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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Secret Life of a Salsa Dancer

By: Stephanie Friedman

The unremarkable beige door of the apartment bursts open, and Justine Kruse rushes in, long black hair swinging and heeled boots clopping. She hurtles around the kitchen counter, leaning forward slightly as she walks to give her more momentum and speed. Ada Chinda, her roommate, bounces out of her room in basketball shorts and a tank top, and follows Justine into her room. “Justine! You’re home! Woo!”
“Hi!” Justine responds, but doesn’t slow down. She drops her binder and bag down on her chair, slides her laptop out of its hot pink case, and opens it with one hand as she takes off her long wooden beaded necklace with the other.
“Justine!” Another roommate, Michelle Bradley, calls out and her eyes light up. She gets out of her chair to hug Justine and smothers her in a bear hug. Justine hugs her for a few seconds, then breaks away to dash to the kitchen. She takes out a red rice cooker and a bag of frozen vegetables, and begins to make a balanced dinner. Forty minutes later, she is out the door again, a speeding five-foot-one bullet in high heeled boots.
Justine is a second year psychology and public health double major at UC Irvine. She wakes up at nine every weekday morning for class at eleven. Mondays and Wednesdays after class, Justine interns at Girls. Inc, a nonprofit day care in Costa Mesa for girls ages five to eleven. Justine helps the girls with their homework, plays games with them, and plans activities like baking.
“Once we were playing pretend play and I was a zombie chasing around the little kids,” said Justine. “Being around younger kids takes me back to my childhood, and helps me keep my imagination. Sometimes we lose track of that as we go to college and grow up; we don’t indulge in fantasy lifestyle. They also keep me physically active because they’re so full of life and energy, whether I’m playing jump rope or setting a record for handball.”
For three hours on Wednesday nights, Justine is a TA for a leadership training class at UCI.
“During class? I sit there,” said Justine Kruse. “No, I answer e-mails and questions, and grade article summaries and journal entries.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Justine has class for six hours, then practice for the UCI Salseros team. Justine has been on the team since the start of her sophomore year, but has been dancing since she was in fifth grade.

“The styles of dance that we practice are first salsa,” said Justine. “But we also practice bachata dancing. Bachata is a Dominican Republic type of dance and not many people know about it, but it’s starting to develop more. It’s a slower version of Latin dancing. It uses a lot more of the hips and not as many spins as salsa would.”

In addition to her busy schedule, Justine will be a resident advisor at UCI this summer, and had the same job last summer as well. The program, called Cosmos, is for high school teenagers who take summer classes and live in the UCI Mesa Court dorms for six weeks over the summer. And during her junior year at UCI, she will be a resident advisor for a dorm in Mesa Court.

Disco balls. Men with buns in their hair. Couples grinding on the dance floor. While Justine is an organized, multitasking busy bee during the day, two nights a week her world completely changes. With members of the Salseros, or friends she has met from dancing networks, Justine goes out “social dancing” to salsa and bachata clubs around Orange County and LA County. On Wednesdays, she goes to Steven’s Steakhouse in Commerce, California, near LA, and doesn’t leave until 10 p.m.

“Wednesday nights are a good night to go to Steven’s Steakhouse,” Justine said. “They usually close at two [a.m.], so I get back around three. Michelle’s very sad when that happens because she misses me.”

On Tuesdays, Justine goes to Tapas, a restaurant in Newport Beach that turns into a nightclub after 8 p.m. It costs two dollars to get in, and there are bouncers at the front door dressed in all black polos and pants. Once inside, a bar lines the left wall, and there is a doorway to the right to enter the main room. Upon first glance, the room could pass in a high school prom scene; a disco ball hangs from the ceiling, donning the room with a light show, and a purple star-shaped spotlight darts from person to person. An empty wooden stage lies forgotten at the front of the room, gold curtains open but no one is using the space. Each side of the room sports an assortment of red-clothed tables and black dining chairs. The tables nearest to the door are fairly populated; the ones on the opposite side of the room are almost empty. Justine occupies one of these empty seats for all of two seconds, when a skinny, 19-year-old guy wearing black skinny jeans and a black and white plaid shirt sweeps over, holds his hand out, and steals her onto the dance floor.

“When social dancing, you really like to see that one person because you are just so comfortable dancing with them,” said Justine. “And you know, like, ‘I see you!’ or that one song comes on and it’s just like, spark! You have to dance with a good amount of people, I would say at least 15 people, to figure out the style that you like.”

The guy Justine dances with is her friend Shadai, who she sees often at social dancing events. They are one of about 30 couples on the dance floor. All the dancers are dancing some sort of variation of bachata, but that is the only thing they have in common. There are pairs of guys and girls ranging from high school to the thirty year range. Guys are dressed in jeans or dress pants and a nice shirt, while girls sport everything from a lace mindress to jeans and a tank top. Some couples appear to be together and dance dirtier than others; a man on the edge of the dance floor dips his partner so much that she is bent over backwards, and he is hovering above her. At one point, the guy, who is shorter than the woman, drops her. They laugh and rearrange themselves to continue dancing. There are also a few girls dancing with girls; they take turns being the “guy” and dance like the other couples.

When the song is over, everyone groans. Justine sits back down at the table. Her eyes are wide and she is breathless and excited. Almost as soon as she touches the chair, a man with his hair in a curly bun marches over, holds out his hand, and asks her to dance. After the song, he picks her up off the floor in a bear hug and Justine squeals out of shock, but tries to suppress it.

“His style was harder to adjust to,” said Justine. “I didn’t know what he wanted me to do.” Five second pause, and she is back on the dance floor again.

Among her friends, Justine is seen as the one who has it all together and under control. “She’s going places,” said Ada of Justine. “That girl is going to conquer the world someday.”

“Justine is the perfect person to be an RA or in a teaching position,” said Michelle. “She’s authoritative and people respect her, but she’s still fun. I goof around with her all the time, but I have so much respect for her.”

How does this type A student maintain a grasp on her work when coming home at two or three in the morning most nights?

“I am always trying to find shortcuts. Whatever I do, whether it’s walking to the parking lot or figuring out the bus schedule, I always want to find the most efficient way of getting where I need to go,” said Justine. “Salsa is the exception. When I go dancing, I want to stay as long as possible, so I actually try to go the longest way possible.”

Reporting Notes:
Long sit-down interview with Justine
Brief interviews with Michelle & Ada (roommates)
Observation of Tapas (salsa club) and Justine at her apartment
Video of Justine performing bachata
Tapas & Girls, Inc. (internship) websites
Facebook pictures

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