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The Latin Vibe Trying on salsa’s swirling hips

It is all in the music. If you just listen to the music, your body will follow.
Don’t be concerned with flashy steps, just start to feel the rhythm, listen to what your body has to say.

Watching a woman dance salsa in the dimly lit, close interior of a bar dance floor is like looking at the physical incarnation of feminine sensuality. Her body, curvaceous and strong, swirls in eights, sensuous and self-possessed, toying with rhythm. Her chest is open and forgiving; her feet move in relation to her partner’s lead, intimating the swivel of her arches up into her knees and hips. I am enthralled by her mobile vitality: her intimate bond with her dancing body. My tall, thin, Caucasian self envies her innate sensuality.

Why is the physicality of salsa so enticing? Those hips that swirl from side to side, tempting and alluring! Most New Yorkers have no relationship with their pelvic region, except the obvious. We spend our days in front of computers or on the phone; we even date online. Our understanding of foreplay has all but disappeared, and clubs have turned into a scene of immediate gratification, full of grinding and thrusting. Salsa is embedded with so many of the enticing relations we have forgotten. It requires our bodies to step out of their shells, connect with our partners’ gestures, and relate through movement. It asks us to feel for a physical response. It asks us to listen.

The first time I danced salsa, I went to discover why my Cuban roommate had such a fantastic love for her booty. Like most Caucasian women, I was immediately drawn in by the swirl of the hips, the sexy confidence, and the live, pulsing Latin rhythms. I wanted to “try on” the Latina’s “hot” style and experience her physical freedom. The room was full of dancers of all ages, sizes, and talents. Some boasted boobie shirts and tight skirts, others wore jeans and t-shirts or button-downs and full skirts. The room was a melting pot of styles, sounds, and ethnicities. Moments after I arrived, a short Puerto Rican man offered me his hand, asking for a dance. As my initial fear of the unknown subsided, I started to laugh: the music, the energy, and my sheer delight made me feel like a beautiful woman. I felt strong and sensual, moving my feet and knees to figure-eight my skirt around the room.

One of my favorite dance partners, a Peruvian computer analyst from the Bronx, whirls and spins me around the room in different patterns each time we dance. His face lights up with every new movement discovery. Once, when my step faltered, he smiled and said, “That is part of dancing salsa, trying new things and being open to anything and everything.” Being open: those improvisational implications terrify many New Yorkers. In a city that clings to perfection and routine, fear of deviation abounds. Scholar Susan Bordo writes: “Nowadays [we] have traded the messiness and fragility of life, the vulnerability of intimacy, the comfort of human connection, for fantasies of limitless achievement…. The bar of what we consider perfection is constantly being raised—by cultural imagery, and by eyes that become habituated to interpreting every deviation as defect.”

Salsa’s structure is built around improvisation, or deviation, two bodies speaking with each other to create a transient experience. The sensuality of those moments comes from being alive and letting our bodies take over—succumbing to what our bodies know, and to the fragility of not knowing.

I have danced with the tried and true Cuban and Puerto Rican Salsieros, the sweaty, sleazy guys who still mistake salsa for sex and lust after my number, the New Yorkers who start on the second beat of the phrase (“on 2” or Mambo), the Japanese man whose arsenal of choreographed steps never runs low, the Haitian who is in love with the rhythm of the music…. They’re all there, on the small confines of the salsa floor. They come, as I do, to experience the music in their bodies, to engage with a stranger, and to feel the foreplay alive in movement.

I now love my sexy Caucasian curves. I love to meet a stranger on the dance floor and roll through the soles of my feet, letting the movement simmer in my hips. I still get that nervous excitement… wondering where our dance and the rhythm of the music will take us. I want to know what our bodies have to say.

Popular salsa venues with live music:

Monday Night: SOB’s, 204 Patrick Street, cover

Tuesday Night: Copacabana, 560 W 34th Street (Free Class 6-8 pm), no cover

Wednesday Night: Plan B 99 East 10th Street btwn. A & B (my favorite and no cover!)

Thursday Night: La Maguette, 825 3rd Steet on Ave. B

Friday Night: Parkside Lounge, 317 East Houston Street, $5 cover (worth seeing the mixed crowd)

Saturday Night: Copacabana China Club, 268 W 74th

Kathryn Enright is currently pursuing her MA in Dance Ethnography at NYU’s GallatinSchool. Her thesis examines the relationship of non-Latinos to salsa. If you have any thoughts on the subject please write to [email protected].


Kathryn Enright


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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