Footloose! (Chapter 1)

For many years New York has been a great city for dancers. In the eighties, I loved to watch people break, and I learned some basic popping and locking steps. When I returned in the nineties, there were many dance clubs with a vibrant scene. I started dancing electronic music in many of the big clubs that got shut down because of the drug culture. Soon afterwards I made the shift to tropical music, and since then I’ve been wondering when I’d get tired of it. Through all the changes in the different dance scenes in New York, it still hasn’t happened. But it’s hard not to compare the current dance scene with the way it was before, and reminisce about the early days.

My first steps

When I got to high school in Philadelphia, I wasn’t much of a dancer. I had been to a couple of friends’ parties in middle school, where I perfected the side-to-side foot shuffle with hand-clap, and its slower variation for ballads, where the hand-clap was substituted for hands-on-partner’s-waist. I liked dancing, though, and I wanted to learn.

In high school we had yearly or biannual dances. While in Puerto Rico we mostly danced to rock and pop, the DJs at the high school dances played popular hip hop too. The hand-clap foot-shuffle started feeling woefully inadequate. Whenever I saw someone who knew how to dance, I tried to imitate him. Little by little, I started adding more movement to my steps.

But other than these dances, there were very few opportunities to dance with my classmates. When I started going to high school parties, I discovered that people in my high school didn’t really listen to music at parties, much less dance. High school parties eventually became opportunities to talk and get intoxicated, but never to dance or listen to music.

Salsa roots

In high school I started listening to more salsa. Among other things, it reminded me of Puerto Rico. It also made me feel connected to that part of my identity, which I found myself yearning to do. Especially because, when I returned to Puerto Rico for the first time after moving, I noticed that I was finding it a little more difficult to speak Spanish, and people remarked that I spoke like an American. I was horrified, and made it my goal to never have that happen again.

One of the albums I started listening to was Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe’s “Lo mato si no compra este LP” (I’ll kill you if you don’t buy this LP). Like a lot of the great salsa albums my dad had, it had great cover art, with Willie Colón holding a gun to someone’s head on the front cover, and on the back cover, the victim has overtaken Willie and is holding the gun to Willie’s head. The Colon/Lavoe songs on that album are still probably my favorite that they did together, including such classics as “Calle luna calle sol,” “El día de mi suerte,” and “Todo tiene su final.”

I also loved Ray Barretto’s “Indestructible”. It had a picture of Barretto opening his jacket and shirt to reveal a superman outfit. This was another album that eventually became part of my canon of favorite salsa albums, full of hits including one of my favorite songs of all time (which I quoted on my high-school yearbook page), “El Diablo.”

Dad danced to this salsa stuff like a Puerto Rican Fred Astaire. One day I asked if he could teach me some moves, and he told me to show him how I danced salsa. When he saw my poor impression of a salsa step, it might have been the first time that he had second thoughts about taking us out of Puerto Rico.

Learning to dance salsa was a very slow process. It involved making an ass out of myself at family parties or Latin parties that my parents took me to. I obviously never asked anyone to dance. But my mother would ask people for me. “Hey Ricardo, you remember Petra. Why don’t you ask her to dance?” With Petra right there, I often felt too embarrassed to say no, and then I would put Petra or whomever through the torture of spending an entire song “dancing” with me. But often my dance partners at these parties were adults who knew how to dance, and I was grateful to have them teach me to lead them, and little by little started to feel more comfortable with the rhythms and with partner dancing.

The discovery of electronic music

But I didn’t just want to dance at the occasional Latin party with my parents and Petra. I wanted to find another venue to explore dancing. My brother started going to under 21 parties in Philly at places like the Troc(adero) and Rainbow Playground, where they played Techno, House, Industrial and other electronic music. By this point he had a more favorable attitude towards hanging out with his little brother, so he would often take me along.

Dancing to electronic music was different than dancing to salsa.   For one thing, it wasn’t partner dancing. Consequently, there was a lot more freedom. Salsa was comparatively rigid, with specific rules and the need to coordinate your moves with your partner’s moves. With electronic music, you did your own thing, it was a way to express your creativity through dance. Salsa made me feel connected to my Puerto Rican culture and heritage, but electronic music connected me to something more current, younger, and more underground.

After graduating high school, my brother went to college in New York City. I applied to several schools in different cities, but after visiting my brother, I knew that the time had come to return to the city that I remembered so fondly. When I graduated high school, I followed my brother to New York City, to what would be the start of a joint exploration of countless clubs and music venues that has been going on for over twenty years.

