27 April - Dancing in Latin America

After decompressing from a busy week, I was up for something spontaneous. Something to feel immersed, alive and in a different city. Just so happened my friend Mel called out-of-the-blue to tell me I had some lookalike on the tele. I could hear her husband Rod laughing in the background as I searched for “Jonas Brothers” on the Disney Channel. I did find the actress. And it was creepy. As we were talking, it dawned on me that I was speaking to two of the best dancers I know. They are the only two among my circles of friends who have actually taken lessons (swing, salsa, etc.) Within 15 minutes of the conversation, we talked each other into a convoluted plan that would take us to Chicago's Nacional 27: salsa dancing.

We walked in, got a table by the bar and ordered one of my personal favorites, caipirinhas. The booming music, chatter and element made me feel I was somewhere in Latin America – Sao Paolo? Mexico City? Bogota perhaps? I perused the menu and noticed the amazing dishes as I walked by to check out the dancefloor. Dishes that included smoked chicken empanadas, shrimp adobado with pineapple-vanilla salsa, boniato and plantain croquetas, barbecued lamb tacos, and variations of bamboo skewers, ceviches and paellas. Oh. My. Word.

After an amusing, yet in-depth chat with James the Navy pilot-turned-physician at the bar, we picked up a few more cocktails and headed to the “club.” My goal was to hold my own. The dancefloor was already packed. I sat and watched Mel and Rod show me their dance prowess. It brought a smile to my face in reminiscing of our days at UW-Madison when people would clear the floor to watch Rod dance. And here we are almost 20 years and how many kids later, starting our evening at 11pm just to dance Latin-American style. They told me of the basic dances, salsa, cha cha, merenge and mambo. Though subtle, each had a definite style of its own. I’m thinking the difference is in the hips. Those who have the coordination can sell it; those who don’t …not so much. The simultaneous smooth stepping and walking with sultry hips and shoulders to an upbeat tempo -- that takes focus. It was exhilarating for me to feel the music press against my body while simply people watching…from neophytes and laughter to polished serious dancers. Then Rod turned to me and took me out on the floor. Oy. Growing up in the disco era with four sisters who lived for dancing pretty much equated me with self-proclaimed coordination. Any confidence in that thought quickly diminished. Rod taught me his and Mel’s favorite: bachata. It involves moving to the side and ending with a hip thrust on the fourth beat. For some reason, I just couldn’t get it. What was my problem? I looked more like a Ms. Jazz Hands version of John Travolta’s 10th “Saturday Night Fever” sequel, “Stayin Alive”. My sisters would hang their heads. Mindless and freeform for him; focus and confusion for me. How embarrassing when we are surrounded by pros. The neat thing was everyone was in their own zone. After Rod made a few suggestions, I got it! Then he smoothly led with turns and spinning me behind his back, all the while, keeping the same counting and side-stepping with such finesse.

Mel made a good observation. At a place like this, if someone comes up and asks you to dance, he genuinely just wants to dance. No expectations or motive necessarily. Just a polite “thank you” afterwards and heads on his merry way. With a ginger-passion sangria, strangers dancing with strangers surrounding us, it felt like I was on holiday. Nacional 27 offers salsa lessons every first and third Tuesday of the month. Guess I was a week off, though I notice it is holding its first annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta. A 2-fer. All the more the reason to come back. (www.nacional27.net).

20 April - Humble Me

Several years ago, my trip to the Philippines connected many dots for me. After traveling 14 hours, my aunt and uncle from Milwaukee picked us up from the airport and took us to their home. In the mode of getting my bearings, unpacking and paying my respects to whomever else was in the dark house, they asked, “Are you ready? We are taking you to see a variety show and karaoke to sing.” Are you kidding? It was 11:30pm. Unshowered and always ready for exploration, I checked the bags under my eyes and went for a drive. Twas a bit strange to walk into a bar filled with “my people.” I sat, looked around, took note of any cultural subtleties -- from food on the menu to how one might hold a cocktail. The first act began. Teenagers acting like gang members came out on a makeshift stage and broke out into incredible dance moves reminiscent to Janet Jackson’s old videos like “Rhythm Nation” or the fly girls from “In Living Color.” My jaw dropped. Gorgeous men dressed as women with incredibly strong voices that matched Celine Dion. Such raw talent hidden in an anonymous bar tucked in an anonymous area of Manila. All I could think of was they probably had no clue how incredibly talented each one was. How easy success might come to these hopefuls who have no opportunity, if they were in the U.S. And thanks to Oprah and YouTube, we have witnessed the success of some of these hopefuls like teenager Charice Pempengco and 40-year-old Arnel Pineda, Journey’s frontman.

I thought of that experience and cultural affinity for music and dance while reflecting on this week, which indeed encompassed music. My week started with the humble Ray LaMontagne. A group of us saw him open for Guster at the Charter Pavilion in Chicago years ago. Here, he graced the beautiful Riverside stage with a very simple, classy setup. His velvet voice and arrangements were lullabies, one after the other. I also had project work scheduled with the talented, award-winning and dear friend Jim at Beathouse Music. It truly makes a difference when the producer creates a safe and comfortable working environment that encourages bringing out the best work (www.beathousemusic.com). Then came attending an outstanding theater-in-the-round production of “Joseph the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Chicago. The Artistic Director is Milwaukeean and high school friend Aaron – had to support. Lastly, the week ended with band rehearsal for an upcoming gig at Shank Hall. It made sense that my set goal for this week was to take the inspiration and write a song from scratch, until I learned of something that humbled me.

In the midst of this week, I met my husband at the Four Seasons for a black tie function. The only detail I knew was I was going dressed in my vintage paisley Shanel Regier dress – knew not the organization, time, other co-workers attending, etc. When we arrived, we met several ladies from "Clearbrook." Straightaway, the vibe of this evening of heavy-hitters was very “salt-of-the-earth," my kind of people. I learned this non-profit serves 3,000 clients per year, from babies to adults. These clients have cerebral palsy, autism, downs syndrome and mental retardation. I learned the gadgets we were playing with atop the table in front of us were communicating mechanisms, helping children associate and express their needs to caregivers and friends. I learned those ready for independent living were housed in at least 20 homes equipped with transportation to and from the day program and work, and providing caregivers when necessary.

During dinner, the video we were shown featured four stories and separate struggles since birth. The parents were interviewed and shown interacting with their children. Not a dry eye in the house after a father described his feeling of defeat in providing any type of normalcy to his beloved son, an eternal four-year-old. Then, through Clearbrook, came his final glimmer of hope. We also learned three of the children featured were triplets. This particular family does have a fourth child, who has autism.

Parenting alone seems tough enough – from getting babies on a regular sleep pattern just so the parent can function; to emotionally investing, questioning personal convictions and self-esteem in order to mold another human being; then hurting when they hurt and watching them grow. I could not imagine the struggles of parenting four children with special needs. So I add on top of these, the anguish when he or she is struggling with something as simple as communicating and not knowing IF the child is hurting, nor the source. Then along comes a place like Clearbrook. In watching this video, these families looked like the happiest well-adjusted families, probably because this humbling situation demands genuine understanding and patience.

It was such a welcome experience amidst a busy week to be among families that pulled together through such emotional hardship. This must have been the stem of the humble vibe we sensed when we first arrived. My husband and I walked away with two things: an appreciation for our lives through witnessing other people's reality -- families that have gone from defeat to hope. The other, selfishly, was a flat screen tele. Winning a bid is a much more joyous occasion when the cause is priceless.

To find more information or donate to Clearbrook, please visit www.clearbrook.org.