Dancers salsa the night away in downtown Akron

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Aubree D'Angelo (left) of Akron is twirled by her dance partner Brandon Bell of Akron as they salsa dance salsa at Paolo's. Several students from the University of Akron, decided to organize Salsa Nights where they meet every other Thursday, alternating between two downtown venues, the Uncorked Wine Bar and Paolos Lounge & Bar, which offer a few free appetizers for the dancers. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

Dancing is an inherently social activity. In these times, many dance crazes resemble someone trying to shake something loose from their nether regions, and the few that do encourage people to dance with each other often resemble activities that most couples save for the bedroom.

But there is a small but dedicated following in the Akron/Cleveland area for a classic dance style, one that involves two people facing each other and holding hands, requires quite a bit of trust and (ideally) skill, and when done properly doesn’t conjure up phrases such as “bumping uglies.”

Back in February, a group of friends and international students enthralled with the dance, several from the University of Akron, decided to organize Salsa Nights. They meet every other Thursday, alternating between two downtown venues, the Uncorked Wine Bar and Paolo’s Lounge & Bar, which offer a few free appetizers for the dancers.

The official start time is 9 p.m., but folks who want to ensure their moves are smooth can show up an hour early for a lesson from one of the volunteer instructors. The evenings are free and fun, with a focus on the salsa and none of the social pressure or meat-market vibe of the standard nightclub environment.

Esra Cipa, a native of Istanbul who moved to Akron in 2009 and is a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, first discovered her love of Latin dancing in Turkey, but gave it up to focus on college. When Cipa settled in Akron, she missed dancing and began taking classes at UA.

“It’s just so active, it’s fun and a good cardio, too. You dance, you have fun, you follow the rhythm,” Cipa said. “And because it’s salsa you meet a lot of people — that’s what I like about it — and then those people become like a family. It’s such a great rhythm. The music in salsa just takes you, it lifts you up. It’s kind of addictive.”

Cipa began attending salsa events in Cleveland with likeminded friends, who all eventually concluded that driving up I-77 every weekend was unnecessary. Cipa, Ravi Uppal, a native of India who’s an industrial and systems engineer at Lake Health, and disc jockey Jason Nehez, a video director from the world-famous salsa hotbed of North Royalton, decided to find some Akron venues that would host a free night of salsa music and dancers.

Cipa first approached Uncorked, which agreed, and when it quickly proved popular enough for the Salsa Crew to need another night and venue, Salsa Night at Paolo’s Lounge & Bar was born.

Cuban, Afro-Cuban roots

Salsa music has roots in the Cuban songs of the 1920s and African/Afro-Cuban dances and rhythms. It trickled into the U.S., particularly New York, in the 1950s and ’60s with Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants. The musicians added a healthy heaping of American jazz, and legends such “Queen of the Salsa” Celia Cruz, trombonist Willie Colon and percussionist Tito Puente helped popularize the music, and by extension, the dance.

In modern times, salsa has become a sort of catch-all term encompassing several primarily up-tempo Latin music and dance styles, including the mambo, merengue, cumbia and other regional styles, and even remnants of the late-1970s Latin Hustle craze.

During a recent salsa night at Uncorked, the brightly lit gallery space was packed with about 70 people. Claudio Garcia, a Nicaraguan native and longtime salsa enthusiast who teaches at One More Step in Cleveland, along with Salsa Crew member Uppal and a few others are among the volunteer guest instructors who spread the gospel of salsa. Garcia had just finished giving the early birds some basic steps and moves to get them started.

“I love teaching. Seeing the people’s reactions when they’re learning something is amazing; you can’t trade that for anything else. It’s pretty cool,” Garcia said, standing outside the bar as Salsa Night DJ Jason cranked up the tunes.

Garcia discovered his love of salsa as a graduate student at Kent State University. Friends would ask him to come out to salsa nights and eventually he decided he’d give it a shot, “committed myself to learning how to do it, and got addicted to it. It’s fun,” he said, noting that he began dancing salsa five nights a week.

For many salsa fans, once they learn the dance it becomes something they can’t do without.

“It’s like any new thing: when you don’t understand it, you have a craving. Then once you embrace it, you can’t stop it. It’s an addictive, healthy thing,” Garcia said.

One of the best aspects of salsa night is the vibe. It’s all about the music and the dance. Folks freely switch partners every few songs, veteran dancers patiently help out the newcomers, and everyone seems focused on having a good time.

“It’s so free and so welcoming. People are not judgmental. Unless they are very touchy, people dance with anyone,” Cipa said.

Diverse crowd

That concept is borne out on the floor with its variety of dancers. International students mingle and dance with older professionals, college kids and even a few folks still wearing their work clothes. A middle-aged man whose haircut has likely been screaming “business in the front, party in the back” since his high school days was sweating through his faded black tank top as he and his nattily-attired silver fox did their own version of the salsa, complete with unique flourishes, spins and dips.

On the other side of the bar, a young, slightly awkward college student was bravely struggling with the basic steps, getting some pointers from his better-coordinated friend and drawing encouraging cheers and some benign jeers from his peers. Meanwhile several non-dancers held court at the bar talking, watching and sipping, occasionally being cajoled onto the dance floor by someone looking for a partner.

The crowds can vary from as few as 20 people to a packed house of 75 or more, and neither the music nor the dancing stops until the DJ closes his laptop.

At Uncorked, Patricia Picard of Akron, a retired director of curriculum for Hudson Schools, brought a friend but happily danced with pretty much anyone who asked.

“It’s very cool,” Picard said of Salsa Nights. “Because it’s international, young people, old people, people from all cultures, everybody is equal on the dance floor. If governments learned how to dance there wouldn’t be war. When you’re dancing with people you have to cooperate and you have to anticipate, you have to be aware of the other person’s needs.

“It’s about respecting other people and their space; it’s really a metaphor for life,” Picard said.

Respect and having fun is arguably the underlying theme of Salsa Nights. No one is trying too hard to look cool, or denigrating the dual-left-footers, or picking up someone else’s date. It’s just dancing.

“They are there to dance and have fun, and salsa dancing doesn’t mean you’re going to get married tomorrow,” Cipa said of the dance culture.

“You don’t have to be emotionally attracted to people, and there are couples who take the classes together and the rest of the crowd respects that. There are no scenes, no disagreements and no bar fights. It’s a very laid-back crowd that welcomes everyone.”

The next Salsa Night at Uncorked Wine Bar, 22 N. High St., will be on Thursday. The next Salsa Night at Paolo’s Bar & Lounge, 1 W. Exchange St., will happen on Nov. 7.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.


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