Twenty guys, or maybe thirty, in less than one hour. That’s how it goes with 100 people learning to salsa. We form two large circles. The followers (“usually ladies”) are the inner circle facing out, and the leaders (“usually men”) create the outer circle facing in. I can tell the teacher is unsure about these gender specific words. From this point on we are “leaders” and “followers,” which requires a different self-assessment. We pair-off. The music is turned up, and we practice the basic step for about a minute. Then the teacher says, “Change partners.” Followers stay in place. Leaders shift left to the next partner, like a reversed carousel. The next guy holds out his left hand to me, and we dance another minute or so until the next “change partners.”
The teacher has instructed us to smile. Some people don’t know how. Are they trying to look tough, or do they just have bad teeth? A few words may be said. “How’s your day goin’?” More often, we just move our feet and count out loud, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” just like Sesame Street.
There’s not a lot of space on the dance floor. Ordinarily, I avoid close contact with strangers, but here, I’m an anthropologist. (Think Margaret Mead in heels and a short skirt.) I marvel at the diversity, not just differences in color and size, but attitude, from self-assured to smart-ass to shy to awkward, attitudes reflected in the way they dance. Self-assured has done this before. Smart-ass corrects my position. Shy can’t make eye contact. Awkward can’t do the simple basic step. He is sweating, really sweating. Sixty seconds become sixty minutes. When will the teacher say “change”? Please save me from this guy who’s never heard of deodorant.
Then comes Garlic Breath, and I stop inhaling. Next is Sweaty Palms, and I dry my hands on my skirt. There’s the guy in the Cal t-shirt. “I went to Cal,” I volunteer. Why did I say that? He might ask me what year? I could lie. Who would know? Finally, Hot Latin Ballroom, with requisite gold chain, whose torso twists like he’s made of rubber, and I am Dancing With the Stars.
Two of my 20+ partners had a few grey hairs. The rest, I figure I am old enough to be their mother. I tell this to Gary. “Try grandmother,” he points out. I look around the room. Maybe. But I can dance with the best of them.