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.
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.
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.