Nearing twilight at the Top of the Mark, a glitzy lounge on the penthouse floor of San Francisco's InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, well-dressed locals gather to sip martinis and drink in 360-degree views of the city. The clientele consists mainly of businesspeople and sleekly outfitted couples who look like ballroom dance enthusiasts. Every Wednesday evening, a gaggle of the latter type shows up determined to learn the intricacies of salsa, even at the risk of looking completely goofy.
The sun is just slipping below the Golden Gate Bridge when my friend and I arrive. Although our setting is swanky, lessons such as this are mirrored nightly in restaurants, nightclubs, and even community gyms across the country -- any place that can recruit a dance teacher and drum up a salsa beat.
Our instructor is Dale Allsopp, an Ivy League MBA with sizzling salsa moves and a disarming demeanor whose day job at a major corporation calls for very different talents. Allsopp starts our group of five couples with the most fundamental step: dancing on time.
Gotta Dance: The writer takes instruction from salsa teacher Dale Allsopp.
"Ladies, I'll start with you, because the guys usually stink," Allsopp says teasingly. He teaches us the Basic, a simple step pattern that's the default footwork when you aren't doing other moves. He adds the Side Step, a variation on the Basic, and the Outside Turn before advancing to the Cross-Body Lead, the gateway step to almost every spin in salsa.
Each move we practice first by ourselves, gazing across a 10-foot divide at our partners, like shy kids at a school square dance class. Finally, we try the step together as couples while Allsopp counts the beat. And then, at last . . . !con musica!
Allsopp drills us on the essentials: hands above the waist, small steps, break into turns on five. "If you break on some step other than five, I will make fun of you," he warns. And, over and over again, "What does 'five-six-seven' mean? Be ready!" Which, for us women, means being ready for whichever move the man might choose.
True to Allsopp's prediction, some of the men clearly struggle with the rhythm. As proof that anyone can salsa, however, one latecomer to class (a regular) is a man who looks to be about 80 years old. He spins around the floor gracefully, if a bit carefully, and fearlessly asks all the pretty ladies to dance.
The writer then practices with dance partner Damien English.
Credit: Olivier Laude
After half an hour, Allsopp gives us a pep talk: "You've got the Basic, the Side, the Outside Turn, and the Cross-Body Lead. You could do this all night."
It's true -- you could. Yet salsa is all about subtlety. The touch of a finger here, a deft shift in weight there, sends the woman twirling off into a glamorous spiral as if by some sensual semaphore. Allsopp (so smooth that he spins his partner around twice while adjusting his shoe) slides across the floor like a weightless marionette, the music lifting his feet and turning him around as if it, not he, is the dance master.
Allsopp demonstrates a spin with coteacher Courtneay Rothen.
Credit: Olivier Laude
We spend the rest of the class session polishing our form. Then, the moment we finish, other dancers swarm the floor, and I instantly feel like an amateur. Many are veterans who sway their hips and swirl in complex patterns as if they were born doing it. Encouragingly, though, a few of the dancers are our more courageous classmates, who smile as they carefully cycle through the four steps we've learned, probably still counting beats in their heads.