A non-dancing writer takes a Salsa class with his wife and lives to tell the tale.
The whole Salsa thing started with my wife's friend, Autumn. Autumn is a Salsa-dancing junkie. She Salsas the way most of us brush our teeth, which is to say, pretty frequently. Recently, Autumn got Tara all fired up about how much fun Salsa dancing is, how sexy it is. Soon, Tara wanted us to go, despite the fact that I cannot dance, that I do not understand dancing.
Dancing, I am the title character in a short film called White Man in Terrible, Self-Conscious Pain. My wife, by contrast, doesn't do self-consciousness. Which I admire, no end. Preferably from the couch, in my own house.
But you don't always get to do what you want to do, in a marriage. Sometimes, you do what she wants to do (learn to Salsa) so you can do what you want to do later (have after-Salsa sex). And honestly, I was willing to be wrong about dancing. Maybe it would be different from the Karaoke debacle, when I put down the mike, mid-"Glory Days," after Tara kept signaling me to raise my pitch. Read: Dancing Can Improve Your Relationship
That's how, one Sunday, after a shot of tequila, I wound up at the Jimmy Anton Latin Social Special 16th Anniversary Party.
That Latin beat punched through the thin walls of the large dance studio and into the reception area, where professional-looking dancers bought admission tickets and adjusted stretchy Salsa outfits. The plan was for Autumn to give us a lesson in a nearby room, after which we'd try out what we'd learned on the dance floor. I looked at the casting call of expert dancers around me, and wished I'd shot more tequila.
A hitch: the nearby room was now a storage closet for the band. Autumn offered to teach us in the crowded hallway, just the kind of public humiliation that I wanted to avoid. "I'd rather have blood drawn than do that," I said (to clarify, I pass out when I have blood drawn).
My wife made a sour face. "Why can't you just have fun?" she asked. It was a familiar argument, my inability to have fun. We struggle with fun, because we have fundamentally different understandings of the concept. Tara measures fun by the amount of adventure in her life. Me, if I don't contract a disease, that's a good day.Read: Date Doomed By Bad Dancing?
Eventually, Autumn showed us the basic step (1,2,3—5,6,7) and a simple turn in the coat check room, while arriving dancers stared. I moved like a man with two peg legs.
The air in the studio was a marsh. Bodies whirled, hair and sweat flew. "Sometimes there's so much sweat in here that condensation forms on the ceiling and drips down," Autumn shouted in my ear. These people were not there to mingle. They were there to dance, with a ferocity that reminded me of a spinning class at the gym.
We ducked winging elbows and waded into the gyrating human soup. "Don't think, just feel the music," Tara hollered. We smiled tight smiles at each other. I was miserable, she knew it, and sort of resented me for it. I flailed through my basic step, no idea if I was keeping time correctly, aware of the men at my shoulder, waiting to show my wife how to Salsa. "Just feel the music," Tara shouted again. I nodded, but I could only feel my own discomfort. And then I lost my count. Autumn gestured for me to give Tara a turn, but I shook her off, like a pitcher who doesn't like his sign.
"Just feel the music," Autumn offered.
Let me say something about feeling the music, the cheerful lesson of every dance movie, and the prescribed wisdom of booty-shakers everywhere—this idea that a great dancer lives inside each of us, just waiting to burst out, if we'd only feel the music. I think I might more easily feel the force. It's, at best, meaningless advice, and at worst, a conspiracy against the uncoordinated. Read: The Dirty Dancing Guide to Romance
I gave up then, and watched another guy expertly twirl my wife around. I felt a kinship to Chris Penn in Footloose, pre-montage.
There was no alcohol at the refreshments stand (Salsa dancers rarely drink—they need to concentrate). For the rest of the evening, Tara and I sat and watched, like nerds at the prom. I knew I'd disappointed her, but I was too miffed to say so. I'd proved my point about dancing, and felt lousy about it. A girl with flashy moves kicked me in the leg as I sat there, a moment that summed up my night perfectly. Why Geeks Are The New Chic
I wish I could say we came together at home, that we reconnected over the shared awkwardness of the night. But Salsa hadn't sparked romance, or steamy passion, only steam. We took our usual battle stations: my general mopey-ness vs. her pointing out my general mopey-ness. "I hate it when you're so negative," she told me. "It affects me." Somehow a night of Salsa had become a referendum on my failings as a husband. I needed to make amends. And make a new salsa memory.
I got my chance the following week, at Session 73, on the Upper East Side. Ten bucks each bought us an hour lesson with other Salsa wannabes, before the serious dancers rolled in. Boys and girls were separated. Hector, a man wearing white, pointy loafers that curled off the ground and made him look like a Salsa elf, taught us dudes the basic step, the cross body, and a right turn. On the other side of the room, I could hear Tara. She was her usual effervescent self, laughing, asking questions, making friends. And I, practicing my bumbling cross body, was struck by how impossible my life would be without her. Read: More Evidence Opposites Attract
My pulse jumped when they announced we'd be rotating partners. I didn't want to dance with anyone but Tara—I mean, she had to stick by me, sickness and health, bad Latin moves and all. But dancing with the girls in my class turned out to be a tonic for my insecurity. They didn't know how to Salsa either. One poor creature, eyes downcast behind oval glasses, was too terrified to move. She bobbed in place, and whispered, "thank you," when it was time to rotate. And I don't like to brag, but one girl told me I was the best partner in class.
"Rotate," Hector shouted, and I found myself standing in front of my wife.
"Hi, I'm Tara," she said.
It sounds cheesy, but I think pretending helped. I didn't have to be that guy from before, that joyless wonder. I could be: the best partner in class.
"I'm Craig," I said, and shook her hand. "Nice to meet you."
The music started. I still couldn't feel anything. But for a minute there, for a few sultry counts of eight, we were dancing.