map Salsa

by Christin Rice

Published in Issue No. 165 ~ February, 2011

Kick ball change.

Kick stomp change.

Bend knee in, kick hip out.

Swing out, arms up.

Back in, arms close, ready to be led.

Firm frame fluid, respond to tension,

push off, pull in, spin,

ball and toes a funnel twisting into the
ground.

Bodies close, thighs caressing,

hand slips down side of breast, back, waist,
lingers before leading off into spin.

Back straight, head tall, a look of
pleasure.

Red dress black high heels black hair swat
side to side.

His white shirt black pants shined shoes,
until the long,

slow

dip.

Basic Step

“Baile, baile conmigo. Vamos,” the radio sang out from her Civic hybrid, the cowbell banging rhythm in the background. This song always reminded her of the first time she went to Estevan’s. What began as a personal challenge had become a way of life. Everything in between was a soundtracked blur of bodies, lights spinning on the hardwood dance floor and steamy musk.

Annie had been dancing now for five years. It had started as a way to meet people when she moved to Los Angeles, a city that spread every which way like an overturned glass of wine. It was 5:20 p.m. on a Friday, and all she wanted to do was go home after work. But the 210 freeway had sympathy for no one so she resorted to deep breaths and turning up the radio to remember happier moments.

Her first three and a half years of dance lessons had all been swing and ballroom: one-two-rock step, one-two-rock step. One night she arrived to find the swing class cancelled and joined the salsa class in progress. Hips moved independent of feet, a sensual concert she was sure she’d never master. It took a year of lessons with the same safe class to feel bold enough to enter Estevan’s, and when she did she came in disguise-wearing a lacy black slip dress and more make-up than she’d worn since high school. She wouldn’t have come at all except that it was the night before she turned thirty and she was determined to mark the close of a somewhat uneventful decade in her own remarkable way. The lights were very low and she could tell she looked much braver than she felt. The sleek brushed aluminum bar on either side of the room ensconced leopard and zebra print chaises, spots of refuge for the weary, and round black tables for thirsty friends to sit at and yell over the music to each other. The red carpet deferred to the wood dance floor, and musk, beer and sweat reverberated in the air. Wide windows provided night-mirrors for women catching quick assuring glances of their appearance and men peacocking their polished moves.

One drink to start, she had decided. But on her way to the bar a sturdy dark man asked, “¿Quieres bailar?” and while she was translating in her head he took her wrist and led her onto the dance floor.

“I, I’m not very good. I’m a beginner,” she tried to explain.

“¿Como?”

“I said,” she shouted over the loud music, but he was spinning her out and returning her in and it turned out they were already dancing. She concentrated-posture, frame, steps, smile-but by the time the song ended she couldn’t help smiling, beaming really, and her partner let her go with a “gracias,” and a slight bow.

Flushed, she turned toward the bar to retrieve that one drink, but was intercepted again with barely an invitation, more of a nod and firm pull back to the dance floor. He was shorter than she was, and she had to duck a little in the spin or else her head ran into his hand, but his lead was firm and it began to feel like all she had to do was step, step, step and he created the dance for her.

This continued for a couple hours of switching partners, never needing to pause between them, never needing to ask for a dance. Finally her feet screamed for relief. She sat at the bar and ordered a drink, sipping the Corona from her glass while watching the endless coupling on the dance floor, the shirts wet and clinging, the band playing on relentlessly. It felt like stepping into a world she never knew she had always belonged to. Already her partners’ names faded from her memory, but a few had smelled so incredible, their eyes so dark and intense, she felt drunk on them.

That night at home she soaked her feet in the footbath and realized she’d been thirty for three hours already. She could still hear and feel the rhythms of the music and made plans to go out the next night.

With literally hundreds of nights on the dance floor behind her she felt she could hold her own and sometimes much more, depending on shoe choice and partner. She never invited anyone to come with her, preferring instead the anonymity of being the partnerless girl who didn’t really speak Spanish. In the summer months when her skin turned browner she began to blend in, but if she spoke the illusion was gone. She had become familiar with the other regulars, but their exchanges were limited to asking, “¿como esta?” and never went too far beyond that. She realized these weren’t so different from the conversations she had at work-surface exchanges meant to highlight the positive in your personal life, how busy you were with work, controlled exchanges meant to position self for advancement. If conversation was attempted at Estevan’s- “what do you do,” “where are you from”-misunderstandings were many. But she didn’t expect to be understood in this setting so she couldn’t be disappointed.

