Alisa Bowens always wears heels. She dances in heels. She wakes up, puts on her heels, and shimmies through the day. When her boyfriend told her they were going hiking in the Canadian Rockies, Alisa said she needed a bag for her stilettos. “You’re not bringing your stilettos on a hiking trip,” her boyfriend said. “Yes I am,” she said, and at the campsite she changed into them and twirled around. Otherwise, she explains, her Achilles tendon, unaccustomed to sneakers, might have overextended. And if you’re the owner of three of the hottest Latin dance studios in Connecticut, including Alisa’s House of Salsa on Chapel Street in New Haven, that’s a risk you don’t want to take.
This fall, I started heading down to the House of Salsa on weeknights to meet Alisa, “la morena que baile salsa,” for myself. I sat in on some private lessons, skulked around the studio, and then signed up for a few classes. In terms of ability, I was what Alisa might describe as “beginner, beginner, beginner,” meaning that my shimmy was less of a shimmy and more of a shudder. The closest I had come to dancing salsa was in the spring of my senior year of high school, when my Spanish class spent a week watching “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Witnessing Diego Luna dip, leap, strut, and sweat his way into the hearts of every single one of the girls in class (Ms. Djonbalic included), and realizing that I possessed neither the confidence nor the slightest trace of Diego’s subtlety and charm, his flair, his star appeal, was enough to make me skip the prom.
But that was then, and Alisa told me I had nothing to worry about. She said I’d be “salsified” in no time, and I believed her because, two years earlier, in 2005, she had danced in her way into the Guinness Book of World Records by leading the “world’s largest salsa lesson” (2,800 students) at the Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven. I figured that if she could salsify thousands of flailing, sunburned participants on the Green, she could certainly salsify one more. Besides, I thought, how hard could salsa really be? I resolved to keep a diary charting my rapid progress. In my head, I picked the steps up in no time, dazzling everyone around me, Diego-Luna-style.
Mistake. If there’s one thing I learned and learned quickly, it was this: I am no Diego Luna.
Salsa Diary #1:
First Lesson. My basic steps aren’t that bad, but my partner work is disastrous. End up with a 250-pound black woman who doesn’t move at all. I’m worse than she is. Don’t know how to categorize our movements, but it’s definitely not salsa. Alisa is teaching cross-body leads to everyone else; tells the two of us to stick to back spins. We fail. The woman can’t do the spin, won’t even try the spin, can’t hear the beat. Out of the corner of my eye I see two other guys lead their girls through elaborate crossing rituals and spin after spin after spin. My woman wears glasses and has a gap between her front two teeth. She apologizes to me when she forgets the steps. “It’s my first class, too,” I say, but she can’t hear me over the relentless beat of conga drums from the speakers. Alisa comes over, grabs my wrist, grabs the woman’s wrist, and pushes us back and forth in rhythm. “Your basic step is good,” Alisa tells me at the end of class, fishing for something — anything — positive to say about my limited abilities. I look at the floor and nod. Another girl tells me I did well for my first time, which isn’t really reassuring in retrospect.
I wasn’t always a shitty dancer. In fact, I used to be pretty good. When the music came on and I started to move, people smiled approvingly.
But this was way back in fourth grade, when it was not only acceptable but downright fashionable to participate in dances with designated steps. “La Macarena,” “The Electric Slide,” “Cotton-Eyed Joe” — I mastered all of them at birthday parties and on the diving board after swim meets.
At home, I bopped to Billy Joel’s “Big Shot,” which blasted night and day from the brand-new stereo system in the family room. I had one move and one move only, a kind of hyperactive jitterbug, my bread and butter, which I did over and over again, watching my reflection in the sliding door that led out to the deck. This represented the height of my dancing success.
Then a series of events combined to empty the rhythm from my body.
The first occurred at the end of fifth grade, right after Dad bought me a new pair of Vans sneakers, the kind skateboarders and sixth graders wore. Picture me, four-and-a-half-feet tall with a buzz cut, dancing to “Big Shot” in the family room, testing out my new Vans. Either Dad hadn’t bought me the correct size or I hadn’t laced them up tight enough, but for whatever reason, one of my Vans wiggled loose, flew through the air, and smashed against the sliding door.
Nothing broke, but the thud was loud enough to make the dog spring from his spot on the bathroom floor and race around the kitchen. I concluded that if I wished to avoid destroying the house, I needed to start dancing more conservatively.
But dancing is a lot like flying a fighter jet: once you lose that psychological edge, you never regain it. After the Vans incident, I was washed up.
Things got a lot worse. In the summer before I entered sixth grade, my parents decided to send me to Our Lady of Fatima, a regional school located a half-hour bus ride away, in Wilton. During the first slow song at the first dance of the school year, I walked up to J_____ P_____, who did the butterfly on the swim team, and tapped her on her powerful shoulder. She was a year older and at least five inches taller than I, and for some reason she agreed.
