"Ladies, you watch Karina," said my dance teacher Jeremy, about halfway through a salsa class last spring. Whenever Jeremy taught a new move, he broke the class in two, teaching the footwork for the male and female parts separately before having us try them together.
As Jeremy showed the guys a tricky turn, his assistant Karina did a simple side step. Good, something easy. Men may have the added pressure of leading in couple dances like salsa, but women generally get the trickiest footwork and turns, at least in Jeremy's classes. Then, as Karina stepped back into place, she smiled and rolled her shoulders, shaking her chest gently at Jeremy's turning body.
Silently, I cringed. In a year of classes, I'd mastered footwork that once looked impossible. I'd learned to twirl in heels and move my hips in tight jeans. But shimmies had stymied me. Intellectually, I knew what I wanted my body to do. I just couldn't do it. Every time I thought shimmy, I'd end up with a weird combination of shoulder shake and imitation seizure. It was like I had some neurological block that prevented me from shaking my chest at a complete stranger. Or the teacher I was paying for lessons. Or my husband.
It's tempting to simply chalk up my frozen torso to genetics. But one thing salsa has taught me is that, jokes aside, race isn't much of an indicator of what you can expect on the dance floor. Sure, my favorite dance partner, after my husband, of course, is Octavio, a guy who possesses an effortless musicality I can only dream of. But for every Octavio, there's a Carlos, who counts the steps out loud as we practice. And Karina -- who is a redheaded Northern European mutt like me -- is light-years ahead as a dancer, despite having started lessons only a couple of years before I did. When it's time to demo the shimmy, she rolls it off like any other move. Clearly it's possible to share my complexion and heritage but not my hang-ups.
I've come to believe that my problem is far more personal than race. Put simply, I'm a recovering nerd. The kind of girl who, in high school, competed in the academic decathlon and wrote an editorial for the school paper explaining the lameness of prom. I was always more interested in being thought of as smart rather than sexy. Of course, as I got older, I realized that I'd constructed an artificial duality. I kept reading, but I started getting good haircuts. I came to accept that a woman could possess both brains and push-up bras. Salsa seemed like
part of a natural progression. It's sexy, but it's also a very structured dance. Perfect for someone with a tendency to over-think.
But as it turns out, good dancing calls for more than just analysis and practice. What differentiates the Karinas and Octavios of the world from the rest of us is a real feel for the music. A great dancer can hear what's happening in a song and let her body relax and respond to it, even if the response is to shake her chest.
Since I wasn't able to relax, I attacked the problem the only way I knew how. After class, I called Karina over, hoping that maybe if we tried side-by-side shimmies in front of the mirror, I could analyze what she was doing that I wasn't. After yet another failed attempt, I was still at a loss.
"You're moving your shoulders up and down. They need to go forward and back," Karina explained, very gently. Okay, that made sense. Forward and backward. My shoulders tried to attack my ears. I paused and took a deep breath. Forward and backward, let your chest move with them, I told myself. Once again, the mirror showed my shoulders pumping up and down.
Still, at least I'd identified the problem, and I was sure all I needed was practice. (One thing nerds have in common with dancers and athletes is perseverance.) At home, I turned up the stereo and danced my way to the bathroom mirror. As I felt myself hitting a groove, I thought, backward and forward. And watched my shoulders pump. The next day, I tried again. And again. But after a few weeks, it happened: I shimmied. For about five seconds. It turns out the mirror wasn't such a good idea; as soon as I saw my chest shake, I froze right back up. So I started practicing in the car. Not only could I not see myself, but I figured the sitting would help me isolate my chest and shoulder muscles. It made my husband laugh, but after a few weeks, I was pretty sure I felt a shimmy once in a while. As I strove to develop muscle memory, my drive-time soundtrack became all Latin, all the time. Within a few weeks, the shimmy came almost on command.
I wish this were the end of the story, but the truth is that car shimmies are more of a milestone in an ongoing project. The studio where I practice still has a mirror. And on the dance floor, I'm looking at a partner, which seems to create the same neurological block. But every once in a while, if the music's good and I'm relaxed, I'll feel myself get it right, almost by accident.
Now, I just need to master it.