The club scene in Quito is an absolute anthropological experiment. Constants are as follows: the bars and discothèques occupying essentially every façade in the vicinity of Plaza del Foch (the tourist plaza); the club promoters (male) who stand outside each establishment, aggressively recruiting gringos with business cards, promises of 2 for 1 drink specials, and passive aggressive English; the music that emanates with a palpable pulse from each opening threshold, typically contemporary Top 40 or 80’s, always accompanied by a fast-paced beat. Variables are as follows: the interior décor of the club (though likely darkness sliced by ephemeral, colored rays of light); the number of native Ecuadorians in the club, who will always be spotted moving at least one body part on the dance floor; the ratio of male to female dancers on the floor, which usually tips in favor of extroverted males, considering many South American men are more modest in their movement than stereotypes would have you believe; the nationalities and number of gringos in the club and their respective dance experience, as well as age, experience often dependent on nationality, but typically dependent on liters of alcohol consumed.
In my first experience at an Ecuadorian club, I sit at a corner table with my brother and two female friends. The girls continuously retrieve drinks from the bar and bring them back to the table, as it is Ladies’ Night and girls/females/women/chicas drink free for the entire evening. My brother and I take turns gulping from the friends’ mixed vodka drinks, as we are boys/male/men/cheap. The rest of my party is evaluating the dance moves of two middle-aged gringo men, lanky, Neo-Nazi bald, clothing hanging off their limbs like drapes from windows, gringos who have found two willing chicas of questionable sexiness in the club to dance with, “dance” being an entirely contextual verb, and I have turned my chair around to partake in the spectacle. The older of the gringo males (spectacles imply age) attempts to grind on one of the chicas, his groove more akin to a type of callisthenic, using his Pilsener bottle (possibly empty) as a baton to conduct an absent orchestra, mostly out of need for something to do with his hands. The chica humors him, strays to sip from her drink, humors, strays. The younger gringo and his chica now maintain a tacit breathing room of approximately two meters between them on the dance floor.
Everyone at my table laughs, including myself. I am not above laughing in a group at the clumsy misfortune of others outside that group to maintain my ego, status quo. I sit and laugh and quip and sip from the vodka drink, bending over the straw my brother has been using and pinning it to the side of the glass with my index finger, gulping directly from the glass. I am in my comfort zone of casual drinking, distant criticism, and passive joking at the expense of those who are active and thus create – with their motion – opportunities for failure. The rest of my party rise to their feet. What’s with the action?
“We’re going to dance,” says the party.
“O.K.” I say.
Their instantaneous decision challenges my status in the club. A joking, sipping smartass is no longer cool if he continues to joke, sip alone at the table after his group leaves to dance. His perceived brilliance in the field of social commentary is lost in the club music and its recruitment of his peers, and – instead of clever—he simply looks lonely, antisocial, worthy of some other table’s pity and jokes. So I must remain with the group to save face, but the group is now engaging in the activity it was just criticizing, which means the other members must not be passive jokers like me, but rather passionate dancers who critique the performance of others before practicing their craft more adroitly. If I want to maintain my first impression as some kind of socially aware Renaissance man rather than an insecure shell of a human being with an interior equivalent to a hollowed chocolate Easter rabbit, then I must follow their lead. Such is the dilemma of a petty ironist.
Strong American men don’t dance. The Don Drapers of this world brood by the bar and wait for the girl to finish with her recess or allotted playtime. To show (e)motion is to emasculate one’s self. This is why the men in my country lean against walls and watch while the women dance licentiously with each other, the same way a father would monitor his child on the monkey bars from a park bench. I am no Don Draper, however, for countless reasons more than his aversion to dancing. Despite my cerebral nature, I lack social inhibition (possible synonym: self-respect), even sober, and I launch myself onto the dance floor only after a moment’s hesitation, into the middle of the party, allowing my feet to slide and spring, my arms and shoulder joints to wave transversely, recalling the advice from a more experienced African American girl on DJ night at a local bar in the States and undulating my hips with vigor. I then proceed to let all thoughts evaporate and spontaneously move my body to the rhythm of the music. I occasionally look up. The rest of my group smiles in approval. My moves could easily be as foolish as those of the bald gringos, but because they are not – for whatever reason – perceived this way, I continue to dance.
“I’m so glad that you like to dance,” says one of my brother’s friends.
A Quebecois girl (she pronounces her home country Cah-NAH-dah) approaches me to compliment me on my dancing. Sincerely. She wants to get to know me better simply based on the fact that I dance. Do I dance? Ecuadorians – both men and women – moving subtly in my peripherals observe me without laughing. I’m likely delusional, but the women seem interested, the men intimidated. I move more emphatically, regardless, radiating something close to confidence. It is at this point, when I have convinced my unlicensed ego to pilot a solo flight at an airshow, that I remember my propensity for sweating profusely, even during the lightest physical activity. Dancing is cool. Sweating at the club until your T-shirt turns an alternate shade of blue and your hair slicks itself back into an imitation of Christian Slater’s personal hairstyle is not. A pause might be in order.
