It happened the Fall of my senior year at university. Up until then, I sat in the front row of class, every class. I used to hang on the professor’s every word. My hand cramped as I took copious notes during the lectures, after which I would then retreat to my dorm room to rewrite the transcripts and highlight paragraphs in textbooks. I had a 4.0 GPA for six consecutive semesters, and after Mom called to say that my father died, my heart sank like a stone, along with my GPA.
I left my dorm room not knowing where my feet would take me. The further I strolled, the more the fluffy grey clouds of the Northwest hung oppressively around me and smothered my joy. I struggled the rest of that week, swimming against the current of a full class load, drowning myself in distractions. I binged on television, sex and weed. Nothing I tried was able to uplift my mood. My once lithe body grew heavier with each passing day until I could not be bothered to get out of bed.
As a way to cheer me up, my roommate dragged me out of my room on Halloween that year. My heart wasn’t in it but finding a spooky nurse costume was an easy task, me being a nursing major and all. I dressed it up a little with a delicate necklace of fake blood and a bouquet of real knives. At the frat party, it was hard not to dwell on my father’s death. All I could think of was my dad, and how overwhelmed my mom must be, handling his funeral arrangements by herself. I was an only child, after all, and even though she insisted I finish out the rest of the semester before coming home, I still felt guilty that I was the reason Dad’s memorial service would be delayed by a few weeks. I planted myself in a corner and drowned my sorrows in a plastic cup half-filled with lavender flavored vodka. When I got bored of watching everyone else hook-up, I gave myself a bracelet of real blood and scratched my name, Feronica, on my forearms.
Panicked after seeing the bloody cursive, the next day my roommate insisted that I go to the Student Health Center for help. In addition to putting me on meds, my counselor suggested that I do something to challenge myself. This type of therapy, trying something new, turned my knees into jellyfish. I was so used to success that the unknown scared me. Since I had to come up with something, I figured if anything was going to wash away my grief, it would be Cuban Salsa dancing.
When I was a kid, ballet had given me a scaffold over which my prepubescent self had formed, and since then I had strived to stay in that structured conformation.
Find your center. Lift your abdominal muscles. Smile. Make it look easy.
As an adult, however, Salsa replaced that structure with freedom.
Breathe. Listen. Move.
I always loved dancing. Somewhere in my parents’ house was a picture of me in preschool. I was wearing a scratchy, pink tutu and had my hands in fifth position over my head, while standing in a giant cardboard box decorated to look like a Christmas present. I can still remember dancing my way out of that box, not quite remembering all of the steps and turning in the wrong direction.
I started campaigning for ballet lessons just after that performance. By the time my parents were able to pay for the lessons, I was almost in middle school and way behind my ballerina peers. The structure of ballet, where there was a right way—the only way—gave me comfort. It was like coloring inside the lines. Precision. Perfection.
Every class, I worked hard on the placement of my feet and the position of my arms.
Don’t sickle. Round, like you are holding a giant beach ball.
The teachers however, had been merciless. “Your feet don’t turn out far enough,” Miss Nina said.
“You aren’t jumping high enough.” Madame Olga said.
Engage your knees. Tuck your pelvis.
“You aren’t learning fast enough!” Mr. Fabio said.
Chin up. Eyes soft. Tilt your head.
My mom was late picking me up after class one day and that was when I overheard my ballet teacher, Madame Tatiana.
“What am I supposed to do with that ugly duckling?” she asked the Artistic Director. They were planning for the Fall recital in the main studio and didn’t realize I was still sitting in the waiting room.
My stomach sank. It took me a while to process the cutting comment, but by the time Mom arrived, the first tears were starting to form.
“How was class today?” She always asked the same question when she picked me up.
“Fine.” I always gave the same answer. Once the lie had left my lips, I wasn’t able to hold back the tears.
My mom kept asking what was wrong and I kept ignoring her. I refused to go back to class and never set foot in a ballet studio after that.
“Uno, dos, tres…Cinco, seis, siete!”
The instructor called out the counts in a loud voice that flowed over the lively music. His hips gently undulated as his feet moved quickly across the floor. Behind him, I earnestly tried to match his steps.
Right foot back, and together. Left foot forward, and together. Keep your elbows bent.
Despite my diligence, I ended up on the wrong foot somehow. We were at the Community Center reviewing the basic steps we had been learning for the past three weeks, the guapea, and even though we were well into week four, I was still stumbling on the turns.
When the refresher of the dance steps was over, Mr. Garcia motioned for us to pair up and form a circle. I did not bring a partner, so on a whim I turned to my left and smiled at the person who was standing next to me. It was the lady I called Ditzy. That was not her real name, of course. I knew no one’s name. Except for Mr. Garcia, the teacher. That’s because each Wednesday for the entire month I had gotten to class at seven p.m. en punto. My habits as a student influenced my behavior: I was not interested in small talk or introductions. We were there to learn. We were there to dance!
Don’t look at your feet. It’s just like walking. If you can walk you can dance.
Ditzy smiled at me and adjusted her glasses so that they would not slide down her thin nose. She had fiery red hair and soft, pillowy hands. If I were to guess, I’d say she gave great hugs. She was a big, curvy lady who looked like she was comfortable in her own skin and smiled a lot. She seemed confident enough, but it never failed that every week she would have forgotten what we had learned the week before. Ditzy offered her tattooed left hand as the lead and I hesitated a moment before placing my right hand in hers. We faced each other and she became my very first partner of the night.
