Friday, July 31, 2009

Femme Fatale (Mexico City)

Friday night. I'm going dancing. None of my Mexican friends is able to accompany me, but they've all assured me that it's safe to go by myself -- as long as I don't stay out past midnight, dress too provocatively, or ask anyone to dance.

Dressed in a cute (but unprovocative) skirt, with beads dangling from the hem, and a short-sleeved top that would be immodest, were it not for the camisole underneath, I head to the subway. In the few minutes that I wait for the train, I recognize one of the dance instructors from whom I've taken a lesson in the park, and he recognizes me.

He looks more like a bodybuilder than a dancer, but he might be both. I don't intend to ask, as he might misinterpret my intentions. He asks if I'm on my way to the park and explains that he's about to teach a class there. When I say that I'm going to put into practice what I've learned from him, at Salon Hidalgo, he tells me that there's another place I should go, with a better crowd, better music, and better dancing. He offers to take me there, himself, another day and requests my phone number. I tell him that I don't have one and suggest that we get a group together to go. We part ways, as I change trains and he leaves the station.

It's about 6:15 when I arrive at the dance hall. I've got a subway ticket and 170 pesos in my pocket -- more than enough for what I anticipate will be a $6.00 admission charge, a soft drink or two, and cab fare, should I need it. I quickly discover, however, that a well-known group is performing, and the entry fee is 130 pesos, leaving me with barely enough to buy a bottle of water and tip the waiter. I ask the guy at the door if it's really 130 pesos to get in (when on Wednesday night, it cost me 10), and he says yes. I ask if the band will be playing salsa and he says yes. I weigh my options: should I spend it all and hope to get my money's worth of dancing or should I return to the hotel, watch CNN, and munch the rest of the spicy fried beans in my room?

I pay and enter.

I walk up the stairs and into the huge room. The dance floor is already crowded with couples cumbia-ing to the live music. I look for people I know but don't find any. What I do find are lots of reserved tables. A waiter ushers me to the last row, last seat of a table already occupied by two women and a couple. I sit through three dances, and the possibility dawns and dusks on me that nobody will ask me to dance.

The bar is right behind me, and I smile at the bartender. He looks like a gentleman and a scholar, well, mostly like a scholar, so I get up and ask if it's true that I shouldn't ask anyone to dance. He confirms that men would think I was a brazen hussy for doing so. (He doesn't exactly say "brazen hussy," but I know what he means.)

Aloud, I bemoan my fate. "I might not get to dance at all!"

"Don't worry," my new best bartender beassures me. "I've got a friend who'll dance with you."

Three dances later, I'm stepping on the toes of his friend. Ten minutes afterwards, I'm being churned around the dance floor by one of his relatives. One dance each is apparently enough for both of these guys; I never see them again. I figure that, at the present rate, I'll dance twice more during the evening -- if the bartender hasn't already run out of friends, relatives, and acquaintances.

The bartender calls me over. "Look," he says, "the crowd is just filtering in. Before you know it, there will be so many men asking you to dance, you won't have a chance to catch your breath."

I catch my breath so many times and for so long that I think it'll never escape.

The temperature ratchets up. My table's empty seats fill up with a bunch of women, who are being whisked onto the dance floor. The band plays on, its catchy rhythms making me all but bounce in my chair. Lots of men are just standing around, for Pete's (or should I say Pedro's) sake, and I'm seriously considering breaking the Don't ask them taboo.... I really want to dance!

Suddenly, an overweight, elderly seƱor taps me on the shoulder and leads me onto the dance floor. We have roughly eight inches to maneuver in, and I still get stepped on and elbowed by the couples surrounding us. When the song ends, my partner requests the favor of another dance. I grant it, but when he starts gazing at me as if he were a bloodhound and I were the scent he was following, I thank him and return to my table.

My next partner is a sweaty, polyester-suited 50-ish fellow, who keeps being reminded by the waiters that we're dancing "outside the lines." Unfortunately, every time we move into the dance zone, we are batted about like sparrows in a tornado by the dancers on all sides. When the number ends, my partner escorts me back to the table, pulls out my chair, and thanks me.

The bloodhound returns. I keep inserting my arm between us to keep him at a distance. The press of other bodies makes this rather difficult. I feel like the filling in a human sandwich.

Bloodhound wants to keep dancing. I refuse. He asks when I'll dance with him again. It's 8pm, and I tell him 9:45. He looks at me with bloodshot, older-dog eyes and promises he'll be back.

It's time to make friends, with the aim of gaining protection. I've already told my dance partners that I came with a group of girlfriends, so now I have to make it so. I've been chatting with one or another of the women at my table whenever we've not been dancing. We've shared partial life stories and recipes. We've commented on the unbearable heat, referred to the weight reduction brought on by dancing and enhanced by profuse perspiration, parsed out the little napkins on the table to mop our sweaty brows, and taken turns trying to cool each other down with the fans they've been smart enough to bring with them. I confess that I'm using them as human shields, and they tell me to go right ahead. They'll even make sure I get to the metro safely and accompany me to the station where we'll switch trains.

By the time my lovely new friends and I leave (10:30), I've danced more than my money's worth. I've also been propositioned by my three steady partners -- each of whom insisted that he would be perfectly willing to give up his wonderful life as a truck driver, taco-maker, and embalmer (respectively) to follow me to the US, if only I were willing.

I weren't and I amn't.

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