It was in the spirit of trying new things that Katie and I accepted our Thai friend Happy’s invitation to attend a salsa class. “Salsa? I love salsa,” I gushed. Doubts immediately began to creep in, however, and how could they not with Katie smirking at me like that? But hungry for chili and peppers and whatever else can be mashed up and put on a chip, I did my best to ignore it. My gut may have been telling me one thing, but I focused on what it was screaming instead. Namely, “Put some goddamn salsa in me.”
The red flags should have been obvious. The class was scheduled at a weird time for starters—9 o’clock on a Monday night. But then again, what better time for a cooking class at the aptly-named culinary hangout, Club Warm Up?
But when we arrived to rows of well-dressed Thai women swapping sensible flats for sparkly high heels, the rest hastily updating their Tinder profiles with busty photos and pouty-face selfies, it all clicked painfully into place.
“But why’d you let me bring a garlic press?” I moaned to Katie.
Despite the transgender Beyoncé forever cowering within me, dancing and I maintain what you might call a love-hate relationship. Meaning that I love to hate it with every fiber of my being while watching dejectedly from the snack table. There was a time when the idea of moving my body to music didn’t seem quite so terrible, but then I exited the womb and the truth set in.
My earliest memories of dance involve slumping against a concrete wall at summer camp, watching the people I’d formerly thought of as friends gyrate to the sound of a computer being molested by Europeans. Next up was something by the wizard Michael Jackson, whose dark magic spawned a horde of extraordinarily white zombies doing some corpse-inspired boogie nauseatingly out of time with the music.
As uncoordinated as my friends may have been, they were infinitely better dancers than I could ever hope to be. How do they do that? I wondered, analyzing their bent knees and jutted elbows, their little hops and strangely shaking backsides. There must be some code to this madness, I decided, and waited for a pretty girl to help me figure it out.
Amy Stockton kindly offered at the fifth grade Valentine’s Dance, held in the Gulf Beaches Elementary cafeteria at that lascivious 2 o‘clock Friday hour. The event represented the pinnacle of my young social life, and was, I assumed, sure to finally spark my long-overdue ascent into maturity. There were no dates to this party, per se—no Stacy asking Jamaal to spilt a limo—but one activity structured by the teachers involved all of the boys depositing a single shoe into a mound in the center of the room. “What’s more romantic that a pile of boys’ footwear?” they must have asked themselves. Further ratcheting up the charm, the girls each plucked one at random from the fetid, stinking pile, a revolting token redeemable for three minutes of dancing.
I hoped Amy would find mine, determined sweetheart that she was, and sure enough, up she came right on schedule, a convincing “I wonder whose shoe this is?” expression fastened beneath a bitchin’ blond perm. I smiled at her, she smiled at me, and for a moment it seemed I might have jumped the gun on this whole dancing thing.
It occurred to me immediately after Bobby Brown’s voice leapt from the public-address system that I probably should have practiced my dance moves a little more. Or at all. But the professionals on TV had made the Running Man look easy, an activity requiring far less skill than actual running.
Dancing appeared to be a completely natural movement when everyone else did it, like a foal standing up and capably executing the Electric Slide mere minutes removed from the womb, and I watched wide-eyed as my classmates seamlessly morphed between the Running Man and Da’ Dip, then into personalized versions of the Macarena. The more confident busted out a Hand Jive or Funky Chicken, but those were some seriously advanced moves, ones better left to kids like Martin Perez, whose uncle had every episode of Soul Train on VHS.
My Running Man grew stale by the end of the first verse. And though I waited patiently for my brain to present my body with updated instructions, they never arrived.
“Are you feeling okay?” Amy asked.
“Oh … you know … I’m fine,” I said, ignoring a set of purple spots creeping up the wall behind her.
I ran in place for three more songs, which is roughly equal to a half marathon. Amy could see the desperation written across my face and smell the perspiration everywhere else. Sensing a shift in the atmosphere, my partner began to subtly widen the distance between us with each new song, first to allow enough space for a friend, then a friend with a glandular disorder, and finally Miss Bolle, who had a thyroid like a volleyball and spun her electric wheelchair in time with the music.
