“And now we invite you all to come up and dance!” the emcee shouted into the mic. These were horrific words to me, though everyone else in the audience seemed to think this was a great idea. The dancers flailed their arms and started drawing people from the audience. Oh no, I thought. I looked for Maisie among the dancers and sure enough, she emerged waving her finger to go to her. She was an exotic beauty. I knew no one else like her. She was cerebral and athletic, with wild hair and hazel eyes. She was the embodiment of cool. To know her was to know Betty Rizzo or Ramona Flowers. I was there to support her charity, a something worth supporting.
She grabbed my hand and pulled me in to the drove. My stomach sank. Every man wants to hit this moment out of the park: take her out on to the dance floor and make her a star. I longed to do this, but I didn’t know how because I’m a derelict dancer.
Dancing wasn’t a thing that happened in my house. It was a foreign concept, a phenomenon I witnessed at other people’s houses. My neighbors were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Dominican – those are some dancing-ass people and their parties are raucous.
In my house, the records played a diet of traditional Irish ballads or dour Mexican rancheras. I listened to radio rap. I’ve never had any musical vocabulary for dancing. At best, I’m very adept at nodding my head to the beat. I’m the John Travolta of nodding my head to the beat, but I can’t move my body to music without feeling like an oaf.
There have been those few dances that really worked out and were nice, but it mostly feels like I’m failing at something. I’m always thinking, I’m not pulling this off right now.
The earliest memory I have of dancing is the underwhelming night of my eighteenth birthday. Jovian invited me out to a club. I groaned at the idea, but his hedonistic descriptions of the place made me curious, so I agreed.
The place was dark and dirty. It was exactly what you think a big city club is: flashing lights, pumping bass and cattle-packed dancers. Pinwheel-eyed children of the nineties blew whistles and twirled flashlights. Naked women danced in cages suspended above the dance floor.
I took it all in, witnessed some things I’d certainly never witnessed before, and before I knew it, Jovian was in the middle of the dance floor. A circle of people had formed around him and they cheered him on as he danced and twirled his flashlights. Jovian wasn’t deterred by the dance inhibitions of an introvert–he’d always been a full-blown extrovert. I edged the circle and cheered him on. When the circle dispersed, I got pulled into a wave of dancers and did a casual go-with-the-flow dance. The music escalated, and when a persistent beat infected the room, some girl bumped up against me. I thought I bumped in to her, so I stepped aside. Then again, she bumped in to me. She decided I was going to dance with her. And she was right. She grinded into me and I thought this was a great idea, too.
We saw each other’s faces during the flashes of light. I liked what I saw. I liked what I felt. We improvised an intertwining of parts and rubbed at will. The grinding turned into bumping. Then the bumping turned into banging. What is happening right now, I wondered. Her moves became ape-like. Sometimes the right parts banged, other times I felt like I was getting hurt. Every time I negotiated a good grinding position, she aped into another bang. Jovian appeared and hooted at the sight of me dancing. “Yeah man go with it,” he screamed over the music. I wanted to go with it, but I couldn’t follow the chaos the Jane was choreographing. She had no grace at all and I started to feel her bones in the bumps. I began my away-dance and increased the distance between us. She followed me, bumping and banging way beyond any enjoyment. I creeped my way off the dance floor and wall-flower’ed it for the rest of the night. I looked at the heathen mass and concluded they weren’t my tribe.
The worst dance I ever danced was at the closing night party of the Cannes film festival. It was the kind of party that people connived, extorted, campaigned, seduced and begged to attend. I did none of that. All I did was know Carole.
Carole was many things, but more than anything, she was the most resourceful person I’d ever met. She could get you invited to any event, through any door, to any party, up the red carpet, and on to whatever was happening after that. She was masterful at what she did. She took a liking to me because I reminded her of her little brother. I happily nurtured the brother-sister vibe. She was straight out of my fantasies: she was fun, sultry, magnetic. That Carole wanted to hang out with me in any context made me feel like Jacques Dorier if Jacques Dorier was an actual French idol I didn’t just make up.
Carole set it up so that I had invitations to the swanky closing-night party on the beach. Her goal was sisterly: to help me win the heart of Helene, my biggest-crush-ever-of-the-moment. And though, looking back, Helene may have been a mere blip on the radar of my love life, in that moment, there in those days, when I looked at Helene, I swooned.
