I Wanna Dance With Somebody

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There comes a time in everyone’s life when they need to stop making excuses, look in the mirror, and confront head-on the gap between who they are and who they want to be. A few months ago, that happened to me. I could no longer put off the full and joyous life I felt I deserved. I decided it was finally time to learn to salsa.

I’m a very good dancer, generally speaking. Get me in a club, and I’ll be in the center of your dance circle. Invite me to your wedding, and guests will think I’m a professional party motivator. Hip-hop, old-school disco, merengue, bachata—even my cumbia’s not half bad. But salsa has always eluded me. Not because I couldn’t master the steps or the rhythms, but because dancing salsa, for a woman, traditionally requires being led.

The horns could be soaring, the rhythm rising up from my toes and bursting through my chest, but when I’d get onto the dance floor with my partner and he’d start nudging me this way and that, my entire body would stiffen. Around us, couples would be strutting in seductive tandem, and my poor partner would be left to bat me around like a reluctant spinning top. Eventually we’d both give up.

I could trace the problem to the 1990s, and college. By day I was exposed to third-wave-feminist texts—lots of talk about claiming my power and rejecting gender roles. But on evenings and weekends, the small coterie of Latino students enrolled in my predominantly white college would gather and dance. The chasm between the bodily autonomy I was being empowered to have intellectually and the physical pliability to a partner’s will that salsa required was simply too wide for my teenage brain to bridge. As I got older, and experienced sexism not just in theory but in practice, my discomfort only solidified.

But I was missing out on having fun. And I felt a deeper disconnect. It isn’t just that I wanted to dance salsa. You have to understand: I felt in every molecule of my being that I should be dancing salsa. And dancing it well.

I’m a loud and proud New Yorker, and salsa is as New York as a bagel with a schmear. We even have our own style of dancing it: “salsa on 2,” where you break on the second beat of the measure. The sonic roots are in Cuba, but salsa as most people know it was born in the dance halls of my hometown. It’s also part of my Puerto Rican inheritance. During its golden age in the ’60s and ’70s, Nuyorican salsa was more than just dance music—it was the sound of political empowerment and pride. When I see people dance salsa well, I feel like I am watching people fully be free. I’m not talking about the kind of routines you see on Dancing With the Stars; I’m talking about the moves you see at a block party or your parents’ anniversary party. My bodily aversion to being led on the dance floor was getting in the way of me fully participating in my culture.

Near my home in Brooklyn is a salsa studio; I’d walked by it longingly for a decade. At last I walked in and set up a series of private lessons. I’d been living my entire adult life as a leader, and I was finally desperate enough to admit that I wanted to learn to follow.

I couldn’t have predicted that Andy, my dance instructor, would provide me with more breakthroughs than my past five years of therapy. Andy’s not particularly philosophical, or even chatty—we had a lot of dance floor to cover in each 45-minute session. But after showing me the basics and being surprised at how much I already knew, he asked why I was actually there. When I explained that I had trouble being led, he became a merciless diagnostician, offering the kind of commonsense advice that hits like profound wisdom. Immediately, it became clear that what was keeping me from being a better dance partner was not really about dancing at all.

First, he stopped me to point out my tendency to look at my feet instead of at him. When I explained that I wanted to be sure I was doing everything right, he reminded me this was about how we danced together, not just about my performance. Eye contact, he added, would help us move more in sync.

My homework was to practice one move—it’s called the Cross Body Lead, for the curious—until it felt as natural as walking. “If you do this well,” Andy told me, “you’ll signal to your partner that there’s space for them to lead, and who doesn’t want to dance with someone who makes space for them?” On my way home, I wondered how many of my connections and relationships had fizzled over the years because we were too busy focusing on our own success to make space for each other.

When I went back the next week, my Cross Body Lead was on point. But my new issue was that I was going from one move to the next without waiting for Andy’s signals—the hand gestures and light touches with which the leader guides the follower. “What you think we’re gonna do next is not the same as reading my signals of what to do,” he told me. In other words, the dance is a conversation and I wasn’t listening.

