Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dancing for the Gods

Milongas can be a long dive for me here in Germany; so last summer sometimes I would go down the street to dance salsa instead.  One evening was particularly magical.
Traditions all over the world:  Dancing for the gods is normal

Inessa and her boyfriend, a young couple who live near me, would sometimes call me up and say they were going to a local hole-in-the-wall salsa place.

I am remembering one particular night:

The salsa floor clears after the music stops for a moment.  I stay on the floor with Inessa and a salsa starts.  No one comes out to dance for some unknown reason, and we end up dancing all alone for an entire song.  I try to block this fact out.  I know the piece.  My tango instincts take over:  Every step has something to with the music in tango, as I best understand it.

This night, I realize something:  It's not just tango, but each dance can be danced in such a way that the music dictates what will happen next.  My salsa is not street salsa or schooled salsa: it's salsa that hears the music.  If there is a turn, it is because the music says to turn.

We join the band on stage.  I imagine that we are the unpaid members of the band.  I know this feeling as a musician.  It was a rare moment that I loved as a musician when I felt as if a dancer gave me the feeling that I was controlling his every move, or was the dance controlling my every move?  Perhaps neither.  In the mambo, son montuno, guaguacó traditions, the dancers are possessed by the gods, and the dance just happens.  In this ancient tradition from Africa, improvisation is what the gods do with you through the music.

When the music stops, we catch the ending as if we had practiced a thousand times -- bit of luck, really.  The Cuban conguero asks: "Señor, ¿Qué quieres oir ahora?"  [What do you want to hear now?]  I have never heard the band ask for a request.  I asked in Spanish, "Play a chachachá."  Although I have never head this band ever play a chachachá, they do it for us.  Everyone, it seems, in Germany learns at least a little bit of dance, and chachachá is on that list of dances they learn.

The floor fills with dancers now -- more than any other moment all night.  This is what I wanted from the start -- not a show, but people inspired to dance together.  I want them to dance because the music and the gods demand that they dance.

A German woman who has been dancing all night stands at her tall table.  I drink a tall glass of water after the chachachá.  She asks, "Are you on tour here?"

"No," I tell her.  "I am just possessed by the muses when they play their harps."

Not understanding me, she says, "I mean, are you professional?"

I don't know how to make her understand,  "No, I just dance because the music tells me to."  She looks at me strangely.  Yes, I am possessed.

During that song when no one joined us for the entire song, I tried to dance as if no one were watching, but of course there are those who are watching.  I put that out of my mind because I watched my partner and her every expression to see if she was ready for the next surprise parada or able to go into a moment of slow motion.  She, too, was watching me and my mischievous mind.  And, of course, the gods are always watching.

I really am not a practiced or a very good Latin dancer, but the magic of dancing salsa now is only because what I have learned in tango to improvise and move to the music -- that makes it appear that things were choreographed.

For some sense of the power of the chachachá, here is the music and its dance (below).  Although this dance is choreographed, the music is chachachá and for me very inspiring.  (For musicians:  The clave is always 2/3 in chachachá.)


  1. Hi Mark,

    I like your blog!

    God respects us when we work but he loves us when we dance.
    (author: Omar as-Sufi)

    Miss K.

  2. Miss K. I love that quote! I know God loves me (if dancing is what She loves of us). Maybe this year I need to get more of God's RESPECT! :-) I'm off to work right now!


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