The Dance I Loved: Salsa’s Siren Song

The Washington Post | March 1, 2004

By Leslie Guttman

I have been to just about every dance movie ever made, from "Singin’ in the Rain" to "Strictly Ballroom," and so of course I will go see the new "Dirty Dancing" sequel, "Havana Nights." But this time, I don’t really have to see it — because I lived it. I lost four years of my life to a Latin-dance addiction, one that led me to Havana and back three times. I am not the only one.

It started out simply. A neighbor, Holly, asked me if I wanted to check out salsa lessons with her. I had just given up ballet after nine years because of bad knees and was looking for a new form of dance. So I went, and I just fell in love with the sensuality of the music and the choreography, and what I found out later was the beat of the clave telling a story underneath the complication of it all.

It was fun, tangy and pure, like a mojito. And since I’m an American, I had forgotten how to have fun.

And so it began, lesson after lesson. It was the late ’90s. I was a bad salsa dancer at first, mystified by how people moved: elegant, sexy, spontaneous and calculated. Even though I have a hare personality versus a tortoise’s, I was determined to learn — really learn — and I stuck with it.

I would go to clubs and dance with Latin guys for hours, trying to absorb their sense of rhythm, encode it in my DNA. I was surprised and glad to find the clubs weren’t pickup scenes but full of people who loved dance and who were on a quest for the place athletes call the zone, where time and space fall away, and it is just the spell of the music and the clave, and everything your partner does is like what poet William Stafford said a poem should be: perfectly surprising and completely logical. And after about a year and a half, I got it.

But once you’ve visited the zone, you always want to return. And so I found myself salsa dancing about three or four nights a week. There were probably at least 100 of us who were mainlining like that. I could go out any night, even by myself, and hook up with my new salsa friends. We got our fix, and it was perfectly legal.

My taste in salsa music matured over time. I started out liking the pop salsa, salsa romantica, mainly because it was slow, and I didn’t lose the beat or step on anyone’s foot. But as I grew more confident, I began to appreciate the more complex rhythms of people like Celia Cruz and Los Van Van, the deities of salsa. If Gloria Estefan is pink chablis, Los Van Van are merlot.

Since I was hanging out with musicians and dancers, I learned about the Afro-Cuban roots of the music and its modern history, its salsiology, as the late sociologist Vernon Boggs called it. Things like how in 1950 the Palladium Ballroom in New York became the home of the mambo, salsa’s grandparent, with people tearing up the floor every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. And how a disc jockey named Dick "Ricardo" Sugar fell in love with the music and bugged his boss for a year to let him put a Latin music show on the air, first called "Tico Tico Time." Sugar’s show became a phenomenon that lasted about 20 years, promoting artists and building a diverse audience for their music.

And then I found myself in Cancun boarding a creaky, old Russian jet on Cubana Airlines bound for Havana, for an educational program to study Latin music and dance for two weeks. Because of the revolution’s commitment to the arts and the country’s historical ties to Africa, among other reasons, music and dance are as much a part of Cuba’s geography as the ceiba tree and the zunzuncito, the tiniest hummingbird in the world. The air is saturated with rhythm, and the women don’t walk but glide. Louis Armstrong caught the Latin tinge in Cuba, and one of my guidebooks says that 1 of every 100 Cubans is a professional musician.

I thought I was in paradise, studying with some of Cuba’s top musicians and dancers. But outside the school’s bounds, Italian guys bought teenage prostitutes like baguettes, and people whispered about politics because they were scared their neighbors might report them if overheard and they’d be jailed. One night, I sat in an outdoor restaurant in Havana’s tiny Chinatown and watched three drunken tourists gorge themselves and then start yelling obscenities at their waiter and waitress.

I saw Cuba was a country held hostage two times over, first to a revolution that no longer exists, and second to whoever flies in with a fanny pack crammed with dollars, Cuba’s currency of choice and, ironically, the currency of Fidel’s enemy.

And yet, nothing compared with the warmth and character of the Cubans I met, their strength, humor and sweetness. I saw people bearing up under terrible economic and political circumstances, still enjoying life even when family members were going blind from a vitamin deficiency wrought by food shortages. Still generous when dinner was a couple of rolls and a cigarette. Still happy for your success although they were PhDs working in cafeterias and selling stolen cigars. A friend from Havana taught me a Cuban phrase in response to "Como estás?" that translates to, and I will put it politely: "Screwed up but happy." In Cuba, I learned that pleasure is to be had despite whatever life serves.

Because of that I returned the next year to Havana under the same arts program. And the year after that on a trip that explored the country’s political struggles. Meanwhile, I met salsa friends back in the United States who had been to Cuba seven, eight and nine times. They were homesick for a place they’d never lived, a place where people still need each other more than they do stuff, and tell you so.

And then, I’m not sure what happened, I woke up one day and I was done with it all, salsa, Cuba, Celia. Maybe it was that last trip, and seeing talented, intelligent people in their teens, twenties and thirties trapped on that beautiful island with no future, inmates in discarded clothes from Miami relatives, shackled to a life of ennui and longing 90 miles from a dream. Or maybe it was like when orchid thief John Laroche tells Susan Orlean in the movie "Adaptation" why he just up and walked away from his obsession with tropical fish: "[expletive] fish . . . done with fish."

Today, sometimes I regret the hours and hours I spent in the salsa world. Yet what I gained maybe was more patience. Now, when I get frustrated with how long it is taking me to learn something, I remember how hard it was to learn salsa and how I used every mistake to improve. I also learned that no matter how beautifully decorated a prison is, it is still a prison. And I learned how to be screwed up and happy.