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Salsa Class: Beginners

By Sheila Killian

I can’t dance. I may be Irish, but let’s get that out of the way straight away. I became a céili-failure at an early age, missed out completely, without regret on the line-dancing craze that swept through Ireland a few years back. I am neither able nor willing to follow aerobics instructions. My school report noted “a general lack of physical co-ordination.” So I’m not here to dance.

Nor am I trying to meet people, in the Limerick Police Social Club hall on a wet Wednesday night. I already know plenty of people, and don’t need to meet any more. And no, I’m not learning for a wedding, or looking for some light exercise, or planning a holiday to Cuba. I came the first night on a dare, to keep a friend company, It was a one-night deal. I never expected to be back.

“OK, cucaracha! Dorr-two-three! Vindo-six-seven!”

The commanding words of the Lithuanian dance instructor ring out over the softer, more insidious salsa music, and we shuffle obediently to and fro on the bare boards. The few grey-haired policemen at the bar are quietly amused by us: a scatter of uncoordinated women in shoes with clicky heels, and very, very few men.

We’re not fast learners. We confuse our left and right, swing clockwise on the counter-clockwise turn, collide sometimes. It even took some of us ten minutes to realise “Dorr!” and “Vindo!” are not new, confusing salsa terms, but Lithuanian shorthand for “dance towards the ‘door’ or ‘window’.” Virghinia despairs sometimes.

I find it encouraging that she is Lithuanian. Any lack of native Latin rhythm we Irish have must be multiplied for her, coming so far from the frozen North. Yet there’s no doubt that she can dance, effortlessly and stylishly. Even better, she can teach. So we shambling refugees from Riverdance persist, following her lead and by the end of the night the music has taken root, and here we are moving without thought to the unfamiliar rhythm. Stepping without counting, without even watching our feet. The impossibility of it all!

That’s one of the things that brings us back each week, I think. The sheer improbability of it, spending a wet Limerick night learning Latin dance from a Lithuanian; salsa in the home of set dancing, under the baleful gaze of middle-aged cops.

The other thing, the big thing for me, is the music. When you spend an hour and a half moving to this music it stays. It becomes our music, so that we all head out into the dark with salsa in our heads. It makes the night look different, the shiny wet roads more interesting.

I remain uncoordinated. I still can’t dance, that’s not why I’m here. What I’m doing is learning a new way to listen. I listen to the music with my whole body now. I drum it in with my feet so it sticks, replaying itself automatically for days. I'm not dancing, just making a new soundtrack for the week ahead.


Sheila Killian lives in Limerick, Ireland, with a husband, three children and two dogs. She teaches for a living, is part of a local poetry revival, and has recently founded Soweto Connection, a fundraising non-profit to help people affected by AIDS in Southern Africa. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, The Shop, Undertow, Aerial, The Irish Times, The Electric Acorn and the White House Anthology.

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photo by Dinty W. Moore