One of the biggest adjustments you make in a new culture is in the celebration of the Christmas season. My first Christmas in Puerto Rico took some getting used to. “Jingle Bells” sounded weird at 85 degrees. I worried that local children would be scarred for life, since none of their houses had fireplaces for Santa to come down. And then there were all those parties and all that dancing.
Puerto Rican men love to dance. And they all know how to dance. To this day, many families send their teenage sons for dance lessons to the same lady who taught them, and who had also taught their grandparents. During the holiday season, they are out in full force to take advantage of those lessons by dancing one of the easiest of the latin dances: Merengue.
Merengue, which literally means “frosting” in English, is not a terribly difficult dance to learn. As a friend pointed out, “It’s easy. You just limp”. Which isn’t all that far from the truth. There are two widely circulated stories about the origin of the dance: The first, that the dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, out of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums. The second, that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of the many revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot.
In my first few years of living in Puerto Rico in the mid-80’s, I worked in marketing for a major multi-national company, where women were badly outnumbered. As soon as the music started at my first company Christmas party (employees only), all of the salesmen immediately started dancing with whichever willing partner they could find. I tried to beg off, stammering that I had no idea what I was doing, but they weren’t having it. I spent the rest of the afternoon being passed around the dance floor like a hot potato, dragging one leg after the other.
Since then, my merengue style hasn’t gotten much better. Every season, I take my obligatory lap around the dance floor, and try to make it through at least one song – they are ridiculously long, after all. But then recently, I discovered that the deficiency in my merengue style has little to do with me, and more to do with my partner.
Turns out, it’s his fault. He was born in Havana, Cuba and as he is so fond of saying, “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”.
I have it from one of the highest authorities in the land that Cubans just can’t dance. Sonia Sotomayer, the 111th Supreme Court Justice, recently gave this advice during an interview with the Washington Post, “Never dance with a Cuban“.
Her reasoning? Cubans are the “worst” at keeping a beat and they take “very tight little steps”.
So let’s just say that one “wise Latina woman” just gave one Accidental Boricua the excuse of her life to stay sitting down when they strike up the band this holiday season.
Feliz Navidad to you, Justice Sotomayor!