Present Moment essay #12: Salsa and Makeovers

Getting to my first salsa lesson took every ounce of imagining myself dancing with my most recent crush. I found a beginner’s class at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and shooed my qualms out the front door and into the car with me.

“You have no idea how to be a follower, eres una mandona” jumped out of my throat, followed closely with “You’ll give Latinas a bad name.”

I ran into the Ashby BART station and pushed my card through the slot and there was no turning back. Those voices hovered in the air, trailing me like they owned my heart. This was my chance to set aside the independence I so coveted and see what it took to trust a dance partner the way I trusted my business colleagues and friends. The expectation that all Latinas are good dancers was as foolish as the other stereotypes I regularly helped my clients unearth and release. Practicing what I preached was not always fun.

I exited the 16th station and walked down the sidewalk full of odors ranging from pan dulce, carnitas, and urine. On the wall just outside the Center’s blood-red building, a jaguar stood vigil with an outstretched tongue, daring me to enter. I boldly bought a four-class pass to stake my claim and climbed the dark stairs to the second floor landing. Standing outside the dance studio with a few other intrepid souls, it was as if we were going to watch a safe sex video before being tested for HIV. We avoided each other’s eyes and stood like wallflowers along the cool walls. The teacher, a dark haired, petite gringa walked through us and into the studio with her assistant, a younger man with short-cropped hair, a thin frame and large dark, almond eyes. A full-length mirror greeted me and a huge sigh escaped my lips. I am not one to run away, but that doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t pulse through my veins.

“Line up in four rows,” Ava said.  She then began, as she would, lesson after lesson, by reviewing the “basic.” The 1-2-3, pause, 4-5-6 pause seemed easy enough, and I kept my eyes and mind focused by whispering the numbers under my breath. The group was mixed and I was grateful about half of us were Latinx and all of us were less than suave in our moves.

As I climbed the stairs each Thursday and settled into my row of four, the ‘basic’ accompanied by Hector Lavoe’s canciones became a beat that eased into my body and reminded me the cadera is connected to the corazón. In the midst of ending my relationship and managing my mother’s depression, these classes became a sliver of hopeful challenge I pushed myself to stick with as I did my fledgling meditation practice. These two anchors held my bruised spirit steady as my doubts rose like swells in the ocean, tempting me to steer back into my past delusions.

A young Latino, Jaime, probably about eighteen, with cholo pants, an ironed white t-shirt, and a net on his head inspired me to keep coming back when my worries were close to talking me into watching TV. When we shyly smiled and placed our hands tentatively on each other’s bodies, we were gente, dancing for our lives. His hands guided me into a cross body turn and my body listened for how to meld our distinct rhythms. Like friends and colleagues, some partners like Jaime brought grace and strength and some stepped on my toes. My goal was to keep my beat and support my partner’s added challenge to lead me. I am not going to lie, I did at times anticipate moves, but I mostly enjoyed this rare chance to not make all the decisions. An errant move was much easier to correct with my partner on the dance floor than with my ex in orchestrating our children’s schedules.

I had never been complimented on my dancing. When Philip, the assistant, danced with me a few months into my lessons and remarked “Very nicely done,” I thought I could definitely handle having a lover half my age. That is, until the next meeting at the organization where my crush was a board member and I was a multicultural planning consultant. He charged in, the last to arrive, again. At the break he came into the kitchen where I was slicing up strawberries for the group.

“Do you want one?” I held the ripest one out, knowing they were his favorite.

He inspected it carefully. “It looks a little tired, don’t you think?”

“Come on. It came all the way from Berkeley.”

“Pues, entonces, OK.” He leaned in and grasped it from my outstretched fingers. Wearing a new skirt with slits up the sides and a more form-fitting red shirt, I was flirting, pure and simple. It was fun, a feeling I had tossed aside for demaisdiados años as I buried myself into obligations that washed away my passion.

“¿Te gustó?”

“Sí. Hey, do you need some help? Here I am behaving like a typical male.” He took the knife I held out.

“How are your salsa lessons going?” I asked, feeling my face flush and my breath stop.

“Fine until today. We tried to reschedule but I’m busy this weekend teaching a parenting class in Fresno and helping a friend sell jewelry at a pow wow.”

“You don’t stop, do you?” I said.

“This is all we have. Gotta take what the Great Spirit gives you.” He paused. “I’ve had a big disappointment recently that made that real to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

The strawberries glistened in the bowl he placed on the table. My fear of engulfment had scurried into a mouse hole, chased there by my outstretched claws of infatuation.

His long hair motivated me to grow mine as part of my life makeover. As difficult life events came at me, cutting my hair had been a way to feel lighter, to let go of memories that dragged me down. Now my curls embraced the power of memory, the sudor de mi esfuerza. Instead of clipping off my pain, it joined me on my meditation cushion and we rehashed old stories, arguing over details and using more than a few of those swear words I held in check when my twins were around.

My wardrobe makeover continued as I perfected my Susie Q and other ‘shines’ in my salsa classes. I cleaned out my closet of the last of my old, size medium clothes and went shopping with Ana, my lead in learning to embrace my inner diva. She ordered me to try on a pair of tight black capris at Rockridge Rags. When I walked out of the dressing room, Ana surveyed me with her critical style eye.

“You have a more traditional Latina body.”

“And that means…”

“Curves, breasts, some hips.”

“I don’t know, Ana. They’re not quite my size.”

I turned and turned, looking in the mirror for an image I recognized. While I shunned the rumpled, cotton uniform of many moms, I did not dress to accentuate my curves. Curves were dangerous. They were about sex and lust and uncontrollable emotions that only ended in trouble. Fine then. I was ready to see what a different kind of trouble looked like other than my family woes. Ignoring my body had brought its own measure of loss.

“You look great,” said Ana. “Take them off and let’s go look at shoes.”

I cheerfully obeyed. Being a follower had more perks than I had ever imagined. #52essays2017 #salsa #newbeginning

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