What the bleep is a dance floor? At National Salsa Day in San Juan, Puerto Rico it’s many things. The entire baseball diamond which has been fitted with smooth rubber pads that give a soft bounce to every step, the stairs of the concrete aisles, the corridors, refreshment lines, in front of the stadium seats, the tops of the dugouts, and for those who don’t care for any of the 19 bands and orchestras who will grace the stage throughout the day or just don’t want to shell out the dough for a ticket, the dance floor lies outside of the stadium at one of the hundreds of tailgate parties blasting their own music (salsa, rumba, bachata, meringue, boleros) into the piercing Caribbean sun which I have been foolish enough to brave wearing long pants in a lame attempt to look more like a salsero. A great many of these tailgate parties, besides possessing the standard booze, grills and lawn chairs, have also brought along their own makeshift bands equipped with microphones, laptops, amps, mixers, singers and dancers. It’s a party inside and out.
I’ve been in San Juan for 5 days now in search of everything salsa, but let me be straight with you, unless I have a bag of tortilla chips to dip, I can’t salsa for shit. My first night in Puerto Rico at a famous salsa club in Old San Juan called La Nuyorican, a girl from Boston who just finished a beginner dance lesson with a group of tipsy spring breakers told me ‘I think the beats a little slower.’ And she was right, the beat was a little slower. But I had been so focused on my basic steps I had ignored the most important thing, la música.
Since then I’d like to think I’ve made a little progress. In fact, I know I have because two nights later at La Nuyorican I danced through 3 full songs with a partner. It wasn’t the same partner, but I consider it a small step forward since each girl stuck with me throughout the entirety of each song, thanked me when it was over, and kindly walked away. The more I watch people Salsa, the more I understand it is a dance comprised of many small steps enacted in time with the music, so the way I see it, there’s no need for leaps and bounds. Although during one of these dances my partner blurted out in frustration “you have to lead me!” as if this was news to me and it was only out of sheer selfishness that I had chosen not to provide her with any direction—(“how can I lead you if I don’t know where I’m going myself?”)—all in all, the night was a success.
Right now it’s 10 am, and outside of Hiram Bithrom stadium tall, lean, fedora-wearing singers with Medellas in one hand and microphones in the other are already red-faced and belting away while all around people talk, eat, drink and dance. As I enter the stadium a myriad of scents waft through the air—heavily spiced bistec on the grill, pinchos de pollo y carne, a great big bowl of paella, mofongo—which is a sort of mashed plantain or yucca, rice and habichuelas, and of course plenty of beer, sangria, and gasolina—which though I’m not sure what it is exactly, is advertised as “a party in a pouch,” and sounds like it might be just what I need to get my feet moving.
If you have enough space to stand up straight inside the stadium then you have enough space to dance, and from what I can see, if you don’t at least occasionally sift into a salsa step—forward and back, side to side, a spin for good measure—well, then you’re just kind of weird. However, there is a way of opting out of the dance and still fitting in. Those who are musically inclined can pick up a set of maracas, clave sticks, a cowbell or güiro from one of the many vendors in attendance and keep rhythm with the music. A few nights ago at a bar in La Placita no bigger than a modest bedroom, I was surprised to see a band with 5 percussionists, two microphones and nothing else. But by early afternoon at Hiram Bithrom stadium in Hato Rey where the event is being held, there are 5,000 plus percussionists keeping time, and the band on stage doesn’t mind in the least.
I have arranged to meet up with Leon Jones, a salsa dancer and former instructor at La Salsa de Hoy in Brooklyn, who I had the good fortune of meeting in Old San Juan during one of my nights at La Nuyorican. The first time I saw Leon he was dancing with a tall brunette and wore a bright smile across his face like a new suit. He looked like a man who was in possession of a wonderful secret, and while he danced his lips couldn’t resist the temptation to share it with the world. But besides the smile, I noticed he wasn’t dancing like everyone else—he was occasionally clapping out the beat of the clave and styling his steps to accentuate certain movements. I later learned that he was dancing a style of salsa known as “ON-2,” where dancers dance “contratiempo” and have more freedom and organic movement than the more popular salsa linea which most people were dancing at La Nuyorican. But whatever he was doing, it was distinct. And eyes were drawn to him because this was a man who was obviously inside his realm.
A few moments later I watched him give pointers to two tourists who were stepping all over each other, and about 15 minutes afterwards I saw him at the bar and complimented him on his style.
