Salsa in Amman is far from dreary; on the contrary, it is robust, popular, and the favourite venue, Trader Vic’s restaurant/bar in the Regency Palace Hotel, is a great Friday night. When I was there it was too smoky for comfort, which was par for the course in the Middle East. But if you want to dance……perhaps it has changed.
I had eventually realised that the salsa dancers in Amman were not Muslims, but Christians. This would not have been a surprise to most people, given the fact that not only were men and women dancing together, but the women were dressed in a decidedly non-Muslim fashion. In contrast, most of the Palestinian women I worked with dressed conservatively, particularly those living in the refugee settlements outside Amman.
Working beside Palestinians was a life-changing experience – as most travel is, when you have the time to allow for the absorption of all those cultural differences.
Dabke dancing, for one. I tried, and I failed. I mean, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with Dabke dancing, it’s a wonderful expression of Arabic tradition, it can be lively or subtle, fluid or dynamic. One telling factor, though, is that men dance with men, women dance with women, in a line. It is a celebratory dance, a performance dance. The communication is between the leader and the squad, not between partners. A spectacle, but lacking an essential feature, the sensuality of partner dancing.
Though partner dancing in Jordan has its own eccentricities; even the hottest salsa was restrained. Close contact of the kind I found later in México was non-existent, and the dance was always very polite. It was as though sex had been stripped from the dance; while it was fun, it never really smouldered. If you can picture dancing bachata at arms length…….
I was visiting one of the Palestinian settlements outside Amman one weekend, chatting with women over lunch in the hairdressing salon. Yes, hairdressing, despite the hijab. Getting my head around that was difficult enough, without the women asking me to teach them salsa.
Now wait just a minute here. You want me to teach you salsa? You can’t go out at night on your own, you can’t dance with a man unless he is family, you dress in traditional clothes – and you’re wanting to learn salsa?
Ok now first of all, tell me what you know about salsa. Well, it seemed that there was quite a lot of dancing on the TV channels emanating from the Emirates, especially from Dubai. They had seen the dance, they liked it, it looked like fun. Right. But if you can’t go out to dance, how will you enjoy this new skill?
And that’s when you realise all over again that there are so many ways of looking at the world, so many ways of dealing with what life offers. These women might never get to Trader Vic’s on a Friday night, might never walk up to a gorgeous bloke and whisk him out onto the dance floor, but their enthusiasm to embrace this alien and extremely sexy dance form was real and infectious, even if it did come from left field and present a few challenges.
With music, tea, and hilarity we set about fashioning Dabke dancers into salsitas, at least for a time. They loved the music, they followed the rhythm, they eased into the steps, and we ended up with a kind of hybrid, a salsa in line, or perhaps a Dabke with hips. We could have taken the world by storm – but sadly, as far as I was concerned, it would only ever be danced behind closed doors, in the privacy of the home – just as, outdoors, the elaborate, bouncy hairstyles would always be hidden under the hijab.
next: moving across the world