On Sunday, March 8, more than thirty thousand salsa fans packed a stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico for an all-day celebration of their favorite Latin music and dance style featuring some of the island’s most popular performers.
For Nerida Mora of West Hartford, the 37th Dia Nacional de la Zalsa 2020 – the National Salsa Day – was a high point of a month’s enjoyment of the beaches and the salsa scene on the island of her birth. But like others in the crowd, there was little expectation that the coronavirus pandemic would soon shutter gatherings seen as a risk to the general health.
As it turned out, Puerto Rico would be ahead of the mainland, even San Francisco, in deciding that physical distancing and an economic and social lockdown were necessary to fight the spread of a deadly submicroscopic infective agent.
A week after the San Juan festival, the commonwealth’s governor announced an island-wide curfew and the closing of nonessential businesses, including dance clubs and studios, in a move to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
“We had no idea about this when we left for Puerto Rico,” said Mora, who cut her trip short and returned home to find a similar lockdown in effect.
Mora and other salsa devotees accept that the need for social distancing for the good of the community and their own safety was more important than joining with friends and other salsa lovers on often crowded dance floors. But it was a bittersweet separation.
“It is so sad, I miss those people,” said Mora who is known in the Connecticut salsa community for her engaging personality at salsa events several nights a week. “I used to pass fliers for salsa events in Connecticut before social media,” she recalled.
However, salsa is a societal passion that COVID-19 could not totally obscure. In the time of social distancing, social media, through networking platforms and applications like Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, is keeping the Latin dancing scene alive, albeit from living room to living room
Mora, who came to the United States as a child and would become attuned to the Hispanic dance culture through the pachanga and eventually the salsa, has been keeping up with her favorite dance genre through Facebook groups such as Connecticut Salsa and Bachata Scene which has more than 2,000 members.
She also tries new steps with limited success through online lessons from her favorite instructor, Jason Ramos of Meriden, although she prefers in-person instruction.
The lockdown was especially vexing for Ramos, an Ecuadorian who saw his income plummet in March and April as