'It is a refuge': Louisville's salsa dancing scene connects Latin Americans to their roots (2023)

The Saturday nightdance floor at Hotel Louisville is peppered withwhispers of apologies from smiling first-timers,shuffling forward and backwardand stepping on toes. There's no judgment from danceinstructor Chelsey Owen, who, grinning ear to ear, encouragesthe beginners to "let loose."

"Experiment with your hips a little this time," Owen tells them between mixed tracks combining classic salsa rhythms with modern hits from artists like Ariana Grande.

When the lesson is finished and the lights dim, classic salsa tuneslike Hector Lavoe's "El Cantante" ring through the speakers, andfolks who are a bit more comfortable moving their waists confidently head to the dance floor for an evening of steps, spins and close embraces.

Some are dancing salsa for the first time, wayward locals who saw an event page on Facebook and said, "Honey, wouldn't this be a fun date night?" Others are working professionals who've made salsa dancing a hobby. Manymet their spouses on a dance floor like this one in downtown Louisville.

In the past decade or so, Louisville's salsa scene has grown from a once-a-week gathering with a live band on a small dance floor at Saints Sky Barin St. Matthews,where the pizza restaurant's upstairs bar turns into a dance floor complete with a disco ball, to dozens of events every monthheld across the city.There are classes for all levels,dance teams that travel all over the country and vibrant "salsa nights" like the one at Hotel Louisville, stretching late into the evening. Now, you can find a Facebook event for Latin dancing almost every night of the week.

And just as salsa originates from a mixture of different styles — a combination of Afro-Cuban dances son, cha-cha, mambo andrumba with Latin jazz influence— Louisville's salsa community is filled with people of all backgrounds, as diverse as the city itself. But for Louisville'sLatin American immigrants, the sounds of salsa are all too familiar— ataste of home and a connection to a culture they don't want to lose.

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'It is a refuge': Louisville's salsa dancing scene connects Latin Americans to their roots (1)

Manyare accustomed to social dancing — in their familyliving rooms or at a cousin's quinceanera,the ornate coming-of-age partyfor 15-year-old girls in Latin American culture.But when Latino immigrants find a place like Louisville's salsa nights, even if they can't dance,it's a comforting and powerful space, said Gabe Scott, a Mexican immigrant and dance instructor who is credited withgrowing Louisville's salsa dance scene.

"The salsa community invites and empowers those who are looking for a sense of belonging —it is a refuge in and of itself," Scott said. "The recognition of our cultural ties by music and dance really is a referendum of Louisville’s way of living."

Some, like Andrea Guerrero, didn't grow up in countries where salsa was the main styleof dance, but the Latin rhythms are nostalgic enough. As a child in Ecuador, Guerrero danced cumbia, a Colombian folk dance,casuallywith family. She had never taken a dance class before moving to Louisville.

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Her friends dragged her out to Saints Sky Bar, 131 Breckenridge Lane, for a salsa night 12 years ago, where she fell in love with casino, a Cuban style of salsa.

Guerrero said finding the salsa community saved her life.

"I was at my lowest point,and going through a divorce," she told The Courier Journal. "But I came out dancing and never looked back."

The mother of two met her closest friends, and her new husband, in Louisville's salsa community. Last year, Guerrero organized a salsa dance group called The Ville Casineras. They host salsa classes on the Belvedere once a month, weather permitting,for anyone who wants to join.

She's raising her young daughters to be proud of theirCuban and Ecuadoran roots. She uses salsa music to keep the culture alive, playing it in the car radio and speaking Spanish at home. When she's not dancing salsa at one of the dozens of events and classes in Louisville, Guerrero is having dance parties in her living room.

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She's witnessed the growth of Louisville's salsa scene —from Thursday nights at Sky Bar, to salsa nights on the Belle of Louisville and instructors opening their own studios to teach various styles of the dance, such as bachata, a more intimate and sensual partner dance that originated in the Dominican Republic.

Much of the evolution is credited to Scott, who opened Xplosive Rhythms in 2012, teaching Argentine tango, cha-cha and Zumba. But salsa was always the main ingredient at Xplosive Rhythms, Scott said.

Scott first came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago, settling in New York City.

"I remember spending many nights crying and sad. I just didn't know people," Scott told The Courier Journal. "I didn't belong, I couldn't understand the culture. There was so much I didn't understand."

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When he was in New York City, salsa dancing was a cure.

"It was an international language," Scott said. "Alot of the peoplespoke that language,whether they were from Russia, Italy, Mexico, Cuba orArgentina. It didn't really matter what background you had.That communication on the dance floor crossesall the cultural barriers."

When Scott moved to Louisville in 2005, he was desperate to find the salsa scene, but couldn't.

He operated Xplosive Rhythms from2012 to2016. When it first opened, three or four people would come to the salsa classes Scott taught. Then it exploded, he said.

