In a salsa club, the only silence exists in the panting breaths between songs.
When the music starts again, it normally begins with the tambores, hitting a heavy bass rhythm on calfskin, setting the stage. BA-rum-rum (breathe) BA-RUM-rum. The snap of the drummers wrists gives our bodies the heartbeat for what comes next. The bass and piano listen for un momento, oyen el ritmo, pick up the cues, then slide into the stereo the way crema spreads over a tostada. Ya listo. It’s ready.
At this point, everyone in the room who speaks “Latin music” knows what’s coming— bachata, salsa romántico, cumbia— and men begin to grab women’s hands and move towards the floor. The more conservative dancers stay on the edges. The peacocks and studio dancers (and maybe some viejitos who’ve decided life is too short to dance on the edges) move right to the middle.
A bar or two, then trumpets begin blaring and the floor— which is anything from gorgeous polished hardwood to interlocking pieces of plastic faux-wood set down on the carpet of some Cuban restaurant; we are a resourceful people after all— is alive. It’s own moving organism, the floor ripples and undulates with the collective heartbeat and shared shoulder rolls of whoever is on it.
Except, of course, when cha-cha comes on.
Cha-cha, for most dancers, is “when we all take a break y tomamoms bebidos,” my partner, Marco, said to me once. He shook a glass of cheap tequila at me before taking another sip. Then he winced. I had been dancing (badly) for six months when he approached me at La Playa, the only club that would let me in. He was 26 to my 18 and, when he realized I was too young to date (“A baby!” he had said, “I guess you’re not coming to my place tonight. Let’s go,” as he pulled me onto the dance floor), he decided to mold me into his dance partner instead. Unlike most Latinos, I didn’t grow up dancing at family parties or in backyards, so I just looked up at him, wide-eyed and eager, sipping my water.
When I first started dancing, I knew none of these rules. It would take me years of clubs, then performing, then competition to understand the difference between a salsa and a cumbia (footwork and the accented beat) or the unstated rudeness of neglecting to keep your long hair up (lest you whip it into the face of some unsuspecting nearby couple or, worse, your partner). I began to go to clubs by myself, but it still took thousands of nights before I could read the difference between being led by studio dancer, practiced and flailing for attention; the LA B-Boy whose body dipped into hidden hip-hop bass drops only he heard; and el salsero, who had somehow found the more ancient rhythm that had been flowing in our blood for centuries.
Somewhere in that time, I thought I understood my body’s role in it all. It was the frame (Marco would pinch my shoulders when they drooped) and the steering (one touch on the front of my left hip, and I knew which way to spin). One night, a studio dancer pulled me close and put his lips to my ear. He told me he needed to use my body to help make space on a crowded floor. “No tienes miedo,” he smiled devilishly as he told me not to be afraid before he whipped me out into turn after turn that purposefully smacked into the dancers around us.
That night, my body was the weapon.
Still, all that was years ago, I take a breath and remind myself. I am newly twenty-four, newly single and, for the first time, at Steven’s, a massive steakhouse-turned-club in industrial Los Angeles known mostly to locals y Latinos.
This is my first time out in years. Marco got a girlfriend, I had had a boyfriend who didn’t like to dance. I became a teacher and a runner. I understood that the rules often meant short skirts and forever-wandering hands (lest no man ask me to dance for the rest of the night) and I stopped dancing.
Now, though, it is a Saturday night and I don’t know what to do with myself. I am on my own for the first time in years. I drove to Steven’s on whim; I put on make up for the first time in days. I am wearing the only skirt that fits— too long and a little loose. I have only been asked to dance a few times, but fortunately years of training make up for lack of eye-candy status, and I get asked a few more times.
Then, a cha-cha comes on.
A quiet groan, and the floor clears. Cha-cha is when we rest, I laugh to myself. Santana slowly slides in, crema on la tostada, so smooth you don’t even realize you’re swaying until the guitar’s notes ooze over your body, into your chest and around your hips, like some sorcerer’s magic potion.
Oye como va, el ritmo, “come on and listen to the rhythm,” Santana croons.
This is a great song, I think. Then I realize: I love cha-cha. Cha-cha was the first Latin dance I learned when I was 17 and in my first week of college. I remember when I first started dancing— before I cared about being noticed by competitors or scouted for companies— I always danced cha-cha when it came on. I was sort of a slow salsa dancer— I didn’t read physical cues as quickly as I always should— but cha-cha played into that as a strength. The core of the cha-cha was in the wait-and-hurry-up. This dance was patience. This dance was the slow game in music form.
I am very good at the slow game.
I begin to sway and, without thinking, I take a step forward onto the edge of the floor. It is a silent sign that, if someone is interested, I will dance cha-cha.
A man walks up to me. I don’t register his face or his age, just the pale, pale blue of his shirt, como el cielo, like heaven, as he extends his hand.
I reach up, and take it. We begin moving, and after six years, I actually listen to the words in the song. Oye como va, listen up, el ritmo, the rhythm.
And for the first time in years, I exhale completely and let go. The music carries me, the guitar weaves its way into my hips. My partner watches me, for once, and reads both when to act as the motor and spin me, and when to draw up the breath before the cha-cha-cha step. We are languid and smooth. We are lava over ocean— rolling red over the cool, steady ritmo of the rhythm section. He sends me out into an empty floor and I pause at the end of my extension and look up.
My body is no longer the frame or the steering. I am not a car being driven. I am not the weapon sent to clear the floor.
I smile. Instead, I am fire itself, and my body is nothing but my own.