I sat at the bar nursing a beer, making small talk with the girl next to me. In front of us, the dance floor. It was lit up, like a stage at a theatre show. Couples glided effortlessly; the women twirling elegantly with their chins high and proud, the men guiding them with authority and flair.
I examined their faces. Some concentrated fiercely, like they were solving a crossword puzzle, others in utmost calm, as if out for a Sunday jog. Some moved fast, tapping their feet in bursts; others much slower and smoother, as if winding down at the end of a long day. As each song ended the floor cleared and a new crowd of people crept on, ready for their turn to dance under the spotlight. I watched the men with envy, commanding the floor and their partners with unwavering confidence, the girls they danced with all heartbreakingly beautiful. This was Lavoe, the hottest salsa club in town. I didn’t even know what I was doing there. I couldn’t dance. Not one step.
I looked around, uncomfortable, sad almost. How was it that everyone in this room could dance except me? So I promised myself; there on the edge of my bar stool, mesmerised by the salseros in front of me – Quito would be where I finally learned to dance.
The following morning I asked around for dance schools. I didn’t know what I was looking for, what kind of class or teacher, what kind of style – I just looked for any school with the word bailar. I phoned a few numbers and got nothing; busy tones, no answer. The third number I called, I got someone. Lucky him. I was about to become his best customer.
My first lesson was booked for the following day. It was a good twenty minute walk from my hostel, so I left early, careful to show up on time and leave a good first impression. It was cloudy that day, like most Quito days, and the clouds hung low, staring at you with dark grey eyes, deciding whether to rain or not. I laboured up and down the hills, into a part of Quito I’d never seen before, praying for the rain to hold until I arrived. Eventually I found it; a small studio in an old apartment complex, hiding down a grid of suburban side streets.
I hopped up the stairs and found Frank, tucked away in a small room. Frank wasn’t exactly what I’d expected in a salsa teacher. I’d pictured a suave, long-haired 60 year-old, maybe a slight hunchback; he’d have a rusty voice from smoking too many cigarettes, and would’ve have opened a salsa school after some injury ended his promising dance career. That’s how the movies would’ve played it. Instead, Frank was a cool, young black guy, shortly cropped hair, jeans and a t-shirt, maybe only a couple of years older than I.
We exchanged pleasantries and he showed me into the studio. Then he put on some tunes and waltzed to the centre of the room.
“This is Cuban salsa,” he shouted over the music. He stepped gently, back and forth, his lips pulled between his teeth, moving in circles as if mopping the floor with his shoes. “And this, is rumba,” he said, tensing his arms out in front of him, swaying side to side. “On 1” he continued, moving faster, spinning up and down the floor. “On 2. New York.” He was clapping to the beats now. I watched him float around the studio, grooving effortlessly between styles, a huge smile on his face. On he went; “This one, Pachanga. This one, Son.”
I was impressed, and confused. I’d always thought salsa was just salsa.
Then a girl arrived. Sandy blonde hair, fair skinned, my height, more or less.
Frank waved her over.
“This is Ximena. Your partner.”
I raised my eyebrows. My own partner. I was starting to feel spoiled.
Frank ushered me to the middle of the room and faced me towards the mirror.
“Bueno, follow me. Left foot first”.
“Uno, dos. Back together. Tres, cuatro. Back together. Muy bien.”
I watched his feet intensely, trying to mimic every angle, every flick. He made it look so easy. So cool.
“Now cinco, seis. Back together. Siete, ocho. Back together. Esoooo. Muy bien Brendan. Again.”
An hour was over before I knew it.
As students arrived for the next class I said bye to Ximena with a beso and grabbed my things. I felt giddy, accomplished. It was that familiar rush, the joy of learning something new. I was finally learning to dance.
I shook Frank’s hand as I passed him on the way out.
“Can I book another class?” I asked.
