Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Moving to Chicago in November required fortitude, a gearing up, a daily awareness that things would get better and days would get longer.

Two years ago, I came home to Chicago from Honduras, where I spent more than a year working in constant sunlight, living in a home where my bedroom led out to an outdoor patio, the untended garden green and succulent. After my year-long volunteer stint south of the border was up, I moved back to my parent’s house in the Chicago suburbs and searched for a nine-to-five job. Many months (and rejections) later, I was finally hired, able to sign a lease and move into the city. The move, however, coincided with the beginning of the Chicago winter, the slow crawl that is its longest season.

As December began, the days shortened and the city started to hibernate. I left work when it was dark, kept my hat and scarves on around the house, went on runs through fresh snow ever so lightly, reading into every step in case I hit ice. There was a long wait ahead before the city became alive in late spring, and the question became, how do I pass the time, pretending I’m not waiting?


I hopped on my bike one night in early December and rode to Humboldt Park, the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago. Division Street - populated by organic food markets, crowded restaurants, doggy day cares - turns after Western Avenue. A steel Puerto Rican flag is cemented in the ground arching over Division as you enter Humboldt Park. Past the dividing line of Western Avenue, there are dollar stores, storefront Iglesias, drop-in centers, a salsa dance academy.

I locked my Schwinn to a parking meter on Division while three men looked me up and down. I nodded at them, felt my unfamiliarity with the area, and then walked into the salsa studio. At the front of the room was the teacher, a skinny Puerto Rican in his early sixties who had the look of a ballroom dancer with tan trousers and a tucked in shirt. Along with the other beginners, he taught me the basic steps that night. 1-2-3, 5-6-7. I had learned - though not well - in Honduras, counting uno-dos-tres, cinco-seis-siete.

I had been meaning to take a dance class since I moved back to Chicago but I begrudgingly got on my bike that night, pedaling over to see what salsa dancing was like in Chicago. Do it for the story, I kept telling myself, which is what I always tell myself to push past nerves. The class was quick, painless, a lesson in right and left turns. I found myself relieved when the class was over, but then as I was about to pay, another dancer came in. His arms were tattooed in full sleeves. He wore wire frame glasses. He dropped his things and started warming up in the mirror. A girl came in and started dancing with him. They dipped, spun, and practiced a routine. Their steps were light, rhythmic, moving in syncopation. They wore smiles to suggest their airlessness, as if they were walking on the moon.

“Now was that your first class, senorita?” my dance teacher asked, ready to take my credit card. “How’d you like it?"

“It was great,” I said, looking at the pair. “I’ll buy a ten pass if that’s alright with you.”

“Claro que si senorita.”


I started dancing salsa in a small nightclub in a mountain town of Honduras, unaware of my steps, just holding on and following someone else’s lead. I was in Honduras to learn Spanish, about to head to the capital to volunteer at an orphanage for a year. I quickly learned that the small town only had two spots to go out for a drink: Via Via, a wine bar for tourists, or Sky bar, a small nightclub where the locals go to dance. I preferred the latter, which is where I found that dancing, although I had never known this before, meant dancing salsa and bachata.

After language school, I moved to Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital city. I told a co-worker at my new job that I had learned a little salsa when I went to language school, and she said that every weekend she could, she went to a place called Sabor Cubano to dance. Its name – Cuban Flavor – suggested to me a hole-in-the-wall joint, plastic patio tables, a place where all walks of life came together, dripping sweat, exuding a kind of raw lust. I had only been in Tegucigalpa for a few weeks but the city seemed similarly animalistic, a knock to the senses, smelling of burning plastic and diesel, with fruit vendors shouting and cars honking and children asking for money. But when I went to Sabor Cubano, I found myself on a street lined with upscale restaurants and parked cars, unscratched, looking new. The bar had tile floors and a 100 Lempira cover. When I walked in, I saw a level of dancing almost elite.

I never learned the steps that well but I kept going back. A lover of John Cale and David Bowie, I soon started listening to Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz. My body innately picked up its rhythm, the jazz tendencies toward improvisation, the inherent joy in the horns, tragic blues in its lyrics. It was fascinating for me. I had been prepared for the chaos of Honduras but no one had told me about the normalcy that could exist by its side. 

Most Fridays, I would get out of work and bus into the city center on hand-me-down buses with my money situated in three places (my bra, my jean pocket, and my purse) just in case I was robbed. I drove past Hondurans who were searching for spare change or a sense of security that what they’ve worked for is theirs and then I would get ready for the night in a white walled, bare hotel, gearing up for Sabor Cubano. Salsa dancing, done solely for enjoyment, knocked me over with its strength. Amidst the violence of the city, the corruption of the state, the dance felt in every movement, a cry that life would be enjoyed.

