Salsa dancing originated in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and was shaped by immigrants in New York City. Today, the musical form is international, and for Samantha Dunn, author of the book Faith in Carlos Gomez, salsa is a symbol of the spread of Latin culture.
Samantha Dunn's third book starts where her second left off. In the earlier work, called Not By Accident, the author described her rehabilitation after a serious accident in a canyon where she was riding on horseback.
The horse reared and fell on top of her, nearly severing her leg. She was losing blood and delirious and was helped by a canyon resident, an actor named Edward Albert.
"And all these random thoughts kept coming to me," she says. "And Edward was talking to me very calmly, and all of a sudden I looked at him and I said, 'You know, why don't I dance? It sounds like something I would have liked to have done, and now I will not get the chance.' And he looked at me very seriously. He said, 'You will dance. And then you'll know what dancing's really about.'"
It was four years before she could walk properly again. She indeed learned to dance when she was dating a South American man who introduced her to salsa.
"We were at his house and we were cooking together in the kitchen. He says, 'I want to show you what salsa dancing is.' I said, 'I am sorry, I do not do that.' But he puts on the music and we start to dance together, and it was just a tremendous amount of fun," she recalls.
Then came formal lessons and a visit to the Conga Room, a well-known salsa club in Los Angeles. There, she says, she had a revelation.
"I walked into the Conga Room and saw the people dancing of people," she says. " And they were all there together, and there just seemed to be an element of humanity there that was intoxicating. "
She says the Latin music, with its sensual rhythms, was hypnotic.
"It is a six-step dance on an eight-count beat. And you are holding for two beats in the music, so there is a power forward, and then a restraint back, and it creates a very sensual movement," she says. "I use the metaphor in the book, think of the way that a snake moves."
The atmosphere is exotic. She says conversations on the dance floor are as likely to be in Persian or Korean as in Spanish, and that Los Angeles, which is nearly half Hispanic, brings together immigrants in a Latinized culture.
The title of book speaks of the writer's search for Carlos Gomez, who is, in reality, an actor she once dated. He comes to symbolize her journey through the musical culture surrounding salsa.
Samantha Dunn says salsa has given her a new self-understanding, and started her on a journey she hopes to continue.
"It is really, for me, that sense of joining a community, that sense of understanding my world on a different level, having a different relationship to exercise and my body and music," she explains. "If anything, I can see adding more dances. I might even get to tango. I don't know. We'll see."
Samantha Dunn is the author of Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation.