“Levanta, levanta. Tienes que bailar.” ~Sublime
I don’t know how to put this humbly, but I like to consider myself a pretty good dancer.
Then I came to Buenos Aires.
Since I can’t even completely speak the language yet and offended streetfuls of people my second day in town by drinking orange juice from a bottle without using a straw – which apparently signifies fellatio here – I’m not sure why I thought dancing would help me stand out less.
At the Katy Perry concert, Jess, Angie and I had been on our turf. I’m still trying to figure out why it was more socially acceptable for her to hold her microphone between her legs while she and an extremely aggressive porteña behind us shouted, “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock,” than for me to get my daily dose of vitamin C sans straw, but we knew the music and how to dance to it. We even stole 30 seconds of DJ Skeet Skeet’s 45 minutes of fame when we turned out to be the only ones in the audience familiar with “How Many Licks” and the “Tootsee Roll.”
But when we showed up for salsa and tango lessons on my first Friday night in town, we were definitely on their turf. First up was the salsa, which looks easy enough but is deceptively fast. If you don’t step just the right way, you and your partner will knock into each other.
My first few partners, as well as the instructor, definitely questioned my motor skills.
“I’m better than this, I swear,” I wanted to say.
But I was too preoccupied with trying to keep count in my head – “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3” – to think of how to say this not only in Spanish but in Argentine Spanish. For reasons I have yet to ascertain, the entire country banded together many years ago and decided to make up its own rules for conjugation, diction and pronunciation.
In high school, my friends and I would have had a ball with pronouncing “y” and “ll” as “sh,” as they do here, since those were our school initials and we used to maturely put them in front of everything – sheniors, shockey, shalloween, shprom, shetc. But since we learned the opposite pronunciation back in Spanish class, it’s now sheriously derailing my goal to master cas-tay-SHA-no. The dance lessons we took as “gym class” in high school also didn’t prepare me as well as I’d hoped.
I’m only now realizing after typing that last paragraph why I couldn’t trick any of my dance partners – Argentine men ages 20 to 60 – into thinking I was una porteña.
I definitely said, “Como te YA-mas?” to all of them to ask their names instead of, “Como te SHA-mas?”
Great. So they also thought I was brain-dead.
After aggravated tips from every one of them, I eventually got the hang of not only the salsa but also how to gracefully accept constructive criticism. Since we learned just one step, though, it got a little repetitive on the calves to be sustainable for more than a few songs.
But the tango. Ay Dios mío. I always knew what it was, but there was something about seeing it in person that was absolutely intoxicating. And we weren’t even at an actual tango show with the costumes and choreography. This was just normal people and a few instructors dancing in a sweaty, crowded basement. Yet it was smooth, clean, seductive.
In the beginner’s group, we learned the seven basic steps and two variations of how to order them. Although numerous times I forgot which foot to slide next, I picked it up much more easily than the salsa. And it felt amazing.
It was also an interesting exercise in trust, as our instructors drilled into the women that we needed to trust our partners to lead – a trust I don’t give up so naturally, especially in a foreign country with men I didn’t know and my creepy 60-year-old partner asking me for the name of my street.
Luckily, though, I still have one of the younger partners determined to help me grasp this trust concept via Facebook chat.
“hello little dancer..!!”
I was in the middle of trying to figure out whether he was misquoting Elton John or giving me a Native American name when he started quizzing me on this trust principle.
“que te acordas de la clase de tango..? con detalles..!!” (“what do you remember from tango class..? with details..!!)
I must not have responded adequately because he responded quite vehemently.
“que tenes que confiar en el hombre…Y ESO ES EN LA VIDA TAMBIEN, EN TODO SENTIDO….” (that you have to trust in the man…AND THAT IS IN LIFE TOO, IN EVERY SENSE….”)
Yikes. Very serious about their dancing down here. He also shared with me another life lesson – that nothing is free – after I politely declined his generous offer to pay him for Spanish lessons.
After the salsa and tango lessons, everyone took to the floor to practice what they had learned. A slower tempo than the salsa, the tango could be danced for hours. And it was.
As I watched the various couples who had come together to spend their Friday nights gliding around the dance floor, it looked much more intimate than, say, going to the movies or blacking out at a bar. I quickly decided on a new requirement for any future relationships – non-tango instructors need not apply.