The Village

I started at NYU the same year that Giuliani became mayor. During orientation, I remember being a little surprised walking through Washington Square Park in the middle of the day and having eight or nine different people offer to sell me a wide range of drugs. It was a different city back then. The city still had an edge. It also had much more diversity of every sort, both cultural and socio-economic.

The amount of music was overwhelming. My brother took me to see live jazz, and we’d go dancing at the Giant Step parties at the Supper Club. I still loved dancing to electronic music during my first year of college, and although I wasn’t a club kid or a raver, I had friends who were. Occasionally I’d go with them to the now-defunct megaclubs like the Tunnel, Club U.S.A., and Limelight, which made the Philly clubs look like Barney’s playhouse. There was so much stuff going on in these places, and I knew at the time that I wasn’t even aware of a fraction of it. By three in the morning I’d already be tired and ready to go to bed, but I’d stick around with my friends ‘til five, at which point we’d leave and my friends would head to the afterhours clubs, and I would head to my dorm room, lamenting the fact that the sun would come up before I was in bed.

Discovering Dad’s Old Haunts and Favorite Bands

It didn’t take long for me to get tired of the club scene in New York. I felt like the only person who wasn’t there for the drugs, or the social scene, or the fashion. I remember looking around in one of the clubs at the end of my freshman year and just thinking, “what am I doing in here?”

Meanwhile my brother and I were becoming full-blown cocolos (salsa fans). Every time we went back to Philadelphia we’d tape another tropical album from my dad’s collection to take it back to New York. Ismael Rivera “Traigo de Todo;” Larry Harlow “Salsa” and “Hommy;” Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound 6; Típica 73; Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino; Eddie Palmieri “the Sun of Latin Music; dad had so much stuff and we devoured it like sharks.

When we went back home we’d go out with my parents to parties thrown by a growing group of their post-graduate student friends. These friends were from different parts of the world, mainly from Latin America. Many were artists and intellectuals, and what they all had in common is that they liked to party. There was always a lot of music and dancing at these parties, mostly tropical music, but also soca and even some Brazilian music. There was also plenty of delicious food from all of the different cultures that were represented at the parties. And of course, alcohol; they were especially fond of making pitchers of margaritas or other special drinks. Often there would be people from several different generations at these parties. In short, they were nothing like the American parties that I had been to.

After several of these parties, my salsa dancing was finally passable. I could keep time, I had learned a couple of turns, and I could do some solo steps as well. It was good enough that I could ask someone to dance and know it wouldn’t be painstaking for her. Salsa was poised to fill the void left behind by electronic music.

The moment couldn’t have been better. Many of our favorite salsa musicians, bands that had been around for decades, were still playing in New York City. We saw a lot of them at a club that my father used to go to in the eighties, S.O.B’s. At their weekly “La Trópica” nights we saw Joe Cuba, Eddie Palmieri, Dave Valentin, Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades, Yomo Toro, Johnny Pacheco, among many others; performers who I never imagined I’d be seeing and who still sounded great.   My brother and I would be at these clubs imagining my dad dancing to the same band at that club ten or fifteen years earlier, or seeing those musicians live in Puerto Rico even earlier than that. It was a trip.

The Birth of the Salsa Dictator

By the end of college I would always carry a small bag with tapes or CDs. I would take it with me to parties at people’s dorms or apartments, often parties with very few Latinos, and I’d put on some salsa music. There was no reason for me to think that anyone at these parties would be interested in listening to salsa. I was just so tired of going to parties where there was no music playing, or the music was bad, that I didn’t care if anyone else wanted to hear it. I figured it could be a learning experience. Occasionally people would enjoy it. More often they’d listen for a couple of songs, then change the music back to something boring.

Salsa was by no means the only thing I listened to. At this point, besides a lot of American music, I was listening to traditional and modern music from all over the world. However, when I was out partying, I wanted to hear salsa at some point of the night, even just a couple of songs. And I was tired of expecting people to know how to throw a decent party. I was ready to show them what a good party should sound like.

