Jake Kelly is Chicago's conservative mayoral candidate. Heir to a dubiously obtained real estate fortune, he’s had a hard time convincing people a generous, caring heart lies beneath his cold exterior. Recent polls have him lagging behind his more family oriented Democratic opponent and his main problem seems to be Chicago’s large Hispanic constituency.
Keila Diaz is a warm, sassy, left leaning violinist of Hispanic descent. She’s struggling to make a career out of her passion for playing the violin in the city she loves.
Keila needs more work and Jake needs a consultant. When a friend brings them together to come up with a music program for the city's public school system as part of Jake’s plans for education reform, sparks ignite and combust. Jake ignores he'd already met Keila once before and Keila follows his lead.
When photos of the two of them dancing close at a festival mysteriously show up in local media; things get complicated. Voters love the idea of Jake and Keila together, but they've got it all wrong. Or do they?
July 23rd, Chicago SummerDance Festival
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera. Celia Cruz’s powerful, husky voice sang out from the speakers as the live orchestra took a break. An eclectic crowd gathered on the unique, recycled milk carton dance floor, swaying as Celia’s warm, sensual rendition of the popular Cuban song invited them to loosen their hips for the long night of salsa dancing ahead.
The moon beamed shafts of light through the trees, casting shadows that seemed to dance along with the crowd. And though the city lights overwhelmed most of the stars above, an unrelenting few shone down.
On one corner of the dance floor, Keila Diaz sang along and unconsciously grooved to the music as she looked around for her older sister. They were going to support their good friend, Robbie, who’d just led that night’s dance lesson.
Though they hadn’t been able to make it to the lesson, the real fun was about to begin.
“How did your audition go?” an excited voice came up behind her. Keila turned, smiled, and hugged her sister.
“I think I did well. It almost scares me to say it out loud— you know how I always try to remain neutral. But they all wanted to talk to me afterward, and they seemed excited about my performance.” Keila held her breath, nervous energy flowing through her all over again.
“You’re anxious,” Tania observed.
“It’s just… this orchestra suits me, they have a lot of public support and they play the classics along with more modern fare. And I really want to come back home. It’s painful to want something so much.”
Tania seized Keila’s hands and slowly began swiveling her hips, trying to get Keila to do the same.
“Did you spiccato and pizzicato and all that neat stuff?” she asked and Keila signaled a yes. “Then don’t get worked up about it. You already gave it your all and there’s really nothing left to do but hope for the best, push it aside for a while, and dance.”
Keila closed her eyes and slowly breathed out. There was nothing more escapist than shutting your mind off and just losing yourself to music and dance. Gradually, she began to move again, marking the beat of the conga drums with her shoulders. Tania smiled and gave her a look that said, there you go!
“Guantanamera” began to wind down just as the live orchestra began their rendition of Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan.” The primitive, pulsing beat of the conga combined with the scintillating sounds of the trumpets sent an energetic buzz through the crowd.
Tania and Keila looked at each other and smiled wide, their rhythm picking up, their individual styles creeping in. Though salsa was essentially a partnering dance, there were more than a few people on the dance floor with enough fancy leg work and body actions to dance solo when no partner could be found and the night provided enough anonymity to throw your cares away.
Old pros soon took to the floor, immediately carving out enough space to display their expertise. A few amateurs timidly looked on, swaying slightly, while other free spirits did what came naturally and let their bodies lead the way.
People from all cultures, social classes, and backgrounds came to Chicago SummerDance. They were there to learn, have fun, and leave their troubles behind. People only looked at each other to share a smile or copy a step.
Robbie soon found them, and they exchanged enthusiastic greetings before he had Tania go off to dance with a distinguished-looking older man who was just starting to learn to salsa. Robbie then had Keila assist him in demonstrating a few hand juggles and double spins to couples nearby.
Jake Kelly stood just outside the dance floor, scanning the crowd. Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden was living up to its name.
Every single person there seemed to be lost in their own little world, as if that particular corner of Chicago was theirs alone. The vibrant flowers along the adjoining paths complemented the swirl of colorful skirts on the dance floor, and with the exception of the dance teacher’s occasional shout outs, the night belonged to music and dancing. Even the warm, humid air, lightly spiced with the scent of roses, seemed to accentuate the sultry movements.
The flare of a crimson skirt caught his attention and he turned to see the subsequent flash of a shapely pair of legs. His eyes strayed to the dancer’s hips and he gazed at the rhythmic swivels and swerves.
When he glanced up to see her face, he saw her expression was one of fun and sweet abandon, as if being among so many people was almost the same as being alone and free. She obviously had no idea she was being watched.
She spun around, and he took in her curvy figure. Funny, he normally wasn’t into her type. He usually liked busty, tall, leggy women.
The young woman reminded Jake of an actress in an old movie his mother loved, Gilda. He’d seen some old footage of the same actress once, dancing for troops during World War II. The young woman on the dance floor looked just like that, a perfect pin-up girl for a lonely soldier.
