If at first you completely suck…

Milo Shumpert-Appel, Contributor

I feel as though I’ve been stuffed inside a body bag and dragged by horses over uneven terrain. My stomach bubbles with all the elegance of a week-old stew left in the sun and heavy on the red meat and hot peppers. As the coffee and Tylenol settle, all I can think about is how badly I want to go salsa dancing again. It’s truly amazing once you get the hang of it; you just have to be able to laugh at yourself because you’re probably going to suck for a while. It’s a lot like surfing in that regard.

During my first attempt at the dance, I tried not to take myself seriously, as I believe that is the proper approach to any new activity. Perhaps I overdid it though, accidentally headbutting my dance partner three times. (Surprisingly, she never returned my phone calls.) I’m not sure why she kept dancing with me, but the fact that she did furthered my grand delusion that I knew what I was doing. It’s amazing the sort of ideas that five beers, four tequilas, three songs, two dark eyes and one gorgeous smile can give a person.

The following weekend, some friends invited me to a strictly salsa club with cumbia and merengue — dance styles compulsively mentioned after salsa. The 50-peso cover was a trivial fee, but the fact that it was more than I’d paid anywhere else should have been a hint of what to expect. With my nice jeans and dark blue button-up shirt, hair combed back, freshly shaved smile, and thoroughly saturated in the taste of mescal and tropical hookah smokers blend, I quickly identified my prerogative.

I made my way past busy tables and Greek columns until I came to a table of beautiful, local women in their late 20s. I immediately invited the prettiest one to dance with me. This sort of behavior is very unlike me and I quickly remembered why. Upon reaching the dance floor, I suddenly realized that, according to the standards of this particular establishment, I really had no idea whatsoever of how to dance. I could fake it at the more contemporary nightclubs (where patrons are of a younger and drunker variety), but this was the real deal. Everyone around me was spinning and twirling, and shaking like it was a requirement for breeding privileges. And there I was, half-drunk, off beat, and might as well have been stumbling over my feet or falling onto the nearby candlelit tables and setting myself on fire. I felt bad for this woman. She’d agreed to dance with me because I had presented myself as dashing, but she soon realized I could barely keep the basic rhythm.

She stuck it out for one song before returning to her seat. When I asked for another dance later on, she very politely refused to have anything to do with me. The second woman I asked to dance left me on the floor halfway through the song. I returned to my table to sulk, feeling like an impostor who’d been rooted out and publicly shamed. I nursed my beer as I watched the girls with whom I arrived being twirled around the floor by well-dressed locals who’d soon be asking to marry them (among other, rather direct propositions). I left with the same unfortunate conclusion that every gringo seems to come to with salsa dancing: It was just too hard for someone who didn’t grow up with it. Unfortunately, this defeatist attitude would stick with me for most of my time spent studying in Oaxaca.

Eventually, a couple of friends mentioned a beginner’s salsa class and I tagged along. It was encouraging to see that not everyone in Oaxaca was an expert salsa dancer and that even naturally talented dancers have to start somewhere. And after much repetition, I could grasp most of the basic steps, taking away the myth that it was simply too hard.

I kicked myself for not sticking with it for the whole trip, but once I realized that I only had two weeks left, I made the most of it. I took advantage of almost every opportunity to attend lessons in the evenings and hours later would try out what I’d learned at the nightclubs. A lot of mistakes were made along the way, but every time a new move was successfully executed, the dance felt a lot less like brain surgery and more like swimming or riding a bike — something fun and easy once you get the hang of it, and something you would encourage everyone to learn and wish was socially expected of people. Then, just as you get used to that view atop your high horse, it suddenly becomes clear that just because you know a few moves doesn’t mean you know how to salsa.

I wish I could describe the feeling when you first realize you’re actually dancing and not just doing a drunken, gringo imitation. I can only compare it to the first time you look back and realize that your parent’s not holding the bicycle upright for you as you ride down the sidewalk; you’re doing what you had thought was so damn hard, and you’re making it look easy. When someone finally asked me, “How do you know how to salsa?” I knew I was no longer the uprooted impostor. I had successfully infiltrated a subculture that too many before me had given up on.

Not much time has passed since I returned from Oaxaca. I packed my bags with gifts and bottles of mescal and embarked on a series of uncomfortable plane rides home. My bags were searched twice. I paid a restaurant manager in the Mexico City airport $10 to let me sleep in a restaurant booth rather than the chair in the airport terminal or the $100 airport Hilton. The customs agent in San Francisco asked me if the weed in Humboldt is better than in Mexico. I didn’t answer, as I was sure he knew as well as anyone. I guess I’m glad to be home, but I fear that as days pass, my ability to feel so alive on the dance floor, like my ability to speak Spanish, is slowly bleeding out of me. I hope that, like riding a bicycle, it’s something you don’t forget. I don’t intend to lie dormant long enough to find out.

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