HE WAS AN AWARD-WINNING salsa dancer who claimed he was born with rhythm in his blood, and I was a gringa from Connecticut.
I was there to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate in Quito. A private salsa lesson in the United States costs at least ten times what he was charging me, and I was always looking to get my next salsa fix.
His warm hands grasped mine with the force of a firm handshake but the softness of a gentleman. Good form, I thought. This will be fun.
As the trombones and tambourines sang their familiar beat-beat-pause, we went through the usual conversation.
“How long have you been salsa dancing?”
“Where did you learn?”
“Are you from there?”
“Haha, do you hear my accent?”
Then, the clincher. “How old are you?”
I replied, “Cuanto me das?” (Literally, how many do you give me?)
The average response is a guess 5-10 years older than my humble 20 years. I hope it’s not because I have premature wrinkles.
I’d be happier if I knew that most people round up my age because I have such a sophisticated fashion sense. Or because I have a sage and mature demeanor, but I don’t flatter myself.
I know the culprit—it’s the curves.
I remember in eighth grade, we were treated to a field trip to a local pool during the last week of school. Since most puberty-stricken girls are still an active bundle of long limbs and straight torsos at that age, I stood out as the only girl with hips.
Not just hips—an hourglass. A full figure, but not the plus size euphemism.
I still had stick legs and stick arms, but they were complemented with curves in unwanted places—and unwanted attention. I went bathing suit shopping for hours trying to find something that would hide my developing body, ashamed of being a woman at age thirteen.
But like a sibling you can’t choose, my body shape was something I had to learn to accept—and to love.
As I grew older, I learned that boys like curves. Even better, I liked my curves. Shakira and Jennifer Lopez made me proud of my figure.
I did have my moments, however. Trying on oh-so-unstretchable Abercrombie jeans was a nightmare. I once broke down in tears in the Aeropostale dressing room when the largest size bikini size still made me look too risqué.
So when I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, I decided to learn salsa. If all you needed were a set of hips and a pair of legs, I figured I’d be a sexy salsa dancer in no time.
It turns out though you need a lot more than just a body that can move. You also need special salsa shoes that won’t scuff the floor, jeans that won’t drag under your heels or a skirt that won’t show the world your panties, a rolling torso like an inchworm, and a whole lot of clear deodorant.
I was terrified for my first class. Over fifty people sorted themselves by ability on three dance floors, and I, of course, stood shaking on the beginner’s platform.
When the music played, we practiced the basic step: forward, together, back. Over and over until it felt natural.
I tripped on other students’ toes, slid my sweaty hands on men’s shoulders, and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to spin. I’d turn around, panic because I lost physical contact with my partner, and then burst into nervous giggles.
After the lesson, the students dispersed out of our neatly organized dance lines, and one of the instructors blasted practice music.
I quietly waited at the edge of the dance floor to watch the more experienced students. Big mistake! A middle-aged gentleman asked me to dance, and I tried to explain in my best Spanish that it was my first salsa class.
But “no” was not in this man’s vocabulary, and he whisked me off to the center of the dance floor.
My “forward, together, back” was no match for his butterfly spin, hammerlock flip, s-turn combo, and he walked off the floor in a huff. I was mortified.
Despite my nightmarish first class, I committed to a few months of biweekly salsa classes.
If nothing else, that bad experience showed me that I had a lot to learn. My body did the work for me, and I began to relax. Through basic sidesteps and spins, I learned to make the hips that I once hated look good.
When I finally mastered the basic rhythm, I was recruited to the intermediate class and quickly became addicted. Every weekend, I’d go salsa dancing, eager to meet more salsa dancers and practice what I’d learned. No longer did I stand on the edge of the dance floor just to watch.
After a year away, I recently returned to Buenos Aires to visit my host mother and friends. Revisiting the salsa studio was at the top of my list; I couldn’t wait to reconnect with the other students and my old teachers.
Just like my first lesson, my palms were sweaty, but this time it was from excitement.
I strapped on my salsa shoes, threw my hair in a ponytail, and strolled over to the central platform. This is where I was humiliated a year ago, and I even spotted the man who stomped away.
Now, I felt confident with my body, my dancing skills, and my Spanish. The advanced salsa teacher moved quickly, and I didn’t get the steps right with every partner.
But I managed to keep up, and I knew that my newfound love of salsa translated into something more poignant than a few new dance moves. Learning to salsa was a testimony of my personal growth.
Most major cities have salsa clubs, and after leaving Buenos Aires, I promised myself I wasn’t finished with salsa. I’ve spun and twirled and shimmied in salsotecas from Colombia to Seattle to Peru. And when I spent the summer in Quito, I took private classes and found myself face to face with the body image insecurity of my past.
By then, however, I was proud of my curvy body and the dance moves I had learned helped me show it off. I never actually revealed my age to my teacher.
Instead, we just danced.