Stepping Out to the Beat of the Holy Spirit
The Adventures of a Salsa-Dancing Priest
By Gawain de Leeuw
I am passionate about salsa.
I can't give a very good answer as to why. It could be because salsa has introduced me to an eclectic group of people—editors, executives, students, bodybuilders. Maybe I love dancing salsa because I meet rumberas from throughout the world. I've danced with lovely women of every age and size from Norway to Malaysia to Korea to the Dominican Republic.
Or, perhaps it’s the rhythm, the contagious beat of the clave and timbales, and the fact that, in an age of computerized music, salsa relies on real musicians. Or, maybe I should skip the philosophizing and admit that, when all is said and done, I love salsa dancing because it’s just plain fun.
My spirit soars when I am dancing. I seem to be floating in the music, my arms sometimes cradled around another dancer, playfully communicating something primal. My stomach lifts. I am barely in control. I can't describe it. I feel as though I’m in my spiritual, not my physical body.
Now, many people believe that there is nothing spiritual about dancing. One woman informed me that salsa is about sex, period—"a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. Man and woman. Nothing more. Of course it's fun. It's been programmed like that. And you shouldn't be going out dancing so much. You're not supposed to."
And why am I not supposed to? Because I'm a priest.
Like most people, this woman took one look at my collar and immediately assumed I was a Catholic priest. I'm not. I’m an Episcopalian priest. There’s a big difference. Those in the know affectionately dub us "Catholic-lite," or "liberal Catholics," or "Catholics after a bong hit." Private confession is optional. I can get married. Women can become priests. Gayness is no deterrent; many of our clergy are in open, monogamous same-sex relationships.
Like Catholics, however, we have the seven sacraments. We have monks and nuns and bishops and deacons. I "say mass" every Sunday. And we have confession.
I go salsa dancing at least once a week. I'm at a level where I'm tolerated by some, and even enjoyed by others. I sometimes do double spins and syncopated shines. And, because I’m a priest, I have more interesting adventures on the dance floor than your average Joe.
Nells was a nightclub that borders the West Village and Chelsea in Manhattan. It was owned by the same people who own the restaurant Odeon, of “Bright Lights Big City” fame. Several years ago, Nells instituted a salsa night, with old style Cuban music on the ground floor and contemporary salsa underneath. The combo served two classes. If you weren't a great dancer but wanted to hear excellent Cuban bands, you could stay on the first floor, drink El Presidente and ask whoever was at hand to dance. But if you wanted to watch the most amazing dancers in the city, you went downstairs.
A Venezuelan woman, DJ Elvira, was the DJ there, and she played only salsa. Good salsa. This is important for Salseros to know because we are constantly worried that we'll be suddenly surprised by MerengueRock or a Techno Eastern European Cha-Cha. Elvira played music for the dancers. And dancers often follow her around. I’ll go just about anywhere she’s spinning.
One evening at Nells, someone announced to a Salsera with Attitude (a SWA), that I was a priest, "un curita." I suppose he did it for the shock value. But this woman was nonplussed. "Then why are you here?” she asked brusquely. “Priests don’t dance." Obviously, I had interrupted her world. The church had invaded her home. What she was really saying was, I'm here to have a good time and you’d better not spoil it.
One Wednesday evening I was at a diocesan meeting until 9:30. It had been a long day and I needed the energy boost that only Nells could provide. The dance floor would just be warming up. But I was wearing my collar.
Usually I don't wear my collar when I go dancing. I know that there are lots of excellent dancers who might not hold my religious sensibilities, and I don’t want to be pegged as either someone to avoid or an object of curiosity who always has to defend his right to salsa. So, like Clark Kent, I put my Superman outfit in the closet and go undercover in my typical salsero attire.
Tonight, however, I decided to go in full priest duds, collar, black suit and all. I wanted to see, just once, what it would be like to "witness," which is what priests call wearing a collar in a place that doesn't require it.
Since I’m not a great dancer, I’ve discovered that sometimes I have better luck finding good partners if I tell them I’m a priest. Yes, I admit to using my profession to my advantage. Now, please don’t interpret this to mean I use it to take advantage of anyone. I only play the priest card to get a great partner, i.e. women who would not dance with me otherwise because 1) I'm not very good or 2) I don't look like Antonio Banderas.