Tropics in the City

When I graduated college in 1998 I realized that there were a lot of great Latin music parties all over the city, and many of them in downtown New York, where I liked to hang out. They had smoking live bands and skilled dancers. I started discovering that there were different tropical music scenes. There were places for Fania and other old salsa, places that played modern salsa, places for merengue, Colombian salsa or Cuban son. I didn’t know any places at the time that were playing modern Cuban dance music. I listened to all of that tropical music, so I tried to go to all of those different places.

What I couldn’t find was a spot that played a combination of all of the different styles of tropical music that I liked. To me, the bar had been set high by the house parties I had been to in Philadelphia with my folks: people from all over Latin America and other parts of the world, dancing to different types of music. People dancing salsa didn’t sit down when the soca, merengue or vallenato songs came on, they kept dancing, even though they didn’t know the right steps. No one looked down on you for dancing a different style of tropical music; no one cared if you danced “Puerto Rican” or “Colombian” style, much less if you danced on the 1 or the 2, people just wanted to dance and have a good time. This was what I was looking for when I entered the Tropical dance party scene in New York at the end of the nineties. That party had to exist among the seemingly unlimited parties going on at the time. If not, maybe my brother and I would have to create it.

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Back to the motherland

Moving to New York four times means leaving at least three times. The first time I left I was nine years old. It wouldn’t take me long to realize that the city had left an indelible mark in me. Besides the fondness that I was developing for the city, living there would affect my feeling of cultural identity and belonging, and even how other people viewed and interacted with me.

After those three blissful years, my parents decided to return to Puerto Rico, and I am extremely grateful. I returned to my patria, strengthened my Spanish, got reacquainted with my cultural roots, and made many friends. I also expanded my musical horizons.

Eating oysters in Boquerón with a friend visiting from New York
Eating oysters in Boquerón with a friend visiting from NYC

Each day I explored my dad’s record collection more and more. He set up his stereo in the room that I wanted for my own because it felt hidden in the middle of the house. But dad set up his office in that cozy room, and his stereo fit neatly in the closet. He had so many records, my brother and I would spend hours looking at the covers and playing random albums to see what they sounded like. Around that time I remember often listening to “In Square Circle” by Stevie Wonder, the “Best of Bread,” Rod Stewart’s “Foot Loose and Fancy Free,” and “Abbey Simon plays Chopin.” My brother and I also got our first records, Men at Work “Cargo” and the Ghostbusters soundtrack, both of which I listened to a million times, and they reminded me of New York.

By this point I also loved cassette tapes for their portability, the fact that you could record on them, and even just the mechanics and aesthetics of the tape. Dad always had blanks around, to record albums or make mixes, and he let me have one whenever I needed it. I got my first walkman, and I was able to record songs I liked off the radio. I still have some tapes from that period, with portions of different lengths of the songs I was listening to on the radio (stuff like the Whispers, “Rock Steady, a remix of Debbie Gibson’s “Only in my Dreams,” and Bon Jovi “Wanted Dead or Alive”).

Media was developing quickly, and dad was always eager to explore new technology. He had already embraced reel-to-reel, records, cassettes, (not to mention Betamax and VHS), so when CDs were getting popular he bought a player. He got me my first CD for my 12th birthday, it was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which I also listened to many times.

An outsider in my home country

The transition to living in Puerto Rico was not smooth. I lasted two days at my first school, on the first of which I was slapped randomly by an older kid, and the second of which one teacher unfairly accused me, “the kid from New York,” of a prank committed by one of my classmates behind her back.

I felt a lot of nostalgia towards New York. I loved and missed Manhattan and Brooklyn, subways, museums, libraries, Pino’s Pizza, my school, Washington Square Park, among many other things. Spanish was my first language, but English was the language of New York, the language of the books that I had learned to love there, of the movies and television shows that I watched, and of the music that I preferred. I spoke to my brother in English, and to most of my closest friends in school (this caused animosity in a lot of my classmates, who often reminded me that I was in Puerto Rico now, and that I should be speaking in Spanish).

The books I read in Spanish at school were nowhere near as interesting as the books in English that I ordered from Scholastic catalogues or asked my parents to get me at bookstores. T.V. in Spanish meant the news, soap operas, or slapstick comedy shows, none of which I was particularly interested in. And I thought most of the music in Spanish on the radio was corny. There were a lot of translations of pop songs from English to Spanish, which to me were too emotional, and just an imitation of a superior original.

