  As Robbie so nicely pointed out, the more styles one can dance, the greater the universe of dance partners available, and the more fun you can have at any given dance venue, anywhere in the world.  Makes sense to me.

Back to the class.  After a short introduction to the history of mambo, we got down to basics.  Here are my notes from that class:

Cha cha cha evolved from mambo in Cuba back in the 1950’s, and both are danced, and only danced, On2.  Mambo was reincarnated as salsa in the 1970’s, and can be danced either On1 or On2.  When teaching mambo, it helps to teach cha cha cha at the same time, as they are so similar.  I find it easier to hear the On2 beat in cha cha cha, whereas the polyrhythmic nature of mambo obscures it.
Musicians call the basic rhythm of mambo, salsa, and cha cha cha the tumbao.  Played on the congas, the drummer accents the beats on 2 and 6, which the dancers then use to locate themselves in the music.  Fabricio played the tumbao live on congas while we listened to recorded music.  This teaching technique helped me hear and focus on the accented beats of 2 and 6, making it much easier for me to maintain my timing.  Fabricio exhibited an impressive knowledge of percussion, and his drumming brought the tumbao into the foreground for us beginners.  I suggest that other dance teachers adopt this technique.  David Zygn has played congas in his On2 classes for years,  but I do not know of any other instructors in Austin doing so.

One big hurdle for me with On2 is finding the second beat of the measure.  I’m not a musician, and I have no formal musical training.  Instructors should not assume that any given student can find One consistently while the music plays.  I suggest that instructors poll their classes to see if anybody or everybody can find One.  Once you know where One is, finding Two becomes obvious.  If the class is unsure of the location of One, hand clapping on One for an entire song would benefit most students.  In my struggle to learn On2, it helped me when I realized that whether dancing On1 or On2, the leader consistently steps on One with his left foot; forward when dancing On1, and backward when dancing On2.  Thus, knowing where One lays in the song becomes crucial.

Another facet of On2 instruction bothers me.  As Fabricio pointed out, beginner On2 instruction typically involves showing the students the follower’s footwork, so that both leaders and followers step forward on One.  Several times in the past, during On2 instruction, the class began by doing the follower’s footwork, and when partner work began, I was told to ignore what I just learned, and do the opposite.  Why?  This stuff is hard enough to begin with, so why make it harder?  We’re talking about building muscle memory, right?  So why practice it wrong?  During instruction on the basic step, leads and follows should be separated, and each group taught their appropriate footwork, so no class time is wasted learning the incorrect step.  I understand that teaching the followers footwork to everyone is traditional, but it’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  Teach it right from the beginning, or don’t bother. Tradition is nice, unless it’s not.

Monday, November 2, 2015

I miss Dallas Night Club

          I miss D.N.C.

            Dallas Night Club closed in September of 2015.  Bill, David, and Tricia hosted salsa on Thursday nights for more than five years.  They built it from scratch, starting with a few hearty souls, of which I was one, into the best night of salsa in Austin.  Spinners loved the smooth wooden dance floor, and the sound system was first rate.  Kathy and Daniel hosted dance instruction during the early years, then Favian and Cynthia took over for several years, and Robbie Sky finished it out.  Many people learned salsa and bachata at DNC, which helped build the dance crowd over the years.  There was a constant procession of DJ’s, so the music varied as the play lists changed.  The variety of Latin music broadened my musical knowledge, which helped my dancing ability to progress.  My salute to you all.

            Now that DNC has been closed for a while, depression has set in.  Thursday nights roll around, and I find myself restless and unfulfilled.  I feel like a girlfriend I really loved gave me the boot.  I used to come home from salsa night with my hands smelling of women and perfume.  No more.  The front row seat I enjoyed for years has gone to the dump, along with my enjoyment of the new friends with which I danced.  Attending the surviving salsa venues in Austin only highlights how good we all had it at DNC.  Change sucks.