“Sure,” he nodded. “When?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
I took class with Frank every single day from that day onward. I’d wake up, eat breakfast, write, go to the gym, and by 4pm I was at the studio. Each day I’d learn a new turn or paso – first it was the exibela. Then the enchufla. Next, enchufla doble. Then vacila, coca cola, sombrero, adios. I concentrated intensely, every movement, as if I had an exam the following morning. Each day before class I’d practise, ensuring I had everything mastered so Frank would teach me something new that day. I forgot about my travels, about sightseeing and exploring the rest of the continent. I just wanted to dance.
A few weeks on, Frank planned a night out dancing for his students. I was sitting in the corner of the studio at the time, helping Jorge, Frank’s brother, with his English homework. Ximena came by and tapped me on the shoe.
“Are you coming with us tonight?” she asked.
Jorge stopped tapping his pencil and looked at me, nodding, before burying his head in his book again.
“You need to go, Brendan.”
I looked at him, then at Ximena, then back at Jorge.
He put his book to the side and looked at me.
“Dancing in the studio is easy,” he said.
“You need to dance in the club. You need to practise there. It’s different, you’ll see. You need to go.”
It was around 9pm when we got to the club. I looked up at the sign. Cafe Libro. It just looked like a regular coffee shop to me.
As we filed through the door, the bouncer gave me a once-over, followed by a nod and a smile, as if to say, “don’t worry my Asian brother – you’ll be fine,” and waved me through. It was a small club, or cafe rather, with a few scattered tables and an open dance floor. It wasn’t quite Lavoe, but still intimidating enough for a gringo like me. As we entered, the dance floor was still empty other than a couple of kids practising in the corner. We were early.
We grabbed a table in the back. I chatted to Ximena and the other students, who didn’t seem nervous at all, but looking around I could already tell Jorge was right. It was different dancing here; people watching you from every angle, music so loud you can’t hear each other speak. It’d been about two weeks since my first class, and I had learned a lot, but the studio was safe and private, where you could try new moves and mess up as many times as you liked, rewind the tape, have the whole dance floor to yourself. The club felt like a performance. I was nervous, but I guessed that’s what Jorge was talking about. I was supposed to be nervous.
When the music finally came on, a couple of students jumped up to dance, like a bunch of kids waiting for a theme park ride to open. I sat back and watched, anxious but also intrigued. The dance culture seemed so polite here, so colourful and fun. There were kids as young as fifteen and grandparents probably in their seventies, tapping along the dance floor, smiling, laughing. No fights, vomiting in the corner, screaming or drowning in alcohol. Nightlife back home was so dirty and obnoxious, but here it was vibrant; beautiful even. I’d never seen anything like it.
When the next song came on, Frank looked at me, slouched in his chair. He pointed at my chest, then at Ximena, raised his eyebrows at me and pointed to the dance floor. I smiled nervously and hesitated for a moment. Ximena laughed and grabbed my hand.
As we walked towards the floor I could feel the eyes on me. Ooh look at this Asian fella, let’s see what he can do, maybe he’s like some professional from Korea or something. I chuckled inside. How disappointed they were about to be.
Ximena and I squeezed into the crowd. I took her right hand in my left, placed my hand on her hip, starting counting the beats. I could hear Frank’s voice in the back of my head – “Uno dos! Cinco seis!” I started moving, and Ximena followed, laughing at my intense concentration. I tried a basic turn. Exibela. It worked. I tried another one. Enchufla. It worked again. I got more adventurous. Coca cola. Adios. Enchufla Doble. They all worked. I tried a move I’d just learned that day. El ocho. It didn’t work. I muffed it. I tried again and muffed it again. Ximena laughed. I did too. Nobody cared. It was only dancing.
Later in the night, Frank took a girl to dance. I was chatting with the others and didn’t think too much of it, until the music started. I’d seen Frank dance plenty of times in the studio with Ximena, but this was clearly a different Frank. As the music started he held her close, his hands pressed against her hips, swaying melodically as the song’s energy grew. He’d always told me in class to listen and feel, but it was only seeing him now that I started to understand. As the drums started he spun her, violently almost, catching her hands and pulling her back towards him. His feet punched the floor rapidly, certainly faster than the eight beats he’d taught us, and their arms flailed wildly but always came together somehow, like a jigsaw puzzle. She’d throw her hands up and he’d catch and spin them in a split second, she’d glide across the floor and find his arm just as she fell. Finally she arched her back and swung her arm behind her; Frank grabbed it in his stride, as if he’d been waiting for it, and twirled her like a whisk, once, twice, three times, four times.
