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Salsa and Spirituality:
The Adventures of a Salsa Dancing Priest 

-by Gawain Leeuw

I am passionate about dancing salsa.

I can't give a very good answer why.  I've thought about it a lot, but one single, unanswerable answer escapes me.

It could be because I've met an eclectic group of people  - editors, executives, students, bodybuilders. Maybe I love dancing salsa because I meet rumberas from throughout the world.  I've danced with lovely women of every age and size from Norway to Malaysia to Korea to the Dominican Republic. Perhaps it is the rhythm, the contagious beat of the clave and timbales. It could be that, in an age of computerized music, salsa relies on real musicians. Maybe just because it's fun.

My spirit soars when I am dancing.  My feet are moved for me, as though I'm floating in the music, my arms sometimes cradled around another dancer, communicating playfully something primal.  My stomach lifts.  I am barely in control.  I can't describe it. Which is why I use the word "spirit."

Some have told me that there is nothing spiritual about dancing.  One woman told me that Salsa is about sex - "a vertical expression of a horizontal desire" she quoted.  "Man and woman.  Nothing more.  Of course it's fun.  It's been programmed like that.  And you shouldn't be going out dancing so much.  You're not supposed to."

I suppose, in a liberal and tolerant society, such a statement might seem odd.  But lots of people think like her.  You're not supposed to. Because I'm a priest.

I'm an Episcopalian priest, however.  The word on the street is often a blank "huh?" when I say this, but individuals in the know make the comment that we are "Catholic-lite," or "liberal Catholics," or "Catholics after a bong hit."  They know that private confession is optional.  I can get married.  The church has women priests.  Many of our clergy are in open, monogamous same-sex relationships.  This is, of course, controversial, but this essay is about salsa dancing.

Like Catholics, however, we have the seven sacraments. We have monks and nuns and bishops and deacons.  And I "say mass" every Sunday. One woman asked me if I confess salsa as a sin.  I don't.  I love it, and I've never felt guilty for it.  For me, dancing salsa is a gift.  It is a gift I share with other dancers.  And when I go to a salsa social, it is almost like church for me - a blessed event for the purpose of celebrating joy.   I enjoy the sensuality.  I enjoy the presence of bodies.  And in the faith I inherit, a Body represents God.   Confess about salsa?  I give thanks for salsa! 

I've been dancing for several years, but for the last two years I've been dancing for at least once a week.  I'm at a level where I'm tolerated by some, and even enjoyed by others.  I sometimes do double spins and syncopated shines.  I know enough of the music to play with dancing occasionally.  I love salsa, and I talk about it.  And I have strange adventures on the dance floor.   Because, in part, I'm a priest.  

Holy Adventures in Salsa
Nells is a nightclub that borders the West Village and Chelsea in Manhattan.  About ten years ago it had the cache' of Moomba or other currently hip clubs, but its velvety interior has been widely imitated and it lacks novelty value.   It's owned by the same people who own the restaurant Odeon, of Bright Lights Big City fame.  It is very 80's.  And it needed something interesting to bridge into the Millenium. 

A couple years ago it started instituting a salsa night, with old style Cuban music on the ground floor, and contemporary salsa underneath.  If you weren't a great dancer but wanted to hear excellent Cuban bands, you could stay on the first floor and drink El Presidente beer and ask whoever was at hand to dance.  But if you wanted to watch the most amazing dancers in the City, you went downstairs.  A Venezualan woman, DJ Elvira, was - and is - the DJ there, and she plays only salsa.  Good salsa.   This is important for Salseros to know because we are constantly worried that we'll be suddenly surprised by MerengueRock or a Techno Eastern European Cha-Cha.  Elvira plays music for the dancers.   And dancers often follow her around.   I go to Le Belle Epoque, a place where the atmosphere makes the food taste better, when I know she'll be spinning. 

One evening at Nells, "Gus," a Salsa maven often with a camera, announced to a Salsera with Attitude (an SWA), that I was a priest, "un curita."  I understand why he told her - it's bizarre enough to create conversation where there might previously be none.  But this woman was non-plussed.  "Then why are you here?  Priests don’t dance."  She said.  Obviously, I had interrupted her world.  The church had invaded her home.   I heard what she said:  I'm here to have fun.  Don't get in the way of that.  Perhaps she was worried the church would diminish the sensuality of her passion if it got too close to the Salsa scene. "It's fun." I said, weakly.  She turned away. Gus just shrugged.  I went to find a partner. 

Another Evening
Wednesday evenings I often have diocesan meetings.  It had been a long day and the meeting was finished at 9:30pm.   I could go to Nells.  The dance floor would get busy by 10:00. But I was wearing my collar. 

Usually I don't wear my collar.  When I go dancing, I'm more interested in dancing than being an object of curiosity.  I know that there are lots of excellent dancers who might not hold my religious sensibilities.  So usually before I go dancing I put on a little cologne, brush my teeth, wear clothes that salseros tend to wear, and remove the black suit.  But tonight was different.  And I wanted to see, just once, what it would be like to "witness," which is what priests call wearing a collar in a place that doesn't require it.  A place like a dark nightclub in the West Village with lots of attractive women from, for example, the Dominican Republic, Japan and the Bronx.  I wanted to witness them.  I wanted to witness them dancing. 

