Will this be me soon? (Photo by Stuck in Customs via CC)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I was planning to take salsa classes. I mentioned that while I’m an adept dancer, I never learned to partner up with another person. I’ve always felt that this was some sort of symbol for other parts of my life, especially the relationship section, an area where I’ve admittedly had scant experience. In my metaphor addled brain, my inability to physically partner with a man on the dance floor was the rhythmic representation of my all short term, awkward pairings in the relationship sphere.

So last night, in the spirit of New Year’s and a Living Social package I purchased a couple of months ago, I went to my first salsa dance class at a Brooklyn studio. I was going to learn how to be led, even for just a couple of hours a week, even if it kills me. (It might.)

And I will chronicle my foray into partner dancing on this site. I’m not violating the sanctity of beginner salsa class, am I? It’s not like AA or Vegas, right?

There were hiccups before I made it to the studio. I texted a salsa-fiendish friend to ask what I should wear. He wrote back that I should bring comfortable clothes and heels. “Salsa requires heels for ladies,” he wrote. “Welcome to gender roles.” I reminded him that I thought I left those behind when I left traditional religious practice. So much for that.

In my mind, “comfortable” and “heels” don’t belong in the same sentence. Also, I own exactly one pair of heels that are too big on me. I never wear them. All I’ve got are sneakers (but don’t feel bad for me–I’ve got over 20 pairs in many different colors). Anyway, he reassured me that my trainers should be fine for at least the first few sessions. I dressed in yoga gear and Adidas.

I was not the only wearing sneakers at the beginner’s workshop, which was quite crowded. I suppose that many others had made similar New Year’s resolutions if not for the same reasons as I did. There several married couples in the class, people who by virtue of their rings and wedding bands had no problem with commitment, with symbolic “push and pull.”

We started with basic “shines,” simple steps that can be done either alone or in a partnered arrangement. The instructor had us repeat these simple moves ad infinitum. At times, I felt my focus wander. I am not used to being in a class and having to follow precise choreography. The types of dance that I favor are much more improvisational. Once you learn a few steps, you are free to combine them any way you wish.  I had to work hard to curb the impulse to make it up as I went along, to dance to the beat of my own iPod, if you will. After all, the reason I enrolled in the class was to curb part of that independent spirit.

At the halfway mark of the two hour class, it was finally time pair up. We would do the same moves that we had been practicing for the past hour with another. The men and women were lined up opposite each other in Apache line formation. Yet this was no gang initiation. We were to partner up, not face off as adversaries.

In this arrangement, we learned saw that there were fewer men (by one), which is a reversal from the New York City dating scene.  This would mean that as the men rotated around the room (we ladies got to stay in place), each man would have a turn being the odd partner out.

After we learned how to grasp the other–my left and dominant arm resting above his right, the palm of which was behing my shoulder, the fingers of our other hands intertwined. In this set up, he would lead me.

The leading did not prove too difficult for me. Most of the males were light touches when it came to guiding me. Only a few directed me strongly, which I actually appreciated and I relented to their insistent guidance. However, I am sure many of the other men will become stronger leads as the weeks and dance classes progress.

What was most unexpected, difficult and disconcerting was the intense, sustained and direct eye contact. For many of the men I partnered with throughout the class, I looked ahead but they looked down at their feet, trying to keep track of their steps. But every so often, a more confident partner, one who didn’t look at down at his feet, would sidle up. He would stare straight ahead and meet my gaze. I wanted to look away at times. It felt odd to be so close to someone else’s face, staring so intently at someone you just met.

On dates, I’ve sometimes felt the same way. At those times, I’d make a joke to break off the eye contact, even just for a few moments. It’s hard to maintain an intense gaze when you’re squinting in the midst of laughter. But in salsa, I cannot make jokes to deflect my partner’s gaze. I would throw off his counting and my own. I can’t use any of my verbal strategies in this setting.

I guess I’ll just have to shut up and look up.

(And I will listen to Bryan Adams for inspiration–he also wants me to look into his eyes.)

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