The gradual discovery of good music in Spanish

Meanwhile, my dad was listening to music from all over the world, and certainly listened to a lot of music in Spanish. Although I rejected some of it, almost without realizing it I started to like certain things, little by little. From this period I remember two Cuban albums that he listened to a lot: One was an album by Las Estrellas de Areito, the Cuban equivalent of the Fania All-Stars. It featured what I didn’t know at the time was a star-studded lineup, that included Ruben Gonzalez, Niño Rivera, Felix Chapottin, Tata Güines, among many others. For some reason, something about the first song on the album caught me, from the moment the singers harmonized that first phrase “Pican, no pican…los tamalitos que vende Olga, Olga…,” followed by a beautiful flute.

Another album was the self-titled “Son 14,” with a picture of the whole big band on the front cover, and a guajiro on the back cover who could have been a jíbaro, singing into the mic with shades on. The first side was full of gems: “Agua que cae del cielo,” was energizing, with great percussion, horns, and singing. “Tati una canción para ti” was unique, in that it started as a bolero, but then picked up steam and became danceable, only to end as a bolero again. Dad would dance to this music, with my mom or alone, and sometimes my brother and I would play shakers made from cans that were filled with rice and said “S.O.B.’s.” We thought the name was funny, and dad told us they were from a place in New York that he had been to when we lived there. Little did I imagine that I would experience S.O.B.’s in person many years later.

Dad had even more Puerto Rican music that I started appreciating. Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, “Juntos otra vez,” which was released in 1974, was still very popular in this period. “Quitate de la vía perico” and “Maquinolandera” were songs that I would hear on the radio or at a Christmas party and were super catchy, maybe the first salsa songs that I liked. One of the first things I noticed was that squeaky kid’s voice singing coro (Ismael Rivera, Jr., if I’m not mistaken). Something about the fact that a child was singing on an adult album was unexpected and cool.

I probably started liking a lot of music in Spanish through humor. Dad listened to Luis “Perico” Ortiz during this period, and he had several humorous salsa and merengue songs. The self-titled Haciendo Punto en Otro Son was a nueva trova album that I became fond of, probably because of the funny tango where the singer asks a former lover to return a pair of underwear that have sentimental meaning. But “Buscando America” by Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar made an even bigger impression.

It started with a second-person spoken word (“GDBD”) performed by Blades over a repetitive a capella bass line that sounds almost like a rumba. Although the lyrics have to do with the morning routine of a police officer who is going to arrest someone, it was easier for me to notice the humorous elements of the song, including the man repeatedly stepping on a puddle of dog piss and drying his foot with a Disneyland towel.

The hit from that album, “Decisiones,” also deals with serious topics but in a humorous way, including a verse sung in the voice of a drunk. These songs got me to pay attention to the rest of the album, and I started enjoying the other songs. “Desapariciones,” Blades’s reggae about forced disappearance was a beautiful song, and not what I would expect on a salsa album. So when a social studies teacher brought the album into class one day to talk about the theme of the title song, “Buscando America,” I was proud that I knew the album well. I was also surprised that a teacher in my evangelical school listened to salsa. Keep in mind that this was a school that held a yearly assembly to discuss how most of the music we were listening to had subliminal satanic messages, and that really the only safe music to listen to was Christian music.

None of my friends listened to salsa, and none of the other kids in my class seemed to know “Buscando America.” My friends in middle school listened to music from the U.S. and watched MTV. Some people liked the corny ballads in Spanish, and a lot of us liked Juan Luis Guerra, who was just blowing up in Puerto Rico, but for the most part it wasn’t just “the New Yorker” who had a preference for music in English.

Then, I started attending my first marquesina parties.* Just when my hormones were starting to boil, I started going to parties where we would dress up, some girls started using make-up and got fancy hairstyles, and we were all excited about hanging out at night outside of school. Most importantly, we were dancing. A lot of what we danced to was rock or pop, but we also started dancing ballads and even some of those Juan Luis Guerra songs. I’d get to dance up close with girls who were looking more and more like women, and I thought it was sublime.

*For a definition of a marquesina party (albeit a post-reguetón definition) see: http://remezcla.com/culture/what-the-f-is-a-party-de-marquesina/

Right around this period, my parents started talking about moving, either back to New York or to Philadelphia. I had spent five years in Puerto Rico and I had a lot of close friends. My Spanish and my English were just about on the same level, with my Spanish maybe having a slight advantage. Mostly, I wanted to stay. But part of me longed to return to New York, a place that in my memory was filled with magic.