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Gaining Perspective

Dancing Abroad

By Joel Torgeson

“It was … oookaayy,” she said with half a smile and a thick European accent as I walked her back to her seat.

Like a good Minnesotan, I masked the irritation and shock welling up in me and managed to smile with my mouth (my eyes, I’m afraid, may have betrayed my light indignation) before saying a quick, “Thank you,” and exiting towards the bar.

The smoke from several cigars drifted through the humid air towards the lights above as I made my way to the bathroom. Once within its air-conditioned silence, it became apparent that the high humidity, close quarters, and fast music had taken a toll on my shirt. Parts of my collar and sleeves were dry, but most of me looked like I’d taken a shower out on the dance floor. I hadn’t brought another shirt, though, so that one would have to last me the rest of the night. Standing under the vent toweling off, I thought back to my last partner.

“It was… oookaayy.” She’d made a so-so gesture with her hand as she turned away. I’d never seen a follow so rude.

To be fair, salsa has never been one of my better dances. Competing in rhythm gives me a strong predilection towards breaking on the two, which most salsa dancers don’t seem to appreciate. I also mostly know mambo moves, which, though they are similar, don’t seem to transfer well. Salsa, as far as I can tell, takes more after swing and hustle, which makes sense, given it’s a slot dance. You might think my experience in west coast swing would help me, but in fact, it gave me just enough of an understanding to be dangerous. I led patterns I knew from west coast and hoped they would work out, with very mixed results.

That said, I don’t think I deserved her disrespect. Behind her eyes, she’d been laughing at me. Not in a kind way, mind you, but with an air of why did you think you could dance with me?

Unfortunately, this was not the first time—dancing in this sweaty, smoky little club at the top of a hotel overlooking the city—that I’d had an incredulous partner, though this one had been the most vocal about it. Several others gave me sideways glances and patronizing smiles. I do not mean to imply that this was the majority of the dancers; most were very kind, or at least kept their opinions of my dancing well masked. I most certainly had a good time, but still, this impolite minority bothered me.

My shirt marginally drier and my ego no less bruised, I made my way back into the club and sat down to watch for a while. A woman sitting a few feet away grabbed me for the bachata that played two songs later. She seemed genuinely delighted to find that I knew as little of the dance as she did. She introduced me to two of her friends, politely inquiring as to where I was from. “Minnesota” took a bit of explaining.

A taxi ride and a cool shower later, I was awake in bed, battling jet lag for control of my consciousness. Hours later, I drifted off.

Thirty minutes after arriving at another club the next night, I asked another European girl to dance. The salsa beat had a clear emphasis on the one, and by now I’d worked out how to adapt some of my west coast moves more effectively. I was cautiously hopeful as I guided her to the floor.

Apparently this particular song had been designated for a salsa rueda circle, a development I’d missed with my back turned. “I don’t know this,” I said, gesturing in a circle for clarity.

“Here,” she said with a smile, leading me to a side with just enough room for a slot. We began to dance.

I’m not quite sure what I did to give away my salsa inexperience, but several measures into our dance, her demeanor changed. The smile slipped a few notches, and her eyes looked through me. A few measures further and I’d slipped back onto the two. She stopped me, restarted, and turned her head to glance at the rueda circle.

From that point on, she turned her head back to me only to visually affirm that I’d done something she either didn’t recognize or didn’t like, or to follow a move that required greater than average concentration on her part. Otherwise she looked at the other dancers with what I perceived to be mild jealousy. I could probably draw her profile from memory. It was a long song, both in seconds and tense moments. I did not bother to thank her at the end, and she did not wait to see if I would. I quickly made my way back to my seat, as far from the dancing as I could be, and sipped my water. Twenty minutes later I hadn’t moved, save for my eyelids and my hand raising the water glass to my mouth. After a quick taxi ride, I was back in my bed. The subsequent day of travel saw me back in Minnesota.

So far I have neglected to mention the precise location of my salsa adventure. This is by design. I do not want to characterize a country’s dancers based on two experiences. What I’d rather talk about is how fortunate I appear to have been in selecting the dance community I am currently a part of both at the University of Minnesota and in the broader Twin Cities. I’ve danced with many people here, some more proficient and others less, and on very few occasions have I felt disrespected in any way by a partner. Talking with some of the follows I know, they tended to agree.

Early September marks the two-year anniversary of my starting this wild ballroom ride here, so thank you, Minneapolis-St. Paul, for being a good place to grow as a dancer.

Moral of the story? China was fun, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but I prefer dancing here.