The Salsa Chronicles IV
Pas de Deux de Salsa
By Jayne Cooperman
Nicholas Messina, you intrigue me.
Nick is the assistant director of the Salsa Academy, Stepping Out Studios’ school-within-a-school dedicated exclusively to the “On 2” style of salsa. Tall and lean, with an appealing balance of scruff (face) and sheen (head), he wends his way through the beginner class, tweaking postures and fielding questions. He offers tips for perfecting the Suzy Q and the cross-body turn, delights in a student’s tangerine-lacquered toenails, and expounds on what is perhaps the most important element in salsa or, really, in any form of dance: the partnership. And I can’t help but notice that his words could just as easily apply to partnerships of another kind.
“Ladies, let the men do all the work,” Nick begins. “We will start. You will reciprocate. Explore allowing that to happen.”
This is Nick’s version of the principle known as “active surrender,” an entreaty to relax, receive and respond. But much as I’d like to actively surrender to this concept, I admit I’m having a little trouble. Allow me to explain.
Back when I was an undergraduate at the University of California-Santa Cruz, home of the crunchy granola girl, it was the women who tended to initiate. Empowered by our Intro to Women’s Studies class, we tossed our mascara and lip gloss, swore that we wouldn’t be like our mothers, and made plans to conquer the man-made world. Oh, we still liked boys. A lot, in fact. But sisterhood was a heady thing, and we felt that, on our path, the signposts would not read, “Let the men do all the work.” And we would not be called “ladies.”
A few years later, I was living with a boyfriend in New York City. He was strong. He was handy. He climbed the terrifying 12-foot ladder to change the light bulbs, built bookshelves, and hooked up the stereo. The so-called guy things. I cooked, adequately. I had a job then, not a career (yet), but supported him in his. The so-called girl things. I was surprised, at times, by how easily I had fallen into this so-called traditional role. In my heart, I knew that I should really learn to fix the running toilet myself, or get an MBA, but I was quietly relieved that I had someone who appreciated my special touch with a jar of Ragú and could stop the smoke alarm from beeping.
I still have a stash of greeting cards from that time. One of them, celebrating our one year anniversary, is to the right. It features a drawing of an older couple in tights and tutu on the cover and, inside, the words, “Still the perfect Pas de deux,” with the “still” underlined in triplicate by the boyfriend. (A year is a long time when you’re twenty-five.)
Now pas de deux is not exactly a salsa term. To oversimplify, it is a series of steps between two dancers. Think Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron on the banks of the Seine in "Our Love is Here to Stay" from An American in Paris, WALL-E and EVE spinning through space, or the Prince and the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s reimagining of Swan Lake. In a well-executed pas de deux, both halves of the couple are in sync, beautifully matched, connected.
“Keep the connection,” says Nick, and I know he’s talking about more than salsa. He explains that, even during a turn, the man traces the woman’s waist, and this constant contact lets her know that he wants her hand—and, by extension, her—back once it is completed.
Keeping the connection, really, is the challenge in any relationship. It’s easy in the early days of constant cards covered from top to bottom with nearly endless streams of adoration, promises of love forever/leave you never, and claims that you have made him the man he is today. But what happens when those streams seem to dry up, those promises feel more like threats, and the man he is today is driving you crazy?
Well, Nick does admit that changing partners is an option. But he also states that any good partnership is “a working relationship,” and working relationships take work.
“Give energy back to your partner,” he says. “It’s a give to get.”
That juice you bring to the dance floor is just as important off it. Add to that a sense of trust and reciprocity, and your pas de deux can be, if not exactly perfect, then at least a noble endeavor. It isn’t always easy but, as Nick says, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing.”
It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
Next time in The Salsa Chronicles, Jayne… Oh, for the love of Celia Cruz, is this girl ever going to dance? Yes she is. In the very next column.
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