I have a paralyzing fear of growing older, settling down and lying awake at night – bored. I found an antidote in this basement.
Since I don’t have a cell phone or any kind of timepiece here – Eckhart Tolle should add this strategy to his “The Power of Now” book – I asked someone for the time. We’d arrived at 9 p.m., so I was guessing it was around midnight.
“4 a.m.,” the 55-year-old man said.
In the words of a profound popular song down here:
“La gente está muy loca. What the fuck?” ~Sak Noel
I did the math. Seven hours. We’d spent seven hours in a basement dancing the salsa and tango. Tolle would have been proud.
And when we, the youngest people there, were yawning and ready for bed, the hall was still packed with middle-aged couples dancing away. At 4 a.m. – which was only 3 a.m. back in Philadelphia – I couldn’t think of one parent I knew who was up dancing back at home. Except maybe my zippy 85-year-old Canadian grandmother, who dances four nights a week and whom I have much more respect and appreciation for now. It was a mind-blowing epiphany.
I am going to chalk some of it up to what I call the elixir of life. For anyone who knows me, I’m obsessed with fresh-squeezed orange juice. For anyone who studied abroad in Spain with me, I was obsessed with the machines that made it at all the cafes and restaurants there. Luckily, they seem to be everywhere here, too – including this dark basement dance hall. It was a beautiful paradox.
I traded in my vino for vodka and vibrant fresh-squeezed OJ and instantly became – in the words of Cher from “Clueless” – “sublimely happy.” I even forgot about the woman who’d nearly broken my foot moments earlier with her stiletto.
But the rest I must attribute to the tango.
I had been doubtful when I entered the basement, which resembled what I’d imagine a VFW hall to look like. Or the dingiest CYO gym you can think of.
“I’m going to spend my Friday night acá?”
Apparently “aquí” doesn’t exist in Argentine Spanish either.
Where were the flashing lights like the discotecas in Spain? We used to stay there until 7 a.m., but that made sense. There were lasers; there were stages; there was Rihanna.
It was baffling. Yet amazing. Entonces, my future husband – if not a tango instructor so he can turn me into a star – has to at least be down to stay up until 4 a.m. dancing.
“We’ll be young forever.” ~Katy Perry
My grandma did look about 60 the last time I saw her …
“Oh, how I feel alive. And through autumn’s advancing, we’ll stay young, go dancing.” ~Death Cab for Cutie (Thanks, Peesie!)
Saturday night turned out to be another mortifying yet liberating dance lesson. We were going to a boliche – a club – and beforehand to the apartment of a group of Argentine girls whom Jess and Angie play field hockey with. I was excited to hang out with real live porteñas and see what a night out here was like for non-tourists.
In sum, everything felt a lot cooler than at home, and I felt as if I were ready for a 6-year-old’s birthday party. Once again, I kicked myself for my recent haircut as I scanned the room and the locks cascading down their backs.
I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, and they didn’t seem to understand why anyone would move to their city just for the hell of it. Most of them were very nice, but it was hard to tell whether others were being overly friendly or mocking us for our inferior Spanish and U.S. style.
It’s funny how the same things that will make you “cool” in one culture can make you feel uncool in another. Transporting me back to Sociology 101, it underlined how our societies are merely creations, yet how powerful these mere creations become and act on us in turn.
My dad would’ve been styling, though, as a few girls rolled in rocking jean shirts.
And then the dancing started. I’d been wondering the night before how young people actually danced when they went out, and now I was about to find out.
My conclusion is that Argentine girls use a lot more tools from their belts to dance than U.S. girls do. While we tend to stick with the upper body – extending our arms to the side, in front of us and – if we’re really daring – all the way up in the air – they employ the lower body as well.
Hips, for example. Not only do girls here acknowledge they have hips, but they also know how to use them. For those of us from the United States who have denied the onset of hips for as long as humanly or surgically possible:
Hips (noun): the laterally projecting region of each side of the lower or posterior part of the mammalian trunk formed by the lateral parts of the pelvis and upper part of the femur together with the fleshy parts covering them.
Mammalian trunk? Fleshy parts? Seriously reconsidering Merriam-Webster as my preferred dictionary right now, but I hope you get the picture.