“The right to enjoy popular pleasures may not in itself change the system that subjugates,” John Fiske is quoted as saying in Priscilla Renta‘s “Salsa Dance: Latino/a History in Motion”. “But it does preserve areas of life and meaning of experience that are opposed to normal disciplined existence.” To indulge in pleasure meant one could carry on the creativity that the state desperately tried to drain from its people. To dance instead of wallow seemed the most spiteful of acts, akin to declaring yourself an artist for life after someone suggests that you shouldn't quit your day job. John Fiske says it best, highlighting the overlooked value of pleasure during hard times:“Insofar as [popular pleasures] maintain the cultural territory of the people against the imperialism of the power-bloc, they are resistant.”

After trying to figure out my turns and timing on the Sabor Cubano dance floor, I finally went to learn my basic steps at a salsa convention one weekend in Tegucigalpa. I rode a bus into the city center past children, beaten by the sun and shoveling dirt into pot holes for the hope of a tip by passing drivers. I sat in the conference room of Tegucigalpa's four star hotel looking out at the houses stacked one on top of the other, painting the valley a pastel with their light blue and mauve paint. It was a beautiful sight, but only from where I was standing. Inside the conference room, I watched as the Hondurans danced with passion and skill to music and steps wholly their own. There, I saw a joy that could be best described as resilience.



Back in Chicago, in a one room dance studio, I began to speak Spanish again. My salsa teacher started to call me hija. I formed friendships through spins and turns measured by the tumbao. It became a hideaway for me, for many. Demonstrating to the class one night how to position one’s hand as they danced, my teacher held up what looked like a gang sign. He quickly turned. “But don’t do that too close to the window,” he joked. “Not in this neighborhood.”

That winter was longer than I had expected and I felt myself trudging through. Each month – March, April, May – was sprinkled with snowfalls. I’ve lived in Chicago long enough to know this is normal but with my return home, an acute anxiety slowly, sometimes radiantly, emerged. It was an anxiety that I had tried to keep at bay for many years. Strangely, it dissipated in Honduras but in Chicago, anxiousness made its way back to me. I don’t know if it was the influx of bills or lack of vitamin D or just the jarring new routine but most days, I felt like a house of cards, trying to stay away from any wind so I wouldn’t collapse.

I haven’t lived an especially anxious life but anxiety has always permeated it. I went to a therapist once in college to discuss the panic attacks that would come every once in a while but left in tears, unable to talk about my feelings to a stranger. Then triggers hit that early spring, one right after another, adding to the dimness of the already shortened days. I went online one night to find out that a co-worker of mine from Honduras was murdered in Guatemala. I went into the shower, turned on the showerhead and sat down, crying. I didn’t know her personally but she felt like family. The next day, after a full breakfast, I felt my hands shaking on the bus, my breaths were short.

It was also all hands on deck in my family, as we spent our nights on the phone, discussing how to help a family member dealing with addiction. We discussed different potential living situations, who could drive who to AA and court, exchanged mutual feelings of anger and deep sympathy. In the midst of this, I received a call one morning at work from my brother with the news that my mom had a stroke. I rushed home to the hospital, sitting by mother’s side as she learned to lift her fingers one by one and recall my dad’s name.

For the most part, I worked through it all feeling composed but it was as if my body couldn’t mimic the stability I was trying to exude. Everyday I felt faint, like I would fall to the ground at any given moment. Then there were the minor panic attacks; one at the gynecologist, where the nurse asked me to lay down and sip on fruit punch as I gathered myself, and a few more times in the car, when I would pull over, scared that I couldn’t steer straight. I soon stopped drinking caffeine and cut back on social drinking to curb hangovers because both had me spinning, and after six years of vegetarianism, I introduced meat back into my diet hoping it would help me feel stronger, as if standing up wasn’t such a hard task.

I tried everything I could to get better. I tried deep breaths before bed and on my morning commute. I searched for fresh air when I was spinning. I repeated positive thoughts like daily mantras when I was in the car close to an attack. Nothing helped.

Except dancing salsa.

It could have been any hobby I suppose. It helps to calm the physical body whether by banging on drums or kneading bread or weeding white clover from your garden. Regardless the sport or activity, it’s all a way to give your body something to do, to trick the mind into thinking it has a task at hand. It need not worry, it’s getting something done. But I didn’t play drums, never found myself drawn to team sports, couldn’t garden in the frost. I could look at my partner and see him staring at me, my mind elsewhere, and once he led me, I could forget him completely. I could forget about my mother’s recovery, forget the tension that was tricking my body into feeling weak, forget it all except the woman over the speakers backed by trombones singing, “There's no need to cry for life is a carnival.”