“Having fun?” I shouted at Amy, but she couldn’t hear me over Bust a Move.
We danced until my knees were sore and peripheral vision had gone completely dark. Just when I couldn’t take any more, Amy mercifully turned down my offer to slow dance, no doubt afraid I would hoist her over my shoulder and take off jogging around the room.
After the weekend, our teacher Mrs. Sharple surprised us with some TV time. “Look, kids, it’s the video from the Valentine’s Dance. Isn’t that exciting?”
The entire fifth grade, a hundred of us at least, gathered around the school’s single twenty-inch television, giddy at our luck. Mrs. Sharple made a dramatic show of slipping the VHS tape into a bulky machine mounted on a rack beneath the TV, and we held our breath as the first images flickered to life, dazzled by the prospect of seeing ourselves onscreen.
It’s not so easy to imagine in today’s YouTube Age—where everyone with a camera is a star, everyone’s phone has a camera, and who doesn’t have a phone?—but seeing yourself on a real TV set in 1990 held genuine magic. Television still filled the role of village storyteller, something you gathered around eagerly with friends and family, shuddering with excitement at the exotic lands you might be headed to next. Everyone watched the same three or four shows on the night they actually aired, and DVR hadn’t been dreamed of by anyone outside NASA. Even taping a show seemed a piece of unbelievable sorcery, no less earthshaking than Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, or at least, Neil Jackson moonwalking across the cafeteria terrazzo.
“That’s me!” Neil Jackson cried, his image blazing a trail in reverse through the crowded center of the room. “Michael Jackson’s my cousin, you know,” he insisted for the hundredth time, his arms crossed defiantly.
Katrina, sitting beside him, rolled her eyes. “Negro, please.”
Neil’s tiny image launched into a tight aerial spin, turning three hundred sixty degrees and landing in a split, and all of us were suitably impressed. “Ooh!” we yelped approvingly. Miss Bolle clapped from her wheelchair in the corner.
Appearing next was a group of girls swaying mostly in time to the music, if not exactly, and a smattering of giggles could be heard from a spot near Mrs. Sharple’s desk. The camera then spied a flop of light brown hair dashing in and out of view, like a broken Whac-a-Mole erupting stubbornly, over and over again, from the same tired hole. Up and down, up and down. Curious, the camera operator zoomed in for a closer look.
“Why look, class, there’s Mr. Boyle!” Mrs. Sharple announced cheerfully, the fucking bitch.
Aside from the odd foot or elbow passing through the frame, mine was now the sole image occupying the screen. Instead of the Running Man as I had imagined, the sad “dancing” caricature of a human being was engaged in what might be generously described as a standing seizure. The child on the television was arguably conscious, yes, but had clearly lost command of its extremities. We watched in horror as it jittered and popped, looped and scampered, looking for all the world to be in severe agony, its nerves firing in a haphazard mess, like an animal with a broken spine waiting dumbly in the middle of a highway for someone, anyone, to have mercy and finish it off.
Through a squint, the dancer might have been taken for a life-sized marionette, one controlled by an aging puppeteer, a once-great master with skills diminished by both time and late-stage Parkinson’s.
The class howled with laughter, euphoric and cruel. I retreated to the small space beneath my desk, but their mirth continued for what seemed like forever. Eventually the camera moved on and the laughter died down, but each time when I crawled out to check if the coast was clear, the camera inevitably returned to that poor, dying Whac-a-Mole, running fast but going nowhere.
Happy’s salsa class would be painful, I was sure of that. But even my darkest nightmares hadn’t prepared me for Rita the instructor’s attempts to turn the night into a speed dating event. Katie and I made it thirty seconds together before Rita yelled, “Switch!” and a new opportunity for humiliation swooped into my arms.