Yet the club has become more crowded, reached maximum capacity, so that even if a table were available for rest, any kind of lateral movement toward that table would be physically impossible, considering the allotted space for each patron is a shoulder’s width plus one well-placed dance step. So now the dancing is less about being seen and more about avoiding perception – whether sight or touch or smell – because my only quality that can currently be perceived is that of sweat, of stench, of a certain locker room demeanor that doesn’t belong in this club. But I asked for this same perception with my initial frivolous confidence in unfamiliar motions, so now I encounter in full not only this perception by others, but also frequent contact, typically given accidentally by me and received unwillingly by those in my vicinity: a stray, flailing arm leaving an imprint of sweat on a neighboring cotton dress, a string of sweat beads cast into the air with a brush of my hand across my forehead and its subsequent trajectory watched attentively with horrified eyes, the underworldly stench that can’t be stifled by dancing my way toward the air conditioning vent. And mysteriously I remain frozen in this state of confused, jovial, potent perspiration for the next few days, attending a different club each night with the same group, enduring simultaneous feelings of joy with and betrayal by my body as it tells my mind to hit the showers and works itself into a frenzy of motion, its own separate entity, taking center stage on whatever dance floor encountered, no longer regarding audience. And so my burgeoning impulse to dance becomes an innocent exploration of my body’s motory capabilities, as well as its limitations, practiced every weeknight with spiritual intrigue, the excretion of sweat no longer contemptible but instead an orgasm-like discharge from a full body’s ecstasy, the body left exhausted and satiated afterward. This pleasure cannot avoid its origins forever, though. This style of dancing is an event that will always be chained to social connotations – whether because of its environment or the potential for petty criticism inherent in its observance – and because of this, my newfound hobby will undoubtedly meet an end as hideous as, if not uglier than, its beginning.
The weekend. Saturday night, to be exact. The group has decided to splurge for a special occasion and attend a dance club of (likely affected) prestige. Clothing displays collars, neat seams; bodies emit scents unnatural. We rise like leavened bread to the higher occasion. The club itself is even on a pedestal, resting at the top of a flight of stairs. Outside, multiple security guards with clipboards and a group of hopeful, perfumed youth congregated behind a fence. We walk up to security and are instantly admitted, possibly because of assured age, possibly because it is fashionable to be foreign. During the ascent of the stairs, the group informs me of a recently retired tradition where those admitted to the club used to stand behind glass panels at the top of the stairs and decide which pedestrians below were worthy of admittance, which were worthy of expulsion, based on no more than a glimpse’s physical assessment. No one stands at the top evaluating this evening, but I feel the presence of this cruel ghost, the fickle, eternal ghost of social success and debasement, regardless. Perhaps it is only my conscience haunting me.
Upon admittance, a sponsored backdrop awaits each group for a red carpet style photograph to empower the notion of importance, a photo set at an indeterminable location with multiple scattered logos of an expensive liquor company as background being kind of the ultimate manifestation of image for the sake of image. To drive the point home – the point being that you are special and a Clubber among clubbers, whose simple presence in an establishment is worthy of (but will not necessarily yield) fame – you get to pay the club twenty dollars for an entrance fee. Act like twenty dollars is homeless hat pity, like you’ve been there (wherever there is) before, like a canvas of liquor logos with an omnipresent flashbulb is your natural milieu. The entrance fee is easier to swallow with the assistance of a complimentary mini of gold rum, two minis of rum, actually, since one group member doesn’t drink and donates her gift to my personal fund for alcoholism encouragement, so that now there are two miniature bottles of rum bulging from behind the fabric of my pants and a limited (in content and intellect) string of jokes to be made about these bulges. An additional two free shots of tequila at the bar per patron seems to further cheapen the $20 entrance fee and further confuse me with regards to what exactly the fuck I’m doing and what dancing possibly has to do with this whole practiced, postured process. My spine wishes to bend, but it cannot yet.
With every ascent comes an inevitable descent, and this descent takes place down a flight of marble stairs, prom-like, into the artificial heart of the club – the dance floor – divided into ventricles by reserved seating, with multiple bars being the only aortas of outlet. People cluster themselves and maintain insulation while they still can, before the fashionable time for arrival arrives and the area becomes flooded with Quito’s social elite; I head to one of the bars to avoid becoming any kind of clot in the club’s flow, in need of liquor to stomach what has and inevitably will take place, with the subtle hope that I’ll be able to purge myself of it all later. The bartender pours my tequila (well, clear) into a pair of shot glasses, the rim of each decorated with a full crown of salt, so that the subsequent draught is purely a swallow of briny ocean water, the mistaken inhalation of a drowning man, and when cast back ashore – away from the bar – I find myself parched and feverishly searching my pants pockets for some other liquid, any liquid, finally discovering and silkening my throat with golden rum – that oxymoronic liquid that quells my thirst but sets my stomach on fire. The bartender is not, and never will be, your friend.
I make my way back to my friends – who are dancing in the middle of the floor – while the opportunity still exists. I assess the location before dancing, noting the pillar behind me, a wall for me to place my back against when the crowd arrives and I don’t wish to be completely engulfed. I dance to every other song, mildly, sipping casually from my remaining mini of rum, resting my back against the wall during breaks, not because I dislike the music, but because I must pace myself in a considerate manner to avoid sweating. Sweating might be grounds for expulsion here. I will never truly dance in this club. The more fashionable begin to arrive, descend, followed eventually by the most fashionable, who take their time with their descent. But I know they will descend, that my time is coming, that I will no longer swallow but be swallowed. My minis are empty. So is a second bottle of beer. This is the first time I have been drunk while dancing in Ecuador. All visible patches of the floor around me disappear. People look above to television screens, where the images taken by the photographer upon entrance to the club are displayed in a slideshow, the flatscreen TVs and their images sharing some sort of genealogy with the mirror. Not everyone is shown. There is a rotation, and only the prettiest are looped. My image is not up there. After ten or so minutes, I have stopped looking for it, even though the images begin to repeat themselves after a couple of minutes. The most fashionable descend on the dance floor like a jeweled and beaded curtain. Clubbers have consumed just enough alcohol to desperately want to make themselves seen, and the dancing becomes combative. My back is to the wall.
I think I can not dance. I cannot dance. I can not.