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I've always been fascinated by Latin-American music and dancing. So while stationed at Fort Belvoir in 1950, I took some lessons at a local Arthur Murray Studio and got to be pretty good at the rumba, the mambo, and some other Latin-American dances.
Then, when I got my marching orders for Korea, I decided to stop by Cuba on the way.
So I hitchhiked to Miami and took a plane to Havana.
Shortly after arriving, I stumbled onto a live radio program that featured Celia Cruz and the Sonora Matancera (with whose music I was already quite familiar).
While leaving the studio, I thanked the two guards who had earlier ushered me into the show — and they acknowledged my gratitude with warm handshakes, big smiles, and slaps on the back.
Cuba was turning out to be more than I'd dared hope for. Now if I could just find a place that had some romantic music and some friendly señoritas, my night would be complete. So I decided to ask the guards if they knew of such a place.
Well, they told me about a nearby public ballroom that retained hostesses who were available for dancing with the customers (Taxi Dancers).
I thanked them and soon found the ballroom. It was on a second floor, with the orchestra seated on a raised gazebo in its center. The room was surrounded by large open windows, which let in the cool evening breezes, and the lights were dimmed to enhance the romantic atmosphere.
The band was playing just the kind of tropical Cuban music I'd come to hear.
Most of the customers appeared to be couples who had come for an evening of dancing. But there were plenty of hostesses, just as I'd been promised.
They were sitting along one edge of the dance floor, and appeared to be just average women who were working at a regular job. None was provocatively dressed or overly made-up and I couldn't see any of them sending sexy come-hither looks to the guys who were checking them out.
However, all of them gave me a double-take — probably because I was the only 'gringo' in the place — this was definitely not a tourist hang-out.
Well, there were so many lovely ladies, I didn't know where to start.
But one of them seemed to have a more engaging smile than the others, and each time our eyes met I could sense her saying, "I'm the one you want to choose."
So I did.
And my time with Margarita turned out to be one of the most memorable experi- ences of my life.
Margarita appeared to be 30-something and was about 5' 4" with a shapely figure. She had an olive complexion with medium length black hair and dark brown eyes.
We introduced ourselves as we moved into the crowd of dancers and discovered that she spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish. Communication would be no problem.
As we began to move to a romantic bolero, the dance took on a new meaning that I hadn't experienced with any of my Arthur Murray partners. Margarita's body seemed to melt into mine as our hips blended rhythmically to the pulsating beats of the bongos and the conga drums.
We danced to a few boleros and I had begun to think I was falling in love. It was exciting and wonderful beyond description.
But the next song wasn't a bolero. It had a lilting melody that featured violins and a flute. I'd heard this music before, but couldn't quite place it.
"¿Te gustaría bailar un danzón?" she asked.
Of course — they were playing a danzón — a dance whose music I'd heard, but had never seen danced.
Yes, of course I wanted to do the danzón.
It was easy to pick up the simple steps by watching the other dancers — but I drew more than a few polite chuckles when I was still dancing after everyone else had suddenly stopped.
Yes, Margarita could have told me I was supposed to stop, but she was enjoying the joke along with everyone else, and gave me a hug when she saw I was embarrassed.
So why had everyone stopped dancing and just remained in place, chatting with one another? Well, the danzón was originally created as a special dance for young couples who wanted a little "privacy."
In olden times, the story goes, young women would always be accompanied to dances by their dueñas (chaperones) who would keep a close eye on them.
So a special type of rumba was designed that would have a point in its melody where all dancing would stop — so the couples could just stand and visit.
Well, dueñas had long since gone out of vogue, but the danzón continued to be a staple at every Cuban fiesta — and everyone (except me) would know exactly when to stop dancing and start chatting.
Anyway, I'd fully expected to be dancing with several different partners when I arrived, but Margarita and I had a special rapport that kept us together the rest of the night. And it didn't end with the dancing.
My night in Cuba couldn't have been more complete.
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