Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Kizomba Wanderers (2016)

I was asked to put together a collection of very brief stories for a publisher in Greece. As well as selecting tales from those I had already written over many years, I saw an opportunity to write several new stories. Brevity was a prime requirement. When writing for a foreign publisher, knowing that my work is going to be translated, it makes sense to write stories that aren't based on wordplay or semantics but that are fairly simple ideas-based pieces that will work well in any language.

Kizomba is one of the most sensual dances for couples to enjoy together. It originated in Angola but soon became popular in many other countries. I went to classes to learn and dance with other beginners. Although not as spectacular to watch as salsa, which I also hoped to learn, it soon became my favourite dance. The way it feels makes it special. It sets up a unique and deep connection with your partner, a closing of a circuit, and creates a powerful illusion that you have known them for many years, even if you have never danced with them before.
Before I tried it for myself, I wondered why kizomba partners closed their eyes when dancing. The truth is that it is easier that way. One can concentrate more fully on the feeling rather than worrying about how the performance looks to others. Kizomba isn’t really a dance that is danced for the benefit of spectators. It is a private dance, but danced in public, an island of sensuality in an ocean of eyes, but those eyes don’t matter. One locks oneself away in the movements, in the closeness, in the timing and the pulse of the rhythm, in the feeling.
But although there are no extravagant spins or twists, no tricky twirls or acrobatic postures necessary, it is a difficult dance because the subtlety is everything. A simple mistake is fatal. In salsa, bachata or forro, errors of timing or missteps can be remedied easily enough. The routine can be rescued. The leader can break away from the follower for a moment and reestablish the pulse or the footing before engaging again as a couple. In kizomba such opportunities are much more rare. The entire dance is close and the movements are meshed tightly.
If a man gets it wrong in kizomba, his error will transmit instantly to the woman and both will flounder. There is no chance to improvise one’s way out of the resultant mess. One must simply stop and start again and hope that the connection can be resumed at the point it was broken off. I think it can be safely compared to the stalling of an aircraft. Both dancers are the wings and the routine will plummet and crash on the smooth and shiny floor of the dance hall or nightclub. Perhaps that is a poor metaphor because aeroplanes don’t fly ecstatically.
Among the ladies who were learning at the same time as I, there was one who seemed to be at exactly the same level as me, and who appeared to progress at the same rate. We were drawn to each other because of this and danced perhaps too often together, for one should ideally dance with as many different partners as possible in order to understand differences of balance, temperament and aptitude. Learning is faster that way, but I liked dancing with Selma too much. We were utterly attuned, our heads made for resting on each other’s shoulders.
There was one move in particular that I could almost grasp but never quite get right, and the same was true for her. It was a sideways move in which the man leads the lady eight steps to the left and then after a pause involving slow gyrations, eight steps back to the starting point. It is called the ‘grapevine’, this particular move, and I was absolutely determined to become comfortable and then proficient with it. At first I would step on her feet all the way to the left, and she would step on my feet all the way back, balancing out the scales of suffering.
Selma and I practiced it again and again, our eyes shut, but always it was slightly wrong. We improved to the point where neither of us injured the other at all. The problem was more one of symmetry. My steps to the left were longer than those to the right, so we never actually returned to the starting point. Always there was some drift. On the dancefloor such drift meant ending up boxed into a corner among the dusty shadows. But even that wasn’t a disaster. One would simply use other steps in order to escape and return to the middle of the floor.
And who repeats the sideways move indefinitely anyway? Nobody at all. But it was a move I ached to get right, so I tended to use it more than I should. One evening at dance class my obsession rose up in full force. It dominated me and appeared to transmit a specific urgency to my partner. At the time I didn’t realise that the main door had been left open. It was a very warm evening in summer, that’s why, and dancers are often prone to overheating. Selma and I were in a close hold, closer than ever before in fact, and our eyelids were firmly shuttered.
Nothing short of an explosion or the roar of an adjacent hippopotamus could have persuaded me to widen my eyes. I was completely embedded in present time, lost in the moment, fixed in the now, a state we all strive to attain throughout our lives but rarely achieve. Kizomba is Zen. There are other activities in this world that achieve the same effect, but kizomba is the most reliable for me. I became so sensitive to the sensation that I was one big sensation all over. I knew that Selma was undergoing exactly the same process and our souls had merged.
The outside world ceased to exist, or rather it existed to provide space and time alone, devoid of worries, obstacles and impracticalities. We still knew, of course, that gravity was a force on us, that we breathed the air of the atmosphere, that one day we would have to die. The mundane serious nuisances of the world hadn’t been entirely forgotten, but they acquired a quality of abstraction that made them easy to ignore. And ignore them is precisely what we did. We danced and the hours might as well have been days, weeks, months. And then Selma spoke.
“The music has stopped.”
“Yes, it has.”
“In fact it stopped a long time ago.”
“You are right.”
“It grew fainter and fainter and then became silence.”
“Very gradually it did that.”
“Shall we open our eyes on the count of three?”
“A sensible suggestion.”
“One, two, three…”
We were no longer on the dancefloor. We were no longer in the dance class. We weren’t even in the same city that we had started from. In fact, we were in an entirely different city, for we had danced through the open door and down streets and along country roads and had ended up far from home and friends. Too much use of the sideways move! We had drifted to a place that neither of us recognised. How would we get back? We had no map, no compass, no transport. There was only one option and that was to enrol in a local kizomba class and try again.
It wasn’t too difficult to locate a venue where kizomba was taught and practiced. Again we lost ourselves in each other, Selma and I, and danced out of the hall and along the surface of the world. I don’t know if we were really expecting to return to our point of origin. I think we were desperate to try anything. Finally when we opened our eyes again we saw that more dancing had simply carried us further away. We were in a foreign country now and somehow we had danced over the surface of the sea, stepping on the tops of waves in our oblivious mutual bliss.
Again it seemed like a good idea to enrol in a kizomba class. Dance is an international language that needs no translation. This time our embrace was so profound that when we eventually stopped dancing, decades later, and lifted our creaking eyelids, we blinked them at a sun that was emerald green instead of yellow. So clearly we had danced right off the globe and onto the surface of another planet. Such things happen thanks to kizomba. And I know that other couples are standing on other worlds right now and still struggling to perfect the ‘grapevine’ move.

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