Walking down Eagle Street on a Saturday night, you might hear the syncopated rhythm of salsa blasting from outside speakers. Perhaps it’s the audacity of bumping music next to the police station, or the bustling crowd inside, but the Latin Rhythms & Salsa Saturday events at The BLOCK off Biltmore demand the attention of passersby.
Oskar Santana and Jamie Singh are responsible for organizing the event, which began in 2013. Strictly speaking, it’s a dance party meant to both teach and host salsa and other Latin dance forms. Beginning at 9 p.m., professional dance instructors from the local studio 2umbao teach salsa lessons to a relatively small, but eager, group of beginners. As of press time, instruction is free.
The amateur level of the lessons allows for an easy atmosphere. Jennifer Stalnaker, owner of 2umbao Dance Academy, gauges the crowd for what people would like to learn, and dance partners change throughout the lesson at regular intervals. On the syllabus are basic salsa steps, hand positions and female and male turns. Stalnaker demonstrates with a colleague, and instructors are peppered throughout the class.
The exact roots of salsa dance are difficult to trace. The name itself, primarily translated as “sauce,” can also be understood to mean “mixed.” This is possibly in reference to its multilayered lineage. Salsa music is understood by many to originate in New York City from son cubano, a genre that combines Spanish flamenco guitar with Afro-Cuban percussion from West African people who were enslaved in the Caribbean.
Salsa dance is seen as very similar to mambo (which any Dirty Dancing fan will appreciate). In fact, the name of Stalnaker’s company translates as “on the two” — a reference to mambo, which is sometimes called “salsa on the two.”
Stalnaker began studying salsa eight years ago and has come to love the “warm, family-oriented” community created around the dance. The Asheville salsa scene has diminished a bit over those years, though, due to some key members leaving. Now, Stalnaker frequently attends salsa congresses in other cities, while teaching, hosting and helping with events in Asheville. She’s hoping her company and the Latin Rhythms nights will help reinvigorate the local scene.
After the lesson, the social begins and the more practiced dancers roll in. The room can get packed during the evening’s zenith. Santana (as DJ Malinalli) plays not only salsa music, but cumbia, merengue and rhumba as well.
Friends who have been dancing together for years hug; others sit at the tables, with drinks and food, right outside the venue. While the Latin Rhythm night is for dancing, the organizers also want the event to serve as a hub. “We want to have a place for the community to dress up, have fun. A place to be safe and happy,” Singh says.
This can be challenging in the current climate. While record deportation levels under Obama earned him the title “Deporter in Chief,” members of the Latin community are even more fearful of policy enacted under the current administration, says a representative from local immigrants-rights group Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Accion. The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit examining criminal justice, has discussed a recent executive order by President Trump meant to further empower Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s program 287(g) — an initiative that allows local law enforcement to alert federal agencies if they apprehend someone “without valid immigration status.”
Beyond being an entertaining space to possibly distract from these anxieties, Latin Rhythms also extends service out into the larger Latino populace. “The community is such a loving one,” says Singh, “it’s easy to do charity.” Often the dance night benefits a cause. Previous fundraisers ranged from the local (such as assisting the family of Jerry “Jai” Williams, who was killed by police) to the national (as when Latin Rhythms held a water drive for Flint, Mich.).
The blend of the social and political makes it a perfect fit for the venue. The BLOCK off Biltmore bills itself as “Asheville’s first Eco-Vegan, Social-Justice, Solidarity Bar” — and Latin Rhythms & Salsa Saturday embodies that mission.
WHAT: Latin Rhythms & Salsa Saturday with DJ Malinalli
WHERE: The BLOCK Off Biltmore, 39 S. Market St., theblockoffbiltmore.com
WHEN: Every Saturday. 9 p.m. dance lesson/$5 cover after 11 p.m.