Salsa and Songs
When we first arrived here, Becky researched a dance studio only a few kilometers from our apartment. We visited it at that time, but no one was home. There was a phone number on a sign, which Becky entered into her phone. This was before we knew which digits are added to a Ha Noi cell phone to make it work. Becky tried the number, but it never went through, so we gave up, not knowing that we didn't have the right number.
A couple weeks ago, when we were pedaling past the street with the studio on a Sunday afternoon, I suggested we check it out again. There were two couples dancing, practicing in a big dance space, open-air, with a slick tile floor. I don’t recall the names of the two men, but the two women were both named Ha. (Funny -- Ha Ha!) One Ha speaks English well and goes by the name of Tracy.
They were some of the leaders of a salsa group that meets at the studio twice a week – once to work on couple moves, the other two work on “shines” – slick individual moves – and styling. We watched them a while – pure LA style salsa – lots of fancy turning, and dramatic hand gestures and constant hair tosses by the women. Not exactly our style, but they were good dancers.
Becky asked if they knew Rueda de Casino, a Cuban Salsa Mixer that Becky and I have been studying for a number of years. They showed us a choreography that they had memorized from youtube (in fact, most of their dance moves were learned from youtube). Becky explained that in a Rueda circle, people don’t memorize a choreography, but follow a caller who yells the moves a measure ahead. The sequence of short moves is improvised by the caller. We offered to show them and spent an hour teaching some basic Rueda figures.
They invited us to their Salsa class that night. The shorter man, who is an amazing self-taught dancer, taught a complicated dance sequence. Becky caught on quickly, while I struggled (mostly with the pace of the teaching – they didn’t really break things down as much as I need – they just demonstrated the move and expected my uncoordinated feet to know what to do). Fortunately, a very patient English speaking Vietnamese woman named Mai came to my rescue and patiently worked me through the sequence (which I have since mostly forgotten). When we said our good-byes, Tracy asked if we would be willing to teach Rueda to their class (about 50-60 Vietnamese people) the following Friday?
So Friday night (11/4), Becky and I headed down to the studio via Xe om – motorbike taxis. We were the first to arrive. Vietnamese people are much like New Mexicans – The “start” time for an event is really the time that the first people arrive, and the next half-hour to 45 minutes are still part of that start. Couples and singles trickled in. Some practiced, some just talked. After long warm-ups in which the male leader (I think his name is Minh, but I might just be making that up) had me trying to isolate my shoulder, torso, and pelvis in ways that just aren’t physically possible for me. Standing a head taller than everyone else doesn’t help either. Fortunately Vietnamese are not very self-conscious and similarly are not at all judgemental. So I threw my inhibitions away and tried every shoulder roll and pelvic thrust. Not a pretty picture – but I never claimed to be pretty.
Then Tracy introduced us to the group and translated Becky’s explanation of Rueda. The six of us who had practiced together the previous week demonstrated the moves to Becky’s calls of “da me” and “enshufla doble.” For the next hour or so, Becky, with the help of Tracy and me, taught eight or nine moves. The 50 Vietnamese people were quick learners and want us to return. Afterwards, we were invited to drink some lemon tea at a streetside stand by the studio with many of the dancers. From there, the group was heading to a Salsa club downtown. Becky and I wanted to go, but Sivan was home alone (Amali was in Laos captaining her team at a basketball tournament -- another story) and we hadn’t eaten dinner. After quick goodbyes, Becky and I set off to find a restaurant.
We walked to a strip of restaurants that we had passed on our way to the studio and were drawn to the one where we saw a group of four older men at a little plastic table, drinking beer and singing boldly, to the guitar that one was playing. We sat at a table next to them and listened as they sang a variety of Vietnamese songs – some patriotic marches (you could tell by the rousing choruses of "Viet Nam! Ho Chi Minh!" and some that sounded more like traditional folk songs.
We ordered beers and looked over the menu. All the dishes were goat. Headlining the menu was a choice between grilled and fried goat penis. I thought about ordering one, but they were pretty pricey, so we got grilled goat, and a dish of fried goat skin and whole garlic cloves that I did actually order. While we were literally chewing the fat (Vietnamese love to include as much fat and gristle in their chunks of meat as possible), the men at the table next to us continued their serenade. Suddenly I recognized the guitar riff as the opening bars of "Hotel California," which they encouraged us to sing. I knew the words, but it is not an easy song to sing, so while Becky rolled her eyes at my struggles to find the key and keep up with his fast tempo, I did my best. So to get back at her, I gestured for them to give Becky the guitar (again more eye-rolling), but Becky took it and played “Let It Be.” For the next hour, they sang for us and we for them. We toasted and shared beers. Their American song selection was mostly early 60s stuff that Becky and I recognized but couldn’t recall the lyrics. I noted that most of the English language songs that they knew were the same ones on the lists at the Karaoke bars. Then they sang the song Tumbalalaika in Vietnamese and then in English, to which I responded with a verse in Yiddish. These guys were young when the Soviet presence here was strong.
The restaurant staff were putting away the kindergarten sized plastic furniture all around us. The lights were dimmed and we had one more toast and shared our good-byes.