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Salsa and Drag Queens


  • Salsa and Drag Queens

    For most of my life, Oz was the magical land where Dorothy ended up after being rescued by a tornado from the drudgery that was her life in black and white Kansas. But on Bourbon Street, Oz is nothing of the sort.

    I landed in New Orleans earlier in the day with a group of eight of my non-dancing chapter-mates for the Sigma Tau Delta International Honor Society Convention. Each of us has will present work that we’ve written and had accepted: academic essays, poetry, and in my case, short fiction. Each year in the convention is held in a different city; the three previous conventions I’ve attended have been in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. But this year the convention is in New Orleans, the week after Mardi Gras. Strands of shiny beads, in purple and green and gold, are everywhere, as if Mardi Gras was a giant slug that had slid through the streets to leave behind a film of rainbow slime. But the beads I’m told are a permanent fixture. This close to Bourbon Street the beads are sold by the bucketful. Some strands have beads the size of peas, ideal for throwing at people passing by, while other strands are made of beads larger than Christmas ornaments.

    My chapter settles into our rooms at the Marriot and we meet up with friends we’ve made in previous years from other chapters of Sigma Tau Delta. The members of a chapter from Nebraska have a plan: this evening, they’re going to go to Oz, which is billed as “New Orleans #1 Gay Dance Club” to see a drag show. At one time in my life I would’ve refused. I had never been to a gay club or a drag show, but as a writer, new experiences prove invaluable for story fodder, and as a woman would tell me later in the week, “To change the world, you have to see the world.” So I agree. The plan is to meet at Oz at 10:30, with the show starting soon after. Before leaving on this trip, I did some research and found a recommended venue to go Salsa dancing that started and ended early, so it would leave me plenty of time to dance for a few hours and then join my friends at the club.

    “There are always plenty of dancers on the dance floor” is the description I’m given of Caretta’s Grill. Thirty dollars in cab fare later I walk into the noisy Mexican restaurant to find the live band that’s been promised, with the awkward exception that there is no dance floor and there are no dancers. When I ask a waitress if anyone here dances, she mumbles and points to the empty, sofa-sized space in front of the band as if that explains it. Frustrated at being denied my Salsa fix, I ask the staff to call another cab for me and head back to the hotel.

    I kill a few hours, then meet up with friends to venture to Oz. In New Orleans, you do not get to Oz via a tornado, but rather by Bourbon Street. I had heard of Bourbon Street before and known it was full of bars and clubs, but nothing could have prepared me for it.

    The stench is incredible.

    Alcohol, sweat, **** and vomit coalesce in the air to form a Frankenstein of odor that is unique and horrifying. Revelers pack the street for a solid mile, drinks in hand. A mixed drink called the Hurricane is sold and advertised by almost every establishment, some of which are no larger than closets stuffed between larger bars that sell directly to people on the sidewalks -- as long as the drinks are in plastic containers, the mounted police allow them to be carried outside. One drink dubbed The Hand Grenade is sold in a two-foot long tube, and is not the largest drink served.

    Bourbon Street is a never-ending frat party, and I shudder to think of what it must’ve been like during Mardi Gras the week before. The sight, is it’s awfulness, is awe-inspiring. Others find it more enjoyable, as I rarely drink and find most non-Salsa clubs to have a creepy vibe.

    We walk toward Oz, located toward the end of the line of bars, souvenir shops, and strip clubs, strippers standing outside in lingerie and high heels, beckoning customers inside with calls of free admission. We push our way through the crowd, and avoid the numerous puddles in the street and on the sidewalks -- puddles that have formed even though it has not rained in days.

    The crowd thins as we approach Oz. It’s a relief to be able to walk down the street without having to navigate through the turbulent sea of drunk tourists. Oz, compared to the rest of Bourbon Street, feels calm. The club is two rooms, the first containing an oval-shaped bar; in the second room, a giant disco ball hovers over the dance floor in front of the red-curtained stage.

    A few friends are at the bar, waiting for the drag show to begin. The rest of us find a spot against the wall to watch show from. With a round of fanfare, the drag show begins. The MC of the night -- a drag queen clothed in a black and red dress from the 1930s or 40s named Persana -- welcomes everyone to Oz and to the City of Sin, makes some dirty jokes which I cannot remember, and commences with the show.