Except this girl was in full color, her soft, golden brown waves touched by the soft glow of the stage lights in front and the city lights above, not in a distant black and white film.
The dance instructor, clad in tight black pants and a satiny purple shirt, went to her and together they demonstrated a few complicated steps. The instructor then left to help someone else and Jake continued to watch the young woman, who now danced with a little boy.
But she glanced up at him suddenly and he held her eyes, feeling an unfamiliar jolt. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to look down at his watch, but not before he noticed she also looked away.
Seconds later, the salsa instructor was standing beside him. When he caught Jake’s eye, he nodded knowingly toward the young woman and grinned.
“Is she one of your instructors?” Jake asked, knowing he’d been caught watching.
“No, she’s a friend, in town for just a couple of days. I asked her to come down and help,” he explained.
“I was thinking she looks like the actress in this old forties movie, Gilda,” Jake said, uncharacteristically feeling a need to explain.
“Ah. Rita Hayworth.” The instructor bobbed his head in agreement. “Rita’s father was a Spanish flamenco dancer, you know.”
Jake didn’t know, but he nodded politely. They were silent for a moment, and then, “You’re Jake Kelly, right?”
“Right,” Jake repeated. Though he wasn’t exactly well-known, his image appeared often enough in local social media.
“I’m Robbie.” The instructor extended his right hand, which Jake shook. “Is this your last crazy night out on the town before you announce your candidacy and the media stalking begins?” Robbie asked, eyes twinkling.
“Not exactly— how do you know I’m going to run?”
“Word gets out,” Robbie said. “Is dancing on your agenda tonight?”
Jake finally smiled. “No. I’m waiting for a friend; this is just a convenient place to meet.”
At that moment his cell phone tone signaled he had a text message. “Stood up?” Robbie asked.
“No, she’s just running late.”
“Then dance. Trust me, it’ll do you good.” Robbie put his fingers to his lips and whistled quick and loud. The young woman Jake had been watching turned toward the sound and Robbie waved her over. She looked at Jake and visibly hesitated before walking over to them.
“This gentleman needs to dance,” he told her when she reached them.
“Needs to?” He thought her voice would be sultry for some reason, but it wasn’t, it was sweet.
Sultry or sweet, Jake really didn’t want to dance. “I really don’t—”
But the instructor gently took hold of their arms and turned them toward each other before more forcibly shoving them to the nearest empty space: a dark corner of the dance floor.
The young woman finally looked up at him and he looked down at her. Her eyes were a warm shade of topaz and the waves in her hair untamed. Warm and untamed— definitely not his type.
Keila looked up at the intense, brilliantly blue eyes that had been watching her earlier. The man in front of her seemed full of himself, she could tell by the way he looked at her and by the way he held himself. “Don’t worry,” she finally spoke. “We don’t have to dance.”
But he didn’t move. Finally, he looked to his side, observed how the young man there held his partner, and turned back to Keila. He copied the stance and caught her left hand in his right, sliding his left hand around her back. The instant his hands were on her, Keila’s pulse picked up.
The orchestra began playing Sonora Carruseles’ “Micaela,” a vibrant, spirited song with a powerful beat that lured bodies to surrender. “Have you ever danced salsa?” she asked, instinctively stepping closer and raising her right hand to his shoulder.
“No, never,” he replied, his voice low.
“Oh, okay.” She cleared her throat. “We’ll start with the basics, then.” Assuming the correct posture, she instructed, “Step forward with your left foot as I step back with my right, like this.”
“Good. Now step back and I step forward. Like that.” They began to move slowly, but in sync. “Try to rock your hips, just a little, like this.” She moved his right hand to the swell between her waist and her hip, the way she’d done many times before when helping Robbie with his pupils. But this man’s hand was warm and firm and she felt an uncomfortable sense of awareness.
“Like this?” he asked, looking directly into her eyes while he copied her movements. She nodded.
They practiced the step a few times. “Now, when you step forward, try shifting your weight into me, leaning into me, like this.” She leaned into him, just as he leaned into her. He then lost his footing, stepping forward just as she did the same. His hands went down to her waist, her hands around his arms and their eyes locked, unsettling her again. She looked away first, flustered because his eyes were unreadable, and at a loss of patience with herself. Focus on the steps, she chided herself.
Again, she cleared her throat. “Salsa is a sensual dance, so I’m going to have to give you certain physical instructions, put my hands on you now and then, and look into your eyes because that’s the way it’s danced. And I’m just letting you know because it’s obvious you’ve never done this before and I don’t want you to be embarrassed,” she explained, ignoring the fact that he didn’t look embarrassed.
And for the first time since she’d seen him watching her from the sidelines, he smiled. A spontaneous and seriously sexy smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t take it personally.”
“Good.” Keila looked up and, embarrassed at her babbling, laughed.
