In the strip mall set back from the 6500 block of El Cajon Boulevard, on a Saturday night, they stood, hand gripping hand. They sized each other up, handicapping their luck, noted his hair was graying prematurely, and hers — right on time. She rested her head against the rusted hood of his blue '72 Ford. She sighed. He studied his size-12, EEE-width Reeboks, studied her husky little feet, strapped into black pumps. There had been jokes about buying her steel-toed boots. She had, he decided, reason to sigh. "This she whispered, is going to be humiliating. He whistled what he thought was “Puttin' on the Ritz." He snapped his fingers.
Across the slick of oil and brake fluid, he essayed a step or two of what seemed to him at least a tentative cutting of the rug. She turned and watched as he executed a lurching pirouette that pulled the shirt tail out of his trousers. “It breaks my heart to see you like this." she said He said. “Oh. baby, don’t say that, please. She said. “You know, don’t you, our hands are going to sweat.”
“Don't they nearly always?” he responded.
And she asked, “What are we doing here?”
“Frog to prince, duckling to swan....“ He grinned and took her arm. “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
“Yeah,” she said, “that dies on the wing."
They passed the Laundromat, Jimmy’s Coffee Shop, Cepeda Brothers Martial Arts (“We Offer Classes in Arnis, Kenpo. and Kung Fu“), the By Grace religious bookstore (formerly the Abiding Place). They entered a dark corridor at the end of the mall. They heard music. Other people's laughter.
From behind a table at the Starlight Dance Studio's door, a blonde greeted them. “It’s too bad you’ve come so late. The dance is almost over. I’ll only charge you half price.”
They sat on chairs arranged at the dance floor’s periphery. “What are they doing?” she asked him, nodding toward the perhaps twenty couples who spun and wheeled on the floor, reflected in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two walls. “One, two, three, one, two. three,” he counted aloud with the music. “That means it’s a waltz.’’
Starlight dance instructor Juan Manuel Delgadillo had told them, when they enrolled for cha-cha lessons, “You’ll have a wonderful time. A dance studio is a fantasy land. The laws that exist outside don’t apply here. When you dance, the world promises to disappear for a moment.
“A dance studio is a place where men and women can socialize in a safe environment. It’s structured. It’s within our protected cocoon. You can’t go to a bar and get it. this closeness this safety. It is the utopia of a social gathering.”
Among those who come to dance studios like the Starlight Dance Studio are those whom Juan describes as “people in transition” — the freshly divorced, newly retired, widows and widowers, relocated workers. “Suddenly they’re alone," says Juan. “They start dancing because they feel they need to learn to dance as a social skill. A man or a woman will say to me, ‘I've been married, now I’m getting a divorce. I need to get back to dating.’
“One guy who’d just been through a divorce came in for lessons. He said, ‘I’ve never danced.’ Within six months, he was the most popular guy in the studio. Women flocked to him for the dancing. What I asked myself is, ‘Why didn’t the guy dance when he was married?’ "
Others present themselves as inhibited, and they hope to gain social ease through dancing lessons. For the shy, scheduling the first class is the most difficult step. They schedule a class, then cancel, then reschedule, cancel again, often several times. “In my mind,” Juan says, “I can see them, picking up the phone with the hand shaking, trembling.
“I have some students that are so frightened. They fear that others will think they look silly. They’re so afraid that everyone on the dance floor except them is so good.
“When that student first walks into that door, what you do is so important. On that first lesson, I never get technical. That scares them off.
“I, as a teacher, feel very powerful at that moment. I am about to give this person something she has needed all her life, and she doesn't even know it’s coming.
“I have seen miracles in the dance industry. I once taught a hundred pounds overweight. Before she arrived for her first lesson, she canceled four times, she was so terrified. In the first lesson, she cut off the circulation to my hand, she was holding on so tight. But she smiled. Within four hours, she was hooked. Eventually, she lost over a hundred pounds.”
Starlight’s clientele, says Juan, is “very professional.” Among his students are an administrative nurse in charge of an intensive care unit, an IBM contract supervisor, a child counselor, bankers. Many of his male students are engineers. Recently married couples from among the young professional group are taking lessons, usually one lesson per week. "The Yuppies,” he says, "they want to do something together to nourish their relationship.
