That’s a First: Wherein I try to salsa
Jeff Taveras is a hulking figure. At well over 6-feet tall with broad shoulders and a protruding gut, he’s got the look of a football lineman. On a recent Thursday night at the Palms Nightclub in Stamford, the seams of his black sweater appeared to be laboring to contain his muscular arms.
Whatever notion I had of what a salsa instructor would look like, Taveras was not it. His upper body seemed too large a load for his lower body to bear, let alone move in step with the pulsing, percussive rhythms of salsa music.
But there he was, in the middle of the dance floor with his partner, Julie Aponte, whose swaying hips propelled her briskly around the dance floor and her monolithic colleague, as the class of roughly 20 trickled into the club and looked on as the pair warmed up.
Taveras was not the lumbering figure I had estimated him to be. He was agile as he shuffled around the floor, and he led Aponte gracefully, spinning her coil-like into his chest, then releasing her in a dazzling tight spiral.
This was the first salsa night in Stamford for Taveras and Aponte. Taveras recently inherited Stamford-based Latin Moves Dance Studio from Luis Lopez, who stepped away from the business after more than 20 years at the helm. Taveras and Aponte will take over the Thursday night salsa classes that had long been run by Lopez.
Latin Moves Dance Studio
For more information on Latin Moves Dance Studio, visit www.latinmovesdance.com/
Salsa dancing every Thursday at the Palms, 129 Atlatnic St., Stamford, 8:30 p.m. $10 per lesson.
Following Taveras and Aponte’s opening display, Lopez announced the bittersweet transition and welcomed the new instructors, both of whom compete nationally and placed first in the Cha Cha division of the World Salsa Summit earlier this year.
According to Aponte, salsa is the name of both the dance and the music. Salsa was developed in New York City in the mid-20th Century and mixes a variety of Latin American dance and musical styles with Afro-Caribbean rhythms. It spread across Central and South America, where geographical variations in form and flavor emerged. Aponte, who is Puerto Rican, said she remembered the music being played at family parties when she was young.
“I grew up with it. Salsa is an audio version of my childhood,” said Aponte, who starting dancing when she was five and, by age 15, was performing and teaching internationally.
Taveras, on the other hand, was a college baseball player who turned to dance after his career had ended.
“I started dancing and I just fell in love with it,” Taveras said.
A native of Queens, Taveras competed with his hometown Santo Rico Dance company before opening up his own studio in his home borough, called Huracan Dance Company, where Aponte teaches.
Very unlike Taveras and Aponte, I’ve never been much of a dancer. When I’m going out with friends, I try to avoid places like the Palms, where, with the loud music and large dance floor, come expectations to move to the music and the potential for embarrassment. I made sure to stress to Taveras and Aponte that this was my first time.
“Take your time. Don’t be afraid to step out of the box. Trust the process,” Taveras advised me before the dancing started. But I think they overestimated my ability to acclimate to the class and learn the choreography.
The first half of the hour-long lesson began with the students in two rows facing Aponte, with Taveras in the DJ booth controlling the music. She demonstrated a series of steps that seemed acceptable to most of my classmates but left me stumped, looking around self-consciously for a lifeline and shifting my weight awkwardly from left to right as I stood rooted in place.
Nevertheless, Taveras continued to drill me for another 15 minutes. I made small strides. I became less robotic as we added a spin and other beginner footwork. But I didn’t make enough progress to ease my anxieties about the second half of class: dancing with partners.
On the teachers’ orders, the class formed a circle around Aponte and Taveras, who demonstrated the steps in the middle. Women stayed in one spot within the circle, while men moved from one partner to the next in roughly minute-long intervals as Taveras called out switches.
For the remainder of class, I stepped on toes and missed steps and drew some giggles and some eye rolls from my partners, to whom I apologized effusively for my clumsiness.
As I trudged around the dance floor, I tried to internalize a piece of advice Aponte had given me before the class started: Don’t take anything too seriously.
I glanced over to Taveras and Aponte, the latter of whom was shaking her hips sensuously in perfect time to the music.
Easy for her to say.
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