Thursday, February 5, 2015
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.