The instructor was ready to begin. “Dile que no!” Mr. Garcia’s voice was now barely audible over the pulsing Reggaeton beat. As the caller, it was his voice that I needed to listen for so that I knew how to move. He was a slight, wiry man who seemed to wear a permanent smile. His face was broad and clean-shaven, and he had a chipped incisor that lent him an endearing look. Pearly whites notwithstanding, he moved with the efficiency and grace of an Olympic swimmer. The way he grinned; it was as if every movement his body made to music was pleasurable. I was jealous.
While I was still wondering which foot I was supposed to start with, the couples turned left in unison. The leads made a smaller half-turn than the follows who travelled around the leads to their right. I was supposed to be led, but my partner didn’t remember much of last week’s lesson, so I guessed which way I should go and turned to my left, bungling the whole rueada.
“Sorry, I’m no good at this.” I mumbled to my dance partner. I was not sure she even heard me.
“Dame!” the caller yelled. I had taken three years of Spanish and still had no idea what these words actually meant. The beauty of Cuban Salsa was that knowing was not required. Only the translation of the dance mattered.
My lead went to the next follower downstream, and I tried my best to keep my legs moving in time with the beat. Miss the beat and the class would think I was an idiot. I was glad to switch anyway. The most interesting part of the class was being surprised by who you were dancing with. A good dancer made it fun. A bad dancer made it painful.
The dude I was now partnered with kept getting ahead of the timing and I waffled, unsure if I should follow his lead or try to stay on beat. Tonight, Mr. Quicksilver was wearing a green Hawaiian shirt that was tucked into his tan slacks. I was willing to bet that by the end of the night, his shirt would become untucked and flapping every time he turned in the abajo step. I was not clear about what to do so I decided to match his frequency, which was about half a beat too soon. That’s when I looked over his shoulder and realized I would soon be partnered with the best dancer in class (besides the instructor, of course): Mr. Blue Polo Shirt.
“Enchufla con Mambo!” Mr. Garcia called out.
I looked at Blue Polo and grinned as we both approached each other and tapped our feet perfectly to the clave rhythm. Every week, I looked forward to being in his adept arms. With every step, I forgot how clumsy I felt.
Right foot, tap. Left foot, tap. Right foot, tap. Left foot, tap.
To look at him, you wouldn’t peg him as being light on his feet. He was bald and tall and had a paunch that I had to avoid brushing up against during the enchufla. But oh! He had such firm carriage, and he communicated so well simply using his body. Much like last week and the week before that, I licked my lips and wondered if he also danced expertly horizontally.
“Principe malo!” Mr. Garcia shouted.
Polo swung me around and danced off to the next person, but not before slapping my right hand like he was supposed to. By this time, my t-shirt had wet stains under my arms and sweat was running down from my hairline. I was sure I smelled a little ripe. I didn’t feel particularly attractive, and my discomfort was magnified now that I was in the arms of Mr. Garcia. He was so skilled; he could have made anyone a better dancer just by lifting a finger. That was an exaggeration to be sure, but the mode of communication in partner dancing was by touch. If my partner was going to turn or move, then the area of intimate connection where our bodies met was the only way for me to know what he was going to do. Ignore their signals, and I would turn in the wrong direction or worse: get my toes crushed.
Just when I was relaxed enough to enjoy the music, the song ended. Mr. Garcia left me bereft on the dance floor while he refreshed himself with a few sips of water and a quick wipe of his face with a thick, red towel.
“Ok, ok. Now we learn the vacilala!” the teacher boomed. There were gasps around the room. Clearly, no one felt ready to learn even more choreography. “I need a volunteer.” he said.
Before I realized what I was doing, my hand went up and the sea of bodies parted as I made my way to the middle of a slowly forming circle. I took a deep breath. It was time to sink or swim.
“Take the right hand, leads! Ok! Turn towards the center of the circle.” Mr. Garcia took my right hand and led me into the beginning of a spin. “Follows! Step and turn like this.” He pushed me with a tiny motion until I had made a full turn. It felt like I was being moved by some magical force. “Muy bien, Feronica!” he exclaimed. He patted my hand and said, “You have improved so much these past weeks.”
I immediately felt as if I were out in the noonday sun on a summer’s day in June. I hoped that the others in the class did not notice the rise of my sudden heat. "Gracias.” I mumbled and melted to the back of the group. Mr. Garcia continued to demonstrate the vacilala a few more times, but I hardly noticed as I stared into the middle distance and hugged my elbows. In my head, my eleven-year-old self was telling Madame Tatiana that Señor Garcia thought I was a fine dancer, and she could take her opinion of me and shove it up her tight--
“Feronica! This is the last dance of the night, and you start with me. Ok!” Mr. Garcia’s eyes followed me across the room as he smiled, extended his left hand, and slightly bowed. Blushing, I connected with him just as the first bars of Danza Kuduro began. As I danced, I washed the drowning feeling I was fighting and all my insecurities away and moved, with joy, in time with the beat.
Both the Salsa class and the term were ending in two weeks. I was both sad and relieved. It was that night that I decided to take the intermediate class next term. It took facing my fears directly to realize that I was more than a woman who would not have a father to walk her down the aisle. I was more than a Daddy’s little girl, whose Daddy had died. I was more than my grief. I was all of those things and, I was a dancer.
Marianne Senhouse is an aspiring writer living in Eugene, Oregon. She graduated from Tuskegee University with a B.S. in Animal Science and is a member of Wordcrafters.