In The Blood

by DL Minor

In the mid-Fifties my mother and her older sister were dancers at Chicago’s Club DeLisa—they were nightclub showgirls. My aunt learned to dance, liked to dance, was a marvelous dancer, but my mother—my mother was born a dancer; she danced because when she heard music she had to move to it, and she moved beautifully and with abandon. When she danced she didn’t care if she was partnered or alone, and at grown-up parties everyone would stop to watch her. I would watch her also, ambivalent, then turn to watch the watchers, fascinated and repelled by the admiration, the envy and the other things, things I sensed I was too young to be knowing about, in their eyes. My aunt was talented, but with my mother it went deeper somehow, and if I could not name it, I could nevertheless see it and more than that feel it—it was in the blood.

My mother loved rumba, cha-cha and mambo music—Salsa, everyone’s calling it now—anything percussive with a Latin-Cuban-Puerto Rican rhythm and flow. She and her sisters and their friends would buy all these shiny vinyl LPs, ceaselessly trading back and forth the latest Tito Puente, Joao Gilberto, Celia Cruz, Perez Prado and Ray Barretto and his Fania All Stars. I loved the provocative titles of these records—Voodoo Suite, Havana 3 AM, On Fire Again—and the smoky, insinuating lyrics I didn’t understand, but mostly, mostly I loved the sultry, sometimes astonishingly risqué (to my wide fifth grader eyes, at least) album cover art. They represented the ultimate in sensuous, sensualist glamour; wickedly feminine, these beckoning cover girls; erotic, exotic voluptuaries in various stages of wild undress, they were big-haired, big-hipped women with long limbs and flashing dark eyes.

I spent long, blissfully secretive hours poring over these album covers, daydreaming of what I could not name and dare not tell; I gazed in wonder at glossy, black and white studio shots of my mother, my aunt and their Club DeLisa sisters posed in all their alluring, outlandish finery.  As I grew up my mother played her records and, listening, I swayed and shimmied to Puente, Prado, Gilberto, and Cruz, watching her dance with her arms and hips swinging wide and her legs bare, shyly refusing her appeals to take her hands and move with her; but dreaming of the day when I too would be as grown-up and glamorous as my aunt, my mother, and all those brown-eyed, full-lipped beauties on my mama’s record albums.

And I did dance. I grew older and up (though not much), and danced (though never professionally). By then the glamorous days of DeLisa were a thing of the distant past and disco clubs—clubs of any kind, really—were not my cup of tea. I danced alone when no one was around to see, in my bedroom with the window open and the door closed, trying to move like my mother and the wild women on her mambo and cha-cha covers, but swaying and shimmying instead to Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and the Salsoul Orchestra.

And not just them: I fell in love with Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly, Gwen Verdon and Liza Minnelli, Jennifer Holliday and Patti Lupone, imagining myself as the heroine, sassy sidekick, or both, in the likes of Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Chicago, Dreamgirls, Evita and All That Jazz—always in safe secrecy, where no one could admire, admonish, critique or disapprove. Except—

Except, sometimes, on windswept lakefronts, or spans of bridges, or beneath shading trees in deserted public parks, where I felt sure no one I knew was watching, I would dance with Celia and Chita, Paula and Puente; I would dance with fiery abandon, summoning all the remembered moves—my aunt’s, my mother’s and mine—discovering with unfettered joy that for me, too, the music was in the blood.

In The Blood by DL Minor

© Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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