Quick And Dirty Guide From a Salsa Beginner

After decompressing from a busy week, I was up for something spontaneous. Something to feel immersed, alive and in a different city. Just so happened my friend Mel called out-of-the-blue to tell me I had some lookalike on the tele. I could hear her husband Rod laughing in the background as I searched for “Jonas Brothers” on the Disney Channel. I did find the actress. And it was creepy. As we were talking, it dawned on me that I was speaking to two of the best dancers I know. They are the only two among my circles of friends who have actually taken lessons (swing, salsa, etc.) Within 15 minutes of the conversation, we talked each other into a convoluted plan that would take us to Chicago’s Nacional 27: salsa dancing. We walked in, got a table by the bar and ordered one of my personal favorites, caipirinhas. The booming music, chatter and element made me feel I was somewhere in Latin America – Sao Paolo? Mexico City? Bogota perhaps? I perused the menu and noticed the amazing dishes as I walked by to check out the dancefloor. Dishes that included smoked chicken empanadas, shrimp adobado with pineapple-vanilla salsa, boniato and plantain croquetas, barbecued lamb tacos, and variations of bamboo skewers, ceviches and paellas. Oh. My. Word. After an amusing, yet in-depth chat with James the Navy pilot-turned-physician at the bar, we picked up a few more cocktails and headed to the “club.” My goal was to hold my own. The dancefloor was already packed. I sat and watched Mel and Rod show me their dance prowess. It brought a smile to my face in reminiscing of our days at UW-Madison when people would clear the floor to watch Rod dance. And here we are almost 20 years and how many kids later, starting our evening at 11pm just to dance Latin-American style. They told me of the basic dances, salsa, cha cha, merenge and mambo. Though subtle, each had a definite style of its own. I’m thinking the difference is in the hips. Those who have the coordination can sell it; those who don’t …not so much. The simultaneous smooth stepping and walking with sultry hips and shoulders to an upbeat tempo — that takes focus. It was exhilarating for me to feel the music press against my body while simply people watching…from neophytes and laughter to polished serious dancers. Then Rod turned to me and took me out on the floor. Oy. Growing up in the disco era with four sisters who lived for dancing pretty much equated me with self-proclaimed coordination. Any confidence in that thought quickly diminished. Rod taught me his and Mel’s favorite: bachata. It involves moving to the side and ending with a hip thrust on the fourth beat. For some reason, I just couldn’t get it. What was my problem? I looked more like a Ms. Jazz Hands version of John Travolta’s 10th “Saturday Night Fever” sequel, “Stayin Alive”. My sisters would hang their heads. Mindless and freeform for him; focus and confusion for me. How embarrassing when we are surrounded by pros. The neat thing was everyone was in their own zone. After Rod made a few suggestions, I got it! Then he smoothly led with turns and spinning me behind his back, all the while, keeping the same counting and side-stepping with such finesse. Mel made a good observation. At a place like this, if someone comes up and asks you to dance, he genuinely just wants to dance. No expectations or motive necessarily. Just a polite “thank you” afterwards and heads on his merry way. With a ginger-passion sangria, strangers dancing with strangers surrounding us, it felt like I was on holiday. Nacional 27 offers salsa lessons every first and third Tuesday of the month. Guess I was a week off, though I notice it is holding its first annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta. A 2-fer.