“Even though I’m doing this for eight years, it’s still exciting to me, to see someone blossom, become sociable. You can take a man or a woman who may not be a really attractive person to begin with, and through dancing, such people can become the most beautiful and sensual attractive people. Your heart will come out of your mouth, they are so beautiful. You think to yourself. 'I will do anything to be with her.' The plain woman becomes prettier, a short man becomes taller, a shy man becomes worldly.”
Still others who sign up for dance lessons are “people who are very talented and need an outlet for their talents. They love to dance, they aren't satisfied with just going to a club and hopping up and down.” Many from this group soon become “dance addicts” says Juan, and begin to enter the competitions sponsored by international and national associations of ballroom dancing teachers. (Preparing students for competition, Juan says, represents fifty percent of his business.)
More women than men sign up for dance lessons. “A man will take bowling lessons, tennis. But not dance lessons. A man thinks, 'No. I’m a klutz. I have no rhythm, no gracefulness.’ Men tend to think dancing is for wimps. Some even fear they will lose masculinity through the dance.
“But women do not think this way about men. dancing. One of my students had been on a date. Did you dance?’ I asked her. She said, All the guys I went with are wimps, they don’t dance.’ Here’s a woman describing a nondancer as a wimp.”
In a private lesson (which, depending upon the teacher, will cost from twenty-five to forty-five dollars at Starlight’s studio), the teacher gives his or her full attention to the student for that entire hour. Not infrequently, an intimate rapport develops between student and teacher. “Through the course of a lesson, the student talks, you learn what they’re going through in their lives. They tell you their troubles, down to the real nitty-gritty — the last boyfriend they had. the last person they slept with, if they’re having trouble at work.
“One of the fringe benefits I have as a dance instructor, I learn what women think of men. I learn what really turns women off from men — for instance, that feeling some men have of being God’s gift to women. Listening to my female students talk about men, I’ve found out I’m not as much of a jerk as I thought I was.
“When I first began as a dance instructor, I was amazed by how angry so many women were with their husbands and lovers. The first time I heard a woman talk about it, it threw me. It was scary. Ididn’t know what to say. This woman stood there in my arms, spilling her guts about something that had hurt her so much.
“Now, I just listen. I may say, ‘You're right, he's terrible, you’re better off without him.' But I’m not a counselor.”
What in part makes dance lessons so enjoyable, so desirable, Juan believes, is the very nature of what he views as troubled relations between the sexes today. The dance floor, he says, “is the man’s last stand. It's the only place where we are king It doesn't happen in the real world anymore.
"In dance, the man brings out his masculinity, while the woman brings out her femininity.” Many women, learning dance, have to be taught to “let go.” Women aren’t used to “submissing.” Juan believes, however, that one reason women like dancing is that they “get in the man’s arms and he makes all the decisions. In fact, they die for that. The owners of their own businesses, head administrators of the hospitals — with dance, they can allow someone else to take the load for a while.
“Dancing isn’t finished until there’s that chemistry — on the dance floor — between partners.
I once danced a bolero with a new student who moved gracefully, who executed the steps well, but made no eye contact. I said to her. ‘Look at me, for this moment of the dance, as if I’m the only man in the world.’ She took my advice, and by her glance, her look to me, she converted what she did from steps to dancing.
“You stop and you look into your partner's eyes, there is then a build-up of sexual tension. The man. stopping for a moment and looking at the woman before he takes her down into a dip, it is very beautiful. That connection, with the eye, finishes the dance, completes the intimacy.
“A student, when I first take her, when I take her in my arms. I will say. Let’s get into dance position, I want to feel your body against me.’ ”
One student did telephone Juan, saying, ”I think you’re a very sensual person. Juan, and sometimes, during a lesson, I get very distracted, lose my train of thought.” Juan suggested they dance farther apart.
(Some male dance students find themselves physically aroused while dancing. Women students sometimes will complain. ” ‘Look, some of these guys get excited,’ I tell them. Maybe they haven’t touched someone in a long time. But if you go dancing with a man in a nightclub, you’re not going to tell me the man doesn’t get excited. I can’t take their hormones away from them. If anything, take it as a compliment. Dancing is a touch sport, it can happen.’ ”)
Precisely because dancing “is such an intimate sport,” says Juan, "it’s very easy that a student can become infatuated. Students bring you cookies, cakes, pies. They bring you lunch from Burger King. You touch the students, you touch them in their heart, and it’s so easy for an instructor to break a student s heart. Occasionally you get a student who thinks she’s fallen in love with you. When they first go through this, they want all your attention at the studio parties. Sometimes, at these parties, there’s a little bit of jealousy with that. They come up to you, say, ‘I want you to dance the cha-cha with me.' But it doesn’t take them long to learn that you’re there to dance with everyone. After a few months, the infatuation, it’s over with. It’s the fantasy.
