By Deepika Sharma
Photos by Reshma Pritam Singh
Every year-end, I chalk down a New Year’s resolution list. Mostly these are, in no order of priority, love, relationship and work goals. Of course, as tradition demands, I land up following only a quarter of the list. There was nothing different about my list for 2009, except that I had just moved to Mumbai on a rainy October afternoon with seven cartons, a dream job and a broken heart. There were people that had to be impressed and a heart that urgently needed some fixing.
I was working on a serious redevelopment plan. I was sure that once I did a bit of rewiring in the love department, everything would fall into place. I am not the kind of person who can make tall claims like, “I will never fall in love again.” In fact, I am the one breaking the line to get onto the Ferris wheel! I needed a good plan, a plan to experience love without being in a relationship.
The plan arrived in the Sunday newspaper. A local dance company was inviting people to join their next batch for salsa lessons, and the most important bit was that you could join even if you didn’t have a partner. This was going to be my plan! Salsa was going to cure me of my heartbreak.
Why in the whole world did I think salsa was going to heal my heart? I’m not sure about others, but dancing gets me high and makes me a very happy person. It’s almost like sex. You know it first in theory, and you have seen it, but actually doing it for the first time is strange. And then you try the steps. Some things work, some things don’t. You find what works best for you and the days your body, mind and soul are in complete sync, the ecstasy you experience is inexplicable.
I remember being introduced to the phenomenon when I was four years old. My mother had a weekend ritual. She cleared the centre table in the living room, switched on the softer lights, and invited all of us to join in for a dance. Boney M, Whigfield and the popular Bollywood number of that week were played over and over again until we were hungry for dinner. It was in this living room, watching her move like no one was watching, that I fell in love with dancing and what it does to your body. She of course spread the tradition to our neighbours and we had weekend dance battles, literally. What fascinated me the most was how everyone felt so sexy and the prerequisite was to pull out the beautiful in you and show it off. Who wouldn’t want to do that!
On a Friday evening, I arrived in blue slacks and a pink sleeveless top for my first salsa class, nervous and very excited. This was going to be my first partnered dance. I had romanced Lord Krishna in Kathak classes before and other people at a disco or party, but the idea of training to dance with a partner made my heart skip a beat. We all did a little warm-up exercise first, and then our drop-dead gorgeous instructor announced, “Everyone will dance with everyone in turns. There is no permanent partner here. Everyone needs to understand different rhythms and adapt or not adapt to them.” Even Aastha channel doesn’t make the secrets of life sound so simple. We started dancing and I touched another person’s body for the first time in this city. The warmth, the nervousness of another being so close to me was strangely reassuring. “This plan is going to work,” I was thinking to myself when the instructor said, “Change”, and as my smile grew wider I switched to another body.
That first month was like learning to walk for the first time. Being held by someone, the touch was healing in ways I hadn’t imagined. I danced with different people in the class. There was a boy who always avoided conversation because his English wasn’t very good and he refused to converse in any other language. But when he danced, he was Patrick Swayze from Dirty Dancing. He was a charming lead, who always made eye contact at the start and never sighed if the connection was not established in the first minute. He gave himself and his partner time to connect with each other’s bodies. He once told me that he had been to many salsa socials, even before he joined the class. He loved dancing but wasn’t sure how to be around others at the socials. His way of making friends was by talking about his Alphonso mango orchards. Yes, our man was very rich and even though he didn’t speak much English, mangoes were his ticket to the ‘scene.’ Every year he sent boxes of mangoes as presents to the instructors and other people he thought were important to be acquainted with.
I also made some new friends. One guy, a financial consultant, a regular on the salsa socials scene, stayed close to my house. He often called me over to his place to practice. He confessed to me once that our teacher had told him that he didn’t have it in him to be a dancer. My friend was ‘practice makes a man perfect’ type of guy. Over the years he had worked on a formula to perfect his style, create a rhythm. He went to every salsa social and practiced at home. When I went to his house the first time, his mother, in her nightie, climbed on to his bed and recorded us dancing, because he had asked her to. He kept records of every practice session to watch later and fix his mistakes. He loved his job, but couldn’t imagine hanging out with other financial consultants after work. He had identified salsa as a way to meet ‘interesting people’. He once mentioned in passing that regular dancing had made him aware of women in ways that he had no clue about earlier. I never probed further. I always felt that the only time he talked from the heart was when he was dancing. He was still awkward, but comfortable in his skin when he led.
Salsa socials were what I looked forward to the most. You met so many new people.