At some point, Andy stopped me. Fundamentally, he explained, I have to believe that my partner wants me to look good and have fun. I need to trust that if I let my partner lead, they’ll see what moves I like and direct us there.

This was much easier said than done. Even if I believed it.

In the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, the ballroom legend Willi Ninja teaches a group of aspiring models how to “walk.” He takes a moment to explain that this need arises from the fact that New York City women are “a little bit harder” than other women, and that the class is to help return a bit of “softness” to their movements. He never says why they are harder, and he doesn’t need to.

Like all New York women, I move my body through the crowded city and its jostling subways as if braced for impact. But my brain has been conditioned for independence—for survival and defense—in deeper ways. I was not just of the latchkey generation. “If you’d like to do that, then you can figure it out” was the rule in my household. I got my first job at 14. I filled out my FAFSA and college applications entirely alone. When I moved into my dorm, I became an adult living on my own. The white-feminist texts of my college days merely provided intellectual affirmation for a predicament I was already living: I could do it all and do it all on my own—because I had to.

Since then, I’ve been married and divorced and in and out of relationships of varying lengths, but if I am truly being honest, I never stopped thinking of myself as an individual. The latter perhaps explains, in part, the former. I realized in that salsa studio that even when someone had been dancing next to me, I had been dancing alone.

Being an independent woman is one of the most celebrated tenets of contemporary capitalist feminism. There are key chains and mugs and a Beyoncé song dedicated to celebrating our independence. “I can take myself dancing, / And I can hold my own hand, / Yeah I can love me better than you can,” Miley Cyrus sings. By these measures, I am the embodiment of the feminist American dream. Without the aid or impediment of a partner, I have created a financially secure, creatively viable, rich life for myself. I own my home, I travel freely and widely, and I consider myself—like a lot of single women today do—pretty happy.

But the desire to dance salsa forced me to ask a simple question: “If I wanted to change that aspect of my life, could I?” I don’t mean Could I meet someone? I mean Could I coexist in an intimate partnership the way that I am currently programmed? And I’m not so certain what the answer is. Maybe not without some adjustments.

I walked into those classes thinking that I needed to learn how to be a follower. But what I learned was that dancing in partnership with another requires a different kind of thinking than dancing alone. It requires attentiveness and listening not just to the beat of the music, but to the other. It requires the leader to be considerate and think ahead. It requires the follower to trust that someone else can take you where you want to go.

I’m well aware that salsa comes out of a patriarchal cultural tradition. No doubt there are Latines sucking their teeth in frustration while reading this, as if I’m seeking to drag us back to our abuelas’ kitchens. Don’t misunderstand me; that’s not what I want. I have no desire to enter into the recent discourse about the benefits of marriage or two-parent households. Anyone of any gender can lead or follow in salsa. I just happen to be a straight woman who wants to dance with men, and what I would like is to shake off the machismo without shaking off the pleasure of being with them.

Just as walking the streets of New York requires a certain rigidity for women, living the life of an “independent woman” (particularly as a woman of color) necessitates a certain diligent self-centeredness. You are the sole steward of your health, your financial viability, and your joy, to say nothing of the other people you might need to care for. And to protect all these things, you must navigate systems biased against you. Anyone who manages this should be celebrated. But, I think that in the slogan-ization of feminism—the messaging that we are perfect as we are, that we shouldn’t change anything for anyone else—we may have lost sight of the fact that being happily single and being happily coupled can require different skill sets. And neither should be perceived at odds with the feminist ideal of living life on our own terms. Yes, we should cheer the mettle of the independent woman. But we should also applaud the women who choose to be partnered, because pliability should not be mistaken for weakness. Especially if it brings us joy.

It occurred to me only while writing this that the original feminist in my life just happened to have been my favorite dance partner: my grandfather. He was armed with no theory beyond the belief that the four girls he raised (myself included) were entitled to be happy—however that looked for them. He wasn’t the best dancer. His Puerto Rican roots betrayed him; rhythm seemed to have skipped a generation. But in his later years, he loved to pull me onto a dance floor every chance he got. We weren’t the smoothest people out there, but we didn’t care. We were perfectly free out there together.

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