It didn’t help that Happy had taken us out for “real Northern Thai” beforehand, which meant fish plucked from the chocolate-colored Ping River, simmered in a broth of pickled onions and, judging by the smell, stomach acid from a terminally ill water buffalo. Happy also ordered crispy fried pork skin and a red chili dip hot enough to make me sweat through my underwear, in case the fish hadn’t done its work, along with a tub of fermented fish sauce to help wash it all down.
You know it’s bad when you can smell your own breath, but worse is seeing it billow out as you speak. The plume glowed orange under the glare of Club Warm Up’s neon sign, and I imagined it settling into toxic rings around my head, like Saturn, only less hospitable to human life. I pitied the poor souls forced into my orbit.
Having eaten the same thing, Katie was immune to my stench, but April, the first unlucky woman in Rita the dance instructor’s speed-dating carousel of terror, was not. I watched as April’s eyes began watering uncontrollably as she settled into my unholy embrace. I introduced myself, but instead of a reply, she repeated the same tiny sound from time to time, either unable or unwilling to breathe.
“So … is this your first time here?” I asked through clenched teeth, trying my hardest not to exhale.
“Hoom,” she squeaked, as though clearing her throat through her tear ducts.
April stood as far away as possible while still technically dancing. Her head was turned ninety degrees to the side throughout our short but traumatic coupling, and she shot like a rifle to the next available partner as soon as Rita gave the signal.
“Well, take care,” I said, and she smiled uncomfortably from across the room.
Patrice was a tall, healthy looking British woman, and it was her height that may have saved her. I kept a respectable distance out of both fear and pity, and inspired by my former partner’s example, turned my head to the side as soon as my new partner came within sniffing distance. The ordeal had me ridiculously tight, which Patrice attempted to make the most of.
“Very nice,” she complimented, noting my immovable limbs. “Very firm. I like a … rigid dance partner.”
Rita took that moment to describe a certain passionate tension necessary for Latin dance, the peculiar force couples must adopt to fully embrace la salsa. “Like the poles of a magnet,” Rita shouted, “at once pulling your partner toward you while pushing them away! Feel the tension! Feel it in la salsa!”
Patrice and I had tension in spades. “Feel the pull, really feel it,” Rita commanded. “Men, show them you feel it by drawing your partner tighter,” but Patrice wanted none of that.
“Oh no, no thank you,” she grimaced, pushing me back with sinewy Madonna arms. I hoped to reassure her that my intentions were benign by smiling warmly—from the side of my face that was turned toward her, of course. But that only seemed to make things worse.
I wracked my brain trying to think where I might have seen Patrice’s expression before, an uncommon blend of upturned lips, exposed teeth, and crinkling, troubled brow, but I couldn’t quite place it. It might have been from the owners of a yellow lab I once saw online. The dog had picked up a small hunting rifle in its mouth and swung it around enthusiastically, gleefully chasing after his family as they dove into a dry creek bed for cover.
Glancing at the large, institutional clock behind the bar, I nearly cried realizing there was still an hour left of class. A dull pain started to bloom in my stomach, which I think is when all the farting started.
As frightened as I am of dancing, the truth is I’d desperately like to join in the fun. Watching while everyone else gleefully embraces the human experience is a lonely way to spend a Friday night.
It’s not that I choose to sit out, but my mind and body conspire against me. I’ve attempted to join in, I really have, but it’s as though I’m missing some key section of the brain. The superfunky cortex, maybe, or whatever it is that lets the rest of the world enjoy itself whenever Dancing Queen comes on. I’ve tried everything: alcohol, sleep deprivation, crossdressing. Nothing works. If I’m lucky I’ll make it a minute before running out of things to do with my feet, but my hands get bored in half the time. I would wave them air like I just don’t care, but I already tried that back at the ten second mark. Unsurprisingly, I still cared.
“What about the Bar Method,” Katie asked one day. “Would you try that?”
“I like the sound of it,” I said, making for our whiskey closet.
The Bar Method, it turns out, is a dance themed exercise video starring an exceptionally chipper person named Burr, who despite identifying herself as a woman in her late fifties, had the body of a fourteen-year-old Chinese gymnast. “Maybe it would help loosen you up,” Katie offered. “And the best part is, we can do it right here in the living room!”