“I’ve been doin’ this for a long time, man!’ He replied and introduced himself without hesitation. We spoke briefly and I learned he was originally from NYC and had come back to Puerto Rico three months ago to be with his parents. He was currently teaching a group of kids a choreographed dance for a competition in a couple weeks. “All monsters!” he said with an affectionate laugh that revealed he didn’t think they were animals at all. I told him about my interest in salsa and we exchanged information before he returned to the dance floor.
A few days later via text we agreed to meet up early at the National Salsa Day just before the bands took the stage and the gates were flooded with eager dancers. The following is an excerpt from our interview:
When did you start dancing?
I started dancing at a very young age, at the age of 6. My mother used to play salsa music in the house every weekend and I started picking up on the dancing portion of it. She would take me to parties and make me dance with everyone, and she would reward me by taking me to Coney Island. By the time I was 15, I pretty much became a full blown dancer. By the time I was 17, I was established in a particular style of dancing which starts on the 1, but around 24/25 I started dancing on the 2 (the 2 beat), which is the modern way of dancing salsa. It’s very stylish, it’s very sensual, there’s a lot of body language that’s involved, and much more different steps that can apply as opposed to the old way of dancing where you were very limited in terms of what you could do.
What do you think is the value of dancing, especially for people who are not naturally inclined to dance?
The ultimate value in learning how to dance is that you learn great coordination, in terms of everything you do in life—your perception of people is heightened because of your ability to be a dancer. You notice a lot more. That’s obvious, you notice because everyone watches you. And after that, once you’re established, people know you. They come up to you and say “are you Leon?” It heightens your perception because when you’re not a dancer you’re pretty much on a level plane with everyone else…But when you’re a dancer you can see above a lot of things. When you look at people you say ‘wow, these people don’t dance but I can really help them out. I can help them in their styles if they’re willing to learn.’ For some reason, you become more sensitive to other people’s issues, because you know you’re in a better position than you were before, or you’re not in the same position as they are as people who don’t dance.
Dancing, as far as Latinos are concerned, is really a way of life. Without music, none of us would know where the hell we’d be. In salsa music, they always write songs about breakups, make-ups—it’s all about love, romance…that’s what our music is related to…love, romance, heartbreak, honor, respect—and when you have great knowledge of that and you have the ability to interpret it on the dance floor with your body people look at you and say ‘wow, this guy’s really connected with our way of life, he’s connected with our culture. With our pain and our suffering.’ People look at it that way, I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.
What advice would you give a beginner?
It begins with your desire for the music. If you really love the music, you stick with it. You don’t bail out. I know thousands of people who started and became frustrated in the early stages as far as their progress and growth. But you know what, stick with it and you become better and better and better. And it’s all about staying connected with the society of dancers. Those are the ones who are going to guide you and lead the way, those are the ones who are going to make the little tweaks and corrections for you… You’re connected with me now. And say you and I continue to run into each other. And I see you dancing, every time you walk off that dance floor or maybe once or twice a night I’ll say ‘hey try this, try that.’ Every time you go out, if you’re connected with dancers, they’re going to tweak you to a degree that every time you go out you’re gonna get better. It’s simple. It’s not complicated. We’re gonna straighten you out, just by advice, by little things. I might take you to a corner somewhere where nobody’s looking and say try this like this. And in two or three months, there shouldn’t be any reason why you’re not hogging up that dance floor.
In the early afternoon, when the crowd bulges and everyone between the ages of 5 and 75 is showing off their best moves, I practice my steps in Leon’s proverbial ‘corner,’ occasionally twirling my gasolina and watching on with awe and envy. I remember what he said about the music—‘you have to love it’—and as people sing along to the chorus and slam away at cowbells and clave sticks, I know that not only do I not love the music yet, I hardly know it at all. In truth, I prefer the smooth, soft rhythms of bachata. But as I watch a tall, potbellied man in his sixties spin and twirl a girl with legs to the sky, a body that curves and breaks like a wave, and long black hair jumping with every spin—the two of them so immersed in dance that at times it seems like at any moment they might melt into the sun—I know there’s no other dance I’d rather learn.
“Leon,” I say as we begin to descend the stadium stairs and return to the diamond where his mother and friend are waiting, “can you teach me?”
He smiles the same angelic grin I first saw light up La Nuyorican and says “Basic steps and rhythm—it all begins with that. You work with me 3 days a week for the next 3 weeks and I guarantee you’ll walk away with something. I’m very good at what I do brother. Very good.”
And I hope he is, ‘cause I could sure use some help out here.