These women are generally willing to dance with a priest because 1) it’s a new experience; 2) they have this sense that I'm not going to ask for their phone number; and 3) they would feel guilty if they didn't. They’re not threatened by me because I'm really pretty harmless and definitely don't radiate the predatory vibes that emanate from many young men surrounded by women who move their hips. It helps to be polite and smile.
On this particular night, I decided to ask a tall young woman in a long, elegant, very tight black dress to dance. She looked me up and down, zeroing in on my collar. It was obvious she was dying to say “No!” But she couldn't. I was a priest. How do you say "no" to a priest?
As we danced, her hands were trembling. How do you shake your hips with a priest? she must have been asking herself. This is a good question. And I'm not sure of the answer. But I was busy shaking mine. I tried very hard to make her comfortable, but it was impossible. I don't think she exhaled until the dance was finished, whereupon she smiled wanly and escaped.
Going salsa dancing in my priest garb gives me license to rescue women. When I have a collar on, I feel that I have permission to ask good dancers who seem trapped by their partners. I really don't like it when women (or men) act like their partner's property. So I went up to a generously built blonde who was standing there with her boyfriend. She looked at him, then at me, and in a liberated leap, led me onto the dance floor. Obviously she had been itching to have one dance with someone else, but didn’t want to risk angering the boyfriend. A priest—what a perfect solution! He couldn’t be a threat, could he?
Of course, being an Episcopal priest blows that logic away, but I never got into the theological details with her. On subsequent Wednesday evenings I was always assured of having at least one great partner. I always asked her to dance, she always accepted, and her boyfriend never batted an eye.
My Korean friend Sunny, a very athletic and natural dancer, often joins me when we go out. Although she has comfortably integrated her religiosity with her sensuality, she was perplexed by my decision to wear a collar this particular evening. Her confusion was amplified into dismay when, as we were gathering our coats, a young inebriated woman came up to me, leading her equally snookered partner by his necktie, and loudly inquired, "Are you really a priest?"
"Yes," I nodded.
"Will you bless me? I'm getting married."
"Of course," I said. I was worried she'd pass out on top of me, so I quickly placed my hands on her head and said a few words. She thanked me effusively. Sunny was quiet as I drove her home. Finally she said,
"You really shouldn't wear your collar dancing."
Once I went with two friends to the stickball festival in Spanish Harlem. I didn’t have time to change, so I was stuck wearing my black suit and white clerical shirt on an incredibly hot day. As we walked up and down 111th street, I was overdressed and uncomfortable.
My friends wanted to get some crabcake—the best in the city, was the word—but the line was 25 minutes long. I walked across the block and watched hundreds of people dancing. Feeling shy and a bit self-conscious, I danced by myself to "Lloralas" by Oscar D’Leon.
I noticed the woman next to me, wearing a white blouse and stretch pants, dancing with her friend. She had feathered hair, and the natural voluptuousness that comes from life and age. I asked her to dance. She tilted her head gave me a silent nod. But throughout the dance, she never raised her eyes above the focus of my collar, the white plastic that separates me from mortals.
We danced three dances. I eased up at the end of each song, inviting her to pause and depart, but she remained lightly in my arms. Gradually we gained confidence as we tried more complicated turns and patterns. Soon she was doing slow double turns on the concrete. We kept in time the entire dance, even when my blazer was flapping in the air as I turned. Whenever I glanced at her she was looking at my shirt, keeping her eyes away from me. She would smile when I rustled my shoulders and kicked my feet, but her eyes remained glued to my collar.
As the last dance ended, she suddenly buttoned up her blouse. Until that moment, I had been so immersed in the dance that I hadn’t noticed that her blouse had slowly become undone. She thanked me and returned to her friend. A Cuban man stopped me and complimented me. “Baila bien. Baila bien.” He held out his hand and we did the wonder twins handshake, hitting our fists together.
What would that experience have been like, I wondered, if I hadn’t been “in uniform?” Better, or worse? Would my partner have declined my invitation, because I was just another man, sniffing around? Or would our dance have been even more enjoyable because she would have felt freer to be herself?
I couldn’t say, but I did know one thing. I was hot and dripping and my collar was killing me. I took it off and waved to my friends, who were crossing the street with crab cake for me. Even priests get hungry after they’ve sweated a few pounds off in a salsa frenzy.
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Gawain de Leeuw is the rector at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in White Plains, N.Y. He has been dancing for 10 years, almost as long as he has been ordained.
A version of this article appeared at Salsa New York.
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