For the citizens of Richmond’s hidden world of salsa and bachata, opportunities for dancing and being in touch with one another is yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week marked six months since the initial lockdown in Richmond due to COVID-19. These days, face masks and social distancing have become second nature. And it seems everything from work to school to happy hours will be in a virtual format for the unforeseeable future. It’s a testament to the fact that life will, and must, go on.
Yet there’s one aspect to our new reality that we likely haven’t adjusted to: the loss of touch.
Human touch is essential. Research shows that beyond social bonding, it’s necessary for our happiness, mental health, and overall well-being. Not only do we need to connect with people on a basic physical level, we’re hard-wired to do so. In fact, “skin hunger” is a phrase denoting the biological need for human touch, whether we’re aware of it or not. (Source: Wired)
Nowhere is the power of touch more pronounced than in a group near and dear to my heart, the RVA salsa community. For many, social dancing is a way of life. In pre-pandemic times, Richmond’s hidden world of salsa and bachata aficionados could be found out dancing nearly every night of the week.
One of the city’s most beloved dance spots was Havana ’59 in Shockoe Bottom. Every week, the Cuban bar and restaurant hosted Tropical Thursdays, an evening of Latin social dancing that eventually turned into late-night freestyle. The music’s distinctive beats and energetic rhythms could be heard from blocks away – a siren song beckoning people to join in.
On a typical night, I’d enter from 17th Street Farmers’ Market, bypass the main restaurant and bar filled with the distinct waft of cigar smoke. Heading up the flight of steps, the music would grow louder. After chatting with the dutiful young man at check-in, I’d pay the $5 cover charge, climb a few more steps and then instantly be transported to another world. A world with no worries, no cares and no stress… just a place to be fully present and connect with others through music, movement, and yes, touch.
As of now, that world no longer exists. To say there’s a void in the lives of those who make up the RVA salsa community would be an understatement. An article on social dancing in the Washington Post states: “Of all the once-harmless human behaviors that are now potentially deadly, social dancing is surely near the top of the list. It’s easily one of the most dangerous activities we can do for the very reasons that it’s also one of the most glorious. The coronavirus preys on our humanity, and dancing brings that out in crazy plumes of joy.”
Knowing the loss I was experiencing, I figured others must feel the same way. I checked in with members of the RVA salsa community to see how they’re faring during this difficult year.
“We are social creatures and not having the ability to continue such an incredible feeling makes me sad,” says one salsa regular who typically went out dancing five times a week. “Salsa dancing was my main stress relief and form of mental rejuvenation,” remarks another. “It’s my passion, and not being able to share that with others has affected me.”
Roberto Bisbal, who often taught the opening lesson at Havana’s, agrees that salsa dancing is the ideal outlet to relieve stress. “There’s nothing like one great dance to feel awesome and refreshed.”
Yani Justina, a local photographer who has been salsa dancing her whole life, says she misses “the energy and excitement of a dance, the curiosity from new dancers to explore more… the camaraderie in general.” Since she began dancing in Richmond in 1999, she’s made close friends over the years. “I see this happening time and again with people who are new in town, college students, military personnel,” she says. “They come out to dance and enjoy the music, but they make friends, and suddenly, this city is not such a lonely place. This is the reason why this community is important to me. I found family… and I see how others find their flocks as well.”
The term “family” is often used to describe the RVA salsa community. James Davis, who’s been salsa dancing for a few years now, believes that’s an apt description. “It’s been incredible to see the community grow and develop over the years,” he says. “You have a group of people who have sweated, laughed, and created unforgettable memories together, all while expressing themselves.”
When Mary Beth Leone moved to Richmond, she was surprised to find a vibrant salsa community – one she felt was more active than the scene in Miami. “I made my first friends here by getting into the weekly salsa rotation – everyone was always friendly and welcoming. There’s a core group of people that you see at each venue, and they’re happy to get newcomers into the fold. Overall, the community is respectful and only out for the love of dance.”
Julio Lopez, a long-time salsa dancer, agrees. As DJXtreme, he often played at Havana’s, and says the salsa community is important “for the simple fact that it allows you to meet new people. Dancing is a very strong outlet for those who have trouble meeting people.”
In addition to the physical, mental, and social benefits, many say what they appreciate most about the RVA salsa community is its diversity. People span all ages, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, backgrounds, and occupations – from students and retirees to blue collar workers and white collar professionals, and everyone in between. When it comes to dancing, people also span a range of skill levels, experience, and styles.
One person remarked that it was rare to find a social group as diverse, inclusive and welcoming as the salsa community. “It helps build unity and understanding of others in our society that is otherwise divided and segregated in many ways.” Indeed, from my own personal experience, seeing everyone out on the dance floor expressing themselves in different ways with different people always renewed my faith in humanity. My long-time dance friend once said to me, “If everyone knew how to salsa dance, we’d have world peace.”
