"La Vida es un Carnaval" ~ Celia Cruz

“Anyone who thinks that life is uneven,
you have to know that it is not so,
life is a true beauty, one has to live it.
Life is a Carnaval”

This is the opening lines to a famous Cuban Salsa song by Celia Cruz. I love this because it reminds me that life really is an adventure, it really is beautiful and it is for living! This song also reminds me of a time when I was 17 and I got introduced to salsa dancing....

The first time I danced salsa was in Xela, Guatemala in a café club called La Casa Verde. The Green House. It was called that because they had converted a patio into a café by enclosing it with those corrugated fiberglass panels as a roof. The panels were green, so when the sun shone down the whole café adopted the sentimentality of a jungle, muggy and wild. By day it was a café, filled with Europeans and Americans, mysterious and adventuresome and dirty. All of whom were searching for whatever it is that backpackers search for. The food was shitty but the beer was cold so the place was always at least half full. The tables, wooden and clunky and beer watermarked would disappear with the setting sun and each night the Casa Verde became the venerable locale for dancing and drinking and smoking.

I had been invited to the Green House by a local named Victor. He was one of those guys, not particularly handsome or charming, but he had that thing. You know, that charisma that cannot be ignored. Life bubbled up out of him; he was Guatemala’s Dean Moriarty incarnate. A revolutionary, born half a generation late, he was left to pour his passion into his vices: women, beer, cigarettes, dancing and general mutiny-ism. The night he asked me to dance went like this… Him asking. Me narrowing my eyes at him: “Are you actually gonna show up this time, or what?” “Si, Si, I will be there Pinguina.” He had nicknamed me Pinguina, which is Spanish for Lady Pinguin, since I was from Alaska. It didn’t make any sense but it stuck and to be honest I kinda liked it.

Guatemala is a Central American country and boasts many beautiful cultural heritages. However, on the spectrum of Latin dancing, it is nowhere on the map. Xela is no Havana. But, at the time I didn’t know that. I, like most anybody not born in the Caribbean, was unable to discern Salsa from Merengue from Bachata from Cumbia.

That night at the Casa Verde, I received my first lesson and as I twisted and turned and stumbled around the dance floor I felt that music and those moves boring their way deep into me. It didn’t matter that my feet didn’t know what to do, or that my hips betrayed my Anglo ancestry, salsa was seeping into me like too much honey on a dry wooden spoon.

Victor danced a showroom style of salsa. All forms of arm pretzleing were on the table, peppered with spins, lifts and dips. He would spin and spin me and I would count to 17 and think, “a spin for each year of my life!” before he nearly pulled my shoulder out of socket. In the end I forgot about Victor. He was too much drama, too much vigor unhinged. When I left Guatemala after 6 months we didn’t say goodbye because he had been arrested and was in jail somewhere. No doubt for public lewdness or something of the sort.

But Salsa, I never forgot Salsa. I was to spend uncounted hours dancing, typically alone at first, in rooms rented from sweet old ladies. All I needed was a mattress on the floor, books in a stack and a boom box. One two, one two, forward, side, forward, side, spin, stop, begin again. I acquainted myself with Celia Cruz, arguably the most influential and colorful personality in Cuban Salsa whose signature was yelling “Azucar!” at least once in each of her songs. Azucar means Sugar! I listened to El Gran Combo, Hector Lavoe and moved on to Juan Luis Guerra, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Willie Colon.

Gaining confidence I moved up and out to clubs. I adopted a less theatrical style of salsa, influenced by the many years I spent in Caracas, Venezuela. I learned to loosen my back and my hips became their own separate entity, rocking and swaying independently of the rest of me. Dancing became a state for me where I could shut off my brain. It allowed me to indulge in “the physical” in a way akin to making love. I would dance and dance and dance.

I danced in clubs in Madrid that were 7 stories tall until 7 in the morning. I danced in bars with names like Alcatraz, with chains on the windows and where all the bartenders were dressed in prison stripes. I danced in parking garages in Rio de Janeiro, kitchens in Nicaragua, sidewalks in Puerto Rico, rooftops in Panama and hotel bars in New York City.

There is nothing like dancing so hard for so long that when you eventually do push your way through the crowd to the bathroom it is nearly impossible to peal your skin tight Latin jeans from your body because you are so sweaty. There is nothing like spinning in a room, high in a building that is high in the Andes to the vibrations of a 16 member salsa band replete with horns, drums, keyboards and guitars. There is nothing like double timing it to the beat of a Spanish mash up version of The Counting Crows while no one else in the room speaks English yet everyone is yelling “Meester Yones and mi!”. There is nothing like arriving home in the early dawn and taking your pants off before you go in the house because the hems are too soggy from soaking up all the beer that cascaded down onto the dance floor under your feet.

Nowadays, at 30 years old, gyrating and swooping from sun down to sun up is no longer part of my routine. But that is why I am thankful for the memories. I am thankful for Victor and his long hair and short fuse. I am thankful for the Casa Verde with its green air reminiscent of a forest with a fiberglass tree canopy. I am thankful for my life, well lived thus far. And I am also thankful for Zumba, because from 9:30 – 10:30 am on Tuesdays and Fridays I get to still feel the music and trust my feet while I let my hips run wild.

I leave you with a repeat of the opening lyrics to the first salsa song I danced to and have grown to love so very much.
"La Vida es un Carnaval" by Celia Cruz.

“Anyone who thinks that life is uneven,
you have to know that it is not so,
life is a true beauty, one has to live it.
Life is a Carnaval”

!!Azucar!!