4

Dance Lessons

"Okay, when we're at the club, call me April," says Conchita, smearing on yet more purple lipstick.

"I am not going to call you no April!" I laugh.

"Ay, you're so mean. I just don't want none of the guys to know my real name, in case I have to give them a fake phone number."

Info

Elvia's

"Conchita, we're just going to happy-hour salsa dance lessons. I'm pretty sure there aren't going to be that many people there."

"No, no," she pouts. "When I called, they said it was always full. It gets jammed."

"Okay," I sigh. She can be April, as long she comes with me. I just don't want to go to the lessons by myself. I'm pretty good at Tejano dancing and the two-step, but salsa is beyond me. Too much whirling and twirling.

"Now why are we going to this?" Conchita asks. She's doing her eye shadow now. Dusty rose, with gold flecks.

"Because my boss hates me."

She arches her left eyebrow, which in Conchita-speak means "More information, please."

"He says that if I want to write about Houston's music scene, I actually have to go somewhere every once in a while."

"Why couldn't we have gone to the Marc Anthony concert?" she whines. (Marc Anthony tickets have been a frequent topic of conversation between us lately.)

"Because we're going to salsa lessons," I say firmly, pulling into the Elvia's parking lot. Elvia's (2727 Fondren, 713-266-9631) is the original Houston hot spot for salsa. Hard-core, serious-to-the-point-of-insanity salseros come here.

That is, they usually come here. Tonight, it seems, Conchita and I are it. The lot is empty, just us and a minivan. We walk up to the front door, half expecting it to be locked. It's open. Inside, there's one waitress and a suave-looking man I assume is the dance instructor. The waitress sees us and clicks off the Spanish soap opera she's watching on the big-screen TV. "Cans I yelp you?" she yawns. "Oh, yes," Conchita starts, "I'll have a margarita, with that good kind of tequila, what's the name of it?"

"The bartender isn't heres yet. We can't sell no liquor now."

Oh, no, this isn't good. Conchita likes margaritas, and she doesn't like waiting. This could get ugly.

"By 'now,' do you mean for the next minute, or for the next hour?" Conchita demands, one hand already on her plump hip. (Control-top panty hose never really work, do they?)

"If I can have all the students over here," calls the dance instructor as he finishes off a longneck.

"Come on, we're starting," I say, pulling her hand. It takes some tugging, but she finally comes, shooting meaningful glares at the waitress while we walk to the dance floor. Two couples wandered in while we were talking to the waitress and, his beer finished, the instructor wants to start.

"Hello, my name is Johnny. I'll be your instructor tonight," he says. Slim, handsome, well dressed and somebody's grandfather, Johnny is a low-key version of Bob Barker without the prizes.

He starts us off on the simple stuff. Step, step, stop. Step, step, stop. Okay, easy enough. He teaches us to "dance" (really it's walking with a beat) front and back, then side to side. Each time he teaches us something new, he takes one of the women to the center of the dance floor and they perform the step as an example to the rest of us. Tamera is perfect; DeeDee's pretty good. We all clap for each one after her turn as the "example dancer."

I'm doing, well, not great, but okay. I almost twist my ankle while I'm standing still, but I tell myself it's an inner-ear thing and I'm really not that clumsy.

Conchita, who, it turns out, is a great dancer, is mad because she has to be the "man" in our couple. "Next time bring your own guy," she whispers angrily as we do the side-to-side step, step, stop. I nod. Step, step, stop, step. "Oh, well," she comforts herself, "at least your boss is buying our drinks."

"Actually, he's not," I tell her, forgetting to lie.

"What?!" she says way too loud.

"Is there a problem over there?" Johnny asks.

"No," I smile. "We're fine."

"Oh, hell, no, we ain't fine. You said your boss was gonna give you some money to buy our drinks."

"Shhhh!" I tell her, pointing to Johnny, who's now doing a complicated turn.

"Shhhh, my ass."

Damn, now her ass is involved.

"Come here and we'll show the class how simple it is to do this turn," Johnny tells me.

Oh, no, it's my turn to be the example dancer, and I've been too busy trying to keep Conchita quiet to pay attention. I walk over to him anyway.

"Step, step and, wait, wait," Johnny says impatiently as I fumble the turn. "Try again," he says, his Bob Barker smile back in place. "Step, step and no, no!" I've tried to turn too early. I give him a feeble smile and he starts again, "Step, step and, no, no, not yet."

I've done it again. I look over to Conchita, but she's turned around, glaring at the waitress once more. Surely this is example-dancer death. "Do it again," Johnny tells me, hardly any patience in his voice.

"Step, now wait, step and, I told you to wait." Annoyed, Johnny slaps me on the top of my head. I'm stunned. I look over at Conchita and she's giggling. She points at me and starts laughing harder. He hit me. He really hit me. Okay, it was a soft slap, just for effect, I'm sure. But still, isn't there a law somewhere that dance instructors can't hit their students? Or is that day care workers? Before I can remember, Johnny has taken my hands again. "Step, step, and..." He grabs one of my shoulders and pushes me around. I land with a little hop, happy I made the turn and still trying to figure out how to react to being slapped on the top of my head by a stranger. "No, no hop!" says Johnny, still disappointed with me.

I try to smile at him but can't.

"Okay, everyone, let's give her a big hand for doing such a good turn," Johnny says lamely. Only Conchita claps. The other two couples suddenly get very busy looking at their feet.

I run back over to Conchita, expecting sympathy. "He hit you!" she laughs. "In front of everybody! He slapped you right on your head!" She laughs harder.

"Hey," I hiss at her, "did you go get a margarita while I was up there? 'Cause you're laughing way too much."

"No, the bartender isn't here yet," she says with a slump. "I had a couple before we left the house."

"Conchita!"

"April. My name is April, remember?" She starts practicing again. Side-to-side step, step, stop.

"Drinking by yourself is a sign of alcoholism! You're a drunk!" I whisper.

"Ay, sure, like that's news." She twirls in place. Everyone is whirling except me. Johnny is smiling at Tamera, saying "Good, good" and beaming.

"You're a drunk. I'm gonna tell your mother!" The ultimate threat for Conchita.

"I am not a drunk. And anyway, you're fat," she spits at me.

"Yeah, but you're old," I hiss back. The look of despair on her face makes me soften up. "Look, don't argue with me. I already can't do the turn and I don't want the teacher to hit me again."

"That was kind of funny," she giggles. "But, hey," she gets serious again, "you better tell your boss I ain't coming out here no more if he don't give us no drink money."

"I will," I promise, with as honest and innocent a look on my face as I can manage without having to redo my makeup.

"Yeah, okay." Conchita turns to face the dance floor, a new smile plastered in place.

Sucker.

Her good mood lasts about a minute. "Why are we here?" she moans.

"Because my boss hates me," I tell her again.

"Everybody hates you," she mumbles.

I don't bother to argue, mostly because at this point I'm pretty sure everybody does hate me. The dance teacher hit me on the head, the other students won't clap for me, and I think the waitress has gone outside to slash my tires as punishment for bringing Conchita along. Worse yet, I still can't do that damn "step, step, turn, step" whirl everyone else is doing.

"Okay, that's about all we can cover tonight," Johnny smiles. "Actually, that's all I'm willing to teach for free." He pauses for laughter, and we comply with a few halfhearted hehes. "If you want to learn a little more," he continues, "I have a dance studio on..." Conchita has stopped listening. It's margarita time, and she makes a beeline for the bar.

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