Rough Guides and Root Magazine teamed up for the 2007 Essay Contest. Thank you to everyone who sent in an essay. It was difficult sorting through the many colorful stories to choose just 5 winners. We heard about emotional experiences among fellow dancers that reminded one writer of her ancestors, an altered essay about the joys of the late '80s night-life, traveling to Senegal and immersing oneself in Sabar, and jumping into a humbling new dance form with humor.
Announcing the winners:
Our first essay to be published comes just in time for Valentines Day. By Rita Hargrave of Oakland, California.
THREE MINUTES LOVE AFFAIR
It was 2 A.M. on January 14 and after three pots of Sleepy Time tea and two Ambiens, I was still awake. After I climbed out of bed and polished off a pint of mango ice cream, I decided to reorganize my bedroom closet, a chore guaranteed to put me to sleep. When I opened the door, I saw my favorite shoes, red four inch heels. The strappy vamps reminded me of a forlorn Valentine’s Day last year at Roccapulco, a San Francisco nightclub, when everybody but me had a partner.
As a good salsa dancer, most nights I can stroll into any San Francisco area club and be asked to dance by enough guys that after 2 hours my feet have puffed out a full size larger. But that evening I couldn’t pry any of the good dancers out of their dates’ clutches even for one number. When I finally fell asleep around three, I decided this year would be different. This year I would bring my own partner to the holiday salsa bashes.
I had three weeks. Richard, my companion for 25 years, would have been ideal. He is a presentable bit of eye candy, owns his own tuxedo and he lives right here in the house. But in the 12 years I’d been going to salsa clubs four times a week he’d come with me-how many times? Let’s see—never.
I could have asked Maurice, my regular partner, but his wife wouldn’t let him near the clubs during the festivities.
I was sure that other women needed dance partners, so I decided to log into www.salsapartners.com, a dancers’ matchmaking website. I scanned the classified ad categories—beginner, intermediate, advanced and conceited. Under conceited Sean, a 26 year old Salvadorian mechanic (with a cobra tattoo on his neck) wanted “ a trim, sensual partner who likes to dance.” Under intermediates Chopra, 30-ish Pakistani dentist, a sunbaked version of Pee Wee Herman, wanted ”an empathic woman with rhythm and the right chemistry”. These guys were looking for more than a holiday dance partner. They wanted hot young things, a mixture of J.Lo, Janet Jackson and Mother Theresa. But I am not 26 with 24-inch waistline and buns of steel. I am 40-plus, a psychiatrist who dances to shake off the emotional fallout of dozens of gloomy patients. I subscribe to AARP, not Vibe magazine.
I didn’t want just anybody. I wanted a partner who plunged me so deep in the musical groove that at the end of the song, I had to hug him, press my lips against his ear and murmur “Oh, my God. That was great”. I wanted someone who could already dance Salsa, loved it and looked great doing it. I needed a guy who wanted to dance, not date.
When virtual Salsa dating didn’t work, I decided to work the clubs. After two weeks of cruising my usual haunts, my last stop was the Allegro Ballroom in Emeryville, California. Every Sunday night Allegro, a tawny converted warehouse in a mini-mall, draws a huge crowd, everybody from 16-year-old boys to 70-year-old grandfathers who started dancing salsa before they could talk.
At 9pm I stepped into the Main Room. Wailing trumpets, clattering stiletto heels and the raucous chatter of 400 people engulfing me . The D.J. played “Montuno Street”, the music blasting so loudly that the walls rattled.
I only had two hours to get the job done since I had to be at my desk at seven the next morning. In front of the stage I saw flashy dancers breaking out their fancy footwork, guys like —Ramon, a stocky Peruvian wearing silver tipped cowboy boots, who dipped his partner so low that her ponytail stirred up dust clouds on the floor.
I was determined to find a good looking, single guy whom I already loved to dance with. Two sweaty hours later, I had gotten nowhere. I’d danced with lots of men, asked a couple of them out, and been turned down. I reconciled myself to another dateless holiday season. As I turned to leave, a skinny Filipino man grabbed my hand and nodded toward the dance floor. It was Jerry, 5’6” with a nutmeg- colored face and spiky black hair. He wore a loose white T-shirt and droopy cargo pants. He’s been there all night, but he wasn’t the type I had in mind. I knew from dancing with him before that while Jerry was passionate and expressive on the dance floor, as soon as the music stopped he clammed up. I’d never heard him squeeze out more than a few painful sentences. Besides that he was 25: young enough to be my son.
“Descarga Total”, a hard-rocking Cuban song played as I eagerly followed Jerry onto the hardwood floor. I hadn’t found a date, but at least I would have one great dance before I went home. My legs were tense. I was nervous—he was that good a dancer.
Jerry took me in his arms, stroked my shoulder and I relaxed. We launched into a wonderful dance, our bodies riding on the piano’s insistent tumbao, and our feet chasing the breezy flute riffs. His eyes widened with delight when I followed his lead and smoothly completed a series of triple turns. I laughed when he mimicked Shakira’s shoulder shimmies. It was a 3 minute love affair with a soundtrack of throbbing conga rhythms. When the song ended, I closed my eyes, sighed and gave him a hug filled with gratitude and love. The kind of hug I reserve for Richard when he’d back from a three-week business trip.
That’s when I realized I had been making a mistake. This is what I should have looking for all along, this emotional electricity that arcs between simpatico dance partners. Why not Jerry? The passionate connection I felt with him was exactly what I wanted. Who cares if he didn’t talk much? But I did not ask him out. There was no urgency anymore. I was not worried about finding a dance partner. I would find a date easily, now that I had learned to look past the style of a guy’s pants, his haircut or his age.
Rita is a contributor to Root and runs the Salsa Roots website. In addition to Salsa, she is also a talented Tango dancer.