    My mentor, Edie the Salsa Freak, once told me that she learned moves from drag queens and incorporated them into Salsa; seeing Persana and the rest of the drag queens, I know why. Tonight the show’s theme is “Broadway,” and each drag queen comes up and lip-syncs to a classic Broadway show tune. In almost each case, it’s obvious that these are men in dresses; however, their body language is distinctly feminine, and several times through the show I recognize arm and hand styling that I often see on the dance floor. A hand will slide up the side of the body, avoid the chest and then curl and rise into the air, fingers pointing out in the distinct finger-egg position that is drilled into Salsa followers. Each drag queen that goes up on stage is a master of arm-styling and exudes a feminine presence despite the sex they were born with. The best of the group is Persana. He is foul-mouthed and aggressive, yet still retains an intense, feminine demeanor.

    One of Edie’s goals in Salsa is to create leaders and followers that are at the extremes of the masculine and feminine spectrum regardless of how that person is off the dance floor. It’s all about creating contrast between the two roles: regardless of gender, the more masculine the lead is, the more feminine the follower can be, and vice-versa. She terms it “polarity,” and whether one agrees with her or not, it’s an important concept for Salsa because it creates a pleasing visual aesthetic, one that would not exist without contrast between the two poles.

    As each drag queen performs on stage, Persana, his brown hair in a bobcut, wanders through the crowd with the seeming intent to make chosen male club goers uncomfortable. She approaches head on and runs a gloved finger over stone-cut jaw lines, provoking reactions of embarrassment, heads turning away rather than meet his intense gaze.

    His act and the reactions it receives from his victims amuses me.

    Toward the end of the show, I find myself by the bar with my friends. I’m tall and skinny, but because of Salsa and Edie’s training, I stand with my legs apart in a stable, pyramid shape with my hands on my hips, elbows out forming large triangles; it broadens my stance, makes me appear larger than I actually am, and gives off an air of confidence. Standing such, it was unsurprising that Persana chose me as his next target.

    I didn’t notice him at first; he comes from my side as if walking by me, but then stops sharp and pivots toward me. Unlike the others, he doesn’t run a hand or a finger over my face. Fast and with great accuracy, he reaches out and, one after the other, pinches my nipples.

    A year ago, I would have been scandalized. I would have shied away and probably been angry at the intrusion into my personal space. But that was before meeting Edie. No one on the dance floor has ever squeezed my nipples, but I have experienced body rolls against me, sensual tango moves where the follower’s leg slides up and down mine during t-stances, by Edie and others doing “peanut butter smears” with their hands down my chest, and by now I’m desensitized by such things: it’s all a game. A game that’s fun and while appearing sexual, is usually devoid of actual sexual feeling.

    I don’t react to Persana’s touch. Not even a twitch. With a claw-like grip he grabs my stomach, and then pulls my head close to his. I never break eye contact with his predatory gaze, even when he pulls my head close and brushes his nose against mine in an Eskimo kiss. He breaks away and moves on, leaving my friends next to me at the bar surprised with nervous giggles. What happens next leaves them in shock.

    With the other men in the club, Persana played with them and then moved on, not coming back. But not even ten minutes later, Persana returns to me. He bends over in front of me and proceeds grinds his ass against my crotch. Most straight men would probably freak out at this and throw him off. But again, I don’t react. I’m secure with my sexuality so I’m not threatened by it; and thanks to Salsa, it’s not offensive or arousing -- it just is. Persana’s action surprises my friends, but what I do stuns them. Again, it’s a game, and it’s one that I’m willing to play. As Persana finishes grinding on me and straightens, I grab him by the shoulders, pull him tight against me and go into a slow body wave, leading him into that same wave. The roll starts at the shoulders and chest and continuing down through the abdominal muscles and ends in the hips. With the wave finished, I turn him toward me, eyes locked on each other in the perpetual twilight of the club. He brings his face within inches of mine, his hand on my cheek. What he says disperses the tension:

    “You better be careful,” he says, “or I’ll put it in your mouth.”

    I break into laughter without losing eye contact or my poise. The whole situation is funny, and his sexual “threat” makes it hilarious. He finally breaks eye contact and vanishes into the audience.

    My friends don’t find the situation as funny as I do. Their eyes are wide and they’re speechless; whatever words they do try and say I don’t fully hear over my laughter. Persana had messed with one of my friends before me, and like most he had reddened and backed away. I tell them that it didn’t bother me: it’s fun; it’s like Salsa. They don’t get it, but that’s okay.

    Despite my repeated effort, the rest of my week in New Orleans was devoid of Salsa. I might not have gotten my fix, but Persana and the rest of the drag queens at Oz with their hyper-feminine body language and demeanor gave me an echo of what I’m used to on the dance floor, providing valuable examples of the contrast and surprise that can be created with the extremes of masculine and feminine essence. And most of all, giving me an experience I will never forget.

    Mark J. Reagan can be found and contacted at
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