It had been another long week of schmoozing clients with small talk and she turned up the radio. The memory of her first night at Estevan’s and a montage of others kept her company as she crept home in the evening traffic.

Man’s Underarm Turn

Patent leather shoes shone under the decorative disco ball that volleyed back colored lights on the dancers. In shades of coffee and milk skin moved against skin in an intimate way between strangers who would soon forget each other’s names.

He watched as the seven-piece band drove the crowd on and on, goading each other through challenging solos and then exuberant symphony. Horns, drums, percussion and voices performed their own dance, perhaps the most perfect of the night.

Ruben had been coming to Steven’s Steakhouse (which the locals called Estevan’s in honor of Sunday and Wednesday night salsa) for three months, faithfully every Sunday night. He’d spend an hour at home getting ready, obtaining the perfect ratio of scent to gel, shining his shoes, pressing his pants, and challenging himself in the mirror that this time he would dance. He would find someone like himself, a semi-beginner and he would ask her to dance. And then he would ask someone else to dance, and he wouldn’t leave the dance floor for hours rotating through partners to prove his skill just like he’d watched so many men do while he hung out by the bar drinking Corona after Corona. Goddamn, he was twenty nine years old, he told himself. It was time to get over being a teenager.

He’d given himself that speech for two and a half months of Sundays. At the club, by the third Corona he’d begin to feel he was ready, then he’d look for someone waiting to be asked. He’d take a deep breath, push off from the bar, then see her get snatched up by one of those who had already been commanding the floor. After the fourth Corona he began to feel apathetic and the fifth one left him feeling he might not be able to dance at all. He’d watch the band grateful for their excuse of entertainment until finally he left, vowing the next time he wouldn’t let it get past two Coronas. The barstool would not be his only partner.

The best of intentions and wild variances of motivational speeches to himself still failed him every time. The thing was that there were a number of hangers-on like him, doing exactly the same thing he did every Sunday night at Estevan’s: not dancing. Only he hoped he didn’t look as hungry as they did. These men made him worry about the possibility of ever having daughters that men looked at that way. If he had sons, he’d teach them from when they were very small to dance, to spin their arms out and move their hips; he’d teach them that this was natural, that to move their body in this way was good, that they could dominate the kitchen floor, the living room, any other open space with a simple one-two-three. He wouldn’t let them grow up in a house like he had, where his father left and his mother yelled at him and told him high school dances were off-limits: they were, as she said, “seedbeds of sin.” Her turn to religious moral strictness after her own father’s death by alcoholism (the T.V. now dominated by televangelists, the week’s activities now centered around church, more church, then Bible study) was what had driven his dad away-suddenly passion of any kind was suspect and he couldn’t tolerate the cage.

After his father left, Ruben had felt responsible for keeping his mother emotionally safe, sheltering her from his own teenage will. So he had complied outwardly with her insistence on a passionless life, but he knew when it came time to move out, he’d never give this up to anyone again. Of course, here he was at twenty nine, out of the house for a decade, his mother remarried to a pious shoe salesman, and Ruben still felt the hostile chains against expression.

So, he reasoned, watching the dancers and the musicians was so far from his existence as a stoic child that he had to give himself credit. It was an enormous step to go in the first place. The first time he went an old friend was in town and Ruben wanted to show him a good time. He heard the steakhouse was good for an excellent meal and when the place began flooding with plunging necklines and stiletto heels they stayed for hours drinking and watching. The following week he came back alone, this time to sit at the bar, closer to the action. After that, he often showed up for the free lessons that began an hour early, trying to build on the classes he started taking at the YMCA. It was just that this observing but not dancing did not satisfy: the cage door was no longer locked, but he remained in the doorway.

