‘The lambada,’ he said, ‘is a dance of beauty and passion.’ At that stage I was looking around for the nearest exit. But then I saw his hips move—a graceful swivel to the left, a tiny roll to the right, sometimes the feet going too, sometimes not. The hips had a life of their own with the beat of the music, forward and back, side to side, full circle—so simple, so impossible.
We were doing exercises to warm up our muscles. In case we dislocated anything, he said, being so unused to moving.
‘English people can’t move their hips,’ he pronounced. The blonde woman shot him a look.
‘Except her,’ he muttered, nodding in her direction.’My lovely partner, Julie. I am Eduardo, of course, and this is my lovely… my lovely wife, in fact.’
They gave a demonstration of the basics, holding each other like ballroom dancers but with their legs slightly bent and interlocked. They rocked from side to side with the beat, then drew apart and did quick underarm turns, Julie’s short black skirt lifting as she twirled. It was fast, dramatic and vigorous rather than elegant. There was something basic about it, almost vulgar. Julie moved energetically and in perfect rhythm, but in a mechanical way, with a bored smile on her face, never looking at her partner. He was tall and broad, dark-skinned, and she looked pale and brittle beside him. He had done all the talking.
He took a group of advanced dancers separately, while Julie showed the beginners the basics. We tried it: one-two-three, one-two-three.
‘Start with the feet apart, one leg bent. No, just bend it a little—like, say, you’re standing at the bus-stop.’
We plodded through it. On the other side the advanced group were twisting and turning at amazing speed. Brendan was twirling some blonde girl around until she got dizzy and staggered, and they both laughed. They seemed to be having a lot of fun.
This was the way to learn dances in London, he’d told me, not from stuffy ballroom teachers but in Latin clubs where some young dancer from the region would be giving classes before the main event. We tried our basic step slowly in couples, until we thought we had it. Then we tried again with the music and it all fell apart. Julie moved among us repeating: ‘one-two-three, one-two-three’. Across the way Brendan was dancing with a different girl, but his heart wasn’t in it. He wasn’t leading so she had to. My partner stood on my foot.
‘You haven’t bent your knees, you’re too rigid!’ he said. Julie smiled at our efforts, a more genuine smile than she’d had on when dancing.
‘Don’t forget the hips,’ she said, ‘move those hips.’
Eduardo had the other group in a circle, with one couple doing a routine in the middle. Brendan’s turn came, now partnered with a dark-haired girl, Spanish or Italian. They moved as a single unit when they danced close, they watched each other every time she twisted away, everytime she twisted back. At the end of a verse of the song she suddenly arched and leaned back in his arms, head tilted so that the tips of her hair touched the floor. He lifted her up slowly and they fell back into the fast beat. They were getting more time than the other couples. A smile half formed on his face as they danced, then on hers, a secret, shared smile. There was nothing vulgar about it now: with these two it was soulful, an elaborate embrace. This was her all right. This was the girl.
Eduardo started circling round them.
‘Not on heels, Maria, keep on the balls of your feet.’ Abruptly he broke them up and took hold of her.
‘You must get back smoothly to your basic step. You’ll see a lot of this in clubs-people do these wonderful turns, but they can’t get out of them!’
He spun her dizzily in a continuous turn, her dark hair flying, then with a flick of his arm drew her close. Brendan stood to the side. Eventually he looked across to our group, searching for me.
We sat in his room with mugs of tea. ‘She’s totally amazing-definitely the best dancer there. At the class I have to share her, because Eduardo swaps us around all the time. He thinks you should be used to lots of different partners. And she wears that perfume-she’s trying to kill me!’ He gulped tea. ‘What do you think? I really need a woman’s point of view here.’
‘Well, you look great together, you dance great together—what’s the problem again?’
‘The problem is, I don’t know. I don’t know where I stand.’
His bedsit looked like a demolition site but I wasn’t saying a word. The Ma always wanted me to check up on him-she reckoned he was too young to be in London on his own. Of course she was delighted that I was over and back for work all the time. She was just fussing. He was twenty-three, he had a job and a flat and he was getting on fine.
‘I thought you said you’re going out with her?’
‘Five weeks. I asked her out after a lot of dithering. It had got to the stage where I couldn’t get through the week, I was living for the class, Friday to Friday. We go dancing a lot now. The first night with her was mindblowing, then it just got better. Here, have some olives. Spanish, of course!’
He handed me the bowl and kept talking while he ate.
‘Did I tell you I’m learning Spanish? It’s a gorgeous language, it’s the language of love. I tell her the more she kisses me the better I’ll be able to make the sounds.’
He took out a cigarette and fiddled with it, then held it in the air unlit.
‘She can dance like that because they’re such a sensual nation. She’s from the south, Andalusia. Eduardo? From Brazil, and his wife is English. Met her at a class he was giving here. Maria thinks she’s a terrible dancer.’
He found the lighter and jiggled it around in his hand.
He stood up and started pacing up and down the room.
‘You see, she’s with me, but she’s not mine. Sometimes she won’t go out. Just says no. Or once, just didn’t turn up.’ He threw his hands up. ‘And I live for those nights.’
‘How long is she in London for?’
He lit the cigarette and puffed confidently.