***Jake found he couldn’t stop smiling. She laughed like she danced, with abandon. Right now, surrounded by the powerful cadence of Afro-Caribbean music and holding a stranger that felt good in his arms, he felt anonymous, and that made him feel free, too.
The young woman shook her head and said, “Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll teach you the side steps, and we’ll put it all together.”
Jake followed her instructions and her lead, unwilling to take his eyes off her unusual eyes, or his hand off the appealing curve between her waist and hip.
Though he’d never danced salsa and had never expected he would, it wasn’t long before he was getting the steps. “Rock, step, slower side step, tap. Now forward. Rock, step, slower side step, tap...great, you’re getting it.” She smiled up at him, noticeably surprised he was succeeding, and he felt as if he’d just solved every problem plaguing the human race. “Now try to lead,” she instructed.
“Right, I’ll lead,” he agreed before pausing, “How exactly do I lead?”
“You have to tug me a bit. Gently, like this.”
He led, slowly moving them in a circular pattern to the left. “How do I spin you?” he asked, feeling adventurous.
She hesitated. Finally, she shrugged and explained, “When you step back, separate from me like this,” she demonstrated, moving away from him. “This is called open position and I then slide under your arm, like this,” she expertly twisted and turned, and he got a good and much appreciated look at her back side. Hello, J-Lo, he thought. When she met his eyes again, it was clear by her expression that she’d caught him looking. But she only shook her head and said, “And then back to close position.”
He tried spinning her, but was so distracted by the way she turned her body, he messed it up and she ended up tripping into him. Tenderly tugging her closer, he said, “I think I’m better at close position.” He held her gaze and leaned into her like she’d taught him as they continued to move together, holding the pattern.
Time passed, different music played, but he didn’t really notice. He felt lost to her and the music as they laughed while trying and sometimes messing up different steps.
He spun her again a few times, feeling an odd sense of pride the moment he got it right. She smiled up at him, as if she knew what he was thinking.
They began to dance smoothly and the underlying energy he’d been trying to ignore flowed between them more freely. He saw his awareness mirrored in her eyes. Their breathing was equally shallow, and though a consistent, balmy breeze prevented them from breaking into a sweat, her skin was aglow and she smelled amazing, like tangy coconuts, if there was such a thing.
As he looked down at her and studied her, he wondered why he was reacting to her the way he was. She wasn’t the first pretty girl he’d held.
She studied him, too, but while he knew his eyes never gave anything away, her expression was open and easy to read. She was curious about him, too, but her hesitance about it showed. He didn’t like seeing it there and without thinking, he gently tugged her closer.
***As the steady and rhythmic “Ave Maria Lola” played, Keila continued to move to the music. Without thinking, she allowed him to pull her closer…and closer.
Lola, Ay Lolita Lola, a back-up vocalist’s melodic voice rang out, louder than the rest, and he might as well have been singing Keila, what are you doing Keila?
What this man had was what Tania had been warning her about for years. Sex appeal. She’d never really experienced its magnetic pull, and she’d begun to think she was probably, and thankfully, immune to it. But here it was, reeling her in.
Even his sweet and spicy scent was almost unbearably sexy. Keila made herself think of her boyfriend Mark, and wondered if she was, in a sense, cheating. Yes, it was just a dance lesson. But her body’s response to the man holding her had to be some sort of betrayal, especially in light of Mark’s constant complaints as of late.
Lola, Ay Lolita Lola.
The last chords of “Ave Maria Lola” died away and Rojita’s seductive salsa version of Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” came on. Sensual salsa was danced closer, more slowly, and they continued to move together, completely in tune with one another. She felt enveloped in addictive sensations she hadn’t yet encountered in her twenty-six years.
It began to rain, just a trickle, and a few people began to leave, while others laughed and stayed. The rain tickled her cheeks, her lips, and her shoulders, and the sweet, earthy scent of wet grass permeated the air. But they continued to dance, their gazes never wavering.
Then, in the distance, Keila heard Tania’s voice calling her. Finally breaking eye contact, she looked up at the sky, taking in a deep, awakening breath. With great effort she put mind over body and decided it was time to leave. “I have to go.”
“Why?” he stopped dancing, but continued to hold on to her. “My sister’s calling me,” she explained.
“I don’t hear her calling you.” His voice was so low, it reverberated in her chest.
She laughed. “That’s because you don’t know my name.”
They’d stopped dancing, the rain coming down just a little bit harder.
“That’s right. I don’t.”
As they continued to stand there, Keila realized he wasn’t going to ask for her name. She realized she didn’t want to tell him anyway, and didn’t want to know he who was, either.
He was looking at her lips and she didn’t like how good that made her feel. It also made her feel guilty. She let him go.
Seconds later, as the last notes of “Strangers in the Night” died away, he released her.
“Bye,” she said, unable to think of anything else to say.