Salsa Dancing in Harlem

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It’s been about 2 years since I moved to Harlem. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I moved here. I grew up in a very white neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where ethnic meant someone that wasn’t blonde. The neighborhood here is so multicultural and the lighter your skin color the more you stick out. You never know what to expect walking down the street.

At the Harlem Children’s Center, there are free salsa classes on Thursday night. One time I went by myself to check it out. Let me preface this by saying I’m not that white. My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is Italian so I grew up in a house with a lot of arguing and cooking, usually over loud music playing. However, I didn’t grow up with nearly the same Spanish influence as people from the neighborhood.

Even though it was an open class, a lot of the people there clearly knew how to salsa dance already. Not only did they know the steps, they could spin backward and forward and all over the room. The entire time I was gasping for air and trying not to trip over my feet. Even though I can dance all right at a club, I was barely keeping up with the 40-50 year olds that knew how to move.

About halfway through the class, the instructor told us to free dance with partners and get into the music for a while. The class portion was over, but we were welcome to dance around and practice for another hour until we had to leave the building.

At that point a five foot tall Mexican man decided he was going to help me. He took me to the side and showed me the same pivot. Over and over, turn on the ball of your foot. It’s a snap, you shouldn’t fall over. You need to keep your balance.

He spoke rapidly in a mix of Spanish and English getting frustrated that I wouldn’t understand him. As I’ve explained before, my family is Puerto Rican so I’m all too familiar with Spanglish shouting about what I’m doing wrong with my life.

“You’re not sexy!” he repeated.

“I’m not sexy?” I asked him.

“No you move like a noodle. Hold yourself up.”

“I can’t move like this?” I moved my hips side to side even more noodle like than the last time.

He sighed and demonstrated the way a real salsa dancer would move. I tried to follow. He spun me and got annoyed when I didn’t keep my torso straight, ignoring the fact that I was half a foot taller than them. An hour or so later, I finally started to get it better. Pivot and snap. Don’t lean to once side. If you move quickly you don’t fall over. He was delighted, well exasperated, but mostly excited that he had turned me into less of an embarrassment.

On my way out, he told me to practice at home so I could get better and they would be there on Saturday for another class.

Honestly I learned more from him in that hour than I did from the instructor, who decided I was a lost cause in the first 5 minutes.

When I try to think of any similar situation from my hometown, nothing comes close. The great thing about New York City is the sense of community. In Los Angeles, no one feels connected. Most of the people moved there for work and stayed for the sunshine. You drive around alone in your car and only talk to people you know.

NYC is the opposite. Even though it’s stuffy and crowded and loud, the people that were born here will die here and they can’t imagine life anywhere else. Everyone is thrown together on the streets and subway so they’re forced to interact all the time. They are not as rude as what is shown in movies or old episodes of Law and Order. In my experience, the brash comments usually come out of a concern for newbies.

“Get out of the way!”

“What are you doing?”

“You’re dancing like that?”

You’re a stranger in their land. They expect you to follow their ways and are quick to whip you into shape. At times, it’s unexpected and aggressive.

It’s really unlike any place else. Yet I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart.

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The Translation Business

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Even though most people think that the Middle Ages were dark, they were actually a period of learning. The infrastructure of the Catholic church allowed for ideas to be passed along. Better trade routes meant that people were able to pass things along. Generally merchants from the Middle East traveled to China and brought new ideas like gunpowder back with them.

Then someone would think to write the information down. Eventually a copy would get passed to someone probably in the church. Priests were similar to scholars because they spent a lot of time in silent study. The material would get translated into Greek or Latin.

No common people spoke or wrote Latin so the information would stay cloistered away.

When the printing press was invented, finally books were cheap to make so people could print out thousands of copies with minimal effort. Before that, a well read person had to painstakingly copy down every single word which could take weeks, depending on the length of the material. If they happened to be bilingual there weren’t any reference books for them to cross cheeck the translation. The translation would be up to the discretion of the translator. If he missed something or wrote and incorrect translation there wasn’t a way to look it up or complain about it on the internet.

All this building of information led up to the great information ages. Then came the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Birth of the United States. It’s a little unfair to say the Dark Ages were ignorant and superstitious times because there were people trying to spread knowledge. Yet there was a lot of ignorant things going on like the Crusades or burning witches at the stake.

It all lead to creating the setup for the periods of great intellectual growth. Today you can translate something on the internet in 5 seconds with fairly good accuracy. That’s a long way from copying down each word by candlelight for hours at a time.