‘Her course will be finished in six months. But I’ll go back to Spain with her, no problem.’
‘Well, don’t rush it. There are other things in your life besides .. .’
‘Oh God, there aren’t!’ he said suddenly, flopping back onto the sofa. ‘What am I going to do? My life’-he took a deep pull-‘is just something to fill in the pause between dances!’
I was taken aback for a minute.
‘Look, have you told her? The Spanish love a bit of passion. ‘
‘No, no, she’d run a mile. And I get so mad when she shuts me out. I’ve sworn not to speak to her again. I’ve sworn I’ll give up dancing. I’ve considered leaving the country.’
‘If she’s treating you like that…’
‘Slashing my wrists, sometimes.’
‘Brendan, listen to me. You have to back off. Just play it really cool and see how she likes that.’
He went quiet then, pulling contemplatively on the cigarette.
‘I can’t,’ he said eventually. ‘I’m in love.’
I didn’t know what else to say.
After a while, he started off again in a lower tone.
‘You know, she’s the perfect height for me-that’s important for these dances. With Eduardo she’s lost, he’s too tall. It’s the way she puts her hand on my shoulder and I put my arm around her waist…’
He closed his eyes. I stood up and offered to make more tea.
‘If we hadn’t been dancing together every week-you just can’t stay mad with someone. If it didn’t have to be that dance … but I don’t want to talk about it.’
I burst out laughing, and punched him.
‘I know, I know, I’ve done nothing else, but I actually can’t bear to talk about it. If someone tells me I’m wasting my time, that kind of makes it true. And then I’d have to kill them.’
I punched him again.
‘Come back to the real world, kid.’
‘Sorry, I’m sorry. What about you? Any guys there tonight worth coming back for?’
‘I have to learn that dance-I’ll definitely be back. But Eduardo’s hips would make any trip worthwhile. What are they made of? How can anyone move like that?’
‘It’s in the blood. Pity he’s a prat.’
Then he started talking about Maria again. He was balanced on an edge between ecstatic happiness and unbearable misery and could go either way. There were traces of both on his face as he talked, and there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could have done.
As it happened I was back in London less than two months later, and made sure I had the Friday night free for the club. I arrived just before the class started. Eduardo was there, but without Julie, and no one else looked familiar. There was no sign of Brendan. But then he didn’t actually know I was in town. I wanted to surprise him, and maybe also to see first hand what was going on. After my last visit there’d been one or two phone calls saying things were much the same. Then it had all dried up. He hardly ever phoned now, and was all evasive on the subject of Maria.
She came out of the Ladies and I hardly recognised her. She was wearing a little flared scarlet skirt, a black sequined top and patent leather shoes with very high heels. She had heavy, dark eye make-up and bright red lipstick, which gave her face a stern, almost cruel look. Eduardo took her hand and they danced together while the class were arriving.
He did the warm-up and gave his pep talk, and it became clear that Maria, the star pupil, was now in the role of teacher. She took the beginners aside and began in a heavy accent: ‘OK, for the basic step you must start with feet apart, one leg bent like you’re at the bus-stop…’
I tried vaguely to remember the steps.
‘One-two-three, one-two-three’ she said thickly. Brendan had still not appeared.
I asked each of the partners I danced with, and it seemed that Maria and Eduardo were now the regular teachers. These beginners had never heard of Julie. At the end of the class we had a demonstration, to show us a whole lambada routine.
He held her close, waiting for the beat. Her high-heeled shoes looked impossible to dance in, but meant her head just reached his shoulder. Then they were off, crossing the floor in big swirls as if he was sweeping her with him. He spun her with strong movements, twisted her out to one side, then the other. But she was vigorous, pushing back against him and pulling away flamboyantly for the turns. The red skirt flew up around her thighs, showing thin legs and tiny black knickers. He threw her into low dips where she plunged her head back. They never seemed to take their eyes off each other, as if there was an electric charge between them. He was tall and solid, moving minimally but directing the display, shifting his weight the better to spin her. Her body twisted and folded like rubber under his arms. She started to roll her head around, swirling her hair wildly, smothering his face with it at each turn. Their eyes were fierce, their movements frantic. Her sequins sparkled in the light. Sweat glistened on their faces. They finished with a series of lightning turns and a spectacular dip, just as the music ended. There was a half second of stunned silence before the burst of applause. He lifted her up and they collapsed, glowing, in each other’s arms.
I grabbed my coat. I had to find Brendan. A thin, fair-haired girl came running after me.
‘You’re Brendan’s sister, aren’t you?’
‘Yes. Thought he’d be here, but no sign of him.’
‘He doesn’t come any more. Hasn’t for ages.’ Her face was very serious.
‘Really? I haven’t talked to him in awhile. I see Maria’s teaching now?’
‘Yes, her and Eduardo are big into each other. It’s done wonders for her dancing.’
‘What about his wife—Julie?’
I stood blankly for a second.
‘Well, just tell Brendan I said hello. And he should come back, really. He’s a very good dancer.’
As I turned to go she added: ‘It’s just that we’re short a few blokes, that’s all. Not that we miss him or anything, just that we’re short, tell him that.’
‘OK, I’ll tell him.’ I just wanted to see him. I wanted to hurry.
She gave a shy smile as I left.