No music plays as Lydia Stuckey and her roommate, Caryn Schenewerk, take their first tentative steps into salsa dancing.
There’s only the sound of instructor Ann Roman’s voice as she counts the beat: one-two-three-pause-five-six-seven-pause.
“I am going to say what your feet should be doing,” Mrs. Roman tells the two women and the other 60 or so salsa rookies gathered on the dance floor of the Clarendon Grill nightclub in Arlington on a Monday night.
She turns on the music. The students watch as she demonstrates some basic steps and turns. Some follow her steps with their own hesitant imitations, arms hanging awkwardly by their sides as if they couldn’t decide how to move them. Each step inside an imaginary square seems tense until the infectious drumbeat begins to take hold, punctuating Mrs. Roman’s lessons.
“Put a little bend in your knees to get those hips moving,” she says.
“This is the hardest class. … You have to have a lot of patience,” adds her husband and fellow instructor, Dan Roman.
Toward the end of the hour-long class, the students seem more confident.
“Bring back the music,” Ms. Stuckey yells, embracing Ms. Schenewerk. “This is fun.”
From its birth in the 1940s and 1950s in Havana nightclubs, salsa has spread beyond its Latin American cradle to worldwide popularity. Fans gather to dance to the drum-driven sound on every continent. The most committed belong to the World Salsa Federation, which hosts salsa congresses in major cities and the annual World Salsa Championships. This year’s championship is set for Oct. 29-31 in Miami.
In the Washington area, so many nightclubs offer salsa nights and free lessons that the hard-core salseros and salseras can dance through the week without stopping. Area clubs offer lessons Mondays through Saturdays, and dancers can find places to go on Sundays as well.
Mondays are salsa nights at the Clarendon Grill in Arlington. It started informally about six years ago when general manager Danny Garcia, a Puerto Rican who grew up in Northern Virginia, decided he wanted to learn to dance salsa.
He brought the Romans in to teach classes, and “it pretty much took off from there,” Mr. Garcia says.
Mr. Roman, who, like Mr. Garcia, grew up in a Puerto Rican family, says he was drawn away from ballroom dancing and decided to learn salsa because of its roots in Latin culture and its combination of athleticism and artistry.
With salsa, “you’re not boxed into anything,” he says. “You add a little flavor, your own style to it, and you go from there.”
Indeed, there is no strict definition of salsa music because it encompasses a variety of styles. Like a dancer moving across the floor, it’s hard to pin down.
The word “salsa,” which means “sauce” or “dressing” in Spanish, is used to describe a variety of African- and jazz-influenced musical styles (such as mambo) that originated in Cuba over the past several decades, says Eileen Torres, a dance instructor and salsa historian in Washington.
“Salsa is just an umbrella term for all the different rhythms from Cuba that are included in this upbeat dance music,” she says. “The name ‘salsa’ was not accepted until the late ‘60s.”
Salsa’s popularity surged in the United States in the 1970s as a wave of new recordings came out on New York’s Fania record label. At the time, many Cuban artists, such as Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, had immigrated to the United States and were performing here. The music re-emerged in the 1990s in a more commercially successful form and even spawned crossover artists such as Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan.
The popularity of salsa in the United States spawned variations on the Cuban-influenced dance style, characterized by whether the dancer starts on the first or second beat, says Ms. Torres, who gave dance classes and presentations on salsa at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
It has also spawned a devoted following that stretches far beyond the Latino community, she says.
“It’s probably the most exciting dance music out there today. The music is very captivating, very infectious. You hear the music, and your body instantly wants to respond,” she says.
Disc jockey Geiner Bruno, known as El Unico (“the one and only”) to his fans, grips a smoking Ramon Allones cigar in his teeth as he waits for the Romans to finish their lessons. His signature sound is the traditional salsa from the 1950s and 1960s. “The music I’m playing now is older than some of the dancers,” he quips, noting the mostly young crowd in the club.
“What is it about salsa that makes people want to dance? It’s the beat, baby, the drums,” Mr. Bruno says. “It’s an aphrodisiac.”
