They say you can tell a man's lovemaking skills by the way that he dances.
No wonder I don't have children.
You know those guys who throb across the floor, gentle but mannish, totally in sync with their partner? That's not me. I'm the guy who remains seated for the safety of other dancers. Some people say that I have two left feet, but it could be as many as three or four.
You have to feel, then, for Jay Byam, professional dance coach who, due to anti-discrimination laws, had to welcome me into his class. Jay teaches salsa three times a week, starting with el bá sico: one, two, three, five, six, seven (you pause on the fourth beat or suffer Jay's wrath).
For the sake of us gringos, Jay sometimes counts with a slower, more Frankenstein-like, "Boom boom boom, boom boom boom..."
Jay demonstrated with a flair that made us ooh and ahh like kids on the Fourth of July. He prowled the floor like a matador, spinning two girls at once, panache dripping from his pockets.
Jay emphasized the value of being smooth. I believe his exact words were, "If you're not suave, I'll kill ya dead."
Salsa is a sexy dance. In certain parts of Brazil, it's hard to tell where the dancing ends and foreplay begins. You can just hear National Geographic whispering from the bar: And here, the song nearly finished, we see the female flash her luminous tail feathers, a sure sign of approval...
Jay's class isn't so spicy. Dancers start at ten years old and go up to the age where it's impolite to ask. By night's end, the guys all smelled like perfume reps at Macy's.
Salsa isn't line dancing, where you just grab your belt buckle and go; the man has to think up dips and turns and debonair faces. As if it weren't enough to pay for dinner, now we're in charge of choreography. So it goes.
Liberated woman Dee Turner found it hard to give up control, the same issue that cut short an otherwise promising salsa career by Gloria Steinem.
Unfortunately, if both dancers led, it would be like driving a car with two steering wheels -- peligroso. So, Dee, you just make sure your man's dinner is warm and his clothes are pressed when he stumbles home from the bar at two in the morning.
Much of my education came from ninth-grader Chelsea Herzog. A regular in Jay's class, Chelsea is skilled at dodging Frankenstein feet.
"I don't mind the feet," she said, "but it's nice to dance with a strong lead."
The ladies agree that Gabriel Herrirais is a strong lead with way too many vowels in his last name. Gabe has good timing, infectious rhythm, and most important, well-defined pecs. Gabe doesn't count anymore; he's at that stage where the music dances him.
"You've got to forget about the people and feel the music," said Gabe, who grabbed Chelsea's hand and swirled away.
I was good at "marching it out," but then Jay would turn on the music, which always threw me off. If they ever invent silent, seated salsa, I will be king.
Jay and I both limbered up before class, he with his knee-bends and I by margarita. You get drunk on salsa anyway: the trombones, the congas, hypnotic lines like "something something, corazon, something, mi amor."
Then there were the pheromones. One minute we were introducing ourselves, and the next minute we were close enough to meet each other's parents.
Jay counted out loud: "One, two, three, don't look down, one, two, three, don't look down..."
Which left me to gaze into my partner's eyes with that special air that says, When did I become such a Melvin?
Sometimes, without warning, the lady pushes you away so that she can stroke her hair. Guys: You are not rounding second -- it's part of the dance.
"When she goes into styling," says Jay, "you just stop and check out your hot chickie mama."
And I thought the music was distracting.
In a telling moment, young mom Tracey Herrera asked her most unassuming voice, "Do you count?"
Why, yes, Tracey, I do count ... just not the same as everyone else. I dance to the beat of my own drummer, and he's Animal from the Muppets.
I am pleased to report that I drew blood only once, and that from the elbow of Desiree Gonzales, Jay's personal assistant and the most elegant dancer in town. Desiree forgave me.
"There are no mistakes," said Desiree, applying a Band-Aid. "It's all about learning from each other."
"One time," said Jay, "I threw my partner into another guy, and he thought it was part of the dance."
I asked Desiree if she had trouble with men hitting on her, aside from cutting her elbow.
"Jerks don't make it in our group," she said. "They don't feel comfortable with so many happy people."
I spoke to 24-year-old "Hollywood," who has only one name like Madonna or God. Due to the unfair advantage of being Latino, Hollywood salsa'd circles around me. Literally.
"Salsa is an art," he said. "It lets you connect on a whole different level."
Hollywood's voice faded to the clapping. Jay's class always applauds at the end of a step.
How Jason Got His Grooves Back
Not to brag or anything, but somewhere along the line I went from being Frankenstein to being at least the Wolfman. There were moments, if you didn't blink, when I even stopped moving my lips.
At some point, the brain develops grooves the way a rock finally furrows beneath a drip. Jay was my drip.
One night a hot chickie mama thanked me for being a strong lead and ... AAAND ... Jay gave me the a-otay. I glowed all the way to intermediate class, when we, and by that I mean they, performed a "sombrero-spin-check-Hammer-Lock-Coca-Cola."
The Coca-Cola is a quick three-point turn unless you do it my way, in which case it's more like a half nelson.
"You only need five or six steps," says Desiree. "Other than that, just make the woman look good."
I plan to keep up lessons because (a) I'm compelled to master the art and (b) pheromones. Someday I may even graduate from the advanced course, prompting the whole gang to chip in and buy me a present.
A chair, perhaps.