Standing up the front of the small community hall I was feeling just a little self conscious.

Stretched out on the wall behind me was a floor to ceiling mirror holding the entire room hostage with its harsh reflection. There was no sympathy. The glare of the fluorescent lights on the blue-and-white floor tiles was accentuated in the glass panels and the bare wooden walls looked even emptier than in real life. It seemed that the mirror had exaggerated my beanpole figure too. I tried not to look but it was no use; the mirror kept drawing me back.

In front of me were about 15 abuelitos (grandparents) or adultos mayores (older adults) sitting around five fold-up wooden tables in the middle of the hall. Covered in white table cloths, the tables were set with colourful teacups and matching saucers, tins of instant coffee and small glass sugar bowls. It looked homely and friendly, if a little sparse. Aged 65 and up, the older adults were members of a club run by the local council, which meets quickly in the hall to share activities and a light afternoon supper. Most of them were women and they sat there laughing and chatting in groups of twos and threes. The three men sat silently, staring into space.

To my left, Leonel, was hunched over, setting up a portable stereo system. Employed by the Municipality of Quilicura, he spends most afternoons visiting these senior citizens clubs where he runs exercise and dance classes before heading to the languages institute to teach English in the evenings. With the speakers connected and the stereo plugged in, Leonel stood up. Walking over to the abuelitos, he cleared his throat.

“OK,” he said in a voice that was gentle but firm enough to command attention. The conversations among the women stopped and the men blinked. Everyone looked towards the front of the hall. “Who remembers what are we doing today?”

La cueca,” half a dozen voices chorused back.

“Yes, that’s right,” Leonel beamed back at them. With just over two weeks to go until Chile celebrated the 201st anniversary of its independence, it was the perfect time to be practising the national dance that plays a pivotal role in the festivities. Based on the mating rituals of hens and roosters, the cueca is performed by couples holding white handkerchiefs aloft in their right hands. Although it has minimal body contact, there is a lot of intense eye contact and suggestive movements in the lead up to the man’s inevitable conquest of his ‘chick’. It’s both sensual and subtle at the same time.

I had seen the dance performed before, both in Australia and in Chile, and when Leonel had invited me to take part in the class earlier that afternoon I was keen to give it a go. It sounded like fun. But now standing in front of the gaping mirror I wasn’t feeling so confident. I looked down at my two left feet, willing them to cooperate. All the older Chileans were getting up from their chairs in preparation for the dance. And here I was, a gringo in their midst, about to butcher one of their most treasured cultural activities.

“Right, everybody come out the front here to the pista,” called Leonel. Most of the women and one of the men stepped into the empty space out the front that was serving as the dance floor. The women giggled. The one man shuffled up slowly in his ill-fitting grey trousers. “Good for you Panchito,” Leonel said as he flashed him a smile.

“Did you remember your pañuelos?” he asked. On cue, they reached into their pockets and handbags, pulling out their hankies.

I realised, I’d forgotten to bring mine. One of the abuelitas at the back of the room noticed as well and she folded a small plastic bag and presented it to me with a smile. It wasn’t exactly a great handkerchief but it was better than nothing.

“Wait,” a voice called out. “María has a man’s hanky with her. You can use that.” María stepped forward and I swapped my plastic bag for her hanky. Now I was ready.

Leonel turned on the music. “OK, find a partner,” he said. I turned to the woman standing next to me. She was taller younger than most of the others and she had short hair that was dyed jet black. Her face was framed by a pair of sensible glasses with neat silver frames and she was wearing a plain red cardigan and a respectable knee length skirt.

“Would you be my partner?” I asked.

“Certainly,” she replied with a small grin.

Panchito paired up with another woman and all the remaining abuelitas got into couples, joking about who would be the man and who would be the woman.

“OK,” Leonel said, “Men, take your partner by the arm and walk back and forth with her three times. Then you stand opposite each other clapping until the music starts.”

I held out my arm for my partner and she took it. We started to walk backwards and forwards. Easy.

“Remember,” said Leonel, “You’re supposed to be flirting with each other. Talk to each other…come on you roosters!”

To my left, the women roosters and their partners giggled loudly. On my right, Panchito continued shuffling slowly. It it was up to me to fill the gap at the top of the pecking order.

