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Patrizia Chen

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La Bamba

Posted: 05/04/10 02:34 PM ET

I always thought it was the summer of 1956, but now I'm not so sure about it... Wikipedia, as a matter of facts, suggests 1958.

I only recall that I was a kid and that La Bamba was the big rage, even in my somnolent city. One could hear Ritchie Valens belting it out at every sea-food shack on Livorno's beautiful passeggiata a mare, the white marble-tiled terrace that stretches along dark rocks and a cobalt Tyrrhenian sea.

La Bamba was everywhere: at the Luna Park (as amusement parks are called in Italian), at the merry-go-round and at the ubiquitous ice cream parlors that flanked the terrace, sheltered under the heavy tamarisks that dripped their salty dew at night. I stood, hidden behind my mother, and watched beautiful young men and women dance it. Happiness shining on their smiling faces, they hopped and jumped, shaking their shoulders and hips.

What would I have given to be part of those groups of kids. I too wanted to wear the girls' ample skirts, cut on a bias; I pined for their flat shoes -- sophisticated ballerinas - and for the gold hoops that dangled from their ears. I too wanted to be chosen, pulled to the dance floor, hand in hand. But more than anything, I wanted to dance it. Shyly, trying not to be seen by my parents, I tried the steps on my own -- pebbles and pine-tree needles crackling under my soles. Unfortunately nothing resembled what I admired. I hopped, but elegance eluded me. I jumped but landed noisily on the floor. It was maddening.

I was also sure, positive, that that song had something to do with me, personally, or at least with my family. In fact, at a certain point Valens sang:"Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan." I am not a sailor, I am a captain. Really? My father at that point was a Navy Captain; surely we needed to know more about La Bamba! And I needed to find some way to learn those elusive steps.

A quick pull at my hand, a severe look from my wonderful, but strict mother, and we were on our way back home. Curfew for us children was always early, but in those August nights, when the sticky sea breeze pervaded the air and heat swathed our slow walk back home, I was always able to make mamma stop once more so that I could steal another quick look at the dancers.

As soon as we were home, I would pretend to go obediently to bed and fall asleep instantly, but instead I would lie down listening to the muffled notes that the wind brought up to my third floor window, opened onto the night to capture some of its welcome coolness. When silence had filled the house and my father's snoring assured me that I was safe, I would get up, walk to the windowsill and stand there, imagining, dreaming. Silently I shifted my weight right and left, hoping to magically erupt into a fabulous dance. I never succeeded.

Tired and frustrated, I would end up in bed, all curled up to block my eager body from exploding. That inner desire to dance was like a dormant mine, ready to detonate. My night prayers included a silent invocation to Jesus:"Make me dance. Please?" I didn't even feel blasphemous, not for one second. After all I wasn't asking for anything bad, only some fun. But -- just to be on the safe side -- I had decided to keep it from my mother. A tiny secret between me and blond, bearded Jesus. Wasn't he, after all, the embodiment of kindness and love? The nuns of the Sacred Heart had repeatedly taught us his favorite phrase: Ask, and you shall receive. Well? Now I was asking!

One of those nights, after finally giving up to tiredness, I woke up at about 1 am. An extraordinary internal force made me jump out of bed and there, on the bare antique tiles of the family home, I, Patrizia, started dancing! The steps were all clear to me and my legs, dissociated from my brain, could finally replicate the fancy rhythm that attracted me so much.
"Miracolo! Miracle!" Jesus had listened to me.

I looked down at my feet, incredulous. I was dancing la Bamba. And I had no idea of how it had happened. Osmosis?

I danced for a long time, soundlessly, quietly landing on my tip-toes, springing left and right, hopping, stopping, beginning again. No one heard me, not even my little brother.
The morning after, my new dancing proficiency had not deserted me. La Bamba moves were still within me. And I couldn't wait for the evening walk...