Chai Rin Kim

Señora Cordoba commanded her forces with enough confianza — confidence — to impress a military lieutenant. Brief pauses punctuated her rapid-fire speech, as if to give her breathless students a fair chance to decipher the meaning of her long-winded instructions. Every Friday night, the maestra opened dance lessons the same way: screaming, stomping and traipsing icily through the claustrophobic gymnasium stuffed with sweaty middle-schoolers.

I couldn’t dance. Instead, I appointed myself translator on the basis of the random bits of Spanish I happened to know. I felt responsible for bridging the great lingual divide and explaining in plain English Señora Cordoba’s cryptic directions. Put your foot here, not there; hands firmly on the upper shoulder; fix your posture in the back.

Each syllable of opaque Spanish presented itself like an audial puzzle meant to be taken apart and pieced back together in English, a different phonetic arrangement. The situation also bore unexpected fruit: the translator controls the conversation as much as any conversant. And power proved inexhaustibly sweet.

Spanish was manageable. Dance was uncrackable. The maestra herself wasted no time excoriating my attempts to become fluent in the language of kinesthetics.

“No, no, no. It is all wrong,” Señora would mutter reproachfully. Her hands clasped in perfect union behind her back, she marched between the soldiers executing the letter of her orders in perfect formation. I wasn’t cut out for the brigade: my steps were too slow, my spins too uneven and my arms too crooked. I embodied the very opposite of the gracia mastered by my 11-year-old peers as they danced waltzes fit for a royal wedding. I was the jester, enthusiastic in temperament but fatally unready for higher responsibilities.


Six years later, I took an uneasy step into a dance studio in Chicago’s West Loop and recalled my days as translator. Back then, I had never thought the language of dance was spoken outside my middle-school gymnasium. And to a boy from northern Illinois, Chicago still seemed a faraway jungle of skyscrapers and wind and suburban terror.

I paused, paralyzed, as my friends advanced confidently toward the dance floor. I thought I wanted to retry my skills, to set back into motion the rusting machinery that had been shut down years earlier by the maestra’s unattainable standards.

It would be romantic to suggest that I began walking toward the dance floor for any reason other than social pressure — social powerlessness. I didn’t hear the music, then, or spot any flicker of gold that drew me in. I did it not for the aesthetic of fun, nor of freedom, nor of carefree passion. No.

At the edge of the world, torn between the comfort and the challenge, I licked my lips and tasted the forbidden fruit from middle school. I wanted to prove that I could still translate.

I could see the walls moving, and the crowd seemed to engulf me. Sure enough, a minute into the gambol, the uncouth ways of my sixth-grade self returned — poor form, egregious rhythm, abrupt movements. I could feel the heavy eye-roll of Señora Cordoba cast down upon me like a cinderblock. Nothing had changed. My translating was flawed.

I spun around, expecting to find adults moving with same perfect military precision that I had come to loathe. But on all sides, I was shocked to find men and women reveling in missed step and broken beat. They weren’t adult versions of the sixth-graders who waltzed circles around my failure six years prior; they were adult versions of me.

Everyone was doing it wrong. But an outsider would never have known. The cavorters were not good dancers, but they were certainly good pretenders. Laughter and smiles made it hard to tell the difference.

Señora Cordoba wanted me to learn to walk. But I would much prefer to talk, to use dance as a language for self-expression rather than a marching order of self-repression. Perfecting the art did not mean perfecting the language. Rather, it involved a learned acceptance of “good enough” known across every mother tongue.

I still couldn’t waltz, foxtrot or blitz, but on the dance floor, I could be happy. Podría estar feliz.

Contact Graham Ambrose at .