“Uno dos tres, cinco seis siete”
Christian, my salsa instructor is counting out the beat for me, moving his feet in time.
One two three, five six seven.
Something is wrong here. I listen again. Yes; something is clearly missing. The number four to be exact. I try to concentrate and follow his instructions, but the absent four is bothering me.
“Donde esta numero cuatro?'” Where is number four? I stutter out the words, hoping they make some sense. His answer is not satisfactory.
“There is no number four,” he laughs.
For someone with a fairly solid grasp of counting, this makes no sense at all. No four? That’s not how counting works. There must be a four – it can’t be skipped, because then five is technically the four, and the six becomes the five and…well it just doesn’t work that way.
I suggest an alternate count, the more traditional one two three, four five six. Christian is shaking his head. “No, no, no, one two three, five six seven,” he insists. This salsa lesson is quickly going south.
“But there must be a four somewhere. Where is it?” I plead as I mistime the steps, tread on his toes and tangle my arms in the cross.
With some exaggerated gesturing and more insistent (and slightly impatient) counting from Christian, I work out that there is a four; it’s a pause in the rhythmn, and you don’t move your feet.
“Oooh, you mean one two three pause five six seven,” I say.
“Si,” he nods, probably more out of a desire to shut me up than anything else. But now that I have the count, I can find the beat, and the steps start to flow.
Left right left, pause, right left right.
Soon enough I have this down and quickly enough we move through a cross, and then on to the turns. Christian is smiling again – it seems I have not entirely disappointed him as a student. We move on to double turns, walks and hand drops and then on to the slightly more complicated moves of combs and sobreros. I’m slightly pleased with myself, particularly when I watch another student across the dance room struggle for 20 minutes to get the basic step.
I leave the classroom after an hour, happily worn out from my dancing. That night a group of us from the hostel are heading out to a local club for the weekly salsa night. As soon as we get there I’m out there, hovering by the edge of the dance floor, waiting for someone to ask me to dance so I can show off my salsa skills.
I am asked, by Gerry the man who organised our tour of Tajamulco, and as the upbeat music starts I’m listening for my cue to start the basic step. I miss it, and the next cue, and the next, leaving Gerry to step on my toes as I forget to move my foot backwards in time. The crosses and turns are equally disasterous and even my basic step is completely out of whack. The problem, I realise, is that the music is so fast that I just can’t keep up. After lurching and bumping and crashing around the dance floor I am relieved when the song finishes and I am able to slink off to the bar and order a beer. I suspect Gerry is also entirely relieved to rid of me.
At the table, nursing a beer and a slightly bruised ego, I watch the locals dancing – particularly the women – trying to pick up tips. Without exception they are all amazing dancers; I watch as they swing their hips effortlessly, as they whip through three and four turns at a time, as their arms slip through the most intricate moves with ease.Their salsa is not a sedate walk-through of steps, crosses and turns; it is fast, fierce and damn sexy. All of my prior smugness at picking up the basic steps fades away and I come to the disappointing conclusion that I will never, ever dance like this.
The only consolation is that – judging by the haphazard shimmying of my hostel friends – neither will most white people. Really it’s time to face the facts; Gringos just can not dance.