DNC:  Come home.  We need you.  We forgive you.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


"If my wife knew about my fiancĂ©, and if my fiancĂ© knew about my girlfriend, and if my girlfriend found out about my wife, I'd be in a heap of shit."  Ron Silverado

While at a salsa social at DNC last Thursday night, I met a new guy.  Well, new to DNC anyway.  He knew how to salsa, which made him an immediate hit with the ladies because he brought new moves to the mix.  Named Ron, he reminded me of my graduate school roommate, Ron Silverado.

When we met at Pace Graduate School of Business, Ron, or R.S.,  was 28 years old, while I was 26.  For the first month of the semester, Ron slept with his K-BAR, the Marine fighting knife, clutched to his chest with both hands like a crucifix (see photo above).  He said it made him feel better.  I was all for that.

Ron was proud of his service in the Navy, and he used to regale us with his war stories.  We were all too busy during the week with school, but the weekends were usually free.  Saturday night became story night, with Ron at center stage.

Ron told us he joined the Navy straight out of college.  He applied for and gained accepted into the SEAL program, went through their rigorous training, and deployed to South East Asia for a year's tour of duty in 1970.  SEAL is an acronym standing for Sea, Air, and Land.  I love the SEAL motto:

         “Fuck the fucking motherfuckers before the motherfuckers can fuck you.”

SEAL combat school encompasses training in all three phases of warfare, including underwater demolition, sea-borne land insertions, and HALO training.  High Altitude, Low Opening parachute jumps involve jumping out of a plane at night at extreme altitude, falling several miles in darkness, and opening the chute at low altitude, in order to land undetected by radar.  Ron said this especially scared him because he couldn't see anything but the stars rotating overhead, accompanied by the sound of the wind rushing past his helmet.  An attached altimeter deployed the chute automatically when the air density increased to the set point (he hoped).

I asked Ron if he had any more jumps after he left the Teams.

He said: "No. I won't ever jump out of a perfectly good airplane again.  Only two things fall out of the sky:  bird shit and idiots." 

Ron recalled his very first mission.  The Team was seated around a campfire when the order to leave the wire came down.  Ron was petrified.  He couldn't move.  The Team assembled to leave, and Ron just sat there.  Half way to the wire, the Team stopped, about-faced, and looked at him.  If he didn't go, he would be kicked out of the Teams, and likely drummed out of the Navy for cowardice.  He got up, and went with his buddies.  Forever after, he was the first man up when it came time to leave on a mission, and usually took point.

Because the Teams would deploy into the bush for thirty days at a time, the Navy hospital corpmen would issue the troops methamphetamine pills they called Black Beauties to help them stay alert and alive while on patrol.  Ron became addicted to the speed pills, so much so that by the end of his tour he had to wear a sanitary napkin to control the rectal bleeding.
Prior to one mission, Intelligence reported the likely visit of a Viet Cong tax collector to a certain village over the weekend.  Because they were universally hated, information from snitches on tax collectors was easy to come by in the War.  With orders to capture or kill him, Ron and the boys deployed around the ville, and waited several days for the tax collector to appear.

The Team Leader told them: "Let's capture this fuck alive, and we'll have a beer party with the money we liberate when we get back to camp."

This got a "ooo-rah" from the Team.

In the evening of the third day, the tax collector appeared.  When the t.c. began walking down a path towards the village wearing a back pack, Ron stepped out from behind him, and yelled "Dung Lai!",  ordering him to halt in Vietnamese.  The target took off running.  Ron had an over/under rifle, with an M16 on top and a M203 grenade launcher slung underneath.  When fired, the 40 mm grenade does not arm until it has traveled 25 feet, in order to protect the operator from a close proximity explosion.  Ron hoped to hit the guy in the back pack with the unarmed grenade, knocking him to the ground, but otherwise unhurt, as per orders.  Unfortunately, the target went a step too far, and the grenade exploded, blowing  the money and the tax collector to bloody bits.  The Team gathered around, hooting and hollering, complaining about Ron and the lost beer party.  Thereafter his Team nickname changed to Money Bags.