"Not long ago, at a club to which I had taken members of my class, I was dancing with a student, a very attractive woman, wearing a lame skirt, half of the guys were eyeing her out. And I was looking really good that night — wearing a black tuxedo shirt. We were doing the swing — not even a sensual dance — and she whispered to me in my ear, 'You fool around?’ It was like a cold bucket of water on me. I didn't expect it. It really disturbed me so much. It shocked me, because I thought, ‘This is not good. Why did you ask me this?'
I was concerned.” says Juan, who has been married for four years, “that I was coming across as if I did fool around, which I don’t. A student may be attracted to me. but they know where they stand. They can’t buy that. I don’t want them to take lessons because they love me.”
The large dance studio chains, Juan says, have strict regulations about fraternization between students and teachers. In some, the teacher is advised to take a “stage name” as a way of avoiding potential difficulties.
“The chain studio’s atmosphere.” explains Juan, “is usually very formal.” Teachers dress in three-piece suits, are addressed as "Mr. Jones,” "Mr. Smith.” Independent studios like the Starlight tend to be more casual, with teachers and students on a first-name basis, and teachers informally dressed. Juan favors polo shirts, pleated baggy slacks.
The business’s nature, however, makes total non-involvement almost impossible. While achieving with one’s partner full body contact, while careening across the floor to strains of the Red Parrot Orchestra, it can be difficult to remember that one's partner is a paid professional.
“It is very easy for a teacher, male or female, to take advantage of a student. I know there are some people who take the business and turn it around — with not necessarily sexual services, but by giving what is essentially a very expensive escort service. You have to be very ethical in this business because the offers will always be there.”
He tells of one dance teacher who ” borrowed” $3000 from a student. “He’d done that with three or four women, asked for loans of large sums of money, never paying the money back. He’s no longer teaching.
"If you’re a good teacher, if you’re versatile as a dancer and teacher, if you know the business, there’s no reason why you can’t make $30,000 a year. You don’t have to be dishonest. You have to have a good combination of business sense, knowledge of the business. Independent teachers tend to lack this. I was trained in a chain studio. I learned the business. I’m thankful I did. I learned the administrative part of the industry, which helps so much. But if you don’t know how to keep students, you’re not going to make it.”
When he was young and just starting, Juan says he learned that dishonesty was one way of making good money, and he was amazed to see the lengths to which unscrupulous instructors would go to turn a cha-cha into cold, cold cash. “One man that I worked for. his big thing was, 'Sell lessons! Sell lessons!’ He had gotten one student to buy 600 lessons. He walked into the teachers’ lounge one day and said to me. 'Why isn't Zula' — one of my students then — ‘taking five lessons this week'?’
So, this student came in and she didn’t want to re-enroll. I tried to encourage her to. but it was no good. I said, okay. My boss was a little angry that I had given up so easily and asked to speak with her alone. He took her into the lounge, and when I walked back to the storage room, I heard him telling her how happy she was, how good the lessons had been for her. When that didn't work, he said. 'Look, I’m going through a divorce, my wife is taking me for 'everything, I really need you to take the lessons.’ A few minutes later, he walked out with a big smile on his face, pounded his fist on the counter, and said. ‘You guys don't know how to sell the lessons.’ I felt like punching him in the mouth.
“To make decent money, you have to work hard. A lot of people think it’s a very glamorous job. But it’s very physical, arduous, hard on the body. You dance, you wear out your knees. I am wearing out my joints so fast. At twenty-seven, I already have traumatic arthritis, the joints of a forty-year-old man. So I am usually on medication to reduce swelling.