The spread of information has been the greatest change of the 20th Century. If you were a peasant in the Middle Ages, you probably wouldn’t have been able to read let alone have access to books and these days you can look up anything you want to know in seconds. I wonder what’s the next age we’re leading up to. If it’s anything like Star Trek count me in for the next adventure.

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Hiram Bingham and the Search for Machu Picchu

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Hiram Bingham was the grandson of a famous evangelical preacher that brought Christianity to the indigenous population of Hawaii. The mission failed miserably as the Hawaiians distrusted them completely and treated them with hostility. The family stayed in Hawaii though and continued to preach and live there. When Hiram was a kid, he hated the life of a simple missionary and sought out adventure and glamour. He wanted to be a part of high society.

He was smart so he studied hard and was accepted to Yale University where he finally had the contemporary class he wanted. Yet it still wasn’t the way he had dreamed. His classmates treated him like an outsider and would never accept him into the fraternities. In the late 1800s very few middle class kids went to college and even fewer went to Yale.

Bingham was the type of person to never be stopped by obstacles. He continued to study and was friendly to his peers. Eventually he was introduced to his future wife Aldreda, the heir to the Tiffany fortune. He decided to become a history scholar as a way to elevate his status and become an appropriate match for her.

Part of his family background, growing up in Hawaii made him more interested in the history of Latin America. He realized that much of the old traditions and tales had never been recorded so he decided to make Yale the first and best expert of Latin American history.

With the support of Alfreda’s family, he mounted an exploration of Peru. The trip was disastrous. The locals hated and distrusted white men particularly Americans. They often asked Bingham where the Incan gold was even though it was lost hundreds of years ago.

The most inspiring part of the story is how Bingham consistently tried to bring the history of Latin America to a western audience. He knew it would bring Peru more influence in politics. He was met with resistance by the native, the Peruvian government, and Yale University. From every angle he was discouraged from finishing his guest but persevered. Yale still has one of the best Latin American history departments and the history of the great Inca Empire was brought to light after nearly being lost.

When you’re doing something for good intentions, the world will start to align in your favor. You can argue that this was just another rich American taking advantage of a poor country. Yet the entire exploration was so important as a precedent. Peru was about to maintain ownership of it’s artifacts and its culture was put on the map.

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Hamilton Grange

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Hamilton Grange in the Upper West Side is one of the way lesser known historical sites of New York City. It was the residence of former Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton. As one of the founding fathers, Hamilton was known for being the hot head of the group and challenging them on the issues. Even though he was orphaned at a young age and had no wealth of his own, Hamilton was smart and ambitious so he practiced law and helped found the Bank of New York among many other things. He hadn’t lived at the Grange very long when Alan Burr challenged him to a duel for messing with his election campaign. He died the next day at 32.

When he moved to the Grange, Hamilton complained that it was too far from the city, which only went about as high as Canal Street. The Upper West side wasn’t there yet so the surrounding land was marshy lowlands.The Grange stayed in his family for the next 30 years and then went into forclosure. It was bought by a nearby church and redesigned so that it faced the street. Over the years, the city became more populated and extended until it covered the entire island and the boroughs. Today the house is situated between a couple different projects called the Hamilton Heights.

The house was built in a contemporary Federal style that was popular for the time. It focused on a Greek revival style using an ordered classic design. They were attempting to create a new state founded on democracy so naturally they tried to imitate the Greeks and Romans.  To build a new kind of state, the popular design plans were very symmetrical and even. The facade is very plain when compared with the European designs of the time.

When you walk past it, the house looks misplaced. It’s perched on a hill looking like it could slide off at any moment and the surrounding area would have been unfathomable to the Founding Fathers. There are noisy high rises with thousands of people rushing by that take no notice of the old house.  It was almost destroyed dozens of times until it underwent a huge restoration project about 10 years ago.  Now instead of servant’s quarters, there’s a visitor center.

I like the site because houses tell history in their own private way. Styles may change and people redecorate, but the structure remains constant like a time capsule while the rest of the world changes around it. New York City is known for being new and innovative and yet there are thousands of historical sites spread around the city. When you stumble upon one you may not notice like some of the plaques or lesser known places. Hamilton Grange could have been forgotten. They could have demolished it to make room for another sky scraper. Instead they built a neighborhood around it and named it after Alexander Hamilton.

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