Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Sensuality of Dance

- by Anna Bayle
As published in Madame Figaro, China
(original version)

"Dance like no one is watching, love like you'll never be hurt, sing like no one is listening, and live like it's heaven on earth." William Purkey

There is something in this quotation that hit a spot in me when I first read it. Dance is such an expression of one’s personality. This quote urges and gives permission to anyone inclined, to just ‘express yourself’. I know that at moments when I want to feed my soul, I find myself dancing. I wish I could sing like an operatic diva or paint like a master to release the emotions that I am feeling inside. But since I was not born blessed with those skills, I content myself with releasing those emotions in some form of dance.

When I retired from modeling, I embarked on activities that could replace the physical exercise and creativity outlet that are essentials of modeling. Modeling is physical exercise in itself, as you have to bend a lot to put your skirts or pants and shoes on, stretch out your arms to get your blouses on, wiggle to get inside the gowns – all this in double time and running back to the lineup just before walking out on the runway. Modeling was also a way for me to express myself, as creativity was encouraged when asked to portray different types of women. So when I personally decided to end my modeling life, I had find other activities that would keep me in shape. I am not very fond of exercising in a gym where the machines you touch are cold and inanimate and I thought that it would be a great idea to take dance lessons. I also knew that I have stirring passions in me that needed to be addressed, so I had to find an outlet for them. What is great about New York is that there are schools for anything under the sun – be it cooking, singing, languages, drawing, etc. Here, there are dancing schools with live music and also the very best teachers in any particular dance. And the choices run the gamut – there is ballet, tango, hip-hop, African, flamenco, swing, salsa, foxtrot, quickstep, square dancing, belly dancing, etc.

It has been said that you can tell if a person is a very good lover by the how they dance. Could it possibly be true? Or is it that people who dance are just freer in spirit or less inhibited that the spontaneity and liberation from bodily constraints makes them good lovers. Is it because people who can dance are able to express their emotions through their bodies? Could it be that the rhythm and harmony in the movement of dance gets translated into the bedroom? Anyway, I was ready to explore my sensuality further, convinced that learning to dance something well would make me a better lover.

Mugler Press Fashion Show

I signed up first for an African class, which always attracted me because it seemed that African people danced in a very primal way. They have no inhibitions and can effortlessly contort their bodies. I always wanted to do African dancing. I thought, ”Let me try it - if only to release the animal in me”. I was very excited because you dance to live music with 4 or 5 drummers playing on different-sized drums while chanting. On my very first day, it really felt pagan to me. For a start, they wanted you to jump around with your legs apart and with knees bent, thrusting your pelvis forward at the same time. These movements felt entirely foreign to me because it is ingrained in Asian women to be ladylike, demure and to certainly, always keep your legs together. You really have to dance from your “hara” or your center (which is located just below your stomach) and feel those primal urges. In this dance, you have to let go of your upbringing and feel like you are one with the earth. I could do the motions, but something in me was fighting and was hesitant to completely let go. I observed another person in class who can make her flesh quiver and vibrate from her neck to her feet while her head and face remained still, just like how Beyonce Knowles does with her behind. I asked the girl how she does it, and she could not explain it to me. When she told me that it was very easy, I was completely ‘psyched out’ of that class. I continued on, despite feeling not up to par. I also started to think that trying this African class was very ambitious of me. After all the non-stop jumping for a whole hour, I was exhausted. I am resigned to the fact that I do not have the stamina for this and coupled with the fact that I felt too feminine to keep my legs open all the time, I changed to another class. If this is a sign of my prowess in bed, then so be it. I will leave that to the athletic and energetic ones.

My next attempt was an Afro-Cuban beginners’ class which also had a drum group but with singing. I liked the music much better because it is less frenetic, and maybe because I have Latin blood in me. After all, I grew up listening to Spanish melodies because my country, the Philippines, was a colony of Spain for 500 years. In Afro-Cuban dancing, there is a lot of hip and pelvic movement but the action is also goes from side to side, as opposed to thrusting forward all the time. There was a lot of gyrating, but this time the instructor would teach you how to do it properly. She would isolate the movements and make us do them in very slow motion then once you get it, she then makes you speed it up. For instance, on the count of two, we would to a thrust with our pelvis, then do the same thrust twice in the same amount of time, then same thrust 4 times..and so on and so forth until we are doing it and ‘shaking our booties like Beyonce’. Oh, there was a lot of jumping too, but not all the time. The drum beat rhythm ranges from fast to slow. The class actually taught us different folk dances dedicated to their gods and goddesses: Chango (god of lightning), Oshun (goddess of love), Yemaya (goddess of the sea), and Ogun (god of war and iron). The motions for the hands were simpler too – like planting rice, undulating our shoulders and hands to look like waves, offering the earth to the gods. This was a lot easier for me to follow because one can really get into the captivating and ritualistic beat of the drums. In fact, after every class, everyone forms a circle and anyone who wants to go to the center to dance solo, does so. I have witnessed some incredible dancing from people who don’t even look like good dancers. The power of the steady drumbeat evokes an ecstatic seizure in them, as if they were bewitched and it is quite an amazing sight. I loved this class and always felt spent afterwards, but always exhilarated.

