No Chips with This Salsa: An infusion of Latin spice in Columbia’s dance scene
The lights in The Blue Fugue are low every Friday night, and all is quiet. It’s easy to keep on walking, because there doesn’t appear to be going on in the quiet bar on Ninth Street—the unassuming little dive with the bookshelves and foosball table visible from the usually open door—but that’s only because it’s not 9 o’clock yet. That’s when the salsa lesson begins.
The weekly event is “Fire N Ice,” a salsa party organized and promoted by the Columbia-based Latin band La Movida. The lesson is free, requiring only a $5 cover for men to get in (free for ladies) and a glance at IDs. Those 21 and older usually get a smiley face drawn on the back of their hand; those underage get a frown. Inside the bar, the north wall is lined with bookshelves, containing everything from Amy Tan to John Grisham, from Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul to Jimmy Carter’s autobiography, Why Not the Best? At the front end of the bar is a metal water cooler with a stack of plastic cups to the side, set aside to help parched, weary salsa dancers get their second wind. The cooler is covered with various stickers and signs, ranging from “Legalize it!” to “H20, bitchez!”
From 9 until 10, University of Missouri graduate student David Mueller teaches the basics of salsa and bachata, which is a similar yet distinct dance. He is a lithe, charming man with short, dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, often clad in a Mizzou polo, black slacks and black dress shoes.
Salsa has its origins in Cuba and the Caribbean, but there are many regional variants. North American variants include Los Angeles style and New York style. David’s three essential pillars of salsa are the basic steps, the right-hand turn and the cross-body lead. The basic steps are essentially this: step forward with the left foot, step in place with the right, step back into place with the left foot, step back with the right, step in place with the left foot, step back into place with the right, and repeat—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. It’s simple, yet the simplicity of the process makes it easy to over-think and lose track. Surprisingly, it becomes easier to remember the steps once you find yourself dancing with a partner, because the partner moves with you, and that shared rhythm makes it easier to stay in step. Dancing with a partner, however, requires a steady lead. Keep your arms tensed and at a 90-degree angle.
The right hand turn stems directly from the basic steps. As you step forward with your left foot, turn it to the right, stepping over. David describes this position as a guy trying to take an inconspicuous look at a pretty girl—you’re not turned all the way around, but you can see what’s going on behind you. Hold your left foot in that position and pivot on the ball of your right foot, spinning it in a 180-degree motion, and resume the basic steps. Footwear matters, he explains. Shoes with too much traction, such tennis shoes, make the pivot in the right-hand turn more difficult, so dancers in tennis shoes simply take an extra step to turn around rather than spinning on their right foot. A right hand turn can also be performed with a partner, and you can invite your partner to turn by bringing her arm down and then up. “She can always say no, though,” David says, and his partner demonstrates resistance to the turn by pushing her arm back down and continuing with the basic steps.
The cross-body lead is done with a partner. You disengage one hand and step back and to the right on 3, leading your partner as if through a doorway before stepping back into place and resuming the basic steps.
Once David feels everyone has gotten the hang of these three pillars, he throws everyone for a loop by demonstrating them in rapid succession, showing how a partner can be led from a right hand turn into a cross-body lead, which can then be linked to a right hand turn of his own, and various combinations of all three. This is usually done for humorous effect, as newcomers are still figuring out how to do one move at a time, but it helps to show the fluid intricacies of the dance.
If he has enough time after teaching the essentials, David will teach the bachata, which he says is a different animal from salsa. The bachata is slower and smoother, and is an easy partner dance. It consists of three sidesteps in one direction and a tap of the heels, then the same in the reverse direction.
Usually only a handful of people attend the salsa lesson, but business gradually picks up once the party starts. At 10, a bartender brings around a tray of free shots for those of legal drinking age, and then the party starts, with either a DJ playing a spicy blend of Latin music or, on some nights, a live performance by La Movida itself. When the lesson is over, and David takes to the floor with other experienced dancers, it’s easy to stop dancing altogether and watch. They move intricate turns and confident steps, either alone or with partners. Partners follow easily and happily, secure in the confident lead. Although some miscommunications ensued, the dancers will pick up again effortlessly, driven by the jubilant beat of the blaring salsa music. Two or three couples will soon become four, then five, then six. During a black light party, one man wore stark white pants, which seemed to shimmer and glow as they swayed beneath the black light. From time to time, partners switch up, but the flow is retained. The pulsating percussion and saucy clink of the cowbell are easy to keep up with, and the flow of hips and heels becomes fluid and natural.
The dance floor is wooden and weathered, with a thick seam in the middle that is easy to stumble over if you’re not watching your feet. Seasoned dancers, however, tend to situate themselves firmly on either one side or the other, so as not to trip, and avoid what is really the only pitfall to be found. Even on the busiest nights, there is still plenty of room for dancers to enjoy the floor—a stark contrast to other dance clubs like Ten Below, which tend to feel like sardine cans by the end of the night.
