In a very "Eat Pray Love" fashion, I decided I needed to travel to get out of this funk, and I had my eye on Puerto Rico, the salsa capital of the Caribbean.

Travel can refresh a weary spirit, and boy, did I need a refresh. As a choreographer who once spent my days living it up in the vibrant NYC dance scene, the pandemic has been exhausting. I felt uninspired and stuck after having had very little dance work for the past two years. In a very Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love fashion, I decided I needed to travel to get out of this funk, and I had my eye on Puerto Rico, the salsa capital of the Caribbean. But in a world changed by the pandemic, would travel really provide the boost of inspiration I was seeking?

My answer came from a dance colleague, who happens to be the head coach of the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) dance team. “We’d be happy for you to guest teach our dance team!,”- she messaged me. That was all the encouragement I needed. My flight and AirBnB were booked within 24 hours. I was going to Puerto Rico!

I spent fifteen days in Puerto Rico, dancing salsa, teaching contemporary dance at the UPR, and exploring the island.

In early December 2021, I speed walked through the frigid morning air into the Philadelphia International Airport, dragging my heavy suitcase filled with shorts, swimsuits, and dance shoes behind me. Once on the plane, I spent the four hour flight to San Juan with my headphones on, music turned up, planning dance exercises and choreography for the UPR dance team. This was my first time visiting Puerto Rico, and I had only seen the dancers in videos. I was excited to teach them some contemporary dance choreography, rich with techniques that had made me a strong dancer in NYC. But teaching is always a two way street, and I wondered what the Puerto Rican dance world would teach me.

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I spent fifteen days in Puerto Rico, dancing salsa, teaching contemporary dance at the UPR, and exploring the island. I like to think that after two weeks in Puerto Rico salsaing the nights away like Celia Cruz was my middle name, hunting around for the best piña colada con ron, and perfecting my Spanglish, I was able to experience Puerto Rico’s rich arts culture in a deeper way than most visitors, and reignite my inspiration as a choreographer, too.

Image: Twirling the night away: dancing salsa at Delavida in La Placita de Santurce. Photo: Arianna Menzies

I wasted no time getting acquainted with the Puerto Rican salsa scene and went out dancing on my first night in San Juan. As a seasoned dancer, I steered clear of the more touristy salsa venues and instead frequented places where the experienced salseros danced. My favorite place to dance was Delavida in La Placita de Santurce in San Juan. The NYC salsa scene is hard to beat, but the salseros at Delavida definitely rivaled the best dancers in Manhattan. A live band provides the salsa music on Thursdays, playing with such great energy that I danced until midnight every time, not stopping until the last song finished. On nights when that wasn’t enough, I would pile into a car with my fellow salseros and drive to La Factoría in Viejo San Juan, which also has a live salsa band that played until the early morning hours.

Unfortunately, Omicron cases spiked in Puerto Rico at the end of my trip, so I avoided salsa socials during my last few days on the island. As dancing involves very close contact, getting Covid is definitely a concern. However, cases were low at the start of my trip, so I was able to enjoy the salsa scene quite a bit.

Posing with the UPR dance team at the Rio Piedras campus. I’m in the middle of the front row and am wearing a yellow headband. Photo: Arianna Menzies

Puerto Rico is a small island, but it has some big talent when it comes to the arts, especially dance. To be honest, I didn’t realize how many talented dancers were in Puerto Rico until I went there. The UPR dance team soaked up the contemporary dance sequences I taught them, learning an impressive amount of choreography in a short time. These dancers had great technique, could turn and jump for days, and brought emotion to their dancing as well. It was immensely fulfilling to share my passion for dance with such talented and dedicated dancers.

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One of the dance team coaches was also a member of Andanza, a contemporary dance company that has been revolutionary on the island, despite being relatively unknown in the world outside the Caribbean. Andanza was the first contemporary dance company in Puerto Rico and has performed consistently for over 20 years, both on the island and internationally. They offer free performances at el Museo de Arte Contemporáneo around Christmastime, and are a must see when visiting the island.

Image: Murals on the streets of Santurce. Photo: Arianna Menzies

When I wasn’t dancing, I spent my time exploring the island. I stayed in Santurce, a neighborhood in the San Juan metropolitan area. This neighborhood is filled with beautiful murals, and I especially loved the ones that highlighted Puerto Rican history and culture.

A marble plaque outside of La Barrachina restaurant that claims the first piña colada was made there. Photo: Arianna Menzies

As both a history buff and a self-described alcoholic beverage connoisseur, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to order a piña colada from the place of its birth: La Barrachina in Viejo San Juan. Bartender Ramon Marrero allegedly invented the refreshing cocktail there in 1963…though the nearby Caribe Hilton claims the same thing. This has led to a rivalry so intense it has been named “The Great Piña Colada War”. Honestly, the piña colada at La Barrachina, majestically served in a tall glass and topped with a mini pink umbrella, was great. But, the piña coladas at a local seafood joint in Santurce, served in no-frills plastic cups, were just as good, if not better (I went back for those ones multiple times).

Playa Ocean Park, one of San Juan’s many beautiful beaches, with Playa Condado visible in the distance. Photo: Arianna Menzies

There are many beautiful beaches in San Juan, and staying within a ten minute walk of Playa Ocean Park was definitely a smart decision. I went there every morning for some quiet time on the beach before the crowds arrived.

With friends at El Yunque after our long hike! Photo: Arianna Menzies

While the San Juan area is great, I’m really glad that I got to explore Puerto Rico beyond the metropolitan area. I took a day trip with some of my dance friends to El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s national tropical rainforest. We put our dancer muscles to good use and spent four hours hiking the forest’s mountains, including up to Pico El Yunque, a mountain peak more than 3,000 feet above sea level where we were literally in the clouds.

I also had plans to visit the beaches on Puerto Rico’s west coast, about a two hour drive from San Juan. Unfortunately, that plan was thwarted when one friend (our designated driver) caught Covid. I’ll just have to venture out there the next time I’m on the island.

An early morning spent dancing on a quiet beach. Photo: Arianna Menzies

Spending two weeks in Puerto Rico gave me the refresh I needed. I fell in love with the Puerto Rican dance scene and the amazing people I met there. While I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to because of Covid, I still had an incredible time. I got to experience a dance scene that was much richer than I could have imagined, which has piqued my interest in exploring professional level dance on other Caribbean islands. I still keep in touch with the friends I made in Puerto Rico, and am happy to have an excuse to return someday and salsa the nights away again.

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