San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Salsa, anyone?

It’s not that I can’t dance. It’s just that I don’t dance. Nor does my wife Kylan. At weddings, we put in our required time on the dance floor, but dancing is just not something we have ever sought. We don’t visit dance clubs or host dance parties. We have a limited sense of rhythm. We have no particular “moves.”

This was never a problem – until our first visit to Costa Rica.

It was almost exactly three years ago that Kylan and I first visited in San José. We had two backpacks and a Lonely Planet guidebook. We knew nothing about the city, and we planned to vacate as quickly as possible, but we had a free night and nothing to do. It was a Sunday, and most places in Barrio Amón were closed.

After consulting the Internet, we decided to take a walk down the street, to a place nicknamed “El Pueblo.”

Centro Comercial El Pueblo is a cluster of colonial buildings mashed together like an old Spanish town. The terracotta roofs bleed into each other, like a rolling ocean of orange tiles. Below, the whitewashed adobe walls form tight alleyways, which join at improbable angles and open into stairways and fountains.

There is nothing authentic about the Pueblo, except its architectural style. The buildings are modern, and the buildings are filled with high-end pubs and family-style restaurants. On a Sunday evening, only a fraction of these eateries were open, so we strolled the dark maze like night watchmen in a colonial fort. We heard footsteps and saw shadows, but otherwise the Pueblo was devoid of life.

Yet we could feel the throb of music, and we followed its tremors to the farthest reaches of the village. When we reached a final passageway, we saw a cluster of people sitting outside an open doorway, laughing through their cigarette smoke. A young man sat on a wooden stool, and when he spotted us, he slipped off and ushered us out of the shadows.

“This is a very good time!” he exclaimed. “Only fifteen hundred colones! That is only three dollars each!”

“What is it?”

“Dancing!” he said, nodding to himself. “And drinking! You like to dance and to drink?”

“Sure?” Kylan mumbled.

We handed over the cash. We had nothing else to do, and this seemed as good a place to be as any. When we stepped across the threshold, we slammed into a wall of noise and motion – hundreds of bodies on the dance floor, their heads bobbing to the 4/4 tempo, skirts whirling, shoes tapping and sliding, hands releasing and re-catching as couples circled around each other, drunk with music. Streamers festooned the ceiling; tables glutted the edges of the floor, so that there was barely space to squeeze through to our chairs.

“You would like something to drink?” the trim waiter shouted.

“Two Coca-Colas?” we shouted back.

Two enormous plastic cups of soda slammed down on the checkered tablecloth. The waiter smiled and bowed and left us to our drinks. We sucked through our straws and watched the chaos around us – yet somehow not chaos, for every dancer knew the steps perfectly. They were an older crowd, middle-aged and even old; the men had combed over their bald spots, the women wore dresses that flattered their flabby physiques, but everyone was dressed formally, and they moved as fluidly as dance instructors. They wore stoic expressions, neither plaintive nor celebratory, as if concentrating on their movements to impress an unseen judge. I recalled my one salsa class – an unmitigated disaster in a confined Pittsburgh cocktail lounge – and considered those six basic beats. But these people elaborated upon the form, turning away from each other, trading places. The men held their hands in the air, palms open, and the women clasped their thumbs, a gesture so simple and yet so elegant.

We watched for minute after minute, silently acknowledging what we ought to do.

“You want to join them?” I finally blurted.

“I feel like we should,” Kylan said. “I mean, this is weird, just watching them.”

“Yeah. In theory.”

We knew what we were: The only two tourists in an enormous dance hall packed with people. The only two blondes, the only two native English-speakers, the only Gringos in the entire Pueblo. And here we were, sitting in chairs, our backs against the wall, cheeks flushed, eyes panicked, because neither of us had any idea how to dance. Not just salsa, but anything. Even if we could fall into the salsa rhythm, we didn’t know the steps, or the ritual, or even the dress code. Who were we, to wander into a random club and expect to join these gray-haired experts?

And then, without warning, one of those gray-haired experts approached us, touched Kylan on the shoulder, and looked at me.

“May I invite her to dance?” he said in Spanish.

The man was short and stout, and his brow glistened from the rigors of the dance floor. But Kylan shrugged her shoulders and looked at me. She was too petrified to say no, I could tell, and I raised a permissive hand.

¡Sí!” I said, because that was the extent of my Spanish.

In all our seven years together, I had never seen Kylan dance so well. Not at weddings or parties, not in moments of intoxicated weakness, not as a mimicking joke. The stranger guided her through the steps, and Kylan followed his lead. She smiled, but unless you knew her as well as I, you’d think the smile was joyous, not self-conscious. Now and again they would stop, he would say something in her ear, and they would recalibrate the dance. But they looked natural and perfect, like an old man and his granddaughter, sharing a moment.

Just as I started to feel pangs of envy, the man’s wife emerged. She was the same age, her hair dyed copper, and her buxom torso leaned precariously over the table.

¿Y usted?

When you’re a man – especially a young man, especially in Hispanic America – you are expected to lead the dance, which, in my case, is simply impossible. I knew the elements of Swing, and I could fake my way through some twirls, and the music was infectious; but no arrangement of bongo, horn and piano could convince my body to improvise a true salsa. The dama kept pausing to laugh, nearly doubled-over with mirth, but our hips locked again and we gave the dance another whirl. She shook her head, as if to say, Who raised you to be so clumsy on the dance floor? Your Mamá needs a good talking-to.

The song wound down, and it occurred to me that I had never heard a Spanish pop song end before. On the radio, in movies, each song seemed to blend into the next, each ballad indistinguishable from the last, so that a Latin music station seems to play the same animated tune all day long. (My ear for Latin music is now more refined, but not by much.) But the song did end, and couples kissed and separated, or escorted each other to the fringes, and we thanked our partners and rejoined each other, looking exasperated and – despite ourselves – happy.