Closed Break

The walls were like sticky fly traps to avoid: lingering for just a moment too long there could lead to being forever stuck. Annie scorned the men that lined the dance hall walls, drinking beer after beer but never mustering the courage to move the required ten feet or less onto the dance floor, to risk asking someone to join them, an exchange of one vulnerable moment for a whole dance of participation. On the one hand, she understood perfectly the wavering on the line of dancing or watching, but on the other it seemed like attendance at a striptease: vicarious frustration. Well, that was except for the loathsome few that heard “Last Call” and in a feat of desperation unglued themselves from the wall in order to snatch someone before the doors closed. The temperature in the room rose and the panic set in. It took her a few weeks to recognize this pattern, how suddenly her dance partner’s fervor jumped into high gear and she was slurred questions about what she was doing with the rest of her night.

Because she had been dancing salsa now for a couple years, and because she didn’t expect a romantic partner, she felt entitled to a certain level of skill in her dance partner. There was nothing she found more exhausting than discovering she had just been asked by a beginner to dance and feeling obligated to smile, and then looking like less of a dancer because she was being led by less of a dancer. She strove to be asked by the really good dancers to dance, and these were the only ones she’d bother to ask herself. Otherwise, waiting one out was an opportunity to watch the footwork, so she could go home later that night to practice these stolen steps. But she never waited more than one song length, for fear of being forgotten all night long. Her original joy was a less frequent visitor these days, but she didn’t notice it much. She was too busy vying for position on the dance floor.

He turns, She turns

He drank Coronas because they were light: so he could remain at the bar longer, ever ready to jump up even if he never did. He would squeeze the lime into the neck of the bottle, tip it upside down with his thumb over the hole, and force the carbonation and the lime to mix. Corona was something he had grown up with. Before his father had left, there had always been a case of them in the garage, and a few singles conveniently located in the kitchen. But once he was gone, his mother purged the home of everything resembling his father. Cases of Corona were replaced with non-caffeinated 7-Up, rumba records were broken and thrown out, replaced by Handel. Ruben and his sister, Ariana, ceased speaking Spanish, the language of their father, and were forbidden to go to school dances. He’d sunk into this: a code of any kind was something he could anchor himself in, something to replace the structure that had fallen away. That was his chosen path. Ariana had a different idea. When she ran away at seventeen and moved in with her boyfriend, Ruben’s heart broke-she was so clearly flying in the face of the code, setting herself up for more needless pain.

That’s what he had thought then. Now he had to wonder if she had been more sensitive to her levels of tolerance and fled because she knew it was her only way to save herself. It had taken him a decade longer to figure out he couldn’t live in those confines any more. Now the process of unlearning was such a hurdle. How do you allow for or ignite passion after spending so much time and energy learning how to kill, stuff, hide, destroy it? How do you coax it back into your life, to live with it as if it were a natural resident in your life and not a mortal enemy? Just sitting at the bar didn’t quite do it. These thoughts were as heavy as his eyelids by the time he left the bar that night.

She drank Coronas because they were light and unwound her just a little bit without leaving her feeling muddled or without control over her body. She always asked for a glass, poured her Corona in and garnished it with a slice of lime as if it was a Cosmopolitan. The problem with just ordering an actual cocktail was that it would render her feeling less in control if she finished it, and if she didn’t finish it she would feel the pain of leaving it behind: so lovely, so expensive. But the Corona was a completely detachable beverage. If she was asked mid-drink to dance, she wouldn’t hesitate. In addition to leaving her in fuller possession of her body than if she had finished, she thought this made her look spontaneous, rather than uptight, as she might have appeared at the hesitancy she would have over abandoning an unfinished Cosmo.

Her mother had been a very successful lawyer, had fought all her career for the respect of the men around her. The only time Annie had seen her truly relaxed was after a long case had been won. She’d celebrate by mixing herself a martini and lighting a cigarette while reclining on the couch. Annie wished she could share in this private moment of peace, but it was always late on a school night and she’d be sent off to bed alone.

