Ever stop to think what happened to dancers' identities when partner dances like salsa, which require closeness to people for creative expression, were shut down during the pandemic?
salsa new york city
Salsa Dancers at Bethesda Fountain in NYC’s Central Park. Photo credit: Rueda Matinee NYC

At the city’s sandy beaches on hot summer days, by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park during cool autumn afternoons and even with snow on the ground in the bracing cold, New York City timberos kept dancing safely through the pandemic – summer, fall and winter. Brought together by a love of Cuban salsa, dancers met up nearly every week over the course of 10 months.

I was one of those dancers who found some moments of much-needed relaxation, peace, joy and connection each week. Nothing else in life felt “normal” – and in fact, the fear and isolation were devastating at times – but seeing my dance friends every week at an NYC beach or park helped me cope little by little.

Spring 2020: Timba on Pause in NYC

Soon after the first reported case of Covid-19 in New York on March 1, 2020, New York City was considered an epicenter of the pandemic. At the peak of the first wave in April, over 700 New Yorkers were dying from the virus every day. 

…the nightly options for salsa social dancing and classes that New Yorkers had always relied upon were nonexistent. 

From March through May, hospitals were straining at capacity, sirens were blaring day and night, and all but essential businesses were shuttered. Iconic cultural touchpoints of life in the city – from everyday dining and entertainment to Broadway shows and big-name concerts – were halted, and the nightly options for salsa social dancing and classes that New Yorkers had always relied upon were nonexistent. 

How NYC Salsa Dancers Danced Through Fall During COVID-19

Jenny Gruen had just moved to the city in February 2020 and eagerly jumped into dance classes and socials before the shutdown started in March. 

“I was gearing up to be very active in the NYC salsa scene,” she said. But without a social outlet for dance last spring, Gruen had to re-center her energies, opting to focus on solo technique training at home and exploring the very quiet city in solitude. 

When the shutdown occurred… It felt like my identity disappeared.

Serena Spears, Brooklyn Based Dancer

“The one outlet I had for physical exercise, for social interaction, for my creative outlet – all of that went away. That was hard. But at the same time I just knew I had a goal,“ she explained. “I wanted to feel like a caterpillar in a cocoon and I would butterfly out when dancing started again. I wanted to be ready.”

For Serena Spears, a multi-genre dancer who’s lived in Brooklyn for 13 years, her whole life changed overnight.

“Before the pandemic, every day was a dance day. Every night had a different activity whether it was classes or socials or meeting up with friends or teaching or traveling for festivals,” she said.

When the shutdown occurred, she recalled, “It felt like my identity disappeared.”

salsa new york city

Spears tried to stay active with online dance classes, but found herself feeling uninspired and frustrated by navigating a small city apartment to try to dance. Particularly after becoming more and more enamored with partner dancing over the years, dancing by herself didn’t hold the allure it once did.

“I had months where I didn’t even feel the urge to dance, and that had been my whole personality,” she said.

I also felt adrift during this time. I tried a handful of online classes but found them difficult to follow. I realized that the social aspect of dance had been a truly powerful source of inspiration and motivation for me. And for years, I had been traveling abroad to immerse myself in social dancing, from salsa in Havana to tango in Buenos Aires. That was all gone.

Dancing Again in a Different Way

But there was respite right around the corner. Once NYC showed signs of flattening the curve in May 2020, the city began a cautious reopening of non-essential businesses and activities in June and July. Indoor socializing was still understandably restricted, so that left New York Cuban salsa dancers with one option for safe dancing: the outdoors.

Weekly “unofficial” timba parties were born – every Saturday at the beaches in Far Rockaway, Queens. With the sun coming out and cases going down, the fresh air of the beach seemed like the perfect safe spot to dance again. 

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A handful of NYC teachers and event organizers would drive out to the beach, lug a large speaker and laptop to a spot near the water, and play timba for about a dozen or so dancers who would come by bus, bike, car and train from all parts of the city.

