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Dance Your Way to Happiness

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I love to dance. I love to dance like most people love to eat, sleep, drink good wine, do adventure sports, or create a fine masterpiece. Writing is right up there for me with dancing, as is meditation, a fine hike in the alpine backcountry, taking a great photograph, or discovering a beautiful place while traveling in a foreign land. But for the most part, I find that I am the most happy when I get to let go on a dance floor. I prefer the deep, thumping beats of House music, which must be spun from a record, from a DJ, who loves the music he is spinning as much as I do. Not to mention the dance floor has to have enough room for all of me and my moves.


The one good thing my parents did (among many) is that they taught my sisters and me how to dance. They did so by dancing with their friends at parties at each other’s houses where all of us little kids would stand looking up at them and watch in awe. Then when we were at home, they would pull out their albums and play Lou Rawls’ “You’re Gonna Miss My Lovin’” or Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” and dance with us in their arms around the room. It was the perfect opportunity for us to feel close as a family, which carried on through the years. When my sisters and I grew older, we would dance on our father’s and grandfather’s feet at family weddings in order to get a sense of dance steps. And when my sisters were in grade school, my mom enrolled herself and my sisters in an all African-American dance troupe led by the renowned jazz dance instructor, Frank Hatchett (the man who taught Britney Spears her dance moves). Though my mom and sisters may not have been able to move like the rest of the troupe, they loved every minute of their final dance recital.


There is one style of dancing that seems to evade me and that’s good old-fashioned partner dancing. While my mother grew up with parents who went dancing every weekend with other socialites at the infamous Pump Room in Chicago, and my father later wooed my mother by dipping her on their first date as they danced to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” I didn’t inherit the love of partner dancing from those on higher branches of my family tree. Instead, while I was in junior high school, dance class of the partner kind was mandatory and awkward. The boys fiddled with their ties, we wobbled in our high heels, and none of us could take it seriously. We could only giggle as the instructors urged us to move closer while Sade crooned “Smooth Operator” from the record player.


April 20–29th is National Dance Week and to honor it, my girlfriend and I went Salsa dancing. I hadn’t been Salsa dancing since I learned it from a local Mexican man in Zihuatanejo, Mexico early last year. I thought I’d had plenty of practice loosening my hips from the four-to-the-floor House music beat, and figured it would be easy since Salsa also stemmed from four beats—but I was wrong. Way wrong. I was just one step ahead of terrible. I kept taking the lead, I couldn’t get back into the step after he twirled me, and he had to pull my arms in his hands to remind me to keep them taut and my hips loose. This Salsa experience wasn’t all that different, but at the very least, the men were more forgiving.


My girlfriend and I sat on stools looking down on the dance floor from the balcony waiting for the moment when the Salsa lesson ended and the live band began. She had done our make-up (her other passion besides Salsa dancing) beforehand at my tennis club in order for us to fit in with the crowd. (In other words, if I’d really gone for it with my outfit, I could have passed as “for hire” on a city street.) I watched the crowd disperse as couples started to form on the dance floor. “So, how will it work when we go down there?” I hadn’t been in the arms of a man for a while now, and my rare shyness was actually getting the best of me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It takes about thirty seconds to find a partner.” I think that actually worried me more.


As the Spanish-speaking band of fifteen members started on the congos, a wooden flute, and complicated beats to match the muy rapido lyrics, we clanked our dance heels down the metal stairs to stand on the edge of the dance floor. I was back in eighth grade all over again. Within minutes, my friend was led onto the dance floor in the hand of an older Latino man. When I felt a man brush by me and hover too close, I shifted over to the garbage can to throw away the gum wrapper that was weighing down my jeans pocket. Had this been a dance club or a rocking party among friends, I would have been front and center sweating like a dancing fool. But this was Salsa and men were going to ask me to dance at any moment. I crossed my arms across my chest.


The first man to ask was kind and young. He had a nice smile. “I’m a beginner,” I said with a giggle. “That’s okay, me too.” He wasn’t a beginner. I looked at my feet. “Look up, don’t look at your feet,” he said with a smile. I messed up our arm slides behind and across our shoulders, I kept missing the steps, but he kept telling me it was okay.


Then there was the next song and the guy that went with it. He was shorter than me and had garlic breath, but he had a smile that was authentic, which put my mind at ease. “I’m just learning,” I reiterated. He took this as an invitation to be my teacher and told me to hold my arms taut and to let him lead. On every other move, he’d do a quick whistle, which I interpreted as the signal to come back in to hold hands again. It worked, although I felt like a dog in training. This time I laughed out loud. He was so forgiving.


The last guy was a tall man from the Dominican Republic or the like. “I’m not that good,” I said. “I’ll help you,” he smiled. He told me to always keep my arms in front of me and to follow my hands in every move, that way I would never get lost. He was more of a teacher and he disciplined me like one, too. If I started to space out and look around, he quipped, “Hey, over here. That’s right, I’m your partner!” I came to attention. When we were finished, I thanked him. “You’ll get better, you’ve got the rhythm. You just have to let go. Oh, and be careful of that man behind you, see, right there. He likes to put his hands all over the ladies.” And with that he walked away.


During each partnership, I smiled and laughed on the dance floor. I actually had fun doing something badly. I even took each man’s suggestion and shimmied while dragging my hands down my hair behind my head and then down my body, a move that most of the other women had already perfected. “See, that’s sexy,” they said. What I loved most about the night is that it didn’t feel like any of the men were trying to pick me up or take anything to the next level. Everyone was there for one thing: to dance. One by one, we women were asked to dance and when the song finished, one by one we were bid adieu. It was a clean and simple arrangement and I liked it. After four dances, we were ready to leave, but we promised to make a date to come back again. I’d wear a skirt next time to emphasize my twirls and noted that if I learned how to let go a little bit more, Salsa dancing may just be my new four-to-the-floor beat.


Bay Area National Dance Week happens every year in April. Every dance class, performance, and public dance get-together is free. The week was launched by Dance Anywhere, a form of free expression that encouraged everyone to dance anywhere in the world at a particular moment on that day.

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