Salsa Dance Experiment
Two left feet? Too bad. What happens when an editor demands a dance story.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Maybe I didn’t do enough trust falls in middle school phys ed classes, but the idea of leaning back against a stranger’s arm into a dip on the dance floor is terrifying. So when I found myself swirling among sweaty salsa pros on a Thursday night at the Blue Fin on Cannery Row, I felt a little lost.
For the most part, my dance partners were patient and instructive. I took comfort in the fact that the basic step is called just that, even though it’s far more complex than the indie rock-concert bounce I’m more accustomed to.
“It’s very basic and easy,” one lanky dancer told me. “But I’m Latin, so anything with rhythm is.”
No matter which way I spun, it seemed to be the wrong direction.
But the more basic steps I did, the more I felt the taa ta ta ta of the rhythm, and learned to appreciate the allure—work-out combined with sex appeal, all set to a chipper beat!—that draws this eclectic swath of dancers out. I traded dances with a maintenance man who had to wake up at 4:30am for a job at a golf course and a young physician at Natividad Medical Center, who’d earlier that day delivered a diagnosis of lymphoma to a patient.
He escapes once a week to the dance floor in Monterey. When I asked where the Salinas salsa scene was, he said there wasn’t: It’s all banda and folklórico, he said.
There’s not much on the Peninsula, either. Salsabythebay.com, a regional internet hub for salsa aficionados, often lists as many as a dozen classes or clubs a night—but they’re in San Jose, San Francisco or the East or South Bay.
“There is really not a lot going on right now,” says Dasha Volnova, a Defense Language Institute instructor who teaches a salsa class once a week in Pacific Grove. “We’ve seen better times. I remember a few years ago when we had something going on in terms of dancing five times a week.”
“YOU KNOW A GUY’S GOOD WHEN HE HAS A TOWEL IN HIS POCKET.”
Edmundo Martinez, who spins at Blue Fin as DJ Mundo, makes the trek down from San Jose to keep the beat going. About 40 people show up.
“I had to decide where to go, and thought, ‘If I could build the community bigger…’” he says, “so I decided to come to Monterey.”
Martinez grew up outside of Mexico City dancing salsa, and can barely stay off the dance floor—he’ll get a song started, then find a partner for a few steps before resuming his DJ duties.
He’s one of the more graceful men on the floor, but one of my partners tells me how to identify the best male dancers: “You know a guy’s good when he has a towel in his pocket,” he says. That’s to wipe his brow.
Volnova’s also something of an athlete when it comes to salsa. She started dancing as a child in Russia, and used to train with a competitive dance troupe in San Jose as many as five times a week. Then her car broke down.
So she started taking classes in jazz, ballet and modern locally at Monterey Peninsula College. “I switched from salsa to other forms,” she says, “not by choice, but it improved my salsa.”
Volnova fast outgrew the local dance scene. “I realized it was not enough for me, what Monterey had to offer,” she says. “I think about dance—and feel about dance—as if it’s my profession.”
She’s planning to get her friend’s San Jose-based band, Latin HEAT, playing live music once a week in town—and to get dancers into “New York-style” salsa, or “on-two.” It’s perceived as a little more sophisticated than on-one, Volnova adds, but for any beginner with a sense of rhythm, it’s a beat worth picking up. She learned at an on-two workshop in San Francisco
“I walked in and thought, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for,’” she recalls. “I heard the truth of what it was all about.”
I didn’t quite approach truth on my Thursday at Blue Fin—mostly frustration, but certainly a sense of the technical challenge. This wasn’t just swaying your partner, but a mathematical art piece performed by hips and feet.
Martinez also has an eye for technical perfection. He says he’d be pleased if there were an underground salsa scene in Salinas, besides banda, because practiced dancers make better partners—as long as they practice good habits.
“If someone is doing that, then cool,” he says. “That’s fantastic, because they’re making the community bigger and that’s what this is about. I just hope they’re doing it right.”
DASHA VOLNOVA teaches salsa 7-9pm Tuesdays at the Pacific Grove Arts Center, 568 Lighthouse Ave.; free/first hour, $10/second hour, facebook.com/monterey.mambo DJ Mundo teaches 8-9pm Thursdays followed by dancing at Blue Fin, 685 Cannery Row, Monterey; $5; 512-9195.