A Cup of Salsa
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Feb 2011)


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
            August 2010, Philadelphia, PA
            I contacted a local (but internationally known) salsa instructor to ask if he was interested in doing a pro-am performance with me. This is where a professional dances with an amateur – I had done one before, and thought it would be fun to try again. At the beginning of the first private lesson, he cocked his head to the side and gave me a mischievous look. “So,” he said. “You wanna compete?”

            The sound that came out of my mouth was something like, “Urughaahagh?” I continued with, “What are you talking about?” though my face was still saying, “Urughaahagh.”

            “You know about the World Latin Dance Cup, right?”

            I did, and referred to it as “The artist formerly known as the World Salsa Championships.” The promoter behind the latter, and many of the largest salsa events in the world, had started over with a new competition.

            “Well,” he said, “it‘s got all new rules and new categories, and there‘s going to be a pro-am division.”

            I blinked. He smiled. “I‘m planning to go anyway since I‘m trying to compete in the pro division,” he said. “So what do you think?”

            What did I think? I was thinking just for kicks. At a local club. Or at a “Cheers”-ish dance studio where everybody knows your face, if not your name. I can‘t say I was all that interested in making the mental jump from either of those casual options to the World Freaking Latin Dance Cup.

            I came up with “Uh, when is it?” to kill time and politely delay my inevitable reply of, “Not.” His answer placed the event during the week of my birthday. Now it was my head cocking to the side as my face went from “Urughaahagh” to “Hmm.” It’ll be my birthday, I thought. Now that the “Not” barrier was down, that pesky part of me that likes a challenge stretched its arms and got out of bed. Here was a world-renowned performer asking me to go onstage with him at an international competition in front of his peers. This implied that he didn‘t think I would suck. I smelled an adventure.

            “You know what? What the hell,” I said. “I‘ll do it.”

            “I KNEW you would!” he said. How he could have known that is beyond me, as we do not know each other well, but he was right. Obviously, he knows crazy when he sees it.

            “By the way,” I asked, “where is it?”

            “San Diego.”

            “Urughaahagh?”

            December 2010, San Diego, CA
            Competitors from Italy, Venezuela, Australia, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Turkey, Brazil, Panama, Canada, Peru, Mexico, Romania, and the USA crowded the dressing room. As one of only a handful of amateurs in a sea of international pros – very tiny people, the pros – I felt like a spy. A really bad one. The kind people would point at and say, “That must be the spy.”

            There were eight couples registered in the Pro-Am division, and six showed. We and the pros who had not won spots at prior events each did a “qualifier performance, but were told that all would move on to the scored semifinal since there was room for all of us. After midnight at the post-semifinal dance party, the promoter announced that there would be six finals slots in each division, meaning I was now in by virtue of showing up. But then he announced the scores. Going into the finals, we were in third place! I felt like I had just won a prize. Regardless of what would happen next, I knew I would leave happy with what I had accomplished.

            It‘s a good thing I felt that way, because we made a few mistakes in the final and dropped to 6th! It hit home that sometimes there is no room for error. I felt for all the figure skaters and gymnasts I had grown up watching on television. Still, no regrets. I performed three times on the big, pro, grown-up, international competition stage and didn‘t trip over myself, fall off the stage onto the judges, freeze up, or forget the routine. Instead, I smiled, I had a wonderful time performing and, most importantly, I was there. I did it.

            Lessons learned at the World Latin Dance Cup (AKA Report from a spy among the pros)
            • A costume drama is not a historical film with period costumes. It is torn fishnets minutes before going onstage, heels caught in skirts, lack of emergency safety pins, and onstage wedgies. I suffered only from the first of these, but witnessed the latter three. The last one was particularly traumatizing.

            • There is no such thing as too much fringe, shimmer, sparkle, or eye-makeup. But feathered costumes molt, as do their relatives in the wild.

            • A well-placed tassel/feather/appliqué can be the difference between a spectacular costume design and an arrest for public indecency.

            • It is perfectly acceptable to both sexes for straight men to wear sheer, sparkly shirts open to the navel.

            • Performance costumes are rarely conducive to pre-performance bathroom breaks.

            • Fake eyelashes for women are not mandatory. But they are.

            • Eyelash glue is the preferred method for affixing rhinestones to hair and skin.

            • When the glue fails, rhinestones became very exciting onstage projectiles.

            • Looking for the dressing room? Follow the trail of sequins, feather bits, and tiny rhinestones. Seriously.

            • The “Men" and “Women" signs on the dressing room doors are merely suggestions. The dancers themselves don‘t much care, and all preparation areas will eventually become unisex.

            • Performing a two-minute routine onstage for three days in a row is exponentially more exhausting than logic and timepieces would suggest.

            • These dancers did not seem to harbor the superstition of the ballet and theater worlds. Rather than “merde" or “break a leg," most simply wished one another, “Good luck!"

            • Pro salsa dancers invest countless hours and dollars into choreography, rehearsal, travel, lodgings, costumes and entrance fees to perform one two-minute routine, not knowing if they will advance to perform it more than once.

            • Despite the pressure, the dancers are very warm. They help one another, encourage one another, watch one another, and cheer for one another with tremendous support and enthusiasm.

            • When the day‘s competition ends and the DJ takes over, there is nothing like being in a room full of pro dancers from all over the world who are finally free to just dance.