An awkward foray onto the Latin dance floor in Winston-Salem

by Amy Kingsley

My dance partner Juan releases my hands, points at my feet and starts mechanically marching in place. He vigorously shakes his head “no” and then flashes a wide smile.

“Try to loosen up some,” he says as nicely as possible. “Just have fun!”

I am having fun, actually, although I’m feeling a bit guilty about burdening my unwitting partner. Apparently I’d have been better off crashing an ROTC drill session than trying to learn how to salsa dance.

Not that I’m surprised. Dancing has never been my forté. I was in the eighth grade the last time I danced with a partner in public. I remember it like it was yesterday: The smell of middle-school gym masked by the sickly sweet of fog juice; my paramour and I tottering mannequin-like to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To You.”

Of course, that being middle school, I spent most of the evening standing on the sidelines, jealously snarking the popular girls and bickering with friends. The amount of time I spent dancing that night was blissfully short. During high school I kept my head down and studiously dodged every homecoming and prom.

But my favorite thing about journalism is the opportunity it affords to wade into unfamiliar territory. I’ve done plenty of that during the last year. But I’ve never been as dubious as I am tonight, trekking uphill to the recessed storefront with the classy tubes of neon marking it as the 411.

It’s a Winston-Salem nightclub situated on an incline on Cherry between 4th and 5th streets. Tonight DJ Paco is spinning salsa, merengue and bachata while the cadre of about two dozen novices to which I belong struggles to learn the steps.

Most of the couples have obviously been here a few times before. A pair of patient dance instructors circulates through the crowd, easing students through the turns and cumbias.

When I walk into the club, I’m notsure how much dancing I will do. I hop up on one of the high-backed stools hugging the darkest corner of the dance floor, hoping I won’t be noticed.

Not three minutes have passed before Juan, a little guy in jeans and a Polo shirt, approaches and asks if I wanted to dance. I nod, and the next thing I know he’s leading me to the dance floor.

“I really can’t dance,” I say, but I’m smiling and kind of looking forward to giving this a try.

The first move we try is a basic salsa step: right leg back, feet together and left leg forward. Mastering the mechanics proves to be the easy part, but I’m having trouble with the finer points of my gait, which can best be compared to a Clydesdale’s. Contrary to my lofty hopes, a half-hour of free dance instruction is simply not enough to reverse a lifetime of clumsiness.

Every so often, when he tires of being shackled to the worst dancer in the room, Juan busts out a hip-swivel or shoulder-shimmy perfectly timed to a musical flourish. All the same, he never gets frustrated with me, just a little giggly sometimes.

As it turns out, he’s been dancing since he was seven, since the day a heartbroken aunt in need of a dance partner swept him and spun him through an apartment living room.

“Ever since then, whenever I hear the music I just feel it,” he says.

It’s something he’s encouraging me to try, but I’m too busy trying not to stomp his feet to pay much attention to things like rhythm and tempo.

The instructors – a sturdy blonde and a willowy Latino – stop the samba music every so often to add the new elements. We start with the basic step and then add a cumbia, sort of a flared sidestep. Things are going pretty well until they introduce the spins.

Juan lifts his arm to lead me through, but even he can’t control my careening movements. Even though I’m not getting it, I’m having a pretty good time. Perhaps the dizziness is making up for all the liquor I’m not drinking.

We move on to the next dance – the merengue.

“It’s not hard, you just step to the beat,” the Latino instructor says.

Which is what leads to the whole pointing and marching thing. Apparently I should be shuffling and not clomping in place. Juan and I work our way through the dance, me trying to loosen up my hips a bit and him grinning and giggling at my missteps.

The instructors end their lesson with the bachata, a dance with a deceptively simple basic step. One, two-three-four. Step to the right, feet together, another to the right, then a left foot touch. It’s easy, until you compound the basic spinning movement. It’s the only step tonight that I’m patently unable to grasp. Eventually both instructors and Juan gather around me, scratching their chins and trying to break the step down into doable portions. Then, mercifully, the lesson ends and DJ Paco takes over.

The beginning dancers move to the edge of the floor while the pros fill in the middle. Juan is imploring me to dance with him but I tell him I’ve got to rest and take some pictures. He wants me to give the camera to someone else so they can take our picture, but I demur. Immediately I envision photos of my awkward movements ending up on some Latin dance version of

Instead, I make some excuses about deadlines and head toward the door.

“So I will see you again next week?” he asks.

Maybe, I think. After all, I do have a lot of dancing to catch up on.

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