Dancing Lessons

Considering the years I’ve lived in the very South American section of Jackson Heights, it is embarrassing to admit that I still cannot comprehend the difference between salsa, meringue, mambo, rumba… you name it. But whatever it is I hear at any given moment, there is a lot of it. It is blasted from cars stopped at traffic lights. It pours out of the multitude of bars and clubs peppering Roosevelt Avenue. It comes in pops and beeps from cell phone ring tones in the line at Rite Aid.

It is not an occasional indulgence; it is blended into the fabric of every day life.

Walking home from the subway one night last week, I heard familiar tones and felt familiar beats — even if I can’t name it, it is familiar — coming from … somewhere. A parked car? A stereo speaker in someone’s kitchen window? Looking for the source, I saw families gathered on the sidewalk a block ahead. It was like church had just let out, but it was after 10 p.m.

Kids ran among cars parked at meters. Adults stood around smoking and chatting and laughing. As I neared them, I saw that they were standing outside a beauty shop. And why should I be surprised? Usually when I arrive in my neighborhood after work, most of the shops are locked down and shuttered, but this place was the quintessence of street life.

A flashy LED sign made a sequence of optimistic declarations about fingernails and makeovers and French hairstyles, punctuated by blocky images of blinking eyes and vibrating telephones. The place can’t have been more than 10 feet wide, but it was very deep. The walls were painted a bright orange in sharp contrast to the dull linoleum of the floor, and across the ceiling were scattered bouquets of pink helium balloons tied with white ribbons. It was a beauty shop block party, and it was hopping! People grouped in pairs spun and bobbed, butting up against each other, bouncing literally off of the wall. Others sat in a row of chairs against the other longs walls, old, uncoordinated, or just catching their breath.

Where was the equipment? The chairs, the vanities, the nail tech stations. Where, in other words, was the beauty shop? It didn’t strike me until after I had rounded the corner that the place hadn’t been there the day before. This must have been a grand opening. In my part of town, a grand opening can last a month.

I wondered how keen the neighbors were to have their local hairdressers and a hundred of their best friends livin’ la vida loca outside their bedroom windows. But for all I knew, their windows were closed, because they were down here bumping and grinding with everyone else.

My family is one of those for whom dancing is something that happens after you hit the bar at a wedding. Maybe. Occasionally, it seems appropriate for someone else to do — up on a stage — if someone’s paying them to do it. Dancing for us is not a way of life. It does not happen spontaneously. It is not necessary for social interaction. Indeed, it is not even wanted in most cases. It does not bubble beneath the surface of our skin and jerk us into sudden, joyful animation when three sounds in sequence (a tapping pencil, a squeaky brake pad, a palm against the side of a garbage can) form a rhythm. We are not a people of gyrating hips and deep shoulders and clapping palms. And at times like this, when a neighborhood is brought together in a beauty shop not by a 10% discount on manicures or highlights or hair extensions but by salsa and pink balloons, I desperately wish that we were.


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the untallied hours

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