She wore a baby-blue satin dress that rested on her like Dali’s clocks. Her hair was long and platinum. Her shadow curved and her gravity bent the air. She was a girl with options, and getting her to attend that party with me was a chest-pounding achievement—I was Jacques Dorier.
The circumstances that brought us together were cosmic. A hundred things had to happen for us to find ourselves in that moment, but the one-hundredth thing that happened was Carole, who coached me from nearby. She prodded me with her face. It said, dance with her, stupid. I decided to ignore her and trust the night would go just fine if I just relied on my impeccable conversation skills. Instead I talked us into a lull. The band cued a slow dance, and I could feel Carole’s gaze burning into me, dance with her! The look on Helene’s face read that I was losing her, so I held out my hand, and she took it.
I led her through the crowd and onto a dance floor pieced together with wooden tiles in the sand. The band was the kind you imagine when you think of the 1920’s: men in black and white suits playing brass instruments and a swinging conductor with loose elbows. Helene and I danced slowly, and closely. My hand drifted too far down her back and she course-corrected me. Of course, of course, my brain whispered. We swayed slowly, spun in slow motion circles. We danced poorly no doubt, but we danced poorly in sync—it was nice. I thought about how I’d pursued her like I’d never pursued anyone ever. Her effects on me were uncontrollable, like the effects of the full moon on a werewolf. I wanted her badly, deeply, chemically. I’d longed to solely have her attention and now that I had it, it was perfect. The band played on stage, the waves crashed on the shore, and I was shaken awake from my reverie by Helene’s gasp. It startled me.
Her face was the total opposite face I yearned to see. What could have just gone so wrong to warrant such a face?
Helene stepped back and looked down at my pants. What she saw was the evidence of my affection for her. I was equally shocked. She made a face that read as, “oh for fuck’s sake” and turned to go. “No no no,” I pleaded. I needed her to understand that this wasn’t a deliberate thing I did. I didn’t go through all this forethought just to stab her with a secret boner in front of a hundred well-to-do’s! She turned and disappeared behind a fog of dancers. I motioned to follow her, but I couldn’t follow her out with all that obvious affection.
I wanted to drop into the sand and sink my way into legend, disappear like a ghost through a wall. But instead I was still there on the dance floor, as the band played, and the waves crashed, trying to think away a hard-on. I had no exit for such a situation, no contingency plan for being abandoned on the dance floor due to biology gone wild. But I had Carole.
She appeared out of the fog of dancers like a soldier coming through the trees. She grabbed my hand and swung it around her waist. She didn’t say a word. There was no judgment, no lesson, no questions. She pulled me and led the dance, making it look like I was leading her. When the band stopped playing, everyone applauded, except Carole. She looked sad and explained she had to leave at that very moment. She said goodbye, kissed me on the lips, turned around, and for the second time during that one song, I watched someone walk away forever. Carole forever left a mark on me. I never got to say it, but “nice save, Carole.”
That night secured my fear of dancing, but I did learn that if you’re planning on publicly humiliating yourself, the live band experience is the way to go. The energy a live band outputs is infectious and easily transmitted. There’s an analog pleasure to dancing to a live band. The way the air shakes and the floor trembles is candy to the nerves. I’d argue that these vibrations are best felt leaning against the back wall of the venue, but my wallflowering skill set has always been very under-valued. It was from a wall that I first saw Maisie dance.
The waves of a live salsa band and the tremors of a thousand feet tapping the dance floor shook the walls for sure that night. Maisie was a lion. Her hips swung like a Caribbean wedding night and her ease was enviable. Her invitation to go watch her dance at a charity show was easy to accept.
When the show wrapped up, the dancers pulled people from the audience to join in the dancing, and Maisie made a beeline for me. The smirk on her face indicated she clearly understood how mortifying this was going to be for me. But Maisie was a generous dancer. I followed her lead and surely I blushed. Meregue isn’t that difficult. The moment was sexy, and fun. The event churned and the room buzzed with celebration. If this is what dancing is, I thought, then maybe it isn’t so bad.
But that sentiment had a short life.