Nights Out


The first encounter of underground salsa dancing in the West Village, in which showing up in two-strapper Birkenstocks constitutes the least of my offenses

” Would you like to dance?” A man with dark braids swinging past his hips had sidled up in a moment of inattention. The floor was divided and dominated by rabid partners, furiously circling each other, and flinging themselves about with constrained abandon in the cramped dark room.

” Ah— I am not a very good salsa dancer– I’ve never learned the steps…”

This is stupid to say. Even I know there are no steps in salsa. The man with braids had just whirled around the girl who had dragged us here after work, a Bulgarian national dancing champion on a mission and with unholy challenge in her eyes, and as they had clasped hands, she had seemed to throw her movements at him. He stood calm and still, but like water. They moved unnaturally through the heavy air, and conquered feet of floor together.

Then I gestured at my feet.

“Ja–also, I’m wearing Birkenstocks,” I said.

” Yes, I had noticed that,” he said with an odd look on his face, ” but I didn’t ask you if you were wearing Birkenstocks, or if you couldn’t dance– I asked you if you wanted to dance, and you only have to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that question, so —” he gritted out, and his eyelashes stopped their polite flutter.

But a dance class here and there, a stolen waltz in the woods…that was all the movement in the world to call on in a moment like this one. To look again out at the frenzy, and the sweep of each leg, and be grateful for the restrictions of the Birkenstock shuffle…

Time ran out. ” Next time someone asks you to dance,” he said in a low voice, ” –Next time, you say:” and then he held up a hand, and wrote me out of existence.

Who could have warned him about his predecessors that evening, Carlos, Lee, and also an elderly Cuban man who had not counted on such…artistic surges of energy. They had already been forced to stand back as an unnecessary confusion of dance instruction took the place of reason. The basic rules are on constant parade through the background of all dark places like this: firstly, the hands must be curved at all times, so that on the cusp of all abandon, the man can reach out and draw the fight in close once again. Time must also be obeyed, and its units agreed upon before the first strike is made. Salsa is a contract, and offensive by definition to those who have not learned to share themselves. Sweat lacquers the skin, and deserves only the mildest of amused acknowledgements, no matter whose it is or where it lands. The heat of the floor gets in the blood, under the skin.

I ramble all this and more to the next victim who stops by the table to volunteer for duty, (” i walked here in my Birkenstocks from a french opera in the park!” and ” do you know about the other cuban salsa dive around the corner? ” and ” –apparently its genetic, going red in the face like this, stretching back in my family four generations. We’re like that blue family in the Appalachians, but not blu–“).

He says, “Mama, you been hitting the juice? Yo, still, I like your Tuesday better than I like my Tuesday-” Then he has to stop, because my hair flies into his face. Accidentally.

Of all the dark crowded rooms that I am not supposed to know about, this one is my favorite.

Still, if the man with braids had looked down at me in my booth and called me ‘princess,’ for sitting there, in the underground salsa club, with my lazy shoes and strange apache silk skirt, and on top, my proud mantle of precocious ignorance and then maybe pointed at me to get out…

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
4 A.M


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