“You learn to live with sweat. Sometimes we sweat bullets — gushers. I had a student call up. complaining about body odor on other students in the class Before we start my next class, I’m going to grab a bar of soap, hold it up, say, ‘Folks, you all recognize this. Use it. You are in close contact. You are doing something physical. You’re going to sweat. So before you come here, shower. Deodorize. If you’ve been on the construction site all day, wear a clean shirt.’ ”
At the studio, Juan keeps shaving gear, deodorant, soap, toothbrush, mouthwash. In a studio closet, he has eight shirts on hangers. "I pull one off. put one on. I wear shoes at least one size bigger. One of the fringe benefits of a shoe that is slightly too large is that when you get stepped on, they don’t get your toes. But dancing as I do, eight to ten hours at a time, my feet expand, so I need the extra size. If I've done eight or ten hours, my feet will tell me.”
He teaches thirty private lessons per week, five to ten hours of which will be group lessons. The students who are preparing for competitions take at least two or even three lessons per week. Additionally, Juan has organized the “On the Town Club” which he takes to the Harbor House, the La Costa Country Club, the Rosarito Beach Hotel, which means even more dancing in the evening.
At midnight, when Juan arrives home, he plugs in the Clairol “Foot Fixer,” fills it with cold water, ice, and Epsom salts. “The cold hurts when you first put your feet in. But it helps get the swelling down.” After he gives his feet a ten-minute soak, his wife massages his feet and gives him a pedicure.
Juan’s aching feet seemed the farthest thing from his mind one night recently as he executed one of the moves integral to “dirty dancing” (made popular by the movie of the same name.) Torso shimmying, eyes blazing, Juan ran his nose from his partner’s navel, through her cleavage, to the pulse point just beneath her chin. "I call that step ‘the body investigator.’ When I am teaching this step to the man, I say, 'Show me the lust that you have for this woman.’ The women love it. It makes them feel pretty, like sexual beings.”
Dirty dancing, he says, has "brought the men back into dancing. For fox-trot lessons, you will have fifteen women, three guys. With dirty-dancing lessons, you'll have fifty people, and one guy for every girl. Dirty dancing is exhilarating. It allows that closeness, permits men and women to dance in a sensual, a sexy way. It’s kind of a 'dancing safe sex.’ ”
As Juan teaches it, dirty dancing is a freeform dance that combines rhumba, tango, and bolero. There is the rhumba's hip rocking and swaying motions, which lend sensuality. The tango provides sharpness of posture. Bolero — "the lovers’ dance of two people, not being able to go away from each other; nothing matters to them except each other” — provides the dance's frame of mind. "You put those three together and it's fire, total sensuality.”
In the Latin culture he grew up in, says Juan, "everything is celebrated through the dance. When I was a little tot, our parents would take us to dances. It was probably past our bedtime. But we danced. We were too young to be embarrassed.”
His mother is a dancer. "Her soul," he says, "is music. My father likes to dance but says he never learned how, because no one would teach him. He was deathly afraid he would go out onto the dance floor and look ridiculous. My mom and he would be at a dance. She would say to him, ‘Give me a turn, twirl me about.’ And he would say, ‘I would rather be home fixing the toilet.’
“Not until I was sixteen did I begin dancing seriously. It was when disco had just gotten started. A girlfriend invited me to a disco class. I went and fell right into it. Everybody told me how good I was."
When Juan entered the University of Texas, he needed a part-time job. “ ‘What have I done?’ I asked myself. All I’d done was dance." So he began work in a chain dance studio in El Paso as a ballroom instructor.
Because he wished to have better teachers, he decided two years ago to leave Texas. “I knew that it was going to be either Los Angeles or San Diego. I went to the library to do some research on studios, and the San Diego phone book was the first one I pulled. So that decided it.”
Saturday night's dance party was over, and couples filed past tables. Kisses and compliments were exchanged. He looked down at his white Reeboks. She tightened the strap on her left pump. “Would you honor me with this next dance?” he asked, taking her arm and leading her out the studio’s door.
Beneath the glow of the By Grace religious bookstore’s sign, he took the initial sidestep. He counted: “One, two. cha-cha-cha!” She followed. “One. two, cha-cha-cha.” Through the shadows of the mall, they danced a pivot, a turn. His foot came down hard on the arch of her foot. She screamed, "Damn you!” In the distance, someone laughed. She put her face against the concrete block wall and began to cry. He jingled the change in his pocket and whistled. To no one in particular he said, "Compared to this, loneliness never looked so good.”