There is a definite romance to salsa dancing that isn’t always present in disco or rock ‘n’ roll. Salsa dancing is done in pairs — one man and one woman. In the Romans’ classes, dancers who don’t have a partner are coaxed into pairing up, turning strangers into collaborators in motion.
And the dancing also is a close-up affair. Mrs. Roman tells her students to imagine they are inside a square box.
“In salsa … you’re not moving around the dance floor as much. My first salsa instructor, I remember he said, ‘You should be able to dance on a dime,’” she says.
Ms. Stuckey, originally from Indianapolis and now a resident of the District, was persuaded to try salsa dancing by a friend, and she now says she’s hooked, even though it felt unfamiliar at first.
“A lot of times, the way my body wanted to go wasn’t the way it was supposed to go,” she says, laughing.
But is the current popularity of salsa just a fad? Latin dance crazes have come and gone. The lambada, a dance from Brazil that became popular in the late 1980s, was memorialized in a couple of movies and faded as quickly as it exploded on the public scene. So did the Macarena, a dance craze built around the hit song of the same name by the Spanish group Los Del Rio. Even tango’s surge in popularity from movies such as “Scent of a Woman” has passed.
But salsa is easier to learn and doesn’t require a ballroom environment like other Latin dances such as the tango and lambada, says Reza Miri, who has been teaching salsa lessons at the Habana Village nightclub in Adams Morgan for the past 12 years.
“Salsa has become a club dance. You can go to a club, learn it quickly and join the crowd,” Mr. Miri says.
“It moves you in a happy way.”
Mr. Miri, a native of Iran, and his partner, Leon Harris, also taught tango lessons at the Habana Village for eight years, but stopped after the club’s management decided to focus on salsa, which drew more people, he says.
Ms. Torres agrees that salsa has staying power. She says clubs with salsa nights are attracting a growing clientele and the demand for instructors also is rising.
“I truly believe that this is a movement with a snowball effect. The music lends itself toward welcoming anyone with a love of music or a love of dancing,” Ms. Torres says.
“This is something people can do until the day they die.”
Washington’s salseros and salseras can dance through the week without stopping. Here’s a guide to area clubs that offer lessons.
Cafe Citron: 1342 Connecticut Ave. NW. Ricardo and Elba teach a free salsa class Wednesdays from 10 to 11 p.m. Dancing until 2 a.m. No cover. 202/530-8844.
Habana Village: 1834 Columbia Rd. NW. Salsa and merengue classes from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays. Lessons cost $10, with free dancing after class. 202/462-6310.
H20: 800 Water St. NW. Eileen Torres sponsors salsa class and dancing afterward on Fridays. Admission is free before midnight for people on the e-mail list. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 5 p.m. Friday to get on the list. 202/484-6300.
La Yuca: 1800 M St. NW. Salsa lessons Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Dancing afterward on Fridays and Saturdays to 3 a.m. Free. 202/785-1177.
Lucky Bar: 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free salsa lessons Mondays from 7 to 9 p.m., with dancing until 2 a.m. No cover. 202/331-3733.
Lulu’s Club Mardi Gras: 22nd and M streets NW. Ricardo and Elba teach salsa Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m., with dancing afterward until 1 a.m. $5 cover. 202/861-5858.
Zanzibar: 700 Water St. SW. Eileen Torres teaches salsa lessons from 7 to 8 p.m., with dancing afterwards. Cover is $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 thereafter. 202/554-9100.
Divino Lounge: 7345-B Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. Salsa lessons Fridays 9 to 10 p.m., with dancing afterward until 1:30-2 a.m. $10. 240/497-0300.
El Boqueron: 1330 E. Gude Drive, Rockville. Salsa lessons Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 to 9 p.m., with dancing afterward until midnight. Cover is $10. 301/424-0745.
Cecilia’s Restaurant and Nightclub: 2619 Columbia Pike, Arlington. Salsa class Wednesdays from 7 to 9:30 p.m., dancing afterward. $10 cover. 703/685-0790.
Clarendon Grill: 1101 N. Highlands St., Arlington. Dan and Ann Roman teach salsa Mondays from 7 to 9 p.m., dancing after class with DJ Bruno. Cover is $5. 703/524-7455.
— Charles Hoskinson