About halfway through the song (K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life”), she looked down at me. “You’re not ready for this,” she said, before disappearing into the coatroom with her regional-school friends.
At that point, I decided never to dance again.
Salsa Diary #2:
Second Lesson. Alisa and I have the following dialogue about partner work:
ALISA (in front of everyone): You need to take control.
ME (head down): I’m sorry.
ALISA: You can’t say sorry in the House of Salsa, only “salsa.”
Later, the class practices a fairly intricate combination: basic step, cross-body lead, arms in front, drop step, spin one way, spin the other, guys spin, cross-body lead, repeat. If you stop for a minute or drop your arms or fail to give the proper resistance, you’re doomed. Nobody is doing it right, and after about a minute, Alisa cuts in.
“I’ll be the man,” she announces to the men. “You be the girls.”
She grabs one of the guys, a 40-year-old man in a red shirt, and twirls him around one way and then pulls him in and gives him such a forceful tug that she nearly wrenches his arm out of the sockets, and he’s thrown forward. He tugs up his pants, which Alisa notices and smiles. She flashes us a big toothy grin: “That’s the kind of force we need.”
At the end, looking a lot like a puppet-master playing with a marionette, Alisa demonstrates on another student the proper finger-work for a turn.
Turning to me, she says: “I can tell without looking what you’re doing wrong on your front turn.” She then proceeds to demonstrate three of my most common mistakes, mimicking bad salsa so well that if you didn’t know her, you’d think she was just starting out. Her talent is scary.
Music is always playing in the House of Salsa, most of it sung in Spanish, and all of it upbeat. To the back of the dance area is a shelving unit that holds a pair of RCA boom boxes. CDs are strewn in large piles next to the speakers. I pick up one of them and examine. The artist is named Michael Stuart, and he has “Michael Stuart” tattooed in script over his bare chest. (If you flip the CD over, you see the same guy, his back now turned to the camera, with “Michael Stuart” tattooed over his spine.)
I also notice a copy of “Christmas with the Chipmunks,” but I’m not sure if that ever gets played. For the end of classes, Alisa usually favors a “salsified” rendition of “I Get a Kick out of You.”
The dance area is distinguished from the lobby area by the color of the floor. The dance floor is much lighter, and it has the effect of somehow raising your energy. The lights shine. There’s a full-length mirror in which you can watch yourself learn the steps. In the corner are large white fans that never stop whirring, regardless of the temperature outside. On one of my earliest visits to the studio, I met Gracie, the receptionist, at five o’clock, which is when she arrives on weeknights to open the place up for the evening. It was one of the coldest days of the year, which I mentioned, and Gracie agreed and added that she had defrosted her car in the morning. But when we walked into the studio, the very first thing she did was turn on the fans full-blast, whipping up something of a makeshift tropical breeze. Gracie’s message to me was clear: It’s never too cold for salsa.
The Latin mixes, the bright lights, the fans — it all adds to the overall effect. “The House of Salsa,” says Alisa, “is like a tropical island you don’t need to buy a ticket to.” Indeed, her idea is to bring the tropical island to the people. The studio overlooks the bus stop at the corner of Chapel Street and Orange. Waiting for a bus, a potential customer can look up through the big picture windows and watch the lessons, a fact Alisa is most happy about. “Find out how many people ride Connecticut Transit,” she tells me. “That’s how many people know about my studio.” In the future, she hopes to set up houses of salsa up and down the Eastern (and Western) seaboards.
The thought that Alisa might one day manage a worldwide salsa empire gives her an aura of authority. Along with the requisite high-heeled dancing boots, she wears black scarves and multiple rings on multiple fingers and bracelets that bounce around her wrists as she spins. She’s a stocky five-seven, but possesses what her first salsa instructor described as an “unbelievably natural” sense of rhythm, which when you’re watching her dance has a downright hypnotic effect. Alisa so subtly tosses in hip movement and shoulder movement and neck movement that you forget she’s simply transferring her weight forward and back. Everyone else’s basic step looks — well — basic, but Alisa’s, complete with a slight hitch as she slides her right foot back, is a work of art: so refined it looks like an entire combination in and of itself.
“Prodigy” is a label she welcomes. She likes to tell the story about how, after one of her lessons at a church in New London, the priest insisted on blessing her feet. And so confident is she when it comes to salsa that she guarantees she can teach just about anyone. “My boyfriend,” she says, “looks like Jon Bon Jovi. He says, ‘Babe, you’re not going to be able to teach me, I’m a gringo,’ and we laugh.”
Alisa herself is a quick study. As a high school student in Bethany, Conn., she told her friends to speak to her only in Spanish, so she would pick up the language as quickly as possible. It took her eight months to become fluent, and this has served her well as a salsa instructor in later life. People often mistake her as Latina (she’s black) because of her “crisp Latin accent,” and during lessons, she likes to pepper her instructions with Spanish words: Cambia! Vuelta! (And then, after demonstrating a new step: Preguntas?) Her transition into Latin culture has been smooth. She accepts that when it comes to salsa, it’s the man’s responsibility to lead and the woman’s to follow. “But I always tell the guys in here,” she adds, “to enjoy this hour and a half while they can, because as soon as the lesson ends and we walk out this door, we know who’s in charge.” (Jon Bon Jovi is not available for comment.)
