As odd as it may sound, one of the best things that ever happened was being stood up at a salsa club. I had always presumed I needed a companion to go to a nightclub, but that night when my girlfriend failed to show, I discovered I could safely and pleasurably navigate club space alone. The setting was a salon on Broadway. La Belle Epoque, reminiscent of Paris in the era of Art Nouveau, had a black and white tiled floor, small round tables, wicker-backed chairs and a wrought iron balcony. I had learnt the basics of salsa many years ago in a friend’s living room and fortunately retained enough to venture out on my own. Little did I know, as I dared the dance floor, that hypnotic magic was being invited into my body.
Sadly, la Belle Epoque eventually closed its doors to salsa, and the dance fell out of my routine for several years. It lingered however, in the shadows of my psyche, like a latent seed seeking fertile ground.
And then one evening at a New York dinner party I was introduced to George, the charming owner of a Latin dance school, Stepping Out Studios. My eyes widened and a smile erupted as George handed me a pass for one free month of classes. Perfect! I knew this signified the long-awaited return of salsa to my life.
This time, I decided I was going to take it more seriously. I sought proper salsa shoes and discovered they have soft suede soles that enclose the feet with a firm caress whilst gripping the dance floor with ferocity – and yet remain too delicate to be worn on the street. Equipped with new shoes and excitement, I was ready for class.
After completing one month of formal lessons, I had signed up for my second when a friend introduced me to a venue that has since become my second home: Taj Lounge on 21st street between 5th and 6th. It thrilled me from the moment I walked in. The dŽcor is exotic and sensual. Large swathes of raw silk drape the room in rich color-saffron, crimson. Recessed booths piled with cushions are framed with ornate wooden latticework, circular tables proffer aromatic food and exotic Indian statues overlook the dance floor.
Since then I have returned every week to this place that feeds my hunger for movement: the salsa dance floor. Like great food, yoga and sex, salsa makes me feel ecstatic and alive. This “effect” is nothing less than trance. At the base of the music the drums weave a rhythmic web with beats that ensnare the dancer. They are designed to be hypnotic, allowing with the dance to continue forever. Overlaid are the melodies that repeat like mantras, deepening the hook the music has on the psyche. And why is this so important? Simply put, trance heals. In the depths of such a state, the whirring thoughts of the mind quiet and peace descends. It can feel like a wonderful relief. As I dance I feel the medicine of the music tranquillizing my frazzled mind and washing away layers of stress across my body. Salsa demands that I let go.
In essence the dance is a meditation in motion. Salsa draws its roots from the Earth-based spiritual tradition of Voodoo. This way of celebrating the divine focused more on what’s below the feet rather than in the sky. For them, where our feet kiss the Earth is the same level where plants take root, animals graze and we bury our dead. The salseros focus on the Earth because that is the source of life.
So back to the dance, each step of the feet on the floor is as deliberate as each sound of the drum. The rhythmic beating-feet on ground and hand on drum-remind us of where all life originates-Mother Earth. Salsa prompts us to pay attention to our hips and the raw energies that animate our bodies. The movement is inherently sexual, acknowledging we too are part of the reproductive world. It’s no wonder that here in the concrete jungle where the fertile Earth can seem far away and difficult to touch, that salsa feels so reassuring to me.
I was raised listening to classical music characterized by complex melodies that float to the sky, in the direction of a heavenly realm. Salsa, with its wild and wanton rhythms has an entirely different spiritual emphasis-it literally drums praise down into the Earth.
With salsa now lodged deeply inside, I have arranged my New York existence to encompass regular doses of this medicine. I am not just out at clubs or socials, I also attend classes. The school is a scene of its own. Don’t be fooled by the stereotype that Latin dance is only for Latinos. Every color and creed are present in New York salsa scene-united by the contagion of ecstasy bred by this dance. The technique is taught in bite-sized chunks, as with cookbooks that show if you read you can cook so too these instructors guarantee: if you can walk, you can dance. All it takes is showing up.
I return again each week, not just for hypnotic high, but the nourishment of the social environment. From castles to meadows, the practice of partner dancing pervades space and time as the ultimate model of etiquette between woman and man. It demonstrates how opposite sexes can relate in a synergistic, respectful, yet sensual way. This practice is particularly healthy in guiding men to treat women as artistic partners not sexual objects. All my salsa partners have been consummate gentlemen; the dance teaches skills that persist off the dance floor.
There are many other rituals going on outside of the dance itself. For example the practice of asking someone to dance, the subsequent acceptance or decline, the subtle signaling that one wants to be asked to dance, saying goodbye at the end and switching partners. It amazes me how I can dance intimately in the arms of a stranger for five minutes and then be passed along to another and another, all in complete safety. The yogic teachings of non-attachment and opening the heart are unwittingly woven into the Latin social structure.
Perhaps the absence of regular social dance while growing up is the reason we have so much social dysfunction these days, maybe we haven’t had the environment to practice behaviors that cultivate honest communication within a community and between genders.
In the movie “Take the Lead,” Antonio Bendaras’ character, Pierre Dulaine volunteers to teach Latin and ballroom dancing in NYC schools. When the relevance of his work to the average high school pupil is challenged by a narrow-minded teacher who threatens the future of his class, he explains the deeper benefits: “Now if your 16 year old daughter allows me to lead, she is trusting me, but more than that, she is trusting herself. And if she is strong, secure and trusts herself then how likely is she to let some idiot knock her up? And if your son can learn to touch women with respect, how will he treat women throughout his life? I teach dance, and with it a set of rules that will teach your children about trust, teamwork and dignity. And that will give them a vision of the future they will have.”
I appreciate Latin values for the importance given to dance. It delights me that the Latino mindset deems dance a necessary ingredient for the fullest expression of machismo. In salsa it appears that the man is leading, but energetically both create the dance. As Dulaine went on to say, “in salsa the man leads, or rather he proposes the step-it is the woman’s choice to follow.” The onus is on communicating beyond words. The overflow-as you learn to do that with another, so you learn to do it with yourself.
Partner dance fosters self-awareness in a way that is akin to yoga practice. As I fall into beat with the music and my partner at once, I feel optimism flowering in me. These movements also deliver me to the same place an hour on my yoga mat does. I simply feel better about being alive, the small problems seem less bothersome, and the possibilities life offers me seem wider. I feel reminded that people can mix harmoniously and that happiness is our natural underlying state.
The perks are many and myriad-did I mention that salsa tones and defines abs, arms and shoulders? I could go on with more reasons to dance, but at this point, words have no meaning; you simply must surrender to the music and the raging call of your body’s desire to move with another.
In New York salsa music pours abundantly from live bands and DJs alike. Like a Latin mother’s milk, it nourishes communities and reignites their aliveness with an ecstatic marriage of percussion and melody. As dancers we become family on the dance floor. And as individuals we become peaceful, delighted, self-expressed and a celebration of ourselves.