The idea wasn’t a bad one, though it failed to account for the insidious, all-consuming heat pervading every aspect of life in Thailand. I may have grown up in Florida, but the Thai afternoon sun is in a class by itself, capable of inflicting third-degree burns through concrete walls and broiling pigeons mid-flight. The local reservoir catches fire most days by late morning, and midnight feels closer to Arizona high noon. The heat has inspired some of our more natural-minded friends, misguided souls who choose to forego air conditioning, to pine for balmier times, like their summer spent backpacking across the Australian outback. Attempting a dance class beneath nothing but our twenty-year-old ceiling fan was begging for not just a heart attack, but instant cremation as well.
“Now, release your lower back, and bring your hips forward for the Bar Method Tuck!” Burr sang from our dining table, atop which my laptop had been strategically placed to give Katie and I room to flit around. If not an exercise guru, Burr’s unwavering cheer and taut, manic expressions would have made her a natural spokesperson for any number of antidepressant medications.
“Now tuck, tuck, tuck! This exercise feels so good in your seated hamstrings!” she trilled, and I did my best to mirror the figures on the screen. They were engaged in a fit of intense, exaggerated pelvic thrusting, performed on their tip-toes while relying on a chair for support.
Tuck, tuck, tuck.
“Seated hamstrings” was code for your rear end, I quickly surmised, though why Burr felt it taboo to directly reference the backside I couldn’t be sure. She seemed scandalized by the mere thought of the human posterior, as though her bottom had become incurably tainted by its proximity to what I’m forced to assume she calls her Naughty Big Girl No-No Zone.
“Doesn’t your core feel, like, so strong?” Katie gushed from her wooden chair. She stood gripping it from behind, her legs spread wide while she dry-humped the atmosphere.
Tuck, tuck, tuck.
Next, Burr directed us to our backs for another ten minutes of pelvic thrusting. “But keep your knees wide, so there’s a diamond shape between your legs!” she wailed.
For some reason, our dog Chloe found all this thrusting to be the most exciting thing to happen in years. She took turns standing next to each of us, hopping up and down in time with our thrusts. When her euphoria reached an uncontainable level she would sprint around the room, stopping every few laps to peek through the curtains cinched tightly in front of the sliding glass doors, often pulling them back a foot or two.
Katie ran to stop her. “Chloe, no!” It wasn’t much, but enough to reveal the contents of our living room to the dark night. And possibly our neighbor, too, an aging Thai man with a distinctive cackle, whose small house occupies the majority of our front yard.
I quickly mastered the Bar Method tuck, much to Katie’s delight, and we decided to branch out to more challenging moves. “How about Zumba?” Katie proposed. “I hear that’s fun.”
“Isn’t Zumba for, like, sixty-year-olds?”
“No, honey,” she chided. “My mom does it.”
Embracing my inner Betty White, I was surprised to find myself not hating Zumba. I even got almost not too bad at the steps, but only after we’d been at it a few months. Ironically, it was the salsa section that really moved me, inspiring me to drop my defenses.
Lost in Zumba, I began letting the music take hold for perhaps the very first time in my life.
The heat slowed me down, sure, but dancing la salsa in the privacy of our house afforded me the luxury to take off my shirt when things got too sticky, as they invariably did. Pants were no problem either, and after a few nights I thought, What the hell? and off came the underwear, too.
Little by little I allowed myself to relax. Years of self-consciousness and regret melted away, my pendulous scrotum turning back the clock one thigh slap at a time. Katie and I tangoed and merengued. We cha-cha’d and learned to belly dance, and I did la salsa. Boy, did I salsa, shimmying and shaking, gliding around the room with unabashed zeal, a live-action caricature of Charro at a sweat lodge.
My anxiety evaporated as I sank deeper and deeper into a dancing mediation, a trance so deep, so cathartic, that I almost didn’t hear our neighbor’s gritty laughter trickling in from the sliding glass door, wafting through the curtain, the one that Chloe, in her delight, had thrown open once again, gaping and raw, like an old wound.