You danced with one person; song change, switch, and then on to another body. It was like speed dating. Except you hardly exchanged names or your likes and dislikes. You both just moved your body to the music, tried to understand your partner’s moves, and hoped to create magic. Those first few months I met the kind of guy who held you like you might break if they let go, some who only cared about the steps and kept turning you until you felt dizzy, some who just wanted to touch you, some who could lead a beginner and a professional with the same sexiness, and some who just had a lot of fun. Yep, I met all types of guys.
You had to run to the ladies’ room to take a break, because there was no way a woman could do that when close to the dance floor – someone always wanted to partner her. I met a junior instructor who started venting as soon as she saw me. “Why can’t they understand, I don’t want to dance. I want a little break. I have been dancing for the last 10 songs and those boys expect me to keep going to practice their lead. Assholes!”
Here’s the thing; in salsa, ballroom dancing, and basically all partner dances, one person plays the lead, while the other follows. If you are dancing with the opposite gender and are a girl, you will only follow. When I reached my intermediate level I started hearing, from the instructor or my partner, “Follow the lead”, “Girls, stop thinking and let him lead”, “Switch off your mind”. I would often feel frustrated and complain to my boss at work about how I didn’t want to be led all the time during salsa lessons. My problem wasn’t so much about the method of leading and following, but that I wanted to lead at least half of the time. And it wasn’t like all boys wanted to lead. Some would have preferred if the girl led. They looked terrified at the prospect of spinning their partner and taking responsibility for it. When I started out, I was appreciated for my musicality and rhythm, but soon I had become the girl who wouldn’t help the guy improve his lead.
“You knew about the form before you joined,” was my batchmates’ usual response to my exasperation. I don’t think they understood what was the fuss about. Dance, over the years, had taught me to come to terms with my emotional side. I think awareness of your body through movement does that to you. Like everyone else I had good days and bad days and it all was summed up with a dance. When you dance with another person for the first time, there is a conversation that takes place, which is baggage-free. You are just required to be empathetic, the way you touch each other expresses that empathy. This conversation had started healing me, healing my broken heart. As we learnt the basics of salsa and moved to the dance part, I was hoping for some sort of collaboration. The human touch that had started to heal me was now missing some sort of secret ingredient.
I don’t remember why I stopped going for my classes or the socials. I guess I was having a great time at work. My heart was healing. Mumbai had led me to trust myself to take that perfect turn or shine sometimes. Many times I danced alone, but I was searching for another dance. I was still chasing the high. This time, I chose street jazz and landed up in my first class once again.
Every dance studio has a wall of mirrors. They say you become a better dancer if you can watch yourself move. I was doing a partner dance before, so I spent most of my time looking at my partner. Initially, looking at myself was a bit overwhelming, but I took it upon myself to romance myself this time. Street jazz is a fusion of hip-hop and jazz. It is inclusive in style, with techniques from ballet, but also borrows a lot from various kinds of street dancing. At this class, we danced the workout, the walk, the ‘what you looking at’ look. We had bodies of every size and every age. From hip rolls to jazz walks, we weren’t allowed to think that we were any less than Madonna. “There is no gender in dance. Pick your gender for today and tomorrow if I ask you to switch you should be able to do it without thinking about it twice,” we were told. I think I was falling in love again.
Salsa had shaped my moves in a very feminine way. Street jazz gave me a chance to re-define that femininity, to one that suited me. As I discovered my own body, many times during class I was transported back to my mother’s living room. I had a new pair of eyes through which I saw the dancers in that room. They all seemed to surrender their bodies, heart and minds to the dancing, be it with themselves or their partners. I had begun to do that too during my classes.
Then I moved to another city, and attending a salsa social when I had just arrived felt like an initiation ritual that must be performed. One evening, very reluctantly, I landed at a salsa social. It felt like déjà vu, except that I also felt like a different person – learning a solo dance form had made me whole in ways I still don’t understand. I was asked for my first dance for the night. The moment my body touched his, my mind made mental notes about his stance, perfume and feather-like touch. I was happy to be taken on a journey, and the rest of the night I floated like a boss from one body to another.
You will never win
Unless you give in
These lines from Mýa’s famous song “Do you only wanna dance” have started to reveal themselves to me these days. I am no longer sure if I am entirely convinced by the lead-and-follow kind of dance. Maybe it’s not for me? At least, not all of the time. But I have also felt how the designations evaporate the moment you sync with your partner. Then there is no lead or follow. It is just sex. For now, I am content and know that I have found love and love has found me. To figure out the rest, I will dance my way through the rest of my life.
We would like to thank Salsa India for allowing us to shoot the Salsa social at Summer House Cafe, New Delhi.