Late in his tour, the Team deployed to Cambodia on a secret mission to collect intelligence on troop movements.  Spotted by NVA regular army troops, a running gun battle ensued as the Team tried to escape.  They managed to get away, but Ron's training camp swim buddy, Steve, sustained a stomach gunshot wound.  Ron carried him to safety, but they could not call for extraction until daylight.  Steve bled out in Ron's arms while they waited for the helicopters to land.  Before he died, Steve made Ron swear that he would leave the Navy when his tour was up, go back to America alive, and live life for the both of them.  Extracted together, one alive and one dead, Ron kept his promise.

While Ron told us this story, he was rocking and sobbing and crying.  The four of us put our arms around him and held him in a group hug until he regained his composure.  After that, unbeknownst to Ron,  R.S. stood for Really Sick.

Ron mustered out a month after Steve died, and the Navy dropped him off at a bus station in San Diego with a suitcase and his severance pay.  At loose ends, and still amped up from combat, he bought a Harley, and began riding up and down the west coast with a gang of other ex-servicemen, raising hell, drinking beer, and taking speed.  After a nihilistic year, he quit the gangs and the drugs, cleaned up his act, applied to graduate school, and got a job.

His first job began with a phone call from his mother.

"Ronnie, your uncle Matio has been arrested and jailed in Guatemala on some trumped up charges and the police are demanding money for his release.  He needs rescue."

Ron replied, "OK, ma, I'll take care of it".

R.S. immediately flew to Miami, rented a speed boat, drove it to Guatemala, broke his uncle out of prison, and brought him back to the States. 

During his summer vacation before entering Pace in the Fall, he earned his scholastic money in his second job.   The job involved training Cuban expatriates in the finer arts of guerrilla warfare in a camp outside of Miami. His uncle told the Cubans about his exploits in Guatemala, and he landed the gig.  I met Ron at Pace the week after this job ended.


One incident involving Ron stands out in my mind.  I drove a 1965 Buick Rivera at the time.  One day, Ron and Lucky and I had arranged a triple date.  To get the car ready, we rode in it to a local car wash.  With the three of us in the car, I drove into the automatic wash bay.  In the middle of the wash, the low-slung undercarriage got caught in the towing mechanism, and we lurched to a halt.  We looked at each other, saying, now what do we do?  Ron was wearing his favorite silver shark-skin suit.  He opened the door and got out in the middle of the washing machine, coating himself with water and soap.  He went to the office door, banged on it, and loudly demanded that the attendant come out and free us from the clutches of the machine.  The owner emerged and saw Ron, soaking wet and covered with soap suds, ranting about the mishap.  The football New York Giants held their summer camp every year at Pace.  This guy resembled Hall of Famer Howie Long.  He stood at least 6'4", weighted about 265, and looked like a lumberjack.  Ron was 6'1", going about 190 lbs.  The owner became irate at us for getting stuck, and at R.S. for being over-bearing.  R.S. began to rant and yell that he wanted his suit cleaned, as well as our money back on the wash job.  A prepositioned, 4 foot long 2x4 leaned against the wall of the office.  The owner reached over and picked it up with practiced ease, holding it in his right hand like a nightstick.  Ron instantly transformed into a raving berserker.

 "Come on, asshole, take a swing, take a swing, I dare you!" he screamed, because he knew he couldn't attack people, but he could certainly defend himself.

As he was doing this, his artificial front tooth flew out of his mouth, and hit the owner square in the chest. (His original tooth was knocked out by his former girlfriend, Helene, with an old-school telephone handset when she found out about his wife, but that's a different story.)   Ron became apoplectic.  Recognizing crazy when he saw it, the owner carefully put down the 2x4, and told us to leave or he was calling the cops.  Lucky and I pulled Ron away, herded him into the Riv, and drove off in a spray of gravel.  Ron had to change his clothes before the big date.

