But later that evening, I can't resist trying out the steps. And someone at the office has given me a salsa exercise DVD, which promises not only a tighter "core," which I could probably use, but a few good moves. One Saturday morning before I start cleaning my apartment, I remember the DVD and put down the vacuum. A minute later, I'm standing in front of my computer, trying to follow the hip swiveling and grinding. I add a couple of Jose's moves. This scene, ridiculous as it is—and, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I see that it is very ridiculous—is also a breakthrough. I've never been able to dance, even alone, in the privacy of my home.
At my second class, we take up our positions—Jose, with his right arm around my back and his left hand holding my right—and, surprising myself, I immediately assume the correct stance. "Okay, baby, let's go!" says Jose, and we're off. We practice the old steps and then we start on some turns. There is a waltz playing in the background: Other couples are swirling gracefully around the dance floor to the three-quarter beat. Trying to keep to a salsa rhythm isn't easy. I'm about to give up, when the music changes. Now it's a tango. I notice a couple to my right: I can't tear my eyes away, they're so magnetic. "Don't look at them," says Jose, compassionately, but with some urgency. "You'll lose your focus and your place." It makes me feel as if he understands my shyness; I realize that I trust him, even after only two lessons. Why? For one thing, he hasn't once asked me to do something I couldn't do. Though he's obviously a very skilled and talented dancer, he seems to want to share his skill with me, rather than use it to show me how good he is.
When I get home, I'm so jazzed that I search for some salsa sites on the Net, and watch a few competitions on YouTube. Then I find myself trying to imitate the salsa stance, keeping the upper body still while moving the hips and legs and feet. I even look in the mirror while I do it. (This would have been excruciating a month ago. Today it makes me laugh, and reflecting on my progress gives me a small sense of accomplishment. Very small, but still.) I start thinking about parallels to my work: How did I learn to write? By reading other writers, trying to figure out how they did it, and by writing myself. The more I wrote, the more comfortable at it I became. Dancing isn't very different. The more I do it, the more comfortable it feels. It requires trust (in my teacher) and focus. I notice that whenever I lose focus on what Jose and I are doing, by looking at other (far more experienced and graceful) dancers in the room, not only do I forget my place but my self-esteem slips and falters. Then my inhibition, returning in full force, gives it a nasty shove, and I might as well just take a chair. Jose keeps telling me to stop thinking, to simply follow his lead, and when I do, finally, it's smooth sailing: He navigates me breezily through turns we haven't even practiced yet. There is magic to the letting go. Every time I become less a spectator and more engaged, my dancing improves. My engagement with Jose helps, too. You might have thought I knew this before I tried it, but I discovered that hip-hop is more about performance, while salsa—though it can also be about performance—thrives on the connection between the partners. I guess I'm more comfortable sharing responsibility on the dance floor; I know I'm comfortable when I'm relating to a guy (even, I find, a sleek Latin cat a couple of decades younger than I). A woman dancing salsa, Jose tells me, can be kind of low-key if she chooses, letting her partner show off all around her. I'm happy to let Jose do that (as I'm still more Queen Mother than Rita Moreno), but step-by-step, I hope I can learn to do some showing off myself.