After I had gone to several beginner classes, I moved to a popular intermediate class. Apparently, the instructor was very good. Now that I knew the basics, I was ready for the next challenge. This class has a line dance format. The drummers were on one end of the long room and we start at the opposite end. We formed three long lines. And we danced forward, in rows of 3, following the instructor down towards the drummers, then peeling off, forming the line in the back and starting again with a different step. The trick is to be behind the instructor and if that not possible, behind a dancer who is very good. To be behind someone who is not sure and who does not commit to the movements makes you very doubtful of yourself, as well. When I see someone who is good, it makes me feel like I am in rhythm with them. The lesson here is,
"If you are going to copy someone, copy the very best."
This was a great class that gave me such release from the tensions of being in a high powered city like New York. I became a regular and the drummers became very familiar with me. I can hold my own in the dances but once I peel off from the line, I am doubled up in pain and out of breath, walking slowly to the back of the line. Waiting in line for my row’s turn to dance gives me the chance to get my breath back and I am ready to brave the distance towards the drummers again. The drummers would look at me questioningly once I peel off from the line, obviously struggling for air and staggering to get back to form the line again and I would just signal that I drank too much alcohol, which gets them all laughing.

The good thing about dance is that you really are exercising every part of your body and at the same time enjoying the music. You sweat a lot, stretch every muscle in your body, align every bone but more than that, you are able to release a lot of pent up energy that is toxic for your well being. It does really feel like having sex because for a whole hour you are moving your body to non-stop rhythm. This was more to my liking. Even though I am sometimes out of breath, I am exercising my sensuality with the many suggestive movements. I have tried hip hop dances too, but just like the African dance which needs cardio-vascular resistance, I miserably failed.

John Gaddi teaching me the mambo

Life went on and I got married and also got busy with the launch my own lipstick line in the States and Canada. Then I got divorced and spent a miserable 2 years of not going out. One day, I was checking out a socialization class for my then 3-year-old son and I happened to see a flyer for ballroom dancing. I was curious, but I also knew I had to do something to get out of the house. I enrolled in ballroom dancing classes and became addicted to it. It was a great place to socialize and have contact with other people without getting involved because in each class, you partner up and switch partners after a minute or two. I have to say that once you get to learn partner dancing, you may never want to dance solo again like in a disco. I learned all of the dances – waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, jive, salsa, meringue, tango. However, my passion was for the Latin dances. I got hooked on salsa and went from beginner to advanced in no time. This is great dance after Afro-Cuban dancing, because all the basic movements taught in the Afro-Cuban class are used in salsa dancing.

Salsa, which literally means, “sauce”, is supposed to be the dance showcasing the woman. It is a dance of sexuality and sensuality, both for the male and female. I loved this dance because of the music and because the movements are smooth and sensual. They first teach you basic steps and then they teach you some complicated ones that you can incorporate when you dance socially. There are a lot of socials held in huge ballrooms for you to practice dancing in and to meet people. I started going to the Copacabana in New York and it is very funny, but it is like walking into a den of wolves. Latin men are predatory; the moment you walk in with your tight flouncy dancing dress, everyone checks you out. Every male in the room will ask you to the dance floor to see if you can dance. But most of the men are so advanced that even if they are generous and will take the time to lead and guide you for a while, they are intent on finding a dance partner who can show how good they are or who will make them feel good dancing. Because in dancing, you are only as good as your partner is. I suppose in bed, it is the same thing, it could only feel as good as how much you make your partner feel good.

Every male in the room asked to dance with me and I graciously accepted because I wanted to learn. But because I was such a ‘newbie’ and was not very receptive to their charms, they never asked me again. Still, I kept going to the Copacabana every Tuesday night and slowly learned the dance. I have to say, I learned to dance salsa with the older Cuban gentlemen who had the patience with my bumbling efforts. They taught me that salsa dancing is nothing but ‘ feeling the beat’. These older men, from 60 to 80 years old and still full of life were more ‘feeling’ than showmanship. Yes, they wanted a pretty girl in their arms and but also sincerely wanted to teach. The younger Puerto Rican men were more speed, precision and fancy moves and only wanted to show their prowess dancing.
Salsa is a dance that can be danced 2 ways. “On 1” or “on 2”. Dancing on 1 is a bit easier as you follow the down beat of the conga, while in 2 you start on the 2nd count but it makes the dance a lot faster and smoother. The older Cubans taught me how to dance in 1 but the Puertoricanos made me dance in 2. Now, this dance is definitely like sex. You don’t even have to have sex, because after a good 5 minutes of intense spinning around, body rolling, swaying your hips nonstop – it feels like you already had sex. There is a lot of body rolling, shimmying your shoulders, gyrating close to your partner, jerking your head back and forth with your hair swishing out and a lot of flirting and making everyone look at you. First of all, you perspire like crazy, you have your eyes on your partner all the time because the dance is so fast that if you don’t, you will not know which way to turn and after being spun and thrown every which way, your hair is all messed up like someone has shaken you silly.

Valentino flouncy skirt

It felt like sex and I got obsessed with it. There is a salsa circuit in New York and every night there is a different place to dance with live music. And with blaring of all the horns, saxophones, trumpets, string instruments, congas and drums plus the fast singing in a salsa band, it is impossible to be depressed. Their music sings of the celebration of life that you can’t help but feel good. Sometimes, I don’t even have to dance. Watching very good salsa dancers, does it for me too. In fact, I see the whole troupe of the American Ballet Theater at a club called S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil) all the time. Salsa is a great dance for ballet dancers because there is a lot of spinning involved. But it is when I watch Latin women, no matter what age, dance the salsa, that I am mesmerized. I am amazed at what they can do with their bodies. They are so confident about how ‘hot’ they look that they are practically sizzling. I wanted to be like them so bad. My sister finally asked me what I was doing, going out every night. I answered jokingly, “I want to be ‘ the salsa queen of New York’.” She exclaimed,” How sick is that? You are not even Puerto Rican!” I didn’t care, I love to dance it so much that you can see me dancing in the streets with strangers. As long as I hear the music, I am compelled to sensually roll my shoulders and sway my hips, flirt with the men I am dancing with and like the Latin women, revel in my being a woman.

Dancing salsa with John Toribio

As I got older, I gravitated towards another Latin dance that I adored, which is tango. Tango is definitely a man-woman dance and it revolves around passion and desire. Tango is so inviting to me because of the control that one has to have and the feeling that one has to convey to be able to dance it. Argentinian tango is sometimes danced cheek-to-cheek, almost as if you are an extension of the man. You are at the mercy of the man leading you, for you cannot move any which way you want. In salsa, it is the same, the man has to lead you but you can always break away from their hold and do what they call “shines” and dance by yourself. This is not at all possible in tango. Here, you are the man’s woman and you will follow his lead.

I remember a Tango instructor say to our class one day,
“ In tango, as in life – it is always the man’s fault. Either you lead the woman the wrong way or you overestimate the woman’s capabilities.”
I had to laugh hysterically at this parallelism because when I think of intimate relationships, I thought it to be very true. It is always’s the man’s fault. Men promise us everything but do not deliver, so in fact, they mislead us. Men also elevate us to such high pedestals that when we fail to come up to their expectations, they feel deceived, but in fact, I prefer to think it is their fault because they did overestimate a woman’s capability to love. I have not yet excelled in tango so I might get back to it someday. After all, at this time in my life, I feel that I am ready for men to lead me.

Now that I am really much more mature and have not been out dancing every night, I took another form of exercise which I believe to be very good for the body. I started Tai-chi classes. The movements are very controlled and fluid. It looks like it is easy but not really, because it takes a lot more energy to do small, precise movements than to do big ones. It feels like a dance to me when I see people practicing TaiChi in the park. And though there is no music, I feel the life and energy flow through me when I do my movements, like when I am dancing.

Like the girl in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet ’Rites of Spring”, who danced herself to death, I think I will continue dancing until I die. I urge everyone to find the music that moves you and dance. For like the bored accountant who secretly took ballroom dancing classes in the hit Japanese movie to, “Shall We Dansu?”, we all have that stirring passion in us. Sometimes, you can just lock the door, pull down the shades, put music that moves you on the CD player and dance. Go on. ….Nobody is watching!