Learning to Dance in La Paz, Bolivia


I always explore a city my first night there. While exploring La Paz, I found a huge book market, with ten-foot by ten-foot booths lined up on each side of the street for one block. It was almost perfect. Almost. Very few booths that had books in English didn’t have what I was looking for. There were plenty of dusty Stephen King collections, L. Ron Hubbard “classics,” plus Twilight, 50 Shades of Grating Erotica, and westerns from Lois L’Amour, but the English-Turkish I hoped to study for January’s adventure was nowhere to be found. After leaving the market I headed towards tall, well-lit buildings until I heard music and clapping. I walked around the corner and saw an amphitheater. When I got close enough to see past the crowd and onto the stage, a man onstage saw me immediately and summoned me down.

My Spanish was respectable at this point and I could carry an intelligent conversation with everyone but Argentines. I was especially confident in my abilities my conversation about westerns with the cab driver two hours before. That confidence quickly came to an end. When the Master of Ceremonies onstage spoke, I could understand no more than half of it. His rapid-fire speech was riddled with slang, and with him speaking on one side of me and the speakers blaring on the other, his words blended into an echoed cacophony. I wasn’t really sure what was going on other than him mentioning money several times. I told him I didn’t have any and offered him the apple in my back pocket instead. A green one of course, I have too much self-respect to eat red apples. The crowd first went silent, unsure whether or not I was joking, then assumed I was joking and roared with laughter. I wasn’t joking.

After the emcee had talked for ten minutes, the music finally started and I saw another person onstage dancing. I then realized why I was called up to the stage. This was going downhill quickly. After the other three men onstage took turns dancing, it was my turn. The others did a simple salsa number, left foot forward, right foot forward, left foot to the left, right foot to the left, repeat, so I copied that. The crowd applauded. This seemed easy.

The contest had four people on the stage, with each getting 30 seconds to dance for the crowd. After each round, the crowd cheered for each dancer and the dancer with the quietest reaction was replaced by someone new from the crowd. Between each round the emcee took five minutes to talk about things which, judging by the looks of him, were probably stupendously dumb. When he talked to me I stood frozen with a Cheshire Cat grin on my face while waiting for him to string together five or six words I understood. I wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted, but he was clearly asking me a question so I replied with “Me gustan tortugas,” I like turtles. It was the only intelligent thing I could think of. The crowd seemed to enjoy that as much as when I offered him an apple, then in later rounds enjoyed me dancing shoeless and finally falling down and shooting my hips skyward instead of copying a dance routine which looked like a giraffe’s mating ritual.

I crowd-pleased my way through an hour of knockout rounds and made it to the final round, where the clock struck midnight and I embarrassed myself thoroughly. A woman dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and wool shawl over her shoulder a la Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars came onto the stage and told me she would be my partner in Caporales, a traditional Bolivian dance I knew nothing about. When my partner started dancing, I stood like a deer in headlights for a grueling 15 seconds. I then attempted a samba/square dance hybrid which brought shame to anybody who knows samba or square dancing. In the final vote I finished third of the three contestants left.

I went to bed that night breathing heavily from the elevation and still unsure what had happened onstage.

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