Cross Body Lead

Tonight, it was going to happen, he could tell. He’d practiced all morning the moves he had learned in class that week. There was one he was particularly proud of where the woman was brought close with bent elbows, held there for a dramatic moment, a deep look into her eyes, and then a slow release while hands slid down the side of her arms and back into a spin. It looked ridiculous when he practiced it partnerless in front of the mirror, but he had seen it done by his teacher and it was undeniably smooth. He sprayed Calvin Klein on and checked his hair again. In his cramped bathroom with the broken tiles, assortment of hair gel and shaving cream, he scowled at himself in the mirror and told himself, “You are not that person anymore. You can be somebody else.”

Outside Turn

She put the finishing touches on her make up and posed in front of the full-length mirror in her pale blue bathroom, admiring the way the skirt swished back and forth with a little whisking sound. The skirt was begging to be danced in, inappropriate for work, but very appropriate for a night on a dance floor. It was black with a slit that showed off her strong thighs, and her red top made her cornflower eyes glow.

At all other times her body was an awkward object that thwarted her desires to be seen as glamorous, elegant, graceful. But in the dark of the club, with heels designed to support through every executed move and a partner willing to direct, suddenly she felt a foot taller, leggy almost. It was a sudden propulsion into style, and desirability. She knew too well the women sitting it out vied for her position as one led on the dance floor. She watched with disdain the one woman leading the other. Even if they were laughing and looked like they were having fun, she knew they’d both rather be led by one of the men on the dance floor. Her ego fed on the eyes she knew were on her-she knew they were because she willed them there. In no other setting could she do this, produce this seductive quality, but she had discovered this was her element. Maybe it was that one year of ballet taken at the Y when she was six, at least that was her mom’s response when she casually mentioned over the phone that she had started taking dance classes. “Well, that’s lovely darling. You always loved ballet so much, always wanted to wear your tutu everywhere, like you were a little six year old diva,” her mother said.

The possession she suddenly felt over her body in response to rhythm was a heady experience, and she often felt betrayed when her feet started to give out, complaining over the music of blisters and stepped-on toes. She’d push them on and on, driving them to bloody calluses discovered later, until finally there really was nothing else, no more energy to give, resources exhausted. But the beginning of the night was pure potential for endless movement, and each evening of dancing began with this ritual of make up, dress, pulling her dance shoes out of their protected spot in the closet: black, strap around the ankle, pedicure-revealing opened toed heels. They cost more than any other pair she owned and made her spin so deliciously.

Forward, Back, Together

Estevan’s had an even more electric feeling than usual that night. It was the first truly warm night of spring, eighty degrees in late February. The women came dressed in a little less than usual and the men responded with even more attention. Annie’s bold red halter top seemed daring when she put it on, but now felt prudish compared to the skin tight, revealing numbers around her. She was glad for the lack of sleeves or clinging material after just one dance when the sultry night crowded. Someone opened the doors hoping for a breeze, but the night was still and soon her dark hair was sticking to the back of her neck. After just three dances she was afraid her make up was beginning to melt and she retreated to the bathroom to check. The bathroom was stifling, at least ten degrees warmer than on the dance floor with women crowding around the mirror patting at their shiny faces with paper towels and reapplying lipstick, so she escaped to stand at the side of the bar closest to the ineffectively opened door.

“Corona, please,” she ordered.

“Can I get that for you?” the man next to her asked. She recognized him as one of the multitude who watched from the walls.

“That’s okay, thanks,” she declined.

“No, really, let me get it. You look like you’ve worked up a sweat.”

“Excuse me? I’m fine, thank you,” she said and willed the bartender to hurry.

“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to say. I just mean, well, you dance really well, and it’s warm tonight and you look like you deserve a nice cold drink.”

“I do. I’m getting myself one right now.” She tapped her nails on the bar as if to summon the bartender’s return.

“I’m Ruben,” he said, giving his name and a smile as a peace offering.

She was surprised that the conversation had even gotten this far. It was her policy to only converse with dance partners between sets, otherwise there was inevitable damage control involved with the wrong kind of attention. Finally she looked at him briefly and said, “I’m Annie.”

“Nice to meet you Annie,” he said and then swiveled around to face the dance floor, taking a long drink of his beer. This unnerved her even more. Why did it seem like he was done with the conversation? The bartender returned with the promised Corona, and even brought the glass he knew she would ask for next.

