¨¿Te gusta bailar?¨ ¨Do you like to dance?¨ I was sitting at lunch with my co-workers from CEE, listening to their stores of projects, meetings, and their upcoming plans for the week. One of my co-workers, Clemm, who is from France, but has lived in CDMX for many years and speaks fluent English, French, and Spanish, was discussing her plans to go to a well-known salsa bar with several other friends later that night. I pondered my answer before responding to her question, and not just because I wanted to make sure I was conjugating the verbs correctly. I love music and enjoy dancing, but I would never classify myself as a dancer-I have long arms and legs, which tend to flail about when I dance, and as I am about 5-7 inches taller than the average man here in Mexico. I was sure this lankiness would only be all the more noticeable. However, I had no other plans for the night, and wanted to try and get to know my co-workers better, so I agreed to go.
Later that night, Clemm and I met up with a group of her friends at La Hija de los Apaches, one of the well-known salsa bars in the city. We walked in and I was immediately hit by a wall of body heat from the dozens of people crammed inside. The fans whirred above in noble effort, but I was immediately drenched in sweat within 5 minutes. Our group grabbed a table, and I sat and watched as dozens of beautiful people spun to the beat of the live band as if they had been doing it their entire lives (which they probably had). All of the women were beautifully dressed, with flaming red lips and not a hair out of place while they gracefully twisted and twirled. Meanwhile, I was furiously wiping sweat from my face with napkins and had thrown my hair up into a very frizzy, messy bun. (Not even 22 years of North Carolina summers had prepared me for this). Our group was made up of a mix of Mexicans and estadounidenses, many of whom were participating in SALT, a program that is effectively the Mennonite version of YAGM. I was extremely impressed to see that all of the men there were incredibly good dancers, and were very comfortable with asking people to dance. The first man who asked me to dance was about 70 years old and a full foot shorter than me. I warned him that I had never danced salsa before, and although he was extremely nice about it, my faced burned as everyone around us openly laughed at this awkward, gangly güera, dancing with a shorter, older Mexican man.
I returned back to my seat, my face red as un tomate, determined that I was a disgrace to the art of salsa dancing. However, our group included some extremely nice friends of Clemm who had been dancing their entire lives. They took me under their (taller than me!) wings and walked me through the steps. As the night went on, 14 years of musical training kicked it, and I found myself becoming more and more comfortable with the rhythm and steps. Or maybe it was just the beer. Regardless, as the music and dancers shook the room, and I ate peanuts salted with salt and chili, surrounded by people hailing from multiple nationalities and languages, I had a flashing moment where I thought ¨Maybe I can actually do this.¨ Moving somewhere new and being ¨the new guy¨ is difficult in any context. My coworkers had taken the initiative to personally invite me into their group, and their friends welcomed me with open arms- thick US accent, grammatical errors, and all. Despite any linguistic and cultural barriers, we found community in a shared love of live music, dancing, and a good time.
Since that night, I have had the joy of salsa dancing with my host dads (who are both incredible dancers), fellow YAGM volunteers, co-workers, and extended family. Salsa dancing is part of everyday life here-everyone knows how to do it, and at any sort of gathering, it is probable that dancing will break out. At a recent birthday party for my host great-aunt, salsa, cumbia, norteña, and banda music began to play. As my host cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents twirled, people were surprised to hear that my family and I never dance at our family gatherings in the US. My experiences dancing here have been some of the happiest moments of my first month in Mexico, and, I believe, serve as a metaphor of my overall experience. Although I hardly fully ever know what I´m doing, both in dancing and in every day life, I am welcomed into open arms by my friends, family and community here who guide me through the twists and turns of my life here in Mexico...one step at a time.
The crowd at La Hija de los Apaches