The movement flows from shoulder to elbow, to wrist and hand, our raised arms propelling us like mythic birds in flight. In the Brooklyn community center, we are warming up before our Cuban salsa class, following our teacher across the floor, tracing the movement of Oyá — Yoruban goddess of the winds. All of us Tuesday night dancers give each other a wow look. Oyá has us moving in a way we've never moved. Shoulder blades pumping us into Swan Lake-like transformation, as we dance to rhumba rhythms on the long flyway from Lagos to Havana to NYC.
I began dancing again 13 years ago, when I let a friend I was visiting drag me to a contra dance at the Whidby Island grange hall in Puget Sound. It turned out to be the call of the wild, as I sashayed, do-si-doed, swang and was swung in ever-widening circles to a chorus of fiddles, dulcimers and flutes. For three hours, I forgot the always-in-my-head writer me and reconnected with me the dancer, an almost lost character from my youth. One of my dance partners, who looked a little like Ichabod Crane, told me I could be arrested for having so much fun.
When I got back to my home in San Francisco, I enrolled in samba and Cuban salsa classes at Dance Mission. Since that day, I haven’t stopped dancing. I dance when I’m cooking; I danced in Carnival, at a Senegalese club in my neighborhood; I took dance workshops and classes, performed with my classmates, went on a dance vacation to Tulum, Mexico, with Rueda con Ritmo. Dance followed me when I moved to the East Coast. This summer I’ve been dancing salsa on piers along the Hudson River and in parks in New York City.
Dance drives me to bliss. I admit, it also fills me with Hallmark sentiments, like "Dance for Joy" and "Dance Like Your Life Depended on It." But really I do — and it does.
How My Life Came to Depend on It
I’d been dancing for about three years when my mother, who shared a two-family Victorian with me and my family in San Francisco, died. She was the one who first encouraged me to dance as a six-year-old. We’d walk to the Dairy Queen on summer evenings in Ada, Okla., and on the way home she’d say, Let’s run-run-leap! I kept leaping in dance classes throughout my youth and early 20s. My mother leapt through a big life, directing plays and teaching. She had a glorious last six weeks of life at a Zen hospice where one of the caregivers performed a classical Indian dance in her room, in her honor. Bravo, she said to life, a million times. But still she died.
After her death, I stopped dancing for a year. Instead, I grieved and lived in relative isolation from my friends and neighbors, a state that eventually grew into a full-blown, can’t-get-up-out-of-my-chair depression. It wasn’t therapy or pills that finally helped me. It was going back to Dance Mission that reconnected me to my body, to other people and to a lighter heart.
(More: The Healing Power of Music)
The Joy Part: A Rueda Wakening
So far, I haven’t been a successful dance proselytizer. Every time I try to get a friend or family member to join me, they make excuses. The perennial favorite: I can’t dance. (Don’t ask me.)
In case you’re one of those I-can’t-dance people, consider the Zimbabwe proverb: If you can walk, you can dance. That’s the way my first Cuban dance teacher explained rueda, a kind of salsa danced by a group in a circle. “It’s a way of walking,” he said. Unlike ballet and modern, which require years of training, salsa and other kinds of folk and social dancing — including contra, samba, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Haitian, hip-hop, English country dancing, clogging — are dances almost anyone can do.
My fellow rueda dancers on Tuesday nights are social workers, scientists, musicians, computer programmers, college students, teachers. They're from different cultures and backgrounds: Cuban, French, Turkish, Chinese, Dominican, Italian, Okies and other Americans of all sizes and all ages, from 21 to 70. They show up ready to work up a little joy.
They don’t need partners; as in contra dancing, partners in rueda are always changing. But my classmates all share something in common: They discovered one day they love to dance. Warning: It can happen at any age; it can take you unawares, out there on the floor, willing to try walking in a different way.
“But I run,” you might argue. Or drum or bike or ski. “That’s what I love,” you say. “And anyway, aren’t there a thousand ways to dance?”
I consider this while looking out my window, where a woman strolls by in the summer rain, beneath a sky-blue umbrella. Her daughter, about 10, twirls ahead in a purple skirt, arms outstretched and slightly raised to the sky. The girl runs under the umbrella, swings her mother’s free arm back and forth, then twirls back out again.
Yes, there are a thousand ways to dance, I agree.
But have you ever felt your shoulder blades sprout wings?
Okay, that may be rare. Yet even everyday dance moves can make you as happy as a child in the rain. Who doesn’t like to twirl? (Guys too!) But the reason I can’t stop dancing lies beyond the thrilling moments, beyond the great physical exercise benefits. Dancing lifts my spirits. And it connects me to a community of dancers and a world of shared activities outside of class — where even on a wharf in New York Harbor we turn walking into dance.
Where to dance: Search online for dance classes in your area. salsapower.com, for example, is a portal to Cuban salsa all around the world, listing classes and clubs everywhere from Waco, Tex., to Durham, N.C., to Portland, Ore. If you live in a city with a dance company, look into its class offerings: Oberlin Dance Collective in San Francisco and Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York offer a great selection of classes for non-professional dancers. To dance rueda in Brooklyn, contact Rebecca Bliss.
Who to dance with: Strangely, that’s not a problem, even if your spouse or friends don’t dance. People come to classes without partners, and changing partners frequently on the dance floor is part of the salsa culture. In my classes, women sometimes lead, men sometimes follow and 55-year-old women dance with 25-year-old men. Anything is possible.