I leaned into Ximena. “How many spins was that?”
She laughed, hearing the awe in my voice.
By now half the tables were watching. The men nodded in approval, raising their eyebrows, the women pointed and smiled to their friends beside them, as if to say “I want to dance with him next.” Frank was unfazed. His feet moved fast, but in slow motion, his face emotionless and calm, but clearly having the time of his life. It was all effortless, like he was dancing alone in his own bedroom.
When the song ended I shook my head, amazed.
“How long will I need before I can dance like Frank?” I asked Ximena.
Her head collapsed forward, laughing, as if I’d just asked her to marry me. She didn’t even bother to answer.
From then on salsa became my day. I was inspired all over again. I’d wake up in the morning and practise my moves in my apartment, in the kitchen as I cooked breakfast, as I brushed my teeth, in the shower, anywhere. In the afternoon I’d head to my class, and when it was over I’d practise in the corner, watching the other classes until the studio closed at night. Frank started pulling me into the group classes, which often needed guys, adding another few hours of dancing to my day. Between classes I’d hang around the studio, practising my new moves with Ximena, teaching Frank how to build his website and helping Jorge with his English homework. Ximena often arrived late so Frank would introduce me to something new while we waited, like rumba or pachanga or cha cha cha. The songs on my phone quickly changed from Eminem and Justin Timberlake to Maykel Fonts and Los Van Van. I knew I’d never dance like Frank – he’d danced his whole life, in Cuba, New York, learned from some of the best. But it didn’t stop me from trying.
Three or four weeks later I’d become Frank’s star pupil, or his estrella de la escuela, as he liked to say. Most people new to salsa only came once a week and gave up after ten classes or so. I, on the other hand, had been at the studio every day for over a month, often for hours, trying to cram as much salsa into my head before my impending flight home. Frank used me in his beginner classes to demo the basic pasos, and as Ximena and I danced in the corner he’d point at me and say “See that kid, only been here five weeks!” as if I were some real-life infomercial. I’d been at the studio so much I was even catching up to Ximena, and Frank was now needing to teach new moves to both of us.
But then came the real test.
It was a Wednesday. Frank and I were just closing up the studio when he asked.
“You want to go dancing tonight? I’m going to Lavoe.”
Lavoe. Wednesday was no joke at Lavoe. The first time I was there had been a Wednesday, and it seemed like every dancer on the floor was a professional. Of course I knew some salsa of my own now, but not Lavoe salsa. With Ximena there it might’ve been okay, but she’d already gone home. It was just me and Frank. He assured me I’d be fine.
Always do what you’re afraid to do, I told myself.
“Alright. Let’s go.”
As we entered the club Frank and I nestled ourselves by the corner of the dance floor. I looked around. It looked different to the first time I was there, or perhaps I just noticed things differently. The women sat patiently, watching, waiting to be asked to dance. In between songs, couples shuffled off while men wandered around offering their hands to the ladies and leading them to the floor. Interestingly, the girls never said no. In the bars back home, such an approach would be met with rolled eyes and cold shoulders. Here, it was accepted with a smile. And why not? People just wanted to dance.
Frank knew a fair amount of people and had taken off to dance before I knew it. I, however, stood there and watched – not Frank, but the others dancing around him. Everyone was brilliant, as I’d remembered, but I knew what I was looking at now – the Colombian dancers and the Cuban dancers, the linear and the circular footwork. Wednesday at Lavoe was like a professional show, and it was mesmerising to see it up close after all those hours in the studio. With so much talent on display I wasn’t sure if I planned on dancing, but eventually Frank introduced me to a friend and insist I take the floor with her. I took her hand. I wasn’t nervous, not about the club anyway, but dancing with a new partner was always difficult. It didn’t help that she was gorgeous.