Mustering all the cockiness I could gather, I leaned my head in towards to my partner’s and asked her: “Cual es su gracia?

“Priscila.”

“And how are you today Señora Priscila?”

“Very well thank you,” she said and I think I detected a hint of a smile. We unlinked our arms and stood apart, clapping. So far so good. Now for the dance itself.

“Right,” Leonel said, stopping the music. “There are three ways to start the cueca: the figure of eight, the pursuit and the circle.”

As he had been explaining the dance, one of the keener abuelitas had been helping out with tips and suggestions. She had a shock of snowy white hair and bright blue eyes. Now Leonel called her up to show the rest of us how the dance went. Together they demonstrated the moves while the rest of us watched on. Leonel skipped across the tiles, a big grin spread across his face; his curly-haired assistant was not as nimble as she had once been but she moved gracefully and it was obvious that she was having a good time. They danced the figure of eight as we watched on. While he danced, Leonel called out instructions.

“When you meet in the middle, it’s very important to make eye contact,” he said dancing the figure of eight. “When you finish, it’s important to spin around to your right, OK? To the right.” We nodded obediently, hoping we had understood correctly.

Then it was over to the abuelitos and me. There wasn’t much space on the dance floor so only three couples danced. As the first group gave it a go, I stood with Priscila, listening and watching as Leonel gently corrected their mistakes.

“Remember the eye contact…the man turns on his right – the right,” he said demonstrating to one of the women pretending to be a man. She tried again and this time, she got it right. Most of the abuelitos knew little more than I did about the cueca and they giggled like school girls as they made wrong turns and bumped into each other.

The first group of couples finished and it was my turn to step onto the dance floor. All my concerns were gone now. I was too busy focusing on being a good rooster. Priscila and I stood opposite each other, clapping and waiting for the singing to start. After a false start, I was a bit slow off the mark but Priscila knew exaclty what she was doing. She launched into the figure of eight and I followed. We met in the middle and her gaze met mine. I felt the power of her stare.

“Wow,” I thought, “she’s really taking this flirting part seriously.” With an extra flourish of the hanky, I looked back as intensely as I could before turning away to my right before finishing opposite her, just as I was supposed to.

Alongside us Panchito and his partner were struggling to follow the dance and with a social worker who had just arrived, Leonel guided them through the steps. Eventually they got there. Kind of.

Back to Leonel. “OK, for the pursuit, the man begins opposite the woman and he sets off in an arc looking for her,” he continued. “When he meets her, she starts off in another arc and he pursues her. He then leaves her back in the original position and turns on his right.”

Over to us. The same woman pretending to be a man turned to her left again and Panchito still had trouble following what was going on but Priscila was in her element. Thankfully I managed to keep up with her.

Now it was time to master the third and final introduction to the cueca. The circle, Leonel assured us was the easiest of the opening moves to the cueca. “The trick is to maintain eye contact throughout.”

One of the other couples really made a mess of it, turning their backs on each other and getting totally confused. But his time Priscila and I got it just right. “Have a look at these two,” Leonel said to the others, pointing at us. Then turning to us he said: “Do it again so the others can see.”

I smiled at Priscila, but she just stared back like a chicken playing hard to get. “OK,” I thought. “You’re on.” Standing opposite each other, we traced our way around an invisible circle on the floor, waving our hankies up high and down low and maintaining perfect eye contact. When we finished the others gave a small applause. It felt good.

In the same way, Leonel continued explaining the rest of the dance. His curly haired assistant had ducked off to the kitchen to prepare the supper but the social worker stepped in to fill her place. We learned the half moon steps and practised them with our partners before moving on to the tricky zapateo foot tapping. And with that, the lesson was over.

“OK,” Leonel said, sweat dripping down his forehead. “Now, you’re ready to dance the cueca.”

I approached Priscila with my arm held out to meet her. This was it. Arm in arm, we paced back and forth, chatting about nothing in particular. We stood apart and clapped and then the singing started. We launched into the circle and things seemed to be going pretty well. We made eye contact when we were supposed to, we turned to our right just as we had been shown, we waved our hankies with gusto and then we finished side by side, just like Leonel and the social worker had. We were panting for breath but we were smiling.

We had done it.

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