How NYC Salsa Dancers Danced Through Winter During COVID-19

After being cooped up in a small Brooklyn apartment for months during the shutdown, Rachel Nunez, one of the organizers along with her husband Rafael Nunez, a Cuban dance teacher, felt a need for the companionship and shared passion that the close-knit timba community offered.

“It was such an important thing to be able to reconnect with the outdoors and with people who had a shared passion,” she recalled. ”And allowing things that make you feel inspired back into your life.”

It was kind of a group effort. It was the fact that the entire community wanted to take care of the community. There was a respect for science and CDC regulations in the entire group.

Serena Spears, Brooklyn Based Dancer

The safety protocol was set early: Masks would be worn while dancing or the music would be shut off. This rule was enforced a time or two, but otherwise it was easy for people to enjoy swimming, sunbathing and hanging out as well as complying with the mask rule while dancing. 

Dancing on sand is hard enough, but with masks on too? When I first tried, I was WINDED after one song! But it got easier, and as with many things during the pandemic, felt more and more normal as time went on. 

flemenco dancing new york city

Those Saturdays became a beacon for me every week. If I could just get through each day, I’d make it to that afternoon on the beach, where I could forget my stressful work-from-home life, the fears around the pandemic, and my uncertainty about the future. I felt like myself again – dancing on the sand and playing in the water – feeling light and joyful, rather than weighed down and anxious. Those Saturdays kept me going and gave me hope.

“When we first started doing this I don’t think I realized how much of a lifeline it would become. And it became that very quickly,” Nunez said. “I realized: This isn’t just a nice little fun distraction, this is actually reminding me in a profound way of what I need. It’s not trivial.”

“It was glorious!” Spears said of her first time dancing again at the beach last summer.

Gruen agreed: “I was in heaven. Heaven! Imagine you’ve been on a diet for several months and after so many months of not eating any sugar, you finally eat the most delectable dessert.” 

As the hot weather subsided, the pod of dancers moved to Bethesda Terrace in Central Park for autumn dancing, and even continued into the winter as temperatures dropped to the 30s and 40s. Safety was still a priority. As the beginnings of a smaller second wave became apparent, the dancers almost without exception wore their masks continuously whether dancing or not. 

“We followed the CDC protocols – when you’re socializing outside, wear a mask, use hand sanitizer, and contact trace. And that’s exactly what we did,” Gruen recalled.

Spears was encouraged by the way the small community responsibly danced together.

“It was kind of a group effort. It was the fact that the entire community wanted to take care of the community. There was a respect for science and CDC regulations in the entire group,” she said. 

West Coast Timba on Hold

On the other side of the country, Cuban salsa aficionados were experiencing something quite different. 

I had lived in the Bay Area for close to a decade and loved being a part of the very vibrant and strong Cuban dance community. From “Salsa by the Lake” events at Lake Merritt in Oakland to the annual Salsa Rueda Festival in San Francisco every February, plus multiple dance offerings at Mission Dance and ODC, there was a lot to choose from and a large community to be a part of. 

How NYC Salsa Dancers Danced Through Summer During COVID-19

But during the pandemic,the community was not able to coordinate safe, masked, small events as in New York City. California’s cases continued to skyrocket from spring into the summer. There was never a truly safe time to organize outdoor gatherings in which mask compliance could be guaranteed, and thus the thriving timba scene in the Bay Area was effectively on hold for the entirety of 2020 and early 2021. 

Isaac Kos-Read, the co-founder of Salsa by the Lake with his wife Mary, had been accustomed to dancing once a month, hosting the SBTL outdoor event twice a month in warm weather, and going to quarterly dance events.

“It was crazy to contemplate that for the first time in my life in 20 years of dancing that I was not going to be dancing with people regularly,” he said.

In New York City, the dance scene is truly opening up again.

Steve Javiel, an Oakland-based painter, experienced the same shock to his system. He had been going out about 3-4 times per week for years but when the pandemic hit he took it “very seriously” and stayed at home or work.

“My art is what kept me focused and busy,” he recalled. “It was just like – come to the studio, and then just go home, then back to the studio. It was my art that kept me busy and not thinking too much about dance.”