Since I was not a great dancer I had discovered that sometimes I'd have better luck finding partners if I told them I was a priest, especially if they were better than me.  I'm a novelty, and I decided that if I want to become a better dancer I could use my profession to my advantage.  Reader - don't get upset: I don't presume telling a young mambera "I'm a priest" is an invitation to my private palace.   And I don't use it on anyone.  I have criteria.  Usually, if I tell someone I'm a priest, it is to ask women who would not dance with me because 1) I'm not very good or 2) I don't look like Antonio Banderas.  And I am able to guess that they are willing to dance with a priest because 1) they've never danced with a priest before, 2) they have this sense that I'm not going to ask for their phone number and 3) they would feel guilty if they didn't.  I admit, there is some personality involved here.  I'm really pretty harmless.  It's not really sexy to be harmless, but I definitely don't radiate the predatory vibes that emanate from many young men surrounded by women who move their hips.   It helps to be polite and smile. 

I decided to ask one tall young woman in a long, elegant, and tight black dress.   She looked me up and down.  She wanted, badly, to say "no."  But she couldn't.  I was a priest.  How do you say "no" to a priest? 

It became clear that she was a beginner - a few lessons with Eddie Torres, perhaps, but we didn’t quite have the same timing.  I could feel her hands tremble.  How do you shake your hips with a priest? she must have been asking herself.   This is a good question.  And I'm not sure of the answer.  But I was busy shaking mine.   I tried very hard to make her comfortable, but it was impossible.  I don't think she exhaled until the dance was finished.   "Thank you for dancing with me" I said.  She smiled wanly and escaped. 

When I have a collar on, I feel that I have permission to ask good dancers who seem trapped by their partner.  I really don't like it when women (or men) act like their partner's property.  By being a priest I decide to interrupt that kind of silliness. So I went up to one tall and generously built blonde with her boyfriend.  She looked at him, then at me, and in a liberated leap, led me onto the dance floor.  Obviously she had been waiting to have one dance with someone else.  The logic is that obviously I'm no threat to the boyfriend.  I'm a priest.  It's probably not wise logic, however.  I'm an Episcopalian.

Whenever I saw her other Wednesday Evenings, I made a point of asking her to dance.  She always said yes.

Wearing a collar also carries some responsibility.  I figure it's polite and beneficial to ask people who don't get asked to dance much for some time on the floor also.  I guess it is a kind of salsa charity, perhaps.  I've benefited from salsa charity, myself.  Does this sound patronizing?  I just love dancing.

My friend Sunny, a very athletic and natural Korean dancer, often joins me when we go out.  She finds no disruption between her religiosity and her sensuality.  But she was perplexed by my decision to wear a collar this one evening.  As we were gathering our coats a young inebriated woman came up to me, man in tow by his neck-tie, and asked, "are you really a priest?" 

"Yes," I said. "Will you bless me?  I'm getting married." "Of course," I said.  I was worried she'd fall into me. I placed my hands on her head and said a few words.  She thanked me effusively. Sunny was quiet as I drove her home.   Finally she said, "you really shouldn't wear your collar dancing."

At a Festival in Harlem
I went with two friends to the stickball festival in Spanish Harlem.  I didn’t have time to change into my civilian uniform, so I was stuck wearing my black suit and white clerical shirt on an incredibly hot day.  We walked up and down 111th street, where I was overdressed and uncomfortable.  I bought lemon ice to cool myself down, but the lemon ice turned out to be coconut, which isn’t as refreshing to me as lemon or mango, but it was 75 cents, so who’s complaining?

My friends wanted to get some crabcake – the best in the city, apparently – but the line was 25 minutes long.  F. suggested I go dancing, so I did.  I walked across the block and watched hundreds of people dancing.  But I was feeling shy, so for a while I just danced by myself, a bit self conscious, trying to immerse myself in "lloralas" by Oscar D’Leon.  I noticed the woman next to me, wearing a white blouse and stretch pants, casually made up for public viewing, dancing with her friend.   She had feathered hair, and the natural voluptuousness that comes from life and age.  I asked her to dance, collar and all.  She tilted her head, and agreed, although after her silent nod, “yes,” she never raised her eyes above the focus of my uniform, the white plastic that separates me from mortals.   

We danced three dances.  I eased up at the end of each song, inviting her to pause and depart, but she remained lightly in my arms.  Each song gave us a bit more confidence as we tried more complicated turns and patterns.  Soon she was doing slow double turns on the concrete.   We kept in time the entire dance, even when my blazer was flapping in the air as I turned. Whenever I looked at her she was looking at my shirt, keeping her eyes away from me.  She would smile when I rustled my shoulders and kicked my feet, but she could not look above the collar. 

Right before we ended she buttoned up her blouse.  Until her hand had moved towards her chest, I hadn’t noticed her flesh.  I had been so intent on looking at her eyes and watching the walking interruptions behind her that I didn’t notice her blouse had slowly become undone.  She buttons up, says thank you, and moves towards her friend.  I see my friends on the sidewalk waving, but before I can reach them, a Cuban man stops me and says, “Baila bien.  Baila bien.” He holds out his hand and we do the wonder twins handshake, hitting our fists together.   

I'm hot and sweaty.  I take my collar off.  My friends have brought me crabcake.

Next:  Rules for Salsa - a new spiritual discipline? 

See also Father Gawain's article
"Stepping Out to the Beat of the Holy Spirit:  The Adventures of a Salsa-Dancing Priest"



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