No doubt about it, the familiarity that salsa dance brings provides an automatic level of comfort, as well as a sense of belonging that’s not always easy to come by in social situations. One dancer says, “Even if I don’t remember someone’s name, I can usually recall a face or the way someone moves and in that sense, I feel connected to them. Dancing brings people closer… not necessarily in a romantic or even platonic way. It just makes you feel alive.”
Many agree that the non-verbal exchange in social dancing is unique. Sharing an expressive art form while connecting with other people is a beautiful act that can also be fun, liberating, and even healing. An insightful CNN article on how coronavirus has affected our most meaningful ways to connect states that “Of all ways we communicate, the roots of non-verbal communication run the deepest. To show it, and to know it, is part of being a human.”
It’s this truth that’s made the new normal particularly challenging, not just for social dancers, but for everyone. Many of the things we used to turn to that helped us get through the trials of life are simply not possible or available now.
“Imagine a crowded bar with a crowded dance floor with loud music,” says one veteran salsa dancer. “Dancers are tightly connected, often bumping into others. Everybody is sweating. The music volume means you have to yell to talk. It’s the perfect setting for a ‘super-spreading’ event and about the least safe activity during a pandemic.”
So what’s the solution? One dancer laments that “COVID is such a mystery that I think any precautions we take are just our best guesses. Salsa is so intimate in terms of space and physical touch. I don’t know how social salsa events could be done safely.” Another mentioned that “open-air events and small studio events with safety precautions” might be feasible options. While the general custom is to dance with many different partners, most agree that’s not realistic right now.
“Personally, I’m not comfortable dancing with others until there is a vaccine out,” says a salsa regular who believes the only way to make social dancing work is to hold classes centered solely on shines [solo dance moves]. Another dancer in the community brought up a social dancing model used in Montreal, Canada. It required an outdoor venue, restricted guest list (to limit capacity), mandatory face masks, no partner exchanges, and designated spots for dancing on the floor.
Salsa dance event organizers and husband/wife team, Ruddy Rivera and RachelMarie Kleinberg of RVA Bachata, have given the logistics a great deal of thought. “At this time, to be safe, the community has to adapt and go through a paradigm shift on how we relate to dance and to others on a social level,” says RachelMarie. “Physically, we can wear masks and use hand sanitizer, but psychologically, we need to look at how we interact with and care for each other within the community.” They think one of the ways to move forward in a post-COVID era is for individuals to find reliable and trusted dance partners. “When you have a partner in life, you can dance through COVID until the end of the world,” says Ruddy. “But not everybody is lucky enough to be married to their dance partner.”
While they believe standard protocol, as well as a forthcoming vaccine, can help mitigate the current crisis, they acknowledge that these steps are also fragile when considering the next outbreak and its unknown set of challenges. Still, they remain optimistic. “Despite the tragedy of everything that has occurred, we hope we can come out as better people on the other side of COVID,” says RachelMarie. “As we become better people, hopefully that will make the salsa community stronger and the dance experience an even more positive one.”
Candice Deisher is co-owner of Richmond-based Salsa Connection Dance Company, which has been closed since mid-March. Earlier this month, they began teaching virtual classes, and just this week, they will be opening up 18 in-person spots for students. The classes will take place at Dogtown Dance Theatre in a large space upstairs (the main theatre) with high ceilings and plenty of air flow. COVID safety restrictions will also be in place.
“We require masks and will be abiding by social distancing guidelines,” notes Candice. “Everyone has their own comfort level with COVID. We are not currently social dancing, as we feel partner dancing still poses too much of a health risk until the COVID situation is under better control.” Regarding the future of dance, Candice is hopeful that people will choose safety now, do their research, and let science guide their decisions. “When social dancing does return, I hope to see a newfound passion and appreciation for the arts and the many positive benefits they provide for each of us.”
Like many of my salsa friends, I’ve turned to other forms of exercise and hobbies during this time, but nothing comes close (literally) to social dancing.
Recently, on a long walk through my neighborhood, I heard the familiar sound of Latin beats in the air. It was coming from a trio of construction workers who were listening to salsa music while they worked. Instinctively, I broke into the basic salsa step – I was 30 feet away, but it might as well have been a thousand miles. Without the ability to touch, connect, or have any kind of physical contact, it just wasn’t the same.
Famous Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo once said, “To touch can be to give life.” But right now, touch has the potential to harm, or even take away, life. This week, the U.S. hit the 200,000 mark for coronavirus deaths and there’s currently a global surge in cases (Source: The New York Times). If we’re among the fortunate who are healthy, we should simply focus on being thankful for that. After all, social dancing will eventually come back, but for some, their health may not.
So, we’ll have to wait. And when post-pandemic salsa freedom finally arrives, let’s make sure we never take the power of touch, dancing, or our health for granted. Until then, save me a dance.
Top Photo: Tropical Thursdays at Havana ‘ 59. Photo by Yani Justina Photography.
All photos were taken pre-pandemic.