“That was hilarious,” I called into Kylan’s ear.

“Don’t tell anybody,” Kylan replied, “but that was kind of fun.”

And we resolved, as we stepped back into the alley, to take dance lessons when we got back to Pittsburgh.

When we first arrived at the Cabaret at Theater Square, we started to have doubts that salsa classes were a good idea. First sign: The room was empty. All the chairs had been pushed to the edges, and the only signs of life were two dance instructors fiddling with their sound system. No other students. Not even a waiter.

“I don’t know about this,” Kylan whispered, as she readied to back out of the room. “We are not going to be the only students here.”

“Let’s see who else shows up,” I whispered back. “I mean, we already paid for parking.”

The only comfort to taking this particular five-dollar salsa class was my familiarity with the Cabaret: I had performed my comedy show here dozens of times, albeit on the stage and not in the middle of the auditorium. Unlike a random dance studio in some obscure Pittsburgh neighborhood, I knew this space intimately. I had spent hours in the wings. I even knew the security guard by name.

Five minutes before the class was scheduled to begin, the room was still empty. And then, like a human tidal wave, the students whooshed through the door, and suddenly we were standing a crowd. They were exactly the archetypes we expected: excited-looking women and nervous men.

“Welcome, everybody!” the male instructor called out, smacking his hands in the air. “First, we are gonna divide into two groups – women over here, and men over there.”

Kylan shot me a final, pleading look. We could easily cave, I knew, and march right past the exit sign. Oh, this isn’t a knitting class? We’re just here for some darning lessons. Maybe it’s next week. Sorry for the confusion. Bye!

But we stayed. The men lined up in front of the male instructor, and he started to walk us through the motions. I had downloaded a salsa video on YouTube, and I had viewed some patterns online—those footprints connected by dotted lines that allegedly guide you through the steps. I knew that salsa was the simplest of the Latin dances, and anyone could figure out the rhythm: One forward, half-step, back to middle, one backward, half-step, back to middle. How hard could that possibly be?

Not hard at all, it turned out. The men stumbled their way through the steps, and the instructor corrected us, and within a few minutes, we were counting to six in time with recorded salsa music. I only had two regrets: that Kylan had to learn the step backward, and that I would eventually have to lead.

I had been forced into all kinds of dance classes over the years. Learning the box step in fifth grade was among the most humiliating of all grade-school lessons, trumped only by square-dancing at the county fair. In community theater, I had muddled through some choreography, including a foxtrot duet in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Technically, I am capable of dancing, in the same way I am capable of climbing a ladder or learning Morse code. But in my heart, I have never been a dancer. At big parties, the arrival of a DJ signals ordering another drink and wandering outside.

As far as I know, Kylan had even less experience than I. No one had ever convinced her to take Swing classes at the local community center. On a modern dance floor, women always look like better dancers than men, but the modern dance floor doesn’t require a six-count rhythm. In a five-dollar salsa class, Kylan and I were equally awkward and commensurately terrified. Even in a roomful of newbies, we felt particularly out-of-place.

“Okay, now we’re going to teach you a more complicated move,” said the instructor. Both instructors stood together, and when the music started, they began their salsa. And then, to our shock and amazement, the woman strutted past the man, the man turned his back to her, they smoothly exchanged hands, and then the man whirled around, the woman twirled in front of him, and they joined together again, doing the six-step as before.

I could barely discern what had happened. The movement was so effortlessly complex, I struggled to even understand it. The female instructor cut the music, and the male instructor held out his hairy arms, as if to pacify us.

“I know that looked complicated,” he said. “But don’t worry. We’re going to talk you through it.”

Kylan and I reunited, and she leaned into my ear. “That wasn’t so bad,” she said. “But I don’t know about this one.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

Step by slow-motion step, the instructors guided us through the choreography. We aped their movements, trying at first to count with them, and then ignoring the numbers and imitating the basic rhythm. The female instructor approached and brazenly adjusted my arms and feet. “No, like this,” she said, in an efficient tone.

And then, without much heartache or fanfare, we got it. The music started, and we could dance the dance. Our version wasn’t pretty, but neither was it noticeably bad.

“Good work, everybody,” the male instructor called out, and they both clapped loudly. The fifty students followed suit, clapping with pride and relief. “Now we’ll have open dancing,” the instructor added. “Stay as long as you like.”

When the music resumed, Kylan and I suddenly realized how many actual dancers there were. One couple began spinning and sliding with the relaxed expressions of lifelong dancers. Because we only knew the basic step and one cool move, Kylan and I accepted our limitations. We hobbled through two songs, nodded to each other, and fled the room.

Ever since our accidental dance party in San José, we’ve recognized the importance of salsa. In Latin America, dancing is a vital ritual, a part of daily life, not just something you watch on prime time TV. Wherever we had traveled in Latin America – Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Aruba, the Dominican Republic – the music on the radio was salsa music. In the aisles of supermercados, speakers blared Latin dance mixes, as if shoppers might drop their baskets and start to groove. We would never trifle with merengue or tango, but if salsa was so simple, so universal, we felt obliged to try it.

In the weeks that followed, we would sometimes stop doing whatever we were doing and try our one cool dance move. Kylan would approach it stoically, with furrowed brow, as if puzzling over the GREs. I would bite my lip and raise an eyebrow, trying to recall the correct mathematics. We looked like norteamericanos – the kinds of stiff, white, blond yuppies that Latinos routinely imagine bungling their most popular dance. But it was something. And perhaps, one day, we’d learn a second move, and maybe a third.

Robert Isenberg is a staff writer for The Tico Times. Feel free to visit him at robertisenberg.net.

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