My partner and I make our way to the floor and do an about-face. I hold up my hand to be clasped in the ballroom stance. At first there's a little tension, as if we're standing at the top of a steep ski run, wondering how to navigate the slope. We shift our weight slightly, and after a couple of false starts, we're off-two-three, front-two-three. An easy turn-two-three, to warm me up. Next, a cross-body lead into the hairbrush - a series of arm-linking motions over our heads and around our necks.
He takes both of my hands, maneuvers me into a pivot so that I arrive first on his right side, then on his left. He wrangles me like a lasso, giving me double turns-two-three, front-two-three. Sweating, I break free. Peel a lock of hair from my face. Feet still moving, tush still working. Onstage, the flute tweets madly and the percussion clacks. My partner takes my arm again and begins another spin.
By day, I'm a graduate student, slogging to and from the lab, bleary and beleaguered. But when the sun goes down, I put on nylon pantyhose in the office bathroom, strap on high heels and an attitude, then head for a Latin club to dance the night away.
When I first got to Brown, I didn't think a Jewish kid from the suburbs had the cultural license to join the fun. I'd fidget in the crowds at salsa shows in the Underground, watching the roiling torsos and flying feet of the Latinas dancing in front. But more recently I've come to realize that cultural barriers don't matter - or at least that you can leap them with a good shimmy. In San Francisco, where I live, Asians, Indians, Germans, and Brits dance salsa alongside Latinos and Chicanos. We devotées dance all week at crammed, sweaty neighborhood clubs and on weekend nights at more upscale venues. We take dance classes from short, charismatic teachers who swivel their shoulders in bolero jackets and glide on their wingtips until you want to laugh. The schmaltz is part of the appeal.
As in other forms of pair dancing, in salsa you can be a leader or a follower. Leaders employ a mental stash of dance patterns they've perfected over the years. I haven't learned enough yet, so when I try to lead, I concentrate way too hard, staring vacantly past my partner and trying to see where the move will end up. But the suave salseros in their double-breasted suits seamlessly spool their partners from one move to the next.
I'm better at following, when I can dance mostly from instinct. My partner clues me in to the next step by nudging my back, lowering my forearm, or hesitating for a split-second - all while our feet are pounding the floor in tandem. When I register one of these signals, I must sense where my limbs and center of gravity should go, and then get there pronto. I try to do all this without revealing my desperate efforts to keep up, opting for what a friend calls the "salsa punam" - a deadpan facial expression of utter cool. I throw in the occasional flick of my arm and toss of my head. Saborrrr.
Well, okay, so the sexual politics of salsa dancing can seem a little outmoded. On a bad night, in a divey club, I may feel as if I've walked into a sexual war zone. Occasionally I have to ditch a guy who starts fingering my hair or a graduate of the bump-and-grind school. But I've found that if I project a slightly imperious air, most creeps will leave me alone.
Then again, there are nights when my women friends and I indulge in blatantly sexist clucking over the cornucopia of manhood out on the floor. Everyone flirts, and usually it works out fine. We all come to dance, to show off a little, and to enjoy each other's company.There is a certain thrill in rediscovering these gender roles.
So, I let out the throttle. I'm a diva, a showgirl, a street performer, a hip-hop star. The show goes on for hours. I stand at the sidelines deliberating, then get drawn in and dance until my face is streaming with sweat. Stalk off the floor to mop up, come back, head into the fray again.
When the night is over, I limp home, drink about six glasses of water, and fall into bed. The next day, I have to get up and face the office. My computer code still has bugs, and I'm bogged down in a math derivation I should have understood weeks ago.
But when my knees twinge in the middle of a meeting, I smile to myself, remembering my salsa persona, my salsa life. A pair of high-heeled dance shoes waits for me in the bottom drawer of my desk.