Salsa Cultura

Sweaty bodies, grinding hips, scantily clad women, and music that stirs the root chakra. Those were my notions of salsa dancing, and that's why I was nervous. But I wanted to learn to salsa for an upcoming trip to Cuba. So I called Ava Apple, one of the Bay Area's best salsa dancers, and arranged to take a lesson. I had visions of her arriving in a candy-red dress with sparkly spike heels. Instead, she wore plaid pants, a T-shirt, and sandals. I admit I was a little disappointed.

We faced the mirror together and she demonstrated the basic steps, which were not flashy and wild, but small, controlled, and delicate. Her hair was dark and her voice was quiet, deep, and soothing, like a masseuse's. She put on music -- Gilberto Santa Rosa's Live from Carnegie Hall. I moved and swayed my hips to the beat. Then she turned to me and suggested we dance together. Even before we took a step, the intimacy of the dance was palpable. I held her, my arm on her shoulder, looked into her eyes, and waited for her to lead. We hadn't even started to cha-cha yet and already it was sensual. It occurred to me that for all the moshing of my thirty-something generation, we missed out on something better. "Just keep the count," she urged. I concentrated on the basic step, and followed her through a turn, another follow-through, and a double turn. Clumsy as I was, I couldn't believe that in less than a half-hour, I was salsa dancing!

Gabriel Romero's slinky-smooth prowl and boy-band good looks have earned him poster-boy status in the salsa scene. At 29, he's already a well-known instructor and performer. "The dance originated in the casinos of Cuba. To this day, the Cubans call it Casino," he told me. "It took flight in Mexico before coming to New York, where it took on more of a big band, jazz orientation. Salsa as we know it today is every bit as American as it is Cuban or anything else."

Like many Latinos, Romero got started in salsa dancing through his family. "But I was more into American Top 40, rap, and stuff like that," he explained. "I was about 18 before I ever went into a salsa club. I was totally mesmerized. I was blown away by the sexiness, the elegance, the whole aura of the dance. The women were feminine and very sexy. The men were confident, macho, well-dressed." Romero leaned forward, his excitement contagious. "It was very nice, but at the same time it had a working-class, rootsy feel to it. It captivated me." I was captivated, too. I wanted to pull a scene out of Fame and dance with Gabriel on a table, but I restrained myself.

"Dress code strictly enforced," I read over and over as I perused the Web sites of local salsa clubs. What to wear? Apple clued me in. "A lot of people dress sexy. It's a sexy dance, and it makes you feel good about your body." A salsa club regular added, "I like to wear little black dresses. If it has sparkles, all the better." But she also warned me to choose a dress with straps, so it stays up. For shoes, medium heels or dance shoes were advised -- closed toe with a strap over the top and a strap around the heel. Men have a dress code also. "It's not uncommon for me to wear a suit and tie to the clubs," Romero told me. "It's all the persona of the dance. There's a strong core of African earthiness to the music, and then there's the Spanish influence -- the matador, the flamenco -- which is elegant and sophisticated in the posture and attire. And you also have the American influence -- the jazz, the swinging, the melodies," he continued. "When you put all this together, it's quite remarkable. And it's reflected in the dress code."

Trouble was, I didn't have any strappy dresses. I donned a pair of fitted, low-riding flares and a tight, black silk top with a sexy lace-up front. My boyfriend wore slacks, a dress shirt, and a blazer. I thought we looked hot.

I envisioned a velvet-roped line, but we walked right into the Glas Kat. It was crowded, but not mobbed. The women were in halter-top dresses, teeny cocktail dresses, sundresses, and two-piece sequined outfits I had only seen in music videos. There was a lot of skin. I might as well have been wearing a nun's habit. People were obviously there to dance, and my outfit was simply too restrictive. I made a mental note to troll thrift stores for something that showed some skin. The men looked classy and elegant -- most dressed in slacks and short-sleeve, button-down shirts. No ripped jeans, no baseball hats turned backwards, and no Gap-wear. There were old people, young people, fat people, skinny people, and a rainbow of ethnicities. Everyone glittered. In the shadow of the Glas Kat's balcony of onlookers, in the echo of the syncopated melody of a live band, I felt as if I had slipped into another era. It seemed like I was on vacation in my own city.

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