I danced with him at Latinofest and was immediately smitten with the way he swayed and swiveled to the salsa verses the band sang on that hot June day in Patterson Park. Next to him, I was flat footed and clumsy. The picture that comes to mind is someone jogging through the tires of an obstacle course, I was that subtle in step. Yet, I was mesmerized.
He recommended a canon of Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe and other Fania greats. The slow beat of “Guantanamara” was perfect for deciphering the four-step pattern, but at first, breaking it down was like decoding a second language.
I kept on, filling a playlist with “Che Che Colé,” “Aguanile,” “Vamanos Pal Monte,” “Contéo Regresivo” and “Cuero Na ’Ma,’ dancing to the beat of steel drums into a fall I filled with salsa classes. It was my second year back in Baltimore, the second year in a job that I knew wasn’t for me. On top of that, I was working through a custody agreement with my ex-husband, who had moved away. Dating was the last thing on my mind, but so was staying home and doing nothing. I danced instead.
There was a scene then. A scene by Baltimore standards, for sure, as this wasn’t Silver Spring. But there were Sunday night lessons at Latin Palace on Broadway and Tuesdays with Hugo and Grace, a sweet young couple who eventually relocated for work. Put a little merengue in your salsa, they advised. So, I listened to “Suavemente,” and anything from Rikarena, chuckling every time they called out their name, as though it was a surprise.
iTunes said my most played song was “A la hora que me llamen voy,” the hit of José “El canario” Alberto that I would argue is the best salsa song ever written, with its promise to be there when needed and its callout to salseros all across Latin America. “Viva la felicidad que no pare la alegria!” Long live the happiness that doesn’t stop the joy!
I traveled to dances around the city with my friend Myla, who was eager to reclaim the Latin culture her parents had shunned as a necessary way to adapt to American life. She always said a prayer for a successful night of dancing and she offered me big sisterly advice: “Watch out for the short Mexicans,” she told me without a hint of irony, her petite form relaxed in the passenger seat as El Canario sang in my car.
As I got better, I imagined dancing again with my friend who was so smooth at the steps, a redo that would show him how much I had learned, how far I had come. The metaphor was not lost on me. He had a girlfriend, though, and even if he hadn’t, we didn’t have that much in common, other than a love of salsa. Looking back now, I see that it was his playlist I had pined for and all that it represented, this love letter to good music and hopefulness, the proof that joy could not be stopped. In fact, I could step to find it, four even beats at a time.
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