Bitten by the Salsa Bug

SalsaBy Micaela Kimball

It’s Friday night and 400 people fill a large, ballroom-like space in Central Square. It’s packed. Sweaty bodies and smiling faces vibe together in an at-times chaotic, yet controlled rhythm. A range of actions and interactions take place. Bodies pulsate with expression. Intense connections are made with eyes. Two left feet struggle to meet a foreign rhythm. Four-inch heels step on open-toed feet. Sweaty bodies huddle in the outskirts of the room in front of big fans strategically placed so dancers can cool off. The scene is described as a “big open party.” Dancers of all levels ranging from beginners to professionals mingle with one another while others are just there to watch or drink sangria.

This is the scene of the Havana Club, described by one Cambridge “salsero” regular as “the anchor of the salsa scene.” The popularity of dance nights can change faster than the rhythms of its dancers – inhaling and exhaling, filling up and then emptying out. Hence, it’s rare for a venue to have the consistency that this place does – 400 people tops, but at least 200 or 300 people every Friday and Saturday night, says Johnny Giraldo who directs the dance company (Salsa Y Control) that produces the event.

In Cambridge, salsa dancers joke that the dance has an addictive quality. “People get bitten by ‘the salsa bug,’”  as it’s popularly coined. In salsa, “your body fires a narcotic that is more potent than anything you can get on the street,” attests one faithful dancer. Cambridge, often considered “the center of salsa” or “the nexus of social dancing,” shows us that “the bug” bites not only individuals but communities as well. The salsa scene in Boston, and especially Cambridge, has grown in the last 15 years or so from one small website, a few lessons and a dance night or two per week into a thriving scene that offers salseros the opportunity to dance six or seven nights a week. Seven different salsa and Latin dance companies are also grounded in Cambridge.

“Salsa socials” (dances produced by local companies), DJs and sometimes live bands can usually be found at least once a week at different studio locations in Cambridge and Boston.

While the salsa “scene” is relatively young in the city, Latin culture and dance has had a special presence in Cambridge since the 1960s and ‘70s. Jose Masso, a Puerto Rican born Bostonian and host of ¡Con Salsa!, a bilingual music program on WBUR 90.9 FM, reports that “social groups, movements, immigrants and non-Latinos alike had Latin America as their focal point,” during this time. Cambridge, an “epicenter” for social and civil engagement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, fueled the energy of these groups. Cambridge also had a lot of non-Latinos engaging in Latin culture and traveling to Latin America for school, research or work who, as a result, were very much acculturated to Latin dance, music and style, Masso adds.

The ghosts of 1970s Latin culture in Cambridge are certainly felt in the scene today. With Cambridge’s progressive politics and emphasis on community and people-over-profit strategies, it’s not surprising that a dance scene grounded in these same values would thrive here. “Cambridge breeds this type of environment,” notes Anara Frank who directs MetaMovements dance company based in Boston and Cambridge. “Lots of programs in Cambridge are driven by their social mission.”

Overwhelmingly, instructors and dance company owners in Cambridge point to their cooperative, communal business methods in the city as the primary factor that has helped build the scene here over the years. “We travel all over the world to all of these different scenes – nothing else compares,” says Ana Masacote, co-owner of Masacote Entertainment based in Kendall Square. What is unique about the area is that the dance companies here emphasize and prioritize building the salsa scene. Many of the instructors who teach in Cambridge today grew up and evolved while dancing together. As a result, they’re connected. “We were best friends,” says Masacote. “We maintained that friendship even in the growth of our business.”

She goes on to say that in “some cities the scene can be very political to the point where it’s detrimental to the scene growing. In Boston, you have the complete opposite.” Johnny Giraldo, co-owner of Salsa Y Control based in Cambridge, agrees. “We support each other… I’ve been to cities where there’s a lot of rivalry and lack of support, which at the end of the day divides the community,” Giraldo says.Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 12.15.48 PM

Instructors say that the communal emphasis on “building the scene” in Cambridge didn’t happen accidentally, but was rather an active choice made by dancers and instructors who wanted to put friendship before business and cooperation over competition. Instructors admit that there have been times when things were “very political” and a divide existed between instructors and dancers. “We wanted to make changes happen,” Masacote says. “We believed in an environment that was more community-oriented and supportive. We knew that if we started, people would follow.” What they have now is a tight, supportive community that could be a model for social justice.

At the same time, instructors don’t deny that there are ups and downs or that competition exists. “People are trying to make a living by dancing and that makes it tough. Yet people realize that building community is for the betterment of everybody,” says Matei Livianu, co-owner of Salsa Matei based in Cambridge. “We go through cycles where people feel disconnected, but then the scene pulls together and something new and amazing comes out of it,” adds Anara.

Many dancers also point to Central Square as a factor that has fueled the salsa scene. It appears that the neighborhood isn’t just central in name or location, but also central to dance. “Central Square became a dance mecca, not just for salsa but for everything – ballet, jazz, tap, African, hip hop,” reports Matei. “You can find everything you want in Central. It’s no surprise that salsa emanates from there.”

For some, salsa has taken on a higher or spiritual purpose – like a “way of life,” as many instructors and dancers attest. One dancer says it’s “a movement that connects one’s physical body to one’s creative spirits.” Another says it’s a way to “discover the connection between mind and body.” For others, it’s about the connection. When it comes to salsa, bodies don’t lie. “When you have a good connection with someone you can feel it instantly,” says John Lee who has been dancing in the scene for almost three years now. “It makes you realize that the human body is capable of an amazing level of expression. It changes you.”

Of course, salsa has a dating component to it. Matei notes that he started dancing in college with some friends in a large class of 150 beginner salsa dancers. He remembers an opportunity later to try out for a team which included 11 guys and 60 girls. “So we immediately realized we were absolutely in the right place,” he quips.

Now married to his wife whom he met on the floor, Matei jokes that a “rule” exists in his dance company and in the community. “People who are new in the scene have three months to date around and meet someone. After that, anyone you date – everyone is going to know about it. It’s a community that spreads info like wildfire.”

This story appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge. Get your copy here.