"I rememberat one time a class was filled with 120 people," Scott said.

What keeps the salsa community alive in Louisville is not necessarily the dance, Scott said. It's the friendships.

"It doesn't matter what you do for Christmas, or whether you celebrate a quinceanera," Scott said. "Here we are all the same, we came here to dance, to enjoyourselves."

One of Guerrero's closest friends, Rob Nickerson, is responsible for elevating the scene since Scott took a step back to focus on his nursing career. Nickerson is a musician in a local Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban band, Hermanos, with a passion for salsa dancing.

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'It is a refuge': Louisville's salsa dancing scene connects Latin Americans to their roots (3)

His group, Salsa Underground, uses Facebook to organizeevents like theHotel Louisville salsa nights, classes at Mid City Mall's dance studioand socials at Butchertown Social, 1601 Story Ave.

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Nickerson wanted to continue growing the community after Scott's dance studio shuttered — spreading the gospel of salsa, he likes to say.

"We think the salsa scene is representative of a demographic that's already here. It's another color on the palettethat is Louisville," Nickerson said. "If more people are exposed to it, they'll fall in love too."

The salsa scene in Louisville has also been a place of refuge and connection for first-generation Latino folks like Josh Gonzales. Gonzales, whose parents are from Mexico, grew up in Oldham County and now owns Foko, a Mexican-Southern style fusion restaurant in Logan Street Market, 1001 Logan St. in Shelby Park,with chef Paco Garcia.

Gonzales, like many of Louisville's salsa enthusiasts, first found the scene in 2014 at Saints Sky Bar.Before then, Gonzales had danced with family at Fourth of July cookouts, weddings and quinceaneras, but never formally.

Growing up in Oldham County, he struggled with feeling proud of his Mexican heritage. But there was something about salsa music that felt personal —the Spanish lyrics, thecongasand the trumpets. It was the same sound that came from speakers in the family home when his mom cleaned on Sundays, or when his father installed new hardwood floors in the house.

"Dancing, for me culturally, is a sense of home," Gonzales said.

Gonzales now teaches salsa and bachataat Logan Street Market once a month. He remembers when he first started teaching in 2017, a Mexican man approached him to say thank you for the class.

"He said salsa was saving his life," Gonzales remembers. "He had lived here maybe six or seven years, and like so many immigrants, had a mindset on work, work, work. He was struggling with alcoholism. That moment just gaveme a sense of purpose for why I was dancing and teaching."

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Beyond the connection to culture, there is a physical intimacy in salsa dancing unlike anything else, said Ronald Fernandez.Fernandez, a first-generationAmerican whose parents are from Costa Rica and Colombia, moved to Louisville from Miami 10 years ago.

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"In Hispanic culture, when you greet someone, you hug and kiss," Fernandez said. "There's a level of trust and vulnerability in salsa dancing. There's not a whole lot of activities or things you can do with strangers where you're so close to them."

That close connection inevitably creates relationships, some more intimate than others.

On the dance floor at Hotel Louisville's salsa night, you can tell the dance partners who are most comfortable together. They move fluidly and confidently like one unit.

Among the crowd aremarried couples, likeJulia Brockman and Jorge Cuesta,who met at a salsa night just like this one. If you ask Cuesta, a Cuban immigrant, he'll tell a story of thenight he saw a beautiful woman dancing across the room, and knew he had to marry her. His wife, Julia,will laugh.

She's from Russia, but Cuesta said she moves like a Latina; he taught her how to dance casino, the Cuban salsa style.

"Look around, there's not a single person on their cellphone," Cuesta said of the dance floor at Hotel Louisville. "This place is just sofriendly and full of life."

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Reach culture and diversity reporter Savannah Eadens at seadens@courierjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @savannaheadens.

Where to find Louisville's salsa scene

Recurring events:

  • Salsa Night at Hotel Louisville (every second Saturday of the month), 120 W. Broadway in the ballroom
  • Thursday Salsa Night at Saints Sky Bar (every week at8 p.m.), 131 Breckenridge Lane
  • Wednesday Latin Nights at Play Bar(every week at 7 p.m.), 1101 E. Washington St.

Facebook pages/groups:

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Where is the origin of the dance salsa one of the Latin American dances? ›

Salsa is a dance that first emerged in Cuba during the turn of the 20th century, molded by different cultural tendencies from Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean. The dance stems from the melodies popular in Spain and the instruments of Africa and Cuba.

What is also known as the root of salsa dance? ›

The roots of salsa (Spanish: “sauce”) are in the son. Combining elements of the Spanish guitar-playing tradition with the rhythmic complexity and call-and-response vocal tradition of African musical sources, the son originated in rural eastern Cuba and spread to Havana in the first decades of the 20th century.