The girls here also wield the full range of their knees. For example, some enjoy incorporating an exotic move I’d never seen before in which they drop down and kind of bop around on the floor in little balls for a bit.
Box-stepping alone in the corner, I felt like Sara in “Save the Last Dance” during her first time at Stepps. And there was actually a girl named Nikki at the apartment.
“What she doing? Two-stepping?”
We drove to the bar at 2 a.m., when bars at home would be closing. No wonder these girls can eat empanadas and drink regular coke before going out. Because instead of sleeping, they add a four-hour ab workout to their night.
The club was what I’d been looking for the night before. As I remember wondering in Spain, why haven’t more parts of the United States caught on to this kind of nightlife?
One guess would be because it would require boys at home to learn how to dance. And by dancing, I don’t mean jumping up and down, screaming unintelligibly and pouring beer on one another.
Lucky for all of us, I’ve come up with a solution. As we debate how to reform our failing education system, I propose that we add dance class to the curriculum. And not this kind – http://www.worldstarhiphop.com/videos/video.php?v=wshhy8801t7C1OSW49CP – although, coincidentally enough, the kids in the video might very well be at Stepps, as the song playing in the background sounds a lot like “Murder She Wrote.”
I think sports – how many boys forfeit most of their time – are an important part of any culture. But I think that there can be some restructuring around the time of late adolescence when the number of people who can participate in organized sports drops because we can’t all fulfill our childhood dreams of becoming professional athletes.
Professional sports are exciting to watch and foster solidarity, and intramural sports are positive for social and exercise purposes. But at our age, the energy and dedication devoted to them is borderline ridiculous. And don’t even get me started on fantasy sports. Someone needs to remind these boys that they aren’t actually members of the pro teams, the results of intramural sports don’t really matter and, well, fantasy sports aren’t real.
Neither are video games as, according to a recent CNN article,
“Today, 18-to- 34-year-old men spend more time playing video games a day than 12-to- 17-year-old boys.”
To quote Cher again:
“So OK, I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all … [but] like, we’re supposed to swoon? I don’t think so!”
I’m not suggesting the abolishment of these games. But I wonder if part of the energy dedicated them could be channeled instead to learning how to dance. U.S. girls are by no means pros, but we are at least usually the ones on the dance floor trying. And I think we could continue to improve with suitable partners to dance with.
The manifest consequence of such a dancing initiative is that it would make everyone substantially more attractive. Latent consequences include:
- Protecting our future daughters from being humped at a middle school dance to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (Still recovering from that one).
- Shielding our future sons from much-deserved ridicule for painfully awkward attempts at aforementioned grinding aka ridiculously swinging their hips from side to side like Zoolander in the underwear part of the walk-off scene.
- Reducing the likelihood of blacking out before social events at college campuses nationwide because the night wouldn’t be centered around drinking and because adolescents would be more confident in their dancing skills and, therefore, require less liquid courage.
- Tackling the obesity epidemic and other health-related issues that are on the rise across the country.
- Improving mental health. To quote another one of my favorite blondes, Elle Woods: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins makes you happy.”
- Promoting healthier body images among girls. Hips, which we’re socialized to loathe, suddenly become a dancing necessity.
I already feel like a better person for having my dance horizons expanded three times in one weekend, and I think others would too.
Although I must say, I was seriously grateful for a brief respite from this growth when we walked into the club and heard the music. It was the highlights of middle school dances: Britney Spears’ “Crazy,” Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over,” and the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.” This I knew how to dance to. It was nice to not feel handicapped for an hour.
But then the music changed to more local songs, and it became time to brush the dust off my hips and awaken them from their 23-year slumber. And just like the night before, I turned out to love it.
See, what we have to remember about Sara is that, by the end of the movie, she and Derek steal the show at Stepps with their choreographed dance number. I’m still in the scene where she gets home to Roy’s after her first Stepps experience and is savoring the new steps she learned with a country Gap shirt on her head.
But in keeping with my new mentality, I’m optimistic. And hoping there’s a “True Colors” scene somewhere in between…
“Walk by faith n not by sight. We all tha same color when we turn out tha lights. … That’s my hope n dreams: to raise my son to be a soldier by any means.” ~Fredro Starr