We’re standing to attention, our nerves tingling – Jennifer, Mark, Maria and I – as we await the next command. Our drill instructor, Angel, paces the floor in combat fatigues, eyeing us ferociously.
“In to your places, chicos!” he barks. “We’re going to war with our feet!” As the first beats fire up, he turns and plants a kiss on the stereo. “My baby,” he smiles.
In Nicaragua, few skills are as essential as dancing. And few dance instructors are as militant about it as Angel, whose love of street salsa is matched only by his love of precision, punctuality and barking difficult commands at high volume.
“Right, left, right!” He yells. “About turn! Feel the rhythm! No, chicos, no! Smoothly!”
We step, we turn, we spin. We flail in wild confusion, losing ourselves under a syncopated volley of drums and cowbells. I focus, focus, but my feet refuse to obey, tripping over my partner with all the grace of a drunken giraffe.
“Enough!” cries Ángel, killing the music and snapping his fingers abruptly. “Tonight is salsa night at the Olla Quemada. It’s time for you to show your faces. All of you!”
So one by one we march into the night, wholly unprepared for our debut on the local dance scene.
The Olla Quemada in the former capital, León, is an typical Nicaraguan drinking hole, awash with rum and ice, thick with the swooning aroma of sweat and perfume, cigarettes and pheromones. Glass tumblers shiver on the tables, ready to burst under wailing trumpets and pumping snares, the “toc-toc” of conga drums and ardent Spanish vocals recalling wild epics of love, lust and life.
The room is warm with darkened bodies. Latinos and Latinas in scintillating transitions cross the floor – all gliding like celestial bodies in high-speed orbit. Feet lightly kiss the tiles. Hips roll expertly. Arms fold and unfold, lock and unlock, snaking and weaving to frenetic, impossibly feisty rhythms. These aren’t dancers. They are highly seasoned salsa warriors.
“Into your pairs, chicos!” commands Angel, eyes glinting with incendiary glee. “It’s time!”
So like good soldiers we salute our officer and obey.