In the middle of the spring semester, Ron got a job working as a bouncer in a mafia-owned bar just over the Tappen Zee Bridge.  After Ron explained his former life as a SEAL, the owner hired him.  One weekend, Smokey Robinson brought his entire band from Detroit, including the back-up singers, and all the costumes and stage effects to the bar and played his entire Las Vegas set for about 10 people.  Apparently, he had some gambling debts to pay off.

On his last day working there, Ron ejected an unruly patron from the bar.  The guy went across the street, retrieved his bolt-action deer rifle from the trunk of his car, and began shooting at the windowless, cement-block building.  Ron, having taken in-coming fire before, knew what it meant when pieces of cinder-block began imploding into the club. He instantly dove head-first behind the bar for cover,  colliding with the owner on the way down.

After they collected their senses, the owner ordered Ron to "Get out there and do something!"

 Ron shouted: "What?! Are you crazy?!  He's got a gun!"  Ron wanted to call in an air strike.

The owner fired him as they lay prone behind the bar.

                                                  A Short History of Methamphetamines:

                                                          1928 Nazi recruitment poster

Meth was first crystallized in the lab by a Japanese chemist in 1919.  He noted in his publication that the drug might exhibit central nervous system stimulant effects.

Twenty years later, Nazi war planners knew war with Russia loomed on the horizon.  The population of the Allies in 1940 approximated 400 million, while that of Germany hovered around 80 million.  As a result, Nazi war planners knew that order for them to win, the German soldier would have to achieve fantastical amounts of killing.  Thus, the Nazis sought a drug to allow outnumbered soldiers to stay awake for days on end.  A literature search for stimulants yielded methamphetamine as a candidate.  Nazi doctors synthesized the stuff, and tried it out on concentration camp "volunteers".  Repeated tests showed not only were the users wide-awake and alert for days, but to the doctors delight, with continued use they became hyper-violent and super paranoid; perfect for soldiers who needed to continue killing without rest.

In 1940, the German army shipped more than 35 million doses of Pervitin (their name) to the troops.  Later in the war against Russia, with the German army encircled on the plains west of Leningrad, it became difficult to supply the troops with sufficient quantities of Pervitin, so the Nazi doctors came up with a simplified field method for cooking meth.  One soldier in each company was assigned to make enough for the whole unit.  The cooker would make a kilogram at a time in his helmet, dry it, and distribute the powder to the troops.  Clandestine labs across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico still use this Nazi-developed field method.

 Ron's introduction to methamphetamines  was orchestrated by the U.S. military.  The Pentagon dispensed more methamphetamine to U.S. troops during the Vietnam War than the whole world consumed during WWII.  Reportedly, the average American soldier in Vietnam consumed 30 to 40 meth tablets per year.  About 2,500,000 Americans served in Vietnam during the ten year war,  so a huge number of Americans had their introduction to meth served up by the U.S. military.  The meth epidemic came home to America following the end of the Vietnam War.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The man who would be queen.

The other night at the salsa social, I danced with a drag queen.  I was the only guy who asked her to dance.  She must a stood 6'3" in her stockings, and weighed north of 280 lbs.  She wore very stylish, size 13 dance heels, and had her hair and nails did.  Her makeup looked perfect.  I must confess I found the juxtaposition of the little, v-necked, figure hugging dress and the curly black chest hair disconcerting.   I took her big hand, and led her onto the dance floor.

About half way through the dance, I thought to myself:  "Jeez, I hope she likes what I'm doing, because if she doesn't, she can punch my lights out."

After the dance, she gave me a smile and a BIG hug, so I guess I danced ok.

When I returned to my table, an incredulous Edwardo questioned me:  "Did you just dance with that fag?"  I nodded yes.

"Edwardo", I told him, "I used to give a fuck about what people think, but I don't anymore.  And besides, she's not a fag, she's a drag queen."


Thursday, February 5, 2015

It Takes A Village.

