LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE DRIVER OF THE BUS WE HOPED WOULD GET US TO OUR SALSEROS
BY MATHINA CALLIOPE
With a rumble and an exhale, the Megabus pulled off to the side of Route 9. Again. We stirred in our seats and I looked up from my book. What now? My dance buddy, Will, pointed at rivulets streaming down the windshield. The wipers weren’t working. Phone pressed to your ear, concern lining your face, you stepped outside, opened an umbrella, and stared out from under it at the wipers. Passengers looked up optimistically when the doors hissed open and you climbed the steps again, then returned to their phones when you lifted your water bottle from the cup holder and stepped down.
Will and I were on our way from our homes outside Washington, D.C., to New York for an afternoon of dancing. A 460-mile roundtrip outing may seem excessive for an afternoon, yet no other city had the Big Apple’s critical mass of excellent salseros.
Will and I had met in the dance scene a few years before. He was black, like many of D.C.’s salseros, and I was white, like a handful of D.C.’s salseras. We had “come up” together in the scene and, while both single, straight, professional, and in our late thirties, were not romantically involved. We shared a deep passion for Latin rhythms since becoming friends in a student performance group.
We often made this pilgrimage with a large, loose group of friends. We relished in the shocked, impressed looks of nondancers when we confirmed we went up and back the same day. “Eight hours of driving for four hours of dancing!” It was extreme, but we weren’t doing it as some kind of stunt, nor were we professionals. We made the sacrifice for sheer love of the dance, with a passion that bordered on obsession.
A good night out was pure enchantment. It was exertion that produced endorphins. It was physical contact with attractive people. It was joyful application of hard-earned skills and techniques—mastery of complicated steps matched to happy music. On a good night I enjoyed many instances of the magical, trifecta connection among music, partner, and movement. Latin dancing enlivened me unlike nothing ever had. It was the main thing that made my thirties—the decade after a painful divorce—the happiest time of my life to that point.
D.C. had a great salsa scene, but we didn’t have New York’s numbers. In D.C., dozens of dancers were proficient enough to be truly fun partners. In Manhattan, hundreds were. When I was a beginner, as long as my partner knew the basics, I was happy. But as my appreciation of the music and the art grew, as I poured time, money, and dedication into the craft, my standards rose. A night out in D.C. was fun when other intermediate or advanced dancers showed up. In NYC, it was a given that they would.
I always imagined that absent wealth, actually living in the city would take sacrifice, grit, and determination. It took someone special to make it work. D.C. was softer, easier. I could live all by myself in a big one-bedroom apartment on a nonprofit salary. Manhattan dancers brought to their hobby what I suspected they brought to life—fierceness.
Various groups of us went up for overnights, too. On once-in-a-blue-moon months a special constellation of happenings in one weekend made it worth sleeping on creaking springs up at the Chelsea hostel or with friends in Brooklyn or Harlem if you had ’em. On Labor Day weekend, we split hotel rooms four ways at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue for the annual congress. We spun and sweat from midnight till five with thousands of internationals all there for the same pure passion.
I went there mostly via $15-$20 bus ride: Chinatown, then Bolt when it began in 2008, and today Megabus. Gas and tolls meant carpooling required four riders for cost effectiveness. We often assembled that many. Then, too, I sometimes decided last minute that I couldn’t go on without the dozens of ecstatic connections I could score at Jimmy Anton’s Sunday afternoon social, and I would hop in my Jetta alone. Once, when work held me past my buddies’ departure time, I dropped an astronomical-to-me $178 for a one-way Acela ticket.
Jimmy’s, which was Will’s and my destination this day, always exceeded my expectations; no matter how high they rose, it delivered even more. Partnering with strangers was usually fraught. When someone unfamiliar held out a hand, you had no way to know whether they’d wrench your arm out of the socket and march your through a song on wrong timing or whether you’d make art in motion together. At this social, though, the ratio of experts to beginners was strong, the risk of injury or disappointment nearly nil. This made our lopsided travel hours-to-bliss time ratio a clear net gain.
Will and I had built in a cushion to get there that day to grab a pre-dance meal and soak in a dose of downtown street energy, catch a whiff of roasty, burnt-sugar nuts. Time was ticking in a bus filling with human and fast-food smells on the side of the road. You climbed back in when the rain let up, and we cheered. Soon you turned the bus into a wayside for repairs or a replacement bus. We got out, paced. Stretched and snacked. Our moving ETA chewed more deeply into our dance-floor time. If we got going in thirty minutes we’d have two dance hours. Thirty minutes came and went, and you sat, defeated on a curb, phone at your side. The Lincoln Tunnel was still an hour away. Finally, sadly, Will and I conceded defeat and called a taxicab for a $300 ride back to D.C.
Two weeks later without a second thought we made the journey again. This time, the sun shone for our whole long-distance dance commute.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mathina Calliope is a writer, teacher, editor, and writing coach living in Arlington, Virginia. Her words appear or are forthcoming in Outside Magazine, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Longreads, Streetlight Magazine, the Brevity blog, and elsewhere. Her work in progress is a memoir about quitting her job at 43 to hike the Appalachian Trail, Pay Dirt: Backpacking in Search of the Courage to Be Broke. @MathinaCalliope
Header image by Ardian Lumi.