I have a friend who celebrates the end of Mercury in Retrograde. She’s a dancer. When planets are in retrograde they appear to be moving backward, opposite to the orbit of Earth. There are five planets that can be seen with the naked eye from Earth: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Retrogression is an optical illusion often blamed by astrologists for faulty human relations. All sorts of mayhem happens from blocked communication. A rogue comet or asteroid would seem a more obvious choice for such anxiety. 4.5 billion years ago, a Mars sized planetoid slammed into Earth. The Moon was part of the debris that was thrown into orbit from the collision. When things settled, Earth slowed its rotation creating a 24-hour day, acquired tides and brighter nights, and last but not least, stabilized its axis to give us predictable seasons. In light of this, perceiving one of the five visible planets as moving backward could be alarming. Even if only imagined, being in opposite motion with a spinning rock thousands of miles wide could affect your equilibrium. For a woman with serious training in ballet, it’s easy to fathom my friend’s giddiness over any planet’s return to stable, predictable forward motion. The gravitational pull of two children under the age of 4, a husband, a small business and bills could make anyone turn to galactic forecasting. It’s hard to dance if your center of gravity is thrown off.
I didn’t appreciate the force of perceived planetary motion until Broy’s Automatic Car Wash in Berryville, VA. I recommend the $14 rainbow soap option. The light console that indicates your vehicle is in the proper place has a hair trigger. After the awkward call and response of the yellow and red slow down and stop completes, I settle in to enjoy the experience. The gigantic mop and brushes of the in-bay system envelopes my windowed cage in an embrace worthy of Snufalupagus. When accompanied by the Beatles’ Octopus’ Garden, the streams of bright color are worth the extra $2. As the variegated bubbles rinse to grey, I gauge the movements of my robot masseuse. Shifting from park to drive never fails to fill me with confusion, “Did I already slip into motion, or is this beast trying to mambo with me?” Our relative sizes, the barrage of soapy water and the ever-present threat of snapping improperly tucked protrusions would be challenging. With the green light, I exit through the dry and wax vents with ambivalence. “What if I could salsa with a giant?”
Establishing my home and business in a rural satellite of the nation’s capital has conditioned me to certain gravitational patterns. Having grown up there only makes them stronger. My weekly expeditions across the Blue Ridge are usually strictly business, but once a month or so I break free. Last Saturday a girl friend invited me to town for Salsa dancing. After some research, we settled on Café Citron for the included dance lesson and easy metro access. The frigid temperatures made dressing for the occasion tricky. The suggested “body conscious, flirty dress and killer heels” on thepurplepassport.com was not going to happen. I settled on red Earth mary-janes, jeans with rhinestone studded back pockets, and a somewhat flirty top from Desigual. My puffy winter coat and practical shoes made me the lone un-carded guest in our party of three women. The bouncer pointed toward the stairs as he shouted, “The salsa lessons are down there.” The thumping beat, a low, coffered ceiling and no dinner were not what we expected. After a short walk into the cold wind, we picked the first quiet place with easy options. Otello’s minestrone, insalata Caprese, and radicchio salad were not quite the promised authentic “Taste of Italy”, but the waiters were very sweet. As the official Pasta Fairy of a farm kitchen business, it’s hard to eat out. Our simple dinner was tasty and took longer than expected. We had to get back to Cafe Citron. A Bolivian friend and his two cousins were meeting us there to be our dancing buddies for the evening.
By the time we got back to Café Citron, he was there sans his two cousins. They had gone to Bethesda for more serious Salsa dancing closer to home. The lesson was well under way. It was hard to hear. 50 or so eager urbanites were doing their best to meet, greet and shake their posteriors. It involved a lot of shouting, and near shoving. The black leather couches that lined the entire floor were perfect for flopping down in frustration. Everyone was trying a complex Bachata inspired maneuver. If you’ve danced basic American swing, you’ve tried the underarm pass. This move was more like forming a pretzel with your partner’s arms while moving in rhythm and smoothly ending up in your starting position. No one was mastering this. A very patient man slightly above my 5’2” asked me to dance. He was well equipped with a white handkerchief tied around his brow. His foot-work indicated he too was still learning. I tried not to look down, but his hesitant steps left me guessing. He politely moved on for the next song.