It takes a village to learn salsa: a group of people who begin together and support each other as they learn to salsa.  This is a story about my village.

Retta, my wife of twenty years, passed away in October of 2005.  Along with the pain and heartache brought by her death, there came buried within a gift.  That gift was salsa.  If not for her death, I never would have taken up dance.

I started salsa on D-Day, June 6, 2007.  An ad in the paper said "Free Salsa Lessons at Ruta Maya".

So I went.  I didn't know if the class involved making red salsa or green.  I honestly thought it was a cooking class.  I had no idea.  But when I saw the dancing going on there, I pointed at the crowd, and said: "I want that!"

I went for several weeks and just watched.  I was flabbergasted and amazed by what I saw.  The men and women before me, spinning and twirling to the music, looked other-worldly.  I began to take the free lessons they offered at Ruta Maya with  Esther Weeks, an Englishwoman who taught the Cuban casino style, or Rueda, which means circle or wheel.  I had two left feet, two left hands, and no sense of the salsa clave rhythm. I quickly discerned the beginners from the experts, and we began to hang together for mutual support as we struggled to learn the dance.  Over the course of the summer, our beginners circle slowly grew as new people showed up, attracted by the infectious music.  Since none of us had the nerve or the chops to dance with the experienced dancers, we danced with each other.  We struggled to remember the basic step, failed repeatedly to perform the cross body lead properly, and made ourselves sick trying to do the right hand spin.  The left hand turn lay somewhere over the rainbow.  In retrospect, it's a good thing we didn't know what we didn't know.  Had we known that it would take 18 months, or more, to learn how to salsa properly, we all would have quit.

By sharing our struggles together, our beginners group bonded over time.  To this day, when I see one of my group in the clubs or elsewhere, I feel a special bond of kinship with them. We offered a helping hand,  a belaying rope, a boost up as we shared the hard climb of Salsa Mountain.  Because we were in it together, we kept each other from dropping out.  We pointed out our errors to each other, which we could do without causing offense, because we all knew we rowed the same boat.  I can still feel the thrill I got the first time I successfully led the basic step, a cross body lead, a right turn and then a left turn.  Salsa!

I learned as I went along if I treated a talented beginner well, working with her as she practiced, I had a dance partner for life.  Several times I have met female dancers accomplished in other styles, but they had not yet learned salsa.  These women advanced rapidly, needing only minimal guidance to reach the comfort zone where they could relax and enjoy the dance.  Women who had no dance training, as I did not, had to struggle much harder and longer to reach the first plateau of advanced beginner.  These women especially appreciated a kind and patient lead who corrected their mistakes without belittling their skills.  Either way, kindness and patience have yielded wonderful partners.

Nowadays, when I see a raw beginner show up at Dallas Nite Club, I don't take the time to try to help them.  I want to see some effort over time on their part before any effort on my part.  I have seen women show up all gung ho to be a salsera, but after three weeks of struggle, they give up and never come back.  I am reminded of a custom adopted by the ancient Aztecs.  A new-borne baby remained nameless until their fourth birthday.  The mortality rate of babies was so high, the parents did not want to waste a perfectly good name on a corpse.  I feel that way about newbies now.  If they survive the first six months, then they are keepers, and I'll help them any way I can.

I have met women who divorced, moved to Austin, and decided to take up salsa for whatever reason.  After a while, when they find out how much work it takes to salsa well, they begin to look for other styles of dance that aren't so strenuous, like kizumba.

Occasionally, people I don't know show up.  A while back at DNC, I saw an Amazon standing next to the bar wearing a killer salsa dress.  I asked her to dance.  She danced salsa, but strangely. I asked her where she hailed from. 

"Sao Paulo" she said in accented English.  

She had just flown into Austin on business.  On the way to her hotel, she asked the cabbie to recommend a good salsa club.  He brought her to Dallas Nite Club.  The first guy to dance with her was me.  BTW, after some discussion she informed me she danced salsa with a samba flair.