Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - Masks

There have been two occasions on which I danced with someone - a complete stranger in both cases - with such polish and passion it seemed as if we'd been preparing for the moment our entire lives.

The first time was in Santiago, Cuba. I was at the end of my 10-day public health mission and was sipping a mojito in the bar of a swanky hotel in the city center. A small live band played in the corner, predictably running through the set from the Buena Vista Social Club.

Strangely, nobody danced. That is, until the band struck up one particularly uptempo salsa song, straying from the tourist-pleasing formula. Out of nowhere a man appeared at our table and asked me to dance. I accepted, and we made our way to the makeshift dancefloor in the center of the bar. Only one other couple was on the floor, and all eyes in the place were on us.

Granted, it's much easier to dance well when you have a man for a partner who is a strong lead. Even that, however, isn't a guarantee that you will dance well together. There is chemistry involved in dance, just like in meeting someone in a bar. No matter how good the two of you look separately, you may not click at all when you are together. And so it is always somewhat of a gamble when you get up on the dancefloor to dance with a stranger.

That night, in the warm Santiago heat, I clicked with this anonymous Cuban man. We started out simple, a quick basic salsa step. Then the man discovered that I spoke Spanish, that he could give me little cues like "Venga!" or "Espera!" as we danced, verbal affirmations of what my body was already anticipating. Our moves became more complex, and I was able to follow each double-step, cross-back turn he led me through.

At this point we were really in sync and the entire crowd in the hotel bar was watching the two of us, clapping their hands to the beat and shouting out encouragements as we spun together. We sensed that the music was coming to a climax, one of those songs that was sure to end with a bang. My partner's eyes told me that he wanted to nail the ending. He began to twirl me, fast revolutions under his arm. I tried my best to spot a fixed point with each turn so that I wouldn't become dizzy and stumble.

Faster and faster I spun until he gave a sharp whisper, "Ahora!", then expertly hooked his foot behind my ankle. In a split second, he jerked my feet off the ground, sending me sailing backwards with the momentum of my turns. I didn't even have time to panic from the fall; I had already landed in his waiting arms, my back arched, one arm above my head and the other by my side, as if it had all been planned and painstakingly rehearsed months in advance.

The second time I danced in such a way with a complete stranger was at a Halloween party in Austin, TX. We were in a warehouse that was packed full of people, some in costume, others just dressed homegrown Austin-weird. A dj was spinning a great mix of Brazilian, Salsa, Merengue and Drum 'n Bass.

That evening I wore a black dress of my maternal Grandmother's from the 1940's with a matching black shawl that I attached with a spectacular brooch of rubies, aquamarines and diamonds that used to belong to my paternal Grandmother, a woman I never met. My hair was up in a bun and I had on deep, wine-colored lipstick. I was a vintage vision of elegance and demure style.

I had been dancing in a group wtih my girlfriends in one corner of the warehouse-turned-danceclub. We grooved and gossiped and sipped at free glasses of wine in plastic Dixie cups. A classic Celia Cruz number started playing and I felt someone tap the back of my shoulder.

I turned around and began laughing hysterically when I saw my prospective dance partner. He was a short man wearing an oversized, guffawing George W. Bush mask. Strapped to his chest, on the outside of his dark pinstripe suit, was a massive set of plastic tits with bright pink airbrushed nipples.

"Do ya wanna daaaaiiince?" he drawled from under his mask, extending his hand to ask for mine.

What the hell, I thought, and walked arm-in-arm to the middle of the dancefloor with the short, tittyfied version of our President.

From his appearance and stature, I was not expecting much from my partner. I figured it would be one of those comical dances, where you make complete asses of yourselves in lieux of actual coordinated footwork and proper turns. "Whatever," I thought, I was up for some fun on Halloween.

And so we started dancing, the connsumate odd couple. To my ultimate surprise, the guy was a strong lead, his hand firmly placed in the small of my back guiding me through some simple steps at first, then increasingly intricate footwork.

Maybe it was the wine I'd been drinking, or maybe it was the hilarity of the idiot mask and the size DD plastic boobs on my partner. Whatever the reason behind my high, I was completely in the zone. I was following each little step, hitting every spin, moving in time with this costumed stranger in a completely effortless way. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear my girlfriends cheering us on.

