We walk into the Latin club the way we always do, almost tripping over ourselves in anticipation, picking up the beat at the first sound of the bongo drums that reverberate from enormous speakers. After ten years of salsa dancing, John is used to the excitement of an empty dance floor and music whose every beat contains the passionate rhythm of an individual soul. For me, it’s been only six months; the cool darkness of the space and the scent of stale Corona combined with last night’s cologne cause my stomach to turn cartwheels of jittery glee. When I step foot into a Latin club, some imprisoned part of me starts clanging the bars demanding to be set free.

The source of my excitement isn’t the club itself; it’s what I will do here: let loose like a wild horse on the black and white parquet floor. It’s what I will do lifted in the arms of the passionate music and John’s firmly gentle embrace, how I will allow myself to be transformed from the hesitant girl who likes to keep herself out of the limelight into the red hot mama who shimmies with rhythm, sexiness, and sultry salsa style.

While I’ve imagined the transformation, it isn’t yet complete. Too often I resist. I don’t like being noticed or observed, so I hold back on the dance floor, embodying a stiffness that the previous weekend inspired another dancer to tell me, “You’ll be really good when you learn to loosen up.”

Tonight I’m determined to liberate myself. John and I step onto the empty dance floor as Marc Anthony croons “Ahora Quien?”: Who now? The music has a quick tempo that juxtaposes with the melancholy soulfulness of the singer’s voice. As Anthony sings about a lost love, John sweeps me into his arms. We skim across the floor in perfect unison. I close my eyes, shutting out the world, plus all self-conscious thoughts. I exist entirely in the sound of bongos, trumpets, piano, and cowbell. In a moment those clanging bars open, the imprisoned part of me leaps to freedom—and I stay out of her way. She breathes and the musical notes invigorate every muscle. Suddenly, my feet tap and kick through the beats and pauses with unreserved style. My hips undulate, swinging as if hinged together by tiny springs. My head tosses, my hands flick and my thighs flash shamelessly from beneath the high slit of my skirt.

The barbacks, waitstaff, managers, bartenders, and even the club’s owners stop their tasks to watch. Eyes open now and locked on John’s, I am aware of the crowd. My body continues to bend and move without hesitation into everything John leads, including a lift that has me flying high above the dance floor until he flawlessly lands me on the beat. Feeling my foot touch the floor and fluidly stepping into multiple spins brings to mind an image of emersion. As if the centrifugal force spins away that shy girl I used to be and releases a new woman: one who is fearless both on and off a dance floor, who lives fully engaged in the bold joyfulness of who she is with passion, love, and trust—and doesn’t care who sees it.

When the song ends, the audience breaks into spontaneous applause. I feel my identity shift as quickly as the colored lights play across the dance floor, as if stepping into their brightness tonight, I stepped into my own shimmering brilliance that for so long I’ve been afraid to acknowledge or possess. Now I choose the courage to embrace and inhabit it.

Gliding to our table, I am different and changed. Who now? More of who I’m meant to be, a woman I shyly imagine and can’t wait to meet.

Read about Michele Rosenthal.

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