Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When Salsa and Writing Collide

I have to learn to salsa dance.  By Saturday.  While wearing heels.

I can’t reveal the reason for this challenge but suffice it to say that the continuation of life as we know it depends on me being able to remain upright while dancing to Tito Puente.  Oh, and did I mention that fifty percent of the people there will already know how to do this?  It’s definitely a pride thing with me and it all goes back to the fact that no matter how hard I try, I still can’t figure out how to do the Electric Slide. Having stood silently against the wall while everyone slides around to the verses that talk about “it’s electric…boogiewoogiewoogie” is not the way I roll and I’m determined never to let it happen again. So salsa I will, even if it’s the last thing I do.

I’ve downloaded several salsa tunes and even accessed a video on YouTube where a lovely couple demonstrates exactly how to dance salsa like a pro.  Hey, even Victor Cruz of the New York Giants can bust out salsa moves after scoring a touchdown; just how hard can it be?  Very, apparently.  I’m still working on it and may even have some video to post next time I post, so stay tuned.  It may be a thing of beauty or so embarrassing that it becomes a YouTube sensation.  You know I’m not shy—I’m the first person to don a lampshade on my head if the situation calls for it—but this may even break my gregarious spirit.  We shall see.

But all of this talk about salsa dancing got me thinking about writing.  Really.  (Wait for it; I'll get there.)  I’m a fairly good dancer—some would even say that I have good rhythm—but trying to stay true to traditional salsa has proven hard for me because I fancy myself more of an interpretative dancer, allowing the music to dictate where I go and how.  Following specific steps and not deviating from those steps, while staying true to the salsa tradition, would not allow me to stay true to myself as an “artist” (and yes, I mean that in a tongue-in-cheek way).

It’s kind of like writing.  I know some of the steps and can even put them together in a cohesive package that looks fairly attractive and has some rhythm.  (Based on some of my reader mail this week there are some who would beg to differ that point.)  But try to adhere to a formula? Well, the wheels fall off the bus for me.  Learning to salsa correctly, following the intricate steps, is the equivalent of starting a writing project with a complete and thorough outline, something that goes from point A to point Z in a straight line.  I can’t do it.  What I can do is jiggle to and fro to the music in time while salsa dancing, making a passable attempt at mimicking the steps and everyone who knows how to do salsa well.  In writing, I can do the same, going back and forth, to the future and back to the past, over something a thousand times to make sure the words say what I want them to say, and doing it all again the next day and the next with no pattern, no particular flow, no organization. 

I will probably never win a salsa dancing contest nor will I ever win the Pulitzer, at least until I stop writing about bumbling college professors, sly nuns, and people who kill in the heat of the moment, but for now, I’m content to sway to the music and let the words that I want to write come out in one interpretative jumble until I can put them in an order that makes some kind of sense.

Writers out there, how do you do it?  And can anyone come over and teach me to salsa before Saturday?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Go, Maggie, go! You're going to be the hit of the party, baby! Don't forget, you've got flav-ah! :-) Please do record your salsa dancing debut and share with us later, okay? We might need to use it to nominate you for a spot on "Dancing with the Stars."

  2. Great blog. I have faith that you will be the Salsa Queen by the weekend.


  3. Forgive me, Mags, but your post makes me picture you as Elaine Benes (who was also at one time an editor at a publishing house, so my thoughts aren't so far-fetched when I pin them on you!), from Seinfeld, dancing at an office party. I believe George called it "like a dry heave set to music".

    OK, I'm sure that won't be you. Good luck. I'm not much of a dancer, but I enjoy it. I think I enjoy singing more. Because of the words? Because of the attitudes expressed below?

    I tend to be fairly, let's call it "organized" in my writing. I do at least sketchy outlines, etc. There are many people who can testify that this isn't surprising because I'm "list obsessed". I am also a revising machine--I never understand why there are writers who, first, think it's somehow the death of the art and craft to have to re-write and who, second, find it a bore or a chore.

    What I'm saying is I like my rules about writing stories--and I mean MY rules. They are a structure for me to get things written and they work for me. And, I don't find them confining artistically or logistically. Within my little protected structure I jiggle and wiggle and table hop plenty. The way I work means, I guess, that I like to call the tune too much to just respond to the music. Hmmmm . . . thanks for a great post and letting me figure this out. I think I've always known it, but sometimes I forget to know it, you know?

  4. I'm a free movement sort of dancer myself (mostly because I can't remember the steps) but I'm a plotter when I write. Not following any sort of formula, just planning my own path.

  5. Rules! They have rules for dancing? Hmm, could be why I wasn't picked for the dancing. They have rules for writing?? REally!! I jump around all over the place and then I bring the parts together until I have this perfect, delicious cake. Oh wait a minute I mean book. Hmm may need to take a break for some cake. Enjoyed your blog and remember we all follow a different drummer.

  6. Thanks, everyone! Vicki, I'm a way better dancer than Elaine but when it comes to salsa, I'm still learning. Hmmm...when it comes to writing I'm still learning, too. Sounds like we all do things differently with the same goal: to do them well. Maggie

  7. I'm not sure that todays dancing has rules; it's the shoes that would kill me, And I like your books. I don't always even read those that win a pulitzer. You give pleasure to people, and joy. That is a gift.

  8. Thank you, Lil! You always have such a positive outlook on things and I appreciate your kind words. Maggie

  9. Ha, ha, ha, I'll never learn the salsa nor do I want to. Dancing with The Stars is about all I do as far as dancing these days. Now long ago, hubby and I could really jitterbug.



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