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VERY FIRST PERSON

Redemption and Pathos

Swing Sure Makes for a Dazzling Display, but Salsa. . . . Now That's What She Calls Dancing

July 19, 1998|AIMEE BENDER | Los Angeles writer Aimee Bender's first collection of short stories, "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," was published this month by Doubleday

Someone's parents once said: "You kids today don't ever touch each other when you dance." These were not my parents but, nevertheless, lately I seem to have taken the admonishment to heart.

First up, a friend calls to see if I want to join her at the Derby, the best-known swing-dancing bar in L.A. Since she has been there before and knows her stuff, she suggests I attend the 8 p.m. swing-dancing lesson to brush up. I agree, considering I took ballroom dance in college but have forgotten everything except the indelible image of that one guy who cha-cha-cha-ed while deliberately running his hand through his hair like a sad, bad movie star.

That night, a Wednesday, I show up at the door of the Derby at 8:05, figuring I'll be the only person there and will spend the hour talking to the teacher about teaching. Having forgotten about the movie "Swingers" up to that point, I remember very fast when the bouncer informs me that the class is full to capacity and I'll just have to wait at the bar until 9, when the dancing starts for everybody. "Full?" I say. "What do you mean, full?" I picture 20 people in a small, cramped room, talking to the teacher about teaching. No. On this night, which is apparently like most nights at the Derby, 125 people were on time for the lesson. I am flat-out stunned. A few men in suspenders breeze past. Two underage guys in bowlers and black suit jackets try to get in, but their licenses are ridiculously fake. I skulk around, deciding what to do, still surprised that so many people drive in fast from their work weeknights to learn how to do that little back-step thing that reminds me of taking cotillion in sixth grade and holding boys' hands and feeling like a human broom.

I go upstairs to the bar, with its irregularly shaped blue and purple chairs, and talk to two guys who are also sitting around and waiting. One is making mean jokes at the expense of his friend, who is mostly quiet but does say he has come here before and likes to swing dance. My friend shows up in a flurry at 9, and the lesson room is just opening up; out pour people, as if from a high school gymnasium dance, in more suspenders, more bowler hats, young men dressed as gangsters in carefully pressed pinstriped suits, women wearing T-strap sandals and straight skirts from the '40s that hit just at the knee, revealing the anachronistic tattoo of a snake down their shins. I spy the occasional poofy poodle skirt, which seems like the wrong decade to me. We enter the gym-ish room, wood floored, with piped-in music from the band. This is the space designated for the less skillful dancers. The really good people go directly in front of the band and fly over each other and slide out from between legs and celebrate the end of the Depression and the success of World War II. There is a real absence of '90s jadedness here. Swing dancing is sincere. Formal dancing, in general, is not ironic.

I dance with both of the guys I talked to in the bar, and am pleased to see that the one who was mean is not a good dancer and is trying to get by by making more mean jokes, which doesn't work, and that his friend, the shy one, is generous and graceful on the dance floor. They are probably seven years younger than me and remind me of some of my students, so I want to encourage them but think that might be taken as rude. I dance with instructive men who give me tips ("resist more with your arms!") and others who barely look me in the eye, a suspendered guy who drove up from Orange County specifically and says he does so three times a week. I am aware of an acute throwback-to-high-school feeling but even weirder is the notion that it isn't even my high school I am throwing back to, but my mother's.

My girlfriend finds a dance partner of yore out in the throngs, and he pulls out a little crumpled slip of paper on which are written dance step instructions. They try to read and interpret his handwriting ("what does right arm whoop mean?") and soon are doing complicated step sequences. I admire their skill. At a certain point, I'm done. I sit and watch everyone and have a glass of water.

*

Different evening is spent at El Floridita, on Fountain Avenue and Vine Street in Hollywood, a Cuban restaurant with a small wooden dance floor surrounded by tables for dinner. We're going salsa dancing on this night. I am with a group, including one couple who is savvy about salsa and is prepared to teach the rest of us. Where did you learn to salsa dance? I ask the guy. He says Kentucky.

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