“Thank you,” she said. She poured the bottle, squeezed the lime and turned to lean against the bar, facing the dance floor. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Ruben watching the dancers with intense focus. She looked back to the dance floor to see what was so captivating. Her eyes fell upon an older couple on the fringe of the floor. They must’ve been at least seventy, she decided, and they held each other gently, following steps they had obviously known for some time. He spun her out and then around, back in and they smiled at each other before their next move.

“That’s really beautiful,” Ruben said.

“What?”

“See that couple there? They seem so comfortable, with each other and on the dance floor.”

“Hm.” She took a sip. The beer tasted delicious and the cold slipping down her throat made her feel more awake. She noticed he was still watching the couple when he finished his beer. She wondered if he’d try to ask her to dance. She could tell just by the eager way he sat on the barstool that he was more of a beginner than anything else. He ordered another beer.

“Can I get you another?” he asked, but she was only halfway finished and shook her head.

The band ended the song with a drawing out of horns and the old man gently dipped his partner a few inches. They walked off the dance floor holding hands.

“I hope I can dance like that when I’m his age,” said Ruben.

“It’s not so hard,” said Annie.

Ruben turned to her and raised his eyebrows. “Not so hard?”

“Yeah, I mean, obviously they’ve been doing this for a while, and it’s not like they’re doing complicated moves.”

Ruben laughed, shook his head and turned his gaze back to the dance floor.

“What?” she asked.

He laughed again and said, “Nothing.”

“No, seriously, what’s so funny?” She stopped herself from stamping her heel.

“Nothing,” he started, surprised to see how angry she looked. “It’s nothing, it’s just that I was thinking, that’s really easy for you to say. You never leave the dance floor and in fact most of the time you’re in the middle, the most desired space of all.”

“Maybe I like it there.”

“I can imagine. I dream of getting there someday.” He gazed on the dance floor, took a sip and shook his head as if to shake away her presence.

His honesty caught her off guard, his eager face so vulnerable. It would have been so easy to reject him now, to make a sarcastic remark about it being good to have dreams. Suddenly she felt so tired. “Sometimes it’s not so great,” she said quietly.

“What do you mean?” he asked, turning to look at her.

“Nothing,” she said. And that’s exactly how it felt-like nothing. A whole night of dancing and not a single true word exchanged.

She looked at him, now he was watching her and she didn’t know quite what to do. She slugged her drink and set the glass down on the counter.

“Come on, let me buy you the next one,” he said.

“No, really, I shouldn’t. I’m fine.” She pushed her hair behind her ear and pretended to concentrate on the dancers in front of them.

“Please? I feel bad about what I said earlier, I didn’t want to make it seem like I was making fun of you. I’m too intimidated to dance with you, but maybe you’d let me get your next Corona.”

She paused, looking at him, searching his face for an agenda, a reason to leave or protect herself, but there was none. His face seemed open, and he gestured that the barstool next to him was as well. She considered.

“Actually, I’d like a real drink. Make it a martini.”


Hand to hand, to shoulder, to back, frame the
world in between.

Step side, push out, anchor her spin in his
left leg, centrifugal force.

Return to basic and one two three one two
three.

Eyes meet at basic, led into spin, then
together again,

quick quick slow blue eyes brown eyes.

The dance.

account_box More About

Christin Rice's work has appeared at Pif, Ray's Road Review, SoMa Literary Review, and Magnitude. Her writing has been performed with LitUp Writers, Bikram Writing and Quiet Lightning, and her story Bring Your Soul to Work Day was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She blogs at www.christinrice.com and has a fondness for basements.
  • albertine

    Lovely and amazing

  • Sonya

    Great story! It makes me want to go out dancing.

  • Melanie

    Stunning and gorgeous writing! I love how the piece is organized according to dance steps. There’s a liquidity and vitality to the narration and imagery that is beautiful. Well-written prose! 🙂

  • Bonnie Joyce

    Captivating! Thank you for transporting me for a few minutes today!

  • Daspruzen

    Wonderful rhythm and imagery – a terrific story.

  • Ron.

    This is really fine work. Easily relatable characters, carefully developed in a setting foreign to this reader, but familiar enough to keep him from being uncomfortable and distanced from the story. Salute.