In contrast to New York, timba dancers in California couldn’t enjoy outdoor summer dancing – in July, the state went into a second shutdown as cases and hospitalizations continued to accelerate.

As an event organizer, Kos-Read had to focus on safe, small gatherings with his wife, daughter and, on occasion, a few neighbors, rather than bring large groups together.

I’m so thankful for the diversity of cultures, ages, walks of life, and professions that are in this community. And I’m so thankful for everyone who came along who shared their energy and passion. I’m just thankful really.

Rafael Nunez, Cuban Dance Teacher

“No matter how I looked at it, the very reason that dancing is so wonderful and human, is the same reason why it’s dangerous in a pandemic,” he explained.

By the time November rolled around, Javiel started using his studio for small pod gatherings for salsa dancing friends who were getting tested and wearing masks. 

“I was at the point where I felt like I needed to dance,” he said.

Dancing Together Again

In 2021, Javiel’s studio gatherings evolved into outdoor events, starting with his birthday dance party that had been cancelled the year before and morphing into 6-couple gatherings at Stern Grove in San Francisco. 

Spring arrived in the Bay Area, as did higher rates of vaccinations and a greater feeling of safety. Then Javiel discovered the Brooklyn Basin, a newly developed public park on the waterfront in Oakland, and knew that it was perfect for dancing. Javiel and a few friends first went out with a small speaker, then coordinated with a local DJ for a pop-up event, and now as he says “it’s the spot”, with a variety of music and dance events growing. 

“It just feels good to see people – to be around others, people who love dancing – the community,” he said. “They’re like family. I am truly grateful for them.”

“It’s been amazing,” said Kos-Read, who was thrilled by the vibrancy of the Brooklyn Basin dance crowd at a recent event that featured two different DJs, a live band and a small pop-up.

“You could literally have danced nonstop for eight hours to authentic Cuban music that day. It was amazing. People felt incredible,” he said.

Kos-Read is happy to be dancing again and promoting other Cuban dance events, and even hosted the first Salsa by the Lake event last week since the pandemic started. On the SBTL Facebook group the next day, he described the reunion of dancers with passion: “The wind, the waves, the winding light through the city windows across the way. We were all whipped up into an almost whimsical fury, moved to the malecon of our dreams, dancing right here in Oakland.”

Related Post: Ready for the Cimafunk Cun Cun Prá Dance Challenge? Better Get Moving (Pun Intended)

The New York City dance scene is truly opening up again. Popular Cuban dance school Fuákata resumed indoor classes in the spring, the first timba beach party was held in mid-June, and the community is abuzz with talk about upcoming concerts and events.

“It gives me a renewed appreciation for everybody,” Nunez reflected on her experience last year. “I’m so thankful for the diversity of cultures, ages, walks of life, and professions that are in this community. And I’m so thankful for everyone who came along who shared their energy and passion. I’m just thankful really.”

salsa in the city

It’s hard for me to imagine having gotten to this point without our pod of dancers who met up safely every week for months. It was such a blessing to be able to find pockets of joy together and appreciate the simple pleasures of life,  and I’ll always feel a particular kind of bond with them having made it through the year together.

How about you? Are you a fellow dancer who found a way to safely dance throughout the pandemic or have you waited until now to be able to experience that joy again? Tell us in the comments!

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Melissa Mansfield is a Brooklyn-based dancer and producer whose work centers on cultural immersion as the key to truly learning and embodying dance forms. Her web series “Follow My Lead” invites viewers into the thriving sub-cultures of the iconic dances of Havana (salsa and folkloric) and Buenos Aires (tango), revealing the transformational wisdom each dance imparts and exposing her own vulnerable personal journey as a re-dedicated dancer after turning 40. Her most recent piece, “To the Heart of Dance in Cuba”, is a deeply immersive short documentary that has been released in episodic form, which explores the nuance of traditional folkloric dance as a still relevant and ever-evolving element of modern Cuban culture. All three experiences can be viewed on her YouTube and Facebook channels.

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