I noticed the difference immediately. She didn’t dance like Ximena, didn’t anticipate my turns like her. As I tried different pasos, she was left stuck, guessing my movements. While Frank’s lead was strong and authoritative, mine was poor and lazy. Within ten seconds I was overcome with self-doubt. After a minute I was imploding. By the end of the song, I’d been humbled back down to zero.
Reality check, Brendan. You still can’t dance.
We got home around 3am that night. I slumped on the couch, annoyed at my lousy performance. I put on some music and played the night over in my head, visualising my lead, drilling the turns into my head. I was frustrated and embarrassed. How could I still not dance? I refused to go to bed. While the whole of Quito slept, I stayed up and practised, in my underwear, until I danced myself to sleep in my kitchen.
By my sixth or seventh week all the practise was paying off. The days of obsessive salsa had me dancing freely with a whole Rolodex of moves in my head. But just as I had found my feet, things were also coming to an end. My departure had crept up on me and it was now only two weeks until my flight home. I hadn’t seen much of Quito, barely any of it in fact, but through the studio, through the dancing nights, Frank and Ximena, I felt like I knew Quito, like I understood it, like it was home. I’d found friends here, a routine, a reason to stay. I didn’t want to leave. The thought of it weighed on me each day, heavy, like a collection of wet Monday mornings. During my walks home I would study the doors, the street names, every old lady selling fruit by the roadside, trying to cherish every last Quito moment. Ten days left, nine days, eight days, I’d say to myself, trying to make sure every last day was counted and appreciated. But the truth was I just needed more time. I wasn’t ready to leave.
I spent my final Quito days just like I’d spent all my other days – dancing. I spent the afternoons with Frank and Jorge, trying to rumba, the evenings with Ximena working on my estilo. In a week we’d say goodbye, maybe for a while, maybe forever, but for my final days I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I didn’t need to. I was familiar with this feeling now, of leaving pieces of myself around the world, and through the years it had grown into something heavy and tiresome, like an evil deja vu – no longer inspiring and poetic like it used to be. I figured I was finally running out of pieces to leave.
The Wednesday before I left we went to Lavoe one last time: Frank, Ximena, a few friends and myself. The place wasn’t new anymore, nor intimidating. As the music came on, I pulled Ximena to the floor and tried the hardest paso we knew. She laughed at my newfound confidence, as did Frank, and I could tell they were both proud of how much I’d learned from them. It wasn’t lost on me that this might be the last time Ximena and I danced here, the last time we danced anywhere, and I let my arms swing free with everything I knew.
As the night wound down, Ximena and I sat by the bar, chatting. Naturally we’d grown close over the last two months, I suppose as dance partners do, but it had become more than that – a rare friendship, of shared stories and comfort and curiosity and respect. Every day we danced and talked and laughed together, an energy only we shared. She was the part of Quito I’d miss the most.
“Sometimes I still get nervous dancing in here,” I told her. “There’s no gringos, I stand out so much.”
She laughed, nodding.
“Yeah, I see them watching you.”
“But you can dance now,” she continued. “So what are you worrying about?”
I looked up at the faces in front of us, all dancing free, in their own world. She was right – there was nothing to worry about. It was only dancing. I looked over at the bar stool where I’d sat months earlier; where I’d watched so enviously as everyone had danced and shouted and laughed their night away. It felt like a lifetime ago. Salsa was alien to me back then, frightening almost. Now it was just something I did in my kitchen. I looked over at Frank, laughing with his cousin, and at Ximena next to me, sipping on a mojito. There was so much I wanted to say to them; so much to thank them for, all the ways they’d helped me learn and change and grow in only a few short months. But it wasn’t the time for that. This was Lavoe, the hottest salsa club in town, and perhaps, the last time I’d ever be here. I looked at the crowd, their smiles, the lights, listened to the drums, taking a beat to appreciate it all one last time. Then I grabbed Ximena’s hand and pulled her to the dance floor.