After high school, Alisa attended Northwestern University, where she majored in criminal justice and worked as a paralegal. But then, she says, she had a “change of heart” and decided to drop out of school and work for Brushworks Unlimited, a New Haven-based construction company. Over the next five years, she rose from employee, painting and hammering along with everyone else, to president. In 1998, at the age of twenty-seven, she was named “small-business person of the year” by the Connecticut Business News Journal.
Then she took a salsa lesson.
When you’re talking about the history and origins of salsa, it’s tough to separate the artistic side of things from the business side of things. The business side of things was hovering behind the scenes throughout the 20th century, beginning in the early twenties, when Hollywood and New York recording studios started to take notice; but wasn’t until the seventies, when the people at Fania Records and Izzy “Mr. Salsa” Sanabria (publisher of Latin NY Magazine) slapped a “salsa” label on this fusion of Latin sounds, that it really established itself as a major presence. So when we’re talking about salsa today, we need to peel off the business layer before we can recognize the true roots of the music.
The true roots, it turns out, are embedded in a world of slavery and colonialism. Salsa and cha-cha-cha and son and mambo hail originally from the rhythms of West and Central Africa. “Everyone has their own opinions,” Alisa says, “but it’s an indisputable fact that salsa came from Africa.” Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when African peoples were shipped across the Atlantic, their rhythms and sounds mixed with European and indigenous rhythms and sounds. It formed what we now know today by a variety of names but classify under the general heading of “Latin music.”
That’s the first step. The subsequent steps are more difficult to trace, because they force us to pinpoint in time the migration of people (and the music) from the islands in the Caribbean to New York City. What we do know is that lots of Puerto Rican people came to New York in the early part of the 20th century. They brought this music with them and suddenly there was a Latin explosion that completely captivated the nation. You can see the evidence all over the place, particularly in Broadway musicals (think: the Havana weekend in Guys and Dolls and the conga line in Wonderful Town), in Hollywood dance sequences, in bandstands, in “I Love Lucy” and Ricky Ricardo, etc. It was huge. And it kept growing.
In the fifties, a group of young, talented, committed musicians emerged in New York City who attracted a massive following. This is when a musicologist would start mentioning names like Tito Puente, Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow, Ray Baretto, and Willie Colón: legends in their day.
So there were these talented musicians milling about in New York City, and it was 1970, and there was money to be made off this product, and some ultra savvy businessmen decided to package the sound and send it out to millions of people around the world. But they needed something to call it, some umbrella name under which they could crowd as many different types of Latin music as possible, and this is when we got the term “salsa,” which translates into “sauce,” which all at once signifies the dance’s zesty and amorphous nature. The artists themselves weren’t really feeling it: “I’m a musician,” Tito Puente reportedly said, “not a chef.” But the name stuck, and Tito Puente fought it for as long as he could, but ultimately gave in because whenever he went into a music store, he saw his CDs listed under “salsa.”
So it took off, and some ultra-savvy promoters had the idea to keep marketing this sound, and pretty soon we arrive at the present day, where Asians and whites and blacks and Latinos and Africans and Europeans are dancing salsa and dancing it well. Salsa congresses are now annually held in Hawaii, Illinois, Rome, Bermuda, and Norway, among many other places. Every August, Alisa herself takes a group of people down to one in Miami.
Salsa Diary #3:
Third Lesson. Triumph! My best performance yet by far. Taped to the bulletin board in the lobby of Alisa’s studio is a large chart: “Salsa-Holic Anonymous: Phases of Salsa Addiction,” a blow-by-blow account of one anonymous junkie’s descent into the underworld of salsa. By week three of salsa lessons, the anonymous junkie convinces herself that she can “get by on 4 hours of sleep per night” and decides to dedicate the entirety of her waking existence to salsa; by week five, she “would rather have salsa than sex”; a month later, she realizes that “salsa is sex.”
There’s a ritual at the end of class where people walk into the center of the floor and give a demonstration. I didn’t even volunteer the first few lessons. Tonight, I complete a partner routine (basic, basic, drop arm, girl spin 1, basic, drop, girl spin 2, right into a back spin for me, right into another back spin for her) with everyone watching. Repeating the same combination with Alisa, I can feel her purposefully not dancing as well as she can, holding back, allowing me to lead, which is something she did not do the first few lessons. As I’m walking out the door she tells me that I should check out the intermediate classes next week. Will do.
Outside, a crowd has gathered by the bus stop across the street. I hope they’ve been watching me nail the routine. Diego Luna couldn’t have done it better.