What cultures influenced salsa dancing? ›

Origin of Salsa Dance

A dance style heavily influenced by Afro-Cuban traditions and dance styles such as mambo, guaguanco and danzon, salsa dance truly is a fusion of many music and dance styles from the Caribbean.

Where is the birthplace of salsa dancing? ›

Although the term “salsa” was originally coined in NY, most believe the dance and music style to have originated in Cuba and came to the US, specifically New York as Cubans were fleeing the political regime there.

Which of the following Latin American dances that is originated from Africa *? ›

Samba, is a Brazilian music genre and dance style, synonymous with Rio's Carnival and Brazilian national culture. Samba has its roots in Africa via the West African slave trade and African religious traditions, particularly of Congo.

Who influenced salsa dance and music in the United States? ›

Johnny Pacheco popularized a New York version of Cuban dance music by founding a label, Fania Records, and a troupe of performers, the Fania All Stars, in the 1960s. He called it all “salsa”—the music, the dancing, the culture as a whole—and the term has stuck.

What is the origin of Latin dance? ›

Latin dance draws from indigenous American, Iberian, and West African influences. The earliest native roots for Latin dance came from the Aztecs, Guarani, Aymara, Incas and Tehuelches among others.

Is salsa a Latin American dance? ›

Salsa is a latin dance, associated with the music genre of the same name, which was first popularized in the United States in the 1960s in New York City. Salsa is a mixture of Cuban dances, such as mambo, pachanga and rumba, as well as American dances such as swing and tap.

What is the cultural significance of salsa? ›

The Salsa is the most popular dance in Cuba and is a vital part of the music and energy that defines Cuba. Unlike the Cuban National Ballet, Salsa is not professionally practiced but rather is something done in Cuban's free time and is a form of personally expressing one's self.

What impact did salsa make on the Latin community? ›

3) Third, Salsa offered new conditions of possibilities to Puerto Ricans to free themselves from their dependence on, and identification with the United States, a cultural freedom that also resonated with musicians and audiences in cities all over Latin America.

What is the major influence on salsa music? ›

The dominant influences are from Puerto Rican salsa, Latin Ballroom and probably Lindy Hop (an American dance that evolved in Harlem, New York City, in the 1920s and 1930s and originally evolved with the jazz music of that time.)

What was salsa influenced by? ›

Salsa music is influenced by Spanish, African, and indigenous cultures, and has components of troubadour music from the Spanish, danzón from France and Haiti, the sόn of the Cuban people, and the rumbas of African slaves.

Is salsa Hispanic or Latino? ›

Salsa music is a diverse and predominantly Spanish Caribbean genre that is popular across Latin America and among Latinos abroad. Salsa incorporates multiple styles and variations; the term can be used to describe most any form of popular Cuban-derived genre, such as chachachá and mambo.

Is salsa a Spanish or Mexico? ›

Salsa is traced back to the times of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. The native people created their own versions of salsa using tomatoes, chilies, and squash seeds, however “official discovery” to the rest of the world did not occur until after the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 1500s.

Is salsa Spanish or Mexican? ›

Salsa is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine, served as a condiment with tacos, stirred into soups and stews, or incorporated into tamale fillings. Salsa fresca is fresh salsa made with tomatoes and hot peppers.

Did salsa originated in Cuba or Puerto Rico? ›

Musically, Salsa has its roots firmly based in the Afro-Spanish musical traditions of Cuba but its worldwide popularity should be attributed to the Puerto Ricans of New York.

Did salsa start in Cuba or Puerto Rico? ›

Cuba is actually the home of modern salsa. Its roots are from eastern Cuba and it made its way to Havana around the turn of the 20th century.

Is salsa Dominican or Puerto Rican? ›

Salsa. This is a style of dance music popularized in New York City during the 1960s by Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians. The base of salsa is Cuban son, a style of music that combines Spanish popular songs with Afro-Cuban percussion.

Is salsa from New York or Cuba? ›

Salsa evolved from mambo, which itself had origins in son, an up-tempo urban folk music from eastern Cuba that evolved as it made its way to Havana and then to the clubs and streets of New York City.

Did Puerto Ricans create salsa? ›

It was primarily developed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans living in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Different regions of Latin America and the United States (including countries in the Caribbean) have distinct salsa styles, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and New York styles.

Did Puerto Ricans invent salsa? ›

The major type of music coming out of Puerto Rico is salsa, the rhythm of the islands. Its name literally translated as the "sauce" that makes parties happen. Originally developed within the Puerto Rican community of New York, it draws heavily from the musical roots of the Cuban and the African-Caribbean experience.

Do Puerto Ricans listen to salsa? ›

Contrary to ballads favored by female listeners, salsa is a favorite among male Puerto Ricans, with 35% of men favoring this genre compared to 21% of the females.


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