We ended the song with a tight, fast series of turns, our legs so close they were almost interlocking. I could feel Mr. Bush's prosthetic nipples digging into my sternum as we spiraled, causing me to giggle, but not to lose my step. With Celia's last belted-out melody, my partner pushed me out of our spin, held onto my arm and dropped to one knee by my side. He had some serious jazz-hands going, and I gladly followed suit. The perfect, Broadway-cheezy end to our moment together.

As the next song came on, boobie Bush quickly bowed to me, then waved his little hand goodbye and sprinted off into the crowd, never to be seen again that night.


Anonymous said...

a great read, ali!! i really loved reading this! ~ ruby

Onion said...

sounds like you had fun BOTH times!

Karen Travels said...

I don't know if I have left a comment to tell you how much I love your blog. Your travels and experiences (like these dances here) are an inspiration to me!!

Karen Travels

paris parfait said...

Ali, this is a very entertaining piece. I have a friend in NYC who dances like the Cuban guy you describe. He can make any woman look like a professional dancer, so expert is he in guiding his partner. People just stand by and watch, like your dance partner. Funnily enough, last night I watched Andy Garcia's Adieu Cuba! :) Great post!

Left-handed Trees... said... a seriously inept dancer, I was completely caught up in your mojo on the floor. Very visceral writing...loved it.

Rebecca said...

That is an amazing account...and what a contrast between the two dance partners. You wrote about it so well that it was as if I had beent there watching.I haven't been to a dance in years, and it is something I miss! Thank you for taking me there with your post!!!

Safiya said...

Fantastic read (not at all like a Hallmark card ;p). When and how did you learn to dance?

Bilal said...

this is a nice story:)

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love your narrative style here and your eye for detail, very entertaining. I love dancing too.

El Erik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Erik said...


Almost feel like dancing myself... On the other hand, I'll just go for the beer since I have grown stiff over the years ;)

Amber said...

Ali!! This reads like a couple of movies! That first one for sure. How cool are magical moments like that?? Something to tell the grandkids. I wish I was there to see it!


Ali la Loca said...

~Ruby - Glad you enjoyed the stories.

~Onion - Definitely, I don't think I'll forget either night.

~Karen Travels - Thank you. :) I think this is your first official comment here. I'm glad to have you as a reader.

~Paris Parfait - I've yet to see Adieu Cuba. I wonder if I can get it in pirated form on the streetcorner in Maputo...

~Left-handed trees - I *also* used to be inept on the dancefloor. Something clicked around when I was 20, and I've been a happy dancer ever since.

~Rebecca - I hope you get a chance to dance again soon, even if it is just improvised in the living room. :)

~Safiya - Hahaha. Loved the reference.

The process of me learning how to dance has been somewhat drawn out. I started in high school during my year abroad in Brazil, trying to learn samba and other carnaval moves, and I completely sucked at it. Seriously. I never felt comfortable dancing back then.

When I was in college, I hung out with a lot of Venezuelan and Mexican guys and ended up learning how to do salsa and merengue at house parties. I enjoyed that much more.

Then, when I was 20 or so, something shifted and all of a sudden I became a dance fiend. It was like samba fell into place, salsa became better. I don't know what happened, really, but now dance whenever I can. It's one of my very favorite things in life, period.

~Bilal - Thanks!

~Crafty Green Poet - Thank you, I enjoyed your Scribble as well.

~El Erik - Come on, I need a dance partner in Mozambique! How about this - we'll drink beers and *then* hit the dance floor. That will cure any and all stiffness, I promise!

~Amber - I can't wait to make my children and grandchildren suffer through these and many, many other stories. :)

Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

What fun stories, Ali - thank you!! I needed something like this tonight :) xx, JP

Kristine said...

I loved reading this!

Lacithecat said...

Oh Ali! What a story (or stories more exactly)! And I can almost see you - particulary in the classic dress trilling around.

Very well written, but just great story!

_+*A Elite in Paris*+_ said...

I loved this post! I need such a strong dancer... I need it again!