UPSIDE DOWN: Real men do salsa

Salsa isn’t one of those dances you do with a bunch of tipsy girlfriends while a group of comatose guys look on. And it’s not one of those dances where girls do all the wiggling and men lend a helping hand. The guys I’m looking at are into every bump and grind. “They’re not being forced by the women at all,” I shout, “just look at them!”

I know I’m gushing, but, but, but . . .

This is exactly how I’m talking to Ray as we stand plastered against a wall in a salsa club in Havana. We’re at Casa de la Música with a slew of young Cubans, old Cubans, a combustible mix of hips just short of dislocation, shoulders heaving, derrieres swinging, steam rising and if I explain any more you will faint like from your first kiss

“I can’t believe what’s going on here Ray, look, look, look . . .”

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The couples are spinning so fast, we’re afraid of being trapped like fruit in a blender. My husband is a willing dancer, but salsa, not so much. Me neither. I’m hoping if we watch first, fueled by a sense of what happens in Cuba stays in Cuba, we’ll both have the guts to join in because did I mention it’s not just the women who are making a case for a category 5 hurricane triggering a volcanic eruption but the men too.

Especially one guy maybe 6’2”dressed in pure white, with deep black Rasta braids down his sharp, muscled back. He’s smiling, he’s rocking his rump, he’s pulling his girl close in, their eyes are locked. A real cool dude. I see Ray staring at him thinking maybe if this he-man can do it, maybe he too can loosen his joints, discover his Latin lover, and finally find his true macho mojo. I see his brain sloshing in his head like giggling bottoms.

“Don’t worry,“ I say. “These people were weaned on salsa. We come from the land that invented foxtrot. If we get in there, we’ll embarrass ourselves, our families, our country, our generation. Even I don’t think we can do it.”

We survive a good couple of hours near our wall, too scared to sip our rum drinks and topple over. There’s so much aphrodisiac in the air.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s yank our hips out of their sockets, clean out the lard, and reinsert them with all new parts while we still have the chance. We can’t pass this up.”

But, we do.

Fortunately, we find ourselves later at a nightclub filled with tourists; they can’t salsa either. There’s a teacher, Juan, a tight, cute vibrating thing like Jello in black silk. He draws me in, turns me, twirls me, jerks me close, whispers “you’re a good dancer.” Ray ruins the moment, I mean, suddenly shows up.

“You must learn three basic steps before you do anything fancy,” instructs Juan. “This is not what I bargained for,” drones Ray, noticing the whole room is watching.

“Let ‘em watch,” I declare. “Real men do salsa.”

“Quick-quick-slow . . .” says Juan, teaching the basic I-2-3 count for front to back, side to side, and cross back steps. “Salsa is explosive, let’s go, move those hips, quick-quick-slow . . . “

“Bad salsa,” he suddenly moans, pointing to Ray’s feet. “He doesn’t really mean bad,” I murmur, “it’s just the language issue. Probably he means horrible, which sounds so much better in Spanish. Or-ee-blay.” Ray sighs.

“Remember the dude in white,” I add, “how cool was he?”

Something shifts, or maybe it’s the rum. As the music swirls around us, Ray gathers his own seismic force. We are moving faster. Bad salsa, for a fraction of a second — a barely perceptible moment — turns into good, hot, spicy salsa. Our eyes lock, and horrible turns into or-ee-blay turns into dude! And the room fades away . . .

Donna Debs is a longtime freelance writer, a former radio news reporter, and a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. She lives in Tredyffrin. Email her at debbs@comcast.net.