By Amanda Lee Domenech
"Protect yourself, push back, be stronger!" said Angel, a salsero wearing all black in a cut off tank top, slacks and a beanie that looks resistant to stay on his close-cut graying hair. You'd think we were in a mosh-pit at a local rock concert from his advice, but in actuality, we're dancing salsa at a heavily-occupied dance studio in Brooklyn, New York.
It’s November 4th and I get to Salsa Salsa Dance Studio around 10:30pm, the social started a half hour ago. Salsa Salsa, at 55 Fourth Avenue, is one of those dance studios where you can feel the energy before you even get into the place. Fogged windows, bass pumping, people talking, laughing and dancing.
The studio has exposed brick with wall-to-wall mirrors on the opposite end. There are two newly installed light panels about two feet wide on opposite ends of the exposed brick wall that extend from the floor to the ceiling. The light panels slowly fade into different colors; blue, orange, purple, pink, white and yellow. The ceiling is trimmed with 22 curved track spotlights; right below it are moldings with hidden lights that also change color, but only shuffle between red, blue and green. All these colors play well together, creating a soft ambiance that’s quite soothing, contrary to the upbeat pace.
There’s a rolling-rack with hangers for coats, being weighed down so much that by 11pm it breaks by the masses of outerwear, now strewn along the wall; some coats still hanging by their thin, white, wire hangers. No one seems bothered by this, there isn’t a frantic person in sight. Studio instructors are serving drinks and selling bottles of water behind a make-shift bar with a hand-made sign written in black marker; Beer $3, Mixed $5 and Water $1. It’s the only studio I’m aware of that has a full-size refrigerator parallel the DJ booth which gives it a homey feel.
Owners Jose Rivera, Marcus Gonzalez and their co-instructors have created an environment that breeds friendliness. The music is always on point; the DJ spins the best of Salsa, Bachata, Merengue and Cha Cha, but it’s never over-powering. The volume is both loud enough for you to feel it in your body and low enough so that you can have a conversation with your dance partner without a screaming match. In the crowd, there are familiar faces, not all are students of this dance studio, but none the less, avid Salsa Salsa social-goers.
Being a Nuyorican and growing up in a Puerto Rican household, my experience with salsa was a “go with the flow” feel, there is very little structured dancing at Titi Nory’s house parties. Between the Bacardi and rice and beans, not many are paying mind to their footwork or if a turn ends on the sixth count. We all dance close and tight. Leaders are dipping followers only to avoid the nearest couple’s “Titanic” step. Everyone is blissfully aware of their surroundings like drivers relying on peripherals. However, when someone lands in a blind-spot, toes will be crushed.
Almost every dancer’s turns are ending on the right beat here at the highlight of my week. Hands are flying and women dance with their “pretty fingers.” Men dance with fists and some in hunched positions to keep a “macho” appearance. Salsa is danced from the core of your body, everything else plays off, shoulders shaking and hips swaying. Dancing tonight, you can feel the floor thunder under your feet. As the studio vibrates, we're one huge mechanism occupying this small section of Fourth Avenue, demanding the attention of by-passers. In this very moment, we're having the time of our lives and we want the world to hear it.
There is a huge variety of people, a melting pot in its truest form; with Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, Middle-Eastern, both young and old. People from all walks of life populate the studio. Michael Chin is among the usual guests tonight. He is wearing a basic tank top, black slacks, and black and white saddle dance shoes. Known as Mambo Mike and an avid salsero, admitted to having danced 14 hours the weekend prior, rest time not included. Mike takes the stance that salsa shouldn’t be overly structured, it should be a fluid motion, “Technique and structure means nothing without feel or connection to the music and your partner,” he tells me near his usual dance spot closest to the door for the breeze coming in.
You’ll never catch him passing on a chance to work his magic on the dance floor. And magic it is, because after dancing for hours, Mike never tires. In fact, I personally need a few warm-up dances before ending up in the hands of Mambo Mike. The energy he exudes is almost too much to handle and yet, he makes every move look effortless. He’s an open salsa-aholic who has been dancing for the past 12 years. Dancing with him tonight is especially fun. Using the pressure of my hand on his, with my arm wrapped around his shoulders, he lifts me about two feet above the hard wood floor. He spins me in the air three times and then I land not so gracefully, but that’s something I’m willing to work on. At the end of our dance he dips me on perfect timing, I thank him and walk to my next suitor.
Alessandro Marangi, spent one year in Madrid studying psychology, salsa and flamenco. He is originally from Italy but came to New York to pursue a PH.D in Neuro-science, as well as, further his salsa training. After living here for only a month I met him at Salsa Salsa’s last social and tonight he’s back for more dancing. He now studies under Eddie Torres, the Mambo King himself, in Manhattan.
Alessandro is just an example of how salsa brings people from all over the world together with one common interest. This is what makes New York the perfect place to learn this elegant and sensual dance. Dressed in all black and seemingly holding up the brick wall under spotlights, Alessandro speaks to me in his Italian accent. Searching for the right words because English is his third language, he says, “The music’s primary claim is to feel in harmony with the partner across the music. Each body movement has a meaning, a different meaning, because your body is like an instrument of the orchestra. When you dance, you play your instrument, and like great musicians, you have to know the basic technique of the salsa steps. This isn’t a dance of two individuals, but a dance of couples. It‘s a process of creativity.”
There is an extreme sensuality that is associated with this particular dance; women often find their inner goddess when taking lessons. The salsa community is vast with friendships being made and relationships budding. Some use salsa as an outlet after a long day of work, others keep salsa as a top priority and everything else comes after. It's a universal language that is spoken through movements. There is a click on the dance floor as the music starts to play and you hear the first “cuckoo” of the conga. It’s a feeling that you can try to describe, but you can never hit the nail on what the experience is when you’re out there spinning, dipping, rolling and stepping. For whatever reason you dance, to escape your problems, to meet new people, to exercise or to just feel the music running through your veins, salsa is the key to it all.