Parched from overexertion and bewilderment, I volunteered to get drinks. I came back to the floor after a 15-minute trip to the bar that was 10 feet away. It was worth it. Red wine and vodka-based cocktails work wonders for the feet. After my second dance partner moved on, our guy friend asked me to dance. Above the noise I could barely hear him. “Close your eyes.” It was excellent advice. I forgot about the noisy confusion of other people. It reminded me of watching the colored bubbles at Broy’s car wash. The low ceiling, loud music and incongruent mass of bodies were transformed. With fingertip force I was swept in simple motions through a moving embrace. The dance floor became a psychedelic cocoon as I focused on breathing and following my partner. After 5 songs or so, the mood altered. The Latin music was incrementally replaced by more House and Hip Hop styled thumping that required much less subtlety. More people were stopping to capture their moments for social media than actually dancing.
The cab ride to Habana Village in Adams Morgan was an easy decision. After some initial confusion over whether to check our coats, we climbed the stairs to a much better place. The same number of people as at Café Citron were loosely circulating on a more spacious wooden floor. There were high ceilings and a simple drink rail with hooks, around the entire room. Wall flowers were not exactly discouraged, but there were no leather couches. People were there to dance with only short breaks for sips of their strong drinks. The most experienced dancer fishing for partners was easy to spot. With casual khaki slacks, a polo shirt, dance sneakers, slicked back hair and a phone firmly attached to his belt, he was ready. He was also more discriminating. I was not asked to dance, but my Bolivian friend and two girlfriends kept me busy. Indecision on the dance floor kills momentum. Do we side step or twirl? Are we going forwards or backwards? When do I let go? When do I move in? A gentle squeeze and windshield wiper motion of both hands from my partner set me back in the proper orbit whenever I looked down at our feet. Each time I closed my eyes it all went much smoother.
Dancers have a strong center of gravity. It’s not a solid mass at the base of the stomach. It’s an intuition shifting in spinning unity with extended limbs that have their own center of gravity. Practice creates fluency that expresses itself from muscle memory. Subtle communication is established between ears, heart, feet, calves, thighs, hips, biceps, forearms, hands and fingers. The more often you set yourself in motion, the more fluent you become. When you successfully slip into the orbit of another mass of spinning parts, it’s a miracle. Using your eyes or your mind to exert control can send it all crashing to a halt. Images of tiny, chubby toed humans with a blurred bar and mirror in the background are easy to dismiss as saccharine. Trying to dance as an adult, I wish to return to such a space so that I now might have a better vocabulary of motion. Regret is pointless. Far better to find patient partners in small moments on wooden floors with good music, and a cocktail to ease my overworking, matured brain.
In spite of sore shins from practical, rubber-soled shoes, I floated out of Habana Village for a walk to the metro. Our guy friend was amused to hear our girls’ point of view on the dance floor. Trolling men looking for the right combination of height, grace and curb appeal were fun to watch, and occasionally dance with. Women happy to flaunt their curves and flounced apparel were obviously enjoying the catch and release. We all agreed that the serious man with slicked back hair and sneakers was to be admired for his skillful angling. Dancing with him would require some low-pressure Zumba classes at a minimum. My Bolivian friend laughed with me over comparisons of Italian and Latin dance floors from our childhood. There is a common assumption that being a native Spanish speaker meant he was a really good dancer. He admitted that he wasn’t. What he did have, though, was a well-developed center of gravity. He reincorporated my fledgling steps and awkward rotations into his own modest orbit with gentle grace.
As for astrology, the next apparent planetary retrogression is this Spring. The next asteroid, however, could hit at any time. In celebration of Earth’s precarious orbit, I recommend getting your car washed, finding the right shoes and getting a group of friends to go out dancing. Whatever you do, don’t think about or look too hard at your feet or the planets.