Shaking all over
I'll let you in on a secret. Ever since I first saw the film West Side Story, I wanted to be a dancer. Those Jets and Sharks pirouetting up and down the mean streets of Manhattan in black leather jackets were my idols who, in my cack-footed way, I tried to emulate at every opportunity.
Me and my friend Wendy would walk down the clean streets of suburban St Louis, clicking our fingers rhythmically and trying to look cool in the 110 degree heat. And when no one was looking, we'd attempt balletic leaps as we shouted, "We're the Jets - the greatest!" But as luck would have it, I soon discovered that I had as much grace as Officer Krupke. In a word, I'm a klutz. So it was with some trepidation that I first passed through the portals of the Pineapple dance studios in Covent Garden to take a lunchtime jazz dance class.
My nervousness proved to be entirely justified. Into the steamy studio trooped about 30 of the most statuesque, youthful creatures on God's earth, dressed in skimpy black lycra to accentuate their utter physical perfection. I tried to disappear into the woodwork but my relative blimpishness, unsuccessfully camouflaged beneath an oversized t-shirt, ensured my conspicuousness. The discomfort of standing still and looking terrible was nothing compared to what happened when the exercises started.
Have you ever been somewhere where everyone knew what to do except you? Well, that was me for a full hour. The tempo wasn't so much fast as frenetic. And the contortions that the teacher demanded of us were simply impossible for someone who, thanks to the wonders of modern surgery, has virtually no abdominal muscles. Clearly, I shouldn't have been there.
But the most unsettling thing about it all was the heavy tone of self-obsession. There was no talking, no laughing, no interaction between anybody except for each individual's loving regard for their own reflections in the wall-sized mirror that mockingly confronted us.
Now, I'm not one to get on a high horse about narcissism. In my more generous moments, I've been known to indulge in it a bit myself. But Pineapplishly speaking, it was too much for me. I skulked out sweaty and depressed, vowing never to return. Except that I had to the next day, in the name of journalistic enquiry, to take an evening salsa dance class. And boy, am I glad I did.
It was the difference between day and night. To this class came people of all shapes, sizes and ages, dressed in ordinary clothes. Not a centimeter of lycra could be detected and believe me, reader, I looked. These were people who were out to learn the most pleasurable way of moving this side of sex. I had come home.
Not, I hasten to add, that I was any good at it. But teachers Julian, an enormous Colombian, and Karis Richens, who's British but knows how to move, were wonderfully good-natured and patient with me and my fellow klutzes. Karis took us beginners and went through each step slowly until we'd got the hang of it.
I was partnered with another first-timer. It was a match made in the Ministry of Two Left Feet. We proved to be as terrible as each other and had a jolly old time, chortling away at our own incompetence. Behind us were similar guffaws. Who were they laughing at? Who cares?
Across the room, Julian was working with the more experienced group, bending women backwards, gliding about effortlessly and laughing in a great booming voice when someone couldn't quite get the hang of it. The power of salsa transmitted itself through Julian's barely moving hips, through the subtlety of his steps and the angle of his arms. In Latin America, its birthplace, dancers aren't in a position to flap their arms about and stomp their feet. It's too darn hot for that. And so it was in Covent Garden. Keeping cool - and looking it - is what it's all about. Whether you manage to inflame onlookers is down to how cool you can be.
The hour and a half sped by too quickly. The music was loud and sexy and despite the Turkish bath ambience, I was blissfully happy, shaking my hips around the place, doing my fancy footwork and caring not a jot about what anyone else thought. And if you don't believe me, just see if I don't go back there next week.
Pineapple Dance Studios runs a wide range of classes throughout the year for different ability levels. There is no need to book in advance, but you are advised to ring first to find the level best suited to you - and then take a chance. Pineapple Dance Studios, 7 Langley Street, London WC2. Tel: 0171 836 4004