“It’s okay to feel sexy if you want.”
Johnny Giraldo is onstage with his wife, Felicita, gliding back and forth on silent eight-beat measures—1-2-3 pause, 5-6-7 pause, left-right-together hold, right-left-together hold—their backs to the crowd. Behind them, dozens of people mirror their movements on a hardwood ballroom floor, learning the basic steps of salsa.
They move a bit awkwardly at first (stomp-stomp-stomp), but Johnny increases the pace, instructing them to balance on the balls of their feet, to step-step-step in unison. Some tenderfoots stare at the floor, watching themselves step too far in one direction. The advanced folks match the leading couple perfectly, even swaying their arms and hips during the basic steps.
This is how Friday nights start at Havana Club. An hour-long class begins at 9 p.m. and precedes a big dance party. This is the early crowd, and with a few dozen people it’s relatively small compared to the later one. That said, it already reflects the usual clientele—Latino, white, black, Asian, young, old, skinny, plump, tall, short, dressed up, dressed down, new, experienced—all dancing together.
Jeff Robinson started Havana Club (288 Green St.) in 2004.
“It was a matter of necessity,” he says. He first learned salsa during a business trip to San Diego and later started taking lessons at The Dance Complex (536 Mass. Ave.). However, there weren’t many options for weekend salsa dancing. So he made one, and looped in the Giraldos—who also teach at Salsa y Control, which has classes in Allston and Cambridge.
Havana Club was a quick success, though Robinson says some of the initial crowds had the wrong idea about salsa thanks to Hollywood.
“This is more than your typical bump and grind kinda place,” he says.
The local and regional community has embraced Havana Club’s efforts, with people coming from all over New England to dance. As Johnny notes, back in 2004, the local salsa community was a small, hardcore group of dancers. It’s since spread and grown, and now spots like Havana Club regularly attract 250 to 300 people a night (a number comparable to New York City’s salsa clubs, Robinson proudly notes).
Despite the growth, the club still attracts its regulars. You see people in the crowd hugging, catching up or giving daps to Big Ben Cornish as he collects cover money at the door.
“There’s a real feeling of community here,” says Johnny. In fact, that feeling is so strong that, 10 years ago, he and Felicita got married on the Havana Club stage.
The crowd splits. Johnny’s brother Andres teaches a handful of intermediate dancers in the back of the ballroom by the bar. People stream in, some joining the classes, others grabbing drinks before the party starts.
Johnny teaches the beginners to dance in pairs. He tells the men to lead—it’s all about a connection that comes from the hands, he says. The hands guide a partner back and forth, readying them for turns and spins, side-to-side steps or different holds. Music plays as the pairs try out the basics. Meanwhile, Andres leads his crew in a series of impressive turns and sidesteps, not for the faint of hand-eye coordination.
The music stops, and the couple demonstrates a big move for the dancers. They start off with the basic step, and as Johnny moves back he shifts his wife’s right hand into his, raising their right arms high. He turns, grabs her left hand with his, raises both their arms—and then Felicita turns, faces Johnny, her left arm bent behind her back in a hammerlock hold. The two then smoothly slide their hands back into a starting position, returning to basic steps. They never stopped moving forward and back, even with the dizzying action. The crowd gasps.
“Don’t worry, we’re gonna take it step by step,” says Johnny.
Sure enough, he breaks it down into several different pieces. Not every couple nails the move, but they keep at it, practicing their problem areas, progressing from uncertainty to determination to mild embarrassment to laughter, and then repeating it all, improving step by step. Around 10, the class ends and the party begins. The teachers take to the floor, dancing with each other and helping out their students.
“The feet are always moving,” Johnny says to one rigid couple.
The white lights are off, replaced with a disco ball and multicolored club lights. The advanced dancers have shown up for the party, filing in at a steady rate. Old heads in polos and flat caps tear up the floor with their partners, young couples execute complicated turns, middle-aged couples put the kids to shame, experienced salseros lead beginners with encouraging smiles. Some people wait along the sides of the dance floor, but wallflowers get plucked quickly at Havana Club.
“Whether I come alone or with friends, I’ll always find someone to dance with,” says Eve, who’s been coming to Havana Club since 2004. “Even if you’re not very good, the more advanced dancers will help you out.”
Tripti, one of Giraldo’s Salsa y Control students, brought her friends out for a new experience. Though she’s been taking classes since last summer, she didn’t start dancing in public until earlier this year. “Salsa’s such a social dance, I actually think this is a better way to learn,” she says.
At 10:45, people are still flooding in, and the crowded ballroom is not yet at capacity. The party is just getting started, and plenty of folks are getting their first dance (and drink) in. The only one boring enough to leave this early is me.
“Thanks for coming,” says Cornish as I walk out. “And next time, come dance with us.”
Havana Club hosts salsa on Friday and Saturday nights and a bachata night on Mondays. There’s a $12 cover charge, and the nights are 21+.
This story originally appeared in our November/December print edition, which can be found at more than 100 pick up spots throughout the area.