This contrast is something many, David included, appreciate about not just the Blue Fugue but salsa dancing in general. Latin dance, David says, is different from club dancing because the dancing itself is the goal. It is sensual, but not necessarily sexual; intimate without grinding. People generally don’t come to Fire N Ice to hook up, but to dance and have fun.
David, who is currently working on his Ph. D. in electrical engineering, says he has been salsa dancing for seven years, and he initially learned it through the Latin dance club on campus. In those days, he says, there were about 75 to 100 people involved in the club; over time, that number dwindled to about 60. He also salsa danced at Club Tropicana, formerly known as the Spanish Fly, located where the bakery U Knead Sweets is these days.
“They changed the name to Club Tropicana because Spanish Fly is actually the name of a kind of aphrodisiac,” David said. “But it was a good place to dance and learn.”
Engineering is a very mental activity that requires constant problem-solving, computer usage and set concepts and formulae. As such, David didn’t really have much of a creative outlet. Dancing, he said, was a nice way to loosen up and have fun.
One of the regulars at Fire N Ice is Rachel Pruitt, who usually dances with her husband, Jim, a student at MU, but also helps David teach the partner dances on occasion. She said she has been salsa dancing for six years now, having initially learned as a freshman at Missouri State University-Springfield. A friend of hers was offering group salsa lessons for $10 per person, which soon led salsa parties on weekends. Since moving to Columbia, she has attended Fire N Ice for two years.
“I love salsa dancing because it is a safe way to interact with the opposite gender in a way that is satisfying to all,” Rachel says. “I love working and sweating to make the best possible picture with another person. I love laughing with someone else when a mistake is made and trying it again to get it. I love sharing salsa with beginners and to watch the wonder in their face as they figure out how to move their feet and realize that they are making a picture with someone that they never thought they could accomplish.”
As for the event itself, Rachel says she loves Fire N Ice because of all the wonderful people that dedicate themselves to creating such a great night each week and the people who faithfully “come and dance their socks off!” She is friends with many involved in the event, including David and several members of La Movida.
La Movida is directly translated as “The Move,” but it can be interpreted a number of ways. The phrase is commonly used to describe a cultural scene, and that sums up how guitarist and event promoter Walt “Moondog” Goodman sees it—not so much as a band but as a celebration of life to the fullest.
The band has been together about five years, and consists of Walt along with Melania Bruner, lead vocals and flute; Tom Williams, lead guitar, vocals; Justin Giles, bass guitar; Zach Eldridge, saxophone; Stephen Varner, percussion; Heber Mena, congas; and Daniel Edwards, timbales.
Although La Movida only performs about once per month, Walt is almost always there to oversee the event. He is in charge of virtually every aspect of Fire N Ice Fridays except for the bar itself. A stocky, friendly looking man with a mustache and an ever-present black cap over his bald head, he is constantly moving, whether he’s setting up sound and lighting equipment or preparing glow-in-the-dark bracelets for a black light party. Fire N Ice Fridays have been a staple of The Blue Fugue for about three years now, although Walt says the bar has been a venue for Latin music and dancing for more than 20 years.
Walt named the event “Fire N Ice” after one of the first salsa nights, held in the dead of winter. With a snowstorm outside and a packed house inside, the windows began to steam up. “On the inside, it was hot like fire, on the outside it was cold like ice,” Walt says. “In the summer, we kept the name, and it described the heat of the caliente dance floor contrasted with the ice cold of the drinks. I’m a fan of the juxtaposition of extremes.”
Playing live music is one of Walt’s favorite things, and he said he dreamed of joining Motley Crue when he was 12. But as he grew up he developed a love of Latin music and dance, especially flamenco. He attributes some of this to his cultural heritage, as his mother’s side of the family is Puerto Rican.
He came to Columbia in 1996, and lived in Grenada, Spain for six months starting in 1999, which further influenced his affinity for Latin music. “In a lot of ways, I’m still in Spain,” he said.
Walt grew up in Joplin, and his father died in the Intensive Care Unit seven weeks after the 2011 tornado. Almost immediately afterward, Walt had to return to Columbia to host the salsa night. “It helped me to heal,” he says.
The rising appeal of salsa dancing isn’t limited to Columbia; it’s popular all across the country, and can easily be found in media, as well. ABC’s Dancing with the Stars features salsa among its various dance styles, and last year’s hit film Silver Linings Playbook culminated in a dance competition that incorporated elements of salsa. And it’s not just humans being inspired to cut a rug; researchers at Boston University announced this year that they are teaching Roomba-like robots how to salsa dance in an attempt to get them to respond to environmental cues (author's observation: will the ever teach Roombas to rumba?). But here in Columbia, at Fire N Ice Fridays, salsa is all about the human connection. Curious newcomers can learn the basics without fear of judgment, and as they interact and dance with seasoned veterans, and the best way to break the ice is by learning to set fire to the floor.