After quitting our jobs, living out of our car while driving through Central America for seven months, and then living out of our backpacks around the world for another five months, my partner, Francisco, and I were beyond weary. Turns out that nagging restlessness you have when you’re nine-to-fiving finds its equal counterpart in a deep urge for stability after you’ve unpacked and repacked your rooftop tent for two hundred nights in a row and slept in hundreds of strange beds, waking up disoriented, unsure which continent has been rocking your cradle of bones and flesh. Wanderlust meets exhaustion: Newton’s Third Law, in action. So we shipped the car from Panama to Mexico, hoping to dig our heels into the loamy, volcanic soil and let them sprout roots.
Two weeks after Francisco and I arrived in Veracruz to pick up our car, we were still hovering around the city like a beach ball at a concert, the ground regularly coming into sight only for us to be batted aloft once again by the long arm of government bureaucracy. Another office to visit, another photocopy to be made, another form to be filled. The days were stifling, skin pressed and steamed by the iron-hot sun. The nights were worse. We would lie on the little bed of our borrowed apartment, trying to pull in oxygen from the heavy moisture of the air, the darkness punctuated only by the rustle of squirming bodies, the soft crinkle of twisted sheets, and wet sighs of exasperation.
One evening we ducked into the shaded corner of a plaza, angry red drips from a dying sun beading down the cracked facade of the colonial buildings on the far side of the square. Some plastic tables and chairs had been set out, and we sat down in glaciated stillness, two small floating islands melting into the asphalt sea. A few of the other tables were occupied by older couples dressed in their best finery. The women’s feet were strapped into low-heeled wedges above which rose blue-streaked calves caressed by the swish of their printed polyester skirts; the men’s two-tone oxfords were shined to a gamesome glean, and their pocket chains winked at us in the early evening light as they swung languorously from stiff hips.
A few minutes later, a handful of disheveled musicians shuffled onto the makeshift stage a couple yards away, and blew unhurriedly into the mouthpieces of their instruments, surveying the growing crowd of septuagenarians as they warmed up. An MC wearing a faded polo shirt took to the microphone and announced something in Spanish, the amp crackling as he wiped a rogue strand of silver hair that had plastered itself over his eye like a tropical vine. He stuck out a sweaty palm and bent forward as couples stood up from the tables and others emerged from the dilapidated, gray-scale shadows of the plaza to parade into the open center, false eyelashes and powdery, creased lids batting in time to the rhythmic sway of hand-held fans. As the music started, their hips swiveled and their swollen feet moved surely and delicately through danzon’s series of complex steps, their backs strong and unbowed by age, proud smiles lifting the fragile folds of velvety skin.
I thought of the dancers the other day as I was lying catatonic on the bed of our apartment in Mexico City, my cheeks streaked and puffy. I gave myself an eight count to corral the effort required to turn my face towards Francisco. “I feel like a ghost,” I managed to whisper, between skipping sobs that hiccuped over my body like a polished stone on a river. I had no job, no friends within a thousand mile radius, no ability to communicate with the kind of fluidity I desired, and no stable foundation in this new country I was living in. I thought of the surety of their steps. I had never felt more unsure.
Leaving everything behind clears the chalkboard of your life. There are no lines to draw within, no paths to continue. I felt trampled by a sea of potential steps, uncertain which to take. When you can put your feet anywhere you like, how do you know which is the right place? The confidence of those glowing retirees stemmed from their intimate familiarity with the steps, from the countless times they had slid and twirled and promenaded through the moves until those regal motions bestowed them with a kind of monarchical aplomb. Without moves to follow and excel at, I felt deeply lost.
Danzon, the dance we witnessed that evening in Veracruz, is an evolution of contradanza, which is in turn based on contredanse, British country dances that were popularized in Europe by the French court of Louis XIV, and which were brought to Cuba by the Spanish during their rule. Syncopated beats were incorporated into danzon from the French-Haitian kontradans, brought over by Haitians who fled to Cuba during their country’s revolution. Danzon was a syncretic, New World translation: a new dance that evolved in a new land, spinning off the foundations of its ancestors.
Dance is a way of synthesizing and expressing history, emotion, essence. It is an expression of circumstance, allowing for all its modern complexity but rendered in the most primal, foundational, and simply human of art forms. Ultimately, there are no right steps in dance, because the act itself is a manifestation of place and time, of constant growth and evolution. As long as you dance, your feet will end up in the right place. The key is just to take a step.
Just yesterday we finally decided where home will be, after spending time in the congenial, daffodil sunshine of Guadalajara. Some steps are danced together, others alone. Our heels are not yet dug in, our roots are not yet affixed, but perhaps there’s a beauty in the dance and in the hushed spaces between steps. In the delicate movements that have deposited a sinuous trail of seeds in our wake, not knowing where it will lead but knowing the way will be paved with flowers of our own making.