It fascinated me most to find out how other people started dancing salsa. At class, I met a graduate student from Spain who started taking classes after following the rise of Romeo Santos (the bachata singer with more YouTube hits than Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry). I met Josh, a southsider who married a Mexican, and even though the marriage didn’t last, he couldn’t shake the love of salsa music she had turned him on to. And then there was Carlos, the tattooed dancer I saw on the first day of class, who came to Chicago twenty years ago from Guerrero, Mexico. He started dancing por el estres. He hadn’t seen his brother in a year; he was locked up in jail in McHenry county for a reason I never knew. Carlos was a painter, a boxer, but he needed a new release so he started dancing.

We all had a story. Most of us were transitioning, dealing with some form of displacement. Some forced, some not. The salsa clubs in Chicago were even more diverse than my dance class. No where else in the city had I ever seen such a broad range of ages, socio-economic status, or racial diversity. I danced with doctors and the undocumented; Moroccans and Indians and every type of Latino; older men who still had it and 16-year-old boys figuring out their steps, also their sexuality.

One night after class, I was about to take a bus home – my car was in the shop – but the instructor looked at me and shook his head. “No way are you taking a bus. I’ll drive you.” He was packing up his stuff, ready to go when he looked at me and asked, “You hungry?” I wasn’t but I said yes. We went to Lazos, a taco joint nearby. My instructor, a 30-year-old Chicago Boricua who dressed head to toe in Zara, told me about his recent trip to Indonesia. He was hired to go and teach salsa conferences. Another dancer, Josh, came along. Josh wasn’t Latino but he dressed and acted as if he had Cubano in his blood.

“I can’t handle any of that Marc Anthony shit,” Josh would say. “Gimme that Tito Puente, you know?”
  
We were different, not necessarily because of where we came from, but because they were loud and bombastic and I was a much quieter character. I spent many nights like this, sharing tacos with people whose circles I wouldn’t have entered before Honduras. There was a novelty to it. I was born and raised in suburbia. Salsa dancing was an outlier to my personality; a passion that caused my close friends to roll their eyes.

While it was refreshing not fitting the mold, it also distanced me. Getting tapas one night with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Spaniards, I realized that because of the language barrier, I was sitting at dinner quiet while the table went back and forth in Spanish. I’m okay with this discomfort - it’s how I learned Spanish - but at times it was hard in a large group and I longed for commonness.

There were other hesitations with my newfound love as well. Dancing helped calm my nerves, but the dance floors were hot, crowded places and many nights, I searched for a way out. I never minded the sensuality of it all (there was a personal connection in dancing that filled a void I felt stateside) but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a machismo inherent in the dance. Mostly it showed itself in the lyrics of popular songs or in the passing comments of my dancing partners. There were all of these lines that seemed to spring up, so easily crossed, taking me from relief to tension. Every time I danced, I never knew which side I would end up on.

One Tuesday night, I went to the Alhambra Palace, a cheeky middle-eastern inspired nightclub in Chicago’s West Loop. The nightclub’s arched and dome shaped roofs stuck out on Randolph Street among a row of modern restaurants. The dancing started late, and I had work in the morning. I saw a few faces I knew, danced a few good dances but mostly found myself dancing without much ease. I went home, and for the first time, wondered how long I’d keep doing this. I wasn’t fully adopting the community. I didn’t fit its well-groomed, stylized aesthetic.

Beyond that, my anxiety still lingered. I constantly thought of my mother with affected speech spending her days in rehab, a family member of mine trying to find the key to his sobriety, the husband of the late volunteer in Guatemala and his recovery. I thought of my own. It’s a long process. One that sometimes leads you down side streets before you realize that you just have to give in and go seek help.


But no matter, I knew that in the meantime, we will always keep dancing.

6 comments:

Celia said...

This is so lovely, Sally. So much of this I relate to - I think winter in Chicago is so much a time of living in one's own head, of gritting one's teeth, of trying to ignore what the day to day looks like. Salsa-ing is a beautiful way of living winter vibrantly here. - Celia from Litterless

Sally said...

Celia, thanks so much for reading what ended up being a very long winded/overly personal piece. I had to push myself to publish this one. :)

And yes, I do try to love the Chicago winter for what it is and am genuinely grateful for how it allows for the chance to slow down and hibernate but then I also have my moments. I'm sure you understand. Thanks again for reading.

welliewalks said...

beautiful, raw and honest. ~jane from janejojulia

Sally said...

Thank you!

bweigel716 said...

“Fill your paper with the breathing's of your heart.”
― William Wordsworth

A wonderful piece, keep on dancing mi hija.

Dad

Sally said...

Thanks Dad! And it's true, writing this helped me to breathe. More to come soon. :)