Wednesday, September 26, 2007

maestra vida, holding class daily


Two months have passed since I left Chile. As I settle into what still feels temporary, I try to find replacements for the holes and vacancies that remain. Some things are just too disparate: roaming the streets of the Chicago suburbs can’t replicate Barrio Brasil, communal public spaces here don’t really even try to act like the bench-filled Plazas, and since volunteering here will not be possible for some time, I am working on a giant pile of letters to my girls, the act of which relays their laughs or stories only in my head. The suburbs of Chicago are their own entity, and while I am here to enjoy my family for awhile, living within their boundaries and moving among them I am fascinated by the strange mix of behaviors and find myself doing miniature studies of people and places. The thing about the suburbs (it could happen anywhere, but I am here, so it follows to be my example) is that due to their design, one could become incredibly isolated in a very short amount of time. I remember having discussions in Chile about how some Chileans think people from the United States are too individualistic. I’m not sure at what point being individualistic becomes too, becomes extreme, becomes solitary, but I know that the lifestyle of the suburbs could facilitate this extremity, if one is not careful. Especially if one is unemployed and broke: duly noted. I realized it was time to do something. Time to go out. Where? The only place I could think of on a Thursday night: salsa.

If I could describe downtown Naperville in an un-biased manner, I would. But I don’t think I can. It has good schools to be sure, and a picture perfect river-walk, but many will make the argument that its fairytale appearance tricks some members of its population into forgetting or overlooking problems that need attention: international problems, problems in other areas of our country, and problems even within the same neighborhood. Naperville has changed a lot over the years since I moved there as a junior high school student, including the increase in monetary wealth. But the attitude that I carried with me to Frankie’s Blue Room one recent Thursday night was as positive, determined, and bold as I could muster, an almost desperate attempt to find a niche I could occupy despite my personal history in its realms. I imagined my friends in Chile at the same moment, on a Thursday night, slicking on lip gloss and selecting earrings to go with their strappy shirts and jeans. An hour later in Santiago, they would be taking the metro to Bellavista… perhaps buying a sopaipilla on the way… Downtown Naperville should not be confused with the image in one’s head of “downtown.” Naperville does have a large population, over 140,000, but I think it’s rather family oriented, and its nightlife scene thus may suffer a little. Last year Money Magazine named it the #2 Best Place to Live in the United States. Interesting. I think it depends on what your standards are, where your priorities lie. I’m going to narrow it down to Salsa dancing on a Thursday night.

I think my expectations were a little high. Not a surprise really, since I cannot put a leash on my optimism; but this trait can often be difficult to manage and appropriately curb. At least I can say I tried. I’d rather not remember the music, some kind of soft-salsa, or elevator salsa, none of the blazing trumpet solos and definitely no change in tempo. It was in-the-lines salsa, diet salsa, safe salsa. I sipped on a sprite at the edge of the bar, trying to look welcome, open, nice. Every once in awhile some muffles would rise in volume in response to the american football game blinking from the tvs above the dancefloor. I turned to the waitress to get a water, when the man next to me asked me if that was all that I wanted. Even in my peripheral vision I could see signs that he was older than my father. Yes, please, just water. When I was finally asked to dance by a reserved and polite young man, I walked to the dancefloor with a smile: a good song finally fell upon us. A rush of excitement washed over me and I felt my heart carrying the drums. We began dancing, I swayed through the steps as if I had become liquid, passing forward and back, smiling, letting him lead me around in circles. I closed my eyes and remembered Maestra Vida, Bellavista, the live music, dancing until sunrise….. We stopped suddenly. I stood looking at him, my mouth open, then turned to see the guy next to us pick his glasses up off the floor and look at me as if clearly, since I was the blonde, it had been all my fault. I left shortly afterwards, encouraged by the unwelcome attention of a couple of drunk guys who had stumbled in by mistake and were asking me, 2 inches from my face, their necks thicker than my thighs, to clarify what salsa dancing is. Maybe they would be better off watching the football game.

Naperville has one other salsa dance locale, as far as I know. Wednesday and Saturday nights, Esteban’s opens its dancefloor to salseros, with a live band on Saturdays. This time, I had my mom come with me. I didn’t plan on dancing, I felt just scoping the place out for a night might be a more reasonable way to assess the situation. Sitting on the edge of Naperville in a strip mall, across the street from the more diverse suburb of Aurora, Esteban’s is unassuming from the outside. We arrived just before 9pm to avoid the cover charge, and watched the free salsa lessons from our floor-side table. My skepticism wrapped around me, I watched the dancers slowly arrive. Perhaps the recent flop at Frankie’s tainted my view of Esteban’s, but I left that Saturday night quite impressed with the range of dancers that had showed up. All things considered, I’ll give Esteban’s a thumb up, but just one. The music and dancing seemed miles away from the sad travesty of Thursday night at Frankie’s, but the ambiance still felt closed to me. Maybe I had become spoiled, having visited Maestra Vida so many times, but I feel that a good salsa club is one in which people are dancing. Not sitting around watching, but dancing. If not dancing, then people are tapping their feet in anticipation, because the music is just too good to listen to sitting still. I felt like that night Esteban’s seemed like a closed circuit, with small groups staying within their small groups–which really only made me more determined to break my way into some circle somewhere, and soon. More than anything, I think I miss the sense of community that I felt in Santiago, even amidst its rumors of being, in general, a distrustful society.

Maestra Vida is the oldest salsa club in Santiago. Some people make fun of Briana, a friend of mine, and I when we talk about it, because our obvious glee seems to make us hover in the air and we nearly shake upon entering like an addict might before their hallowed substance. Tiny square wooden stools kneel around tiny square wooden tables which hold a single white pillar candle. Inebriated murals cover the walls, each seeming to change every time you look at it. By 2 or 3 in the morning it’s completely full of people, and I pray that they never expand. You learn to lose control in more controlled turns, everyone dances just a little closer, and you have to beg to rest enough to get a glass of water. Maestra Vida is named after a song by Rubén Blades, a singer originally from Panamá. He filled the vacancy left by singer Héctor Lavoe in Willie Colón’s Orchestra in New York in the 70s. “Maestra” means teacher, and “Vida” means life, reminding us some things we can only learn by living them.

The best salsa night depends on three things: the location, the music, and the people. The destinations are vast, spanning from my living room to clubs in cities around Latin America and the world. Then there’s the music, which any salsero has in bundles. But the people, the right mix of energy and skill and patience and fun, that’s something that you can’t fake, and that you can’t force. You never know when everything will align and move forward until you’re in it, until you’re being whipped around by some mystical force and all you see are colors, all you hear are trumpets and even well after you leave at dawn, your feet are still pattering to the drums. I know I can’t replace it; I don’t want to. But months later, I still find myself searching for something that’s even just similar, a taste of the feast of the past.

1 comment:

Anna said...

oh...i love you and miss you...i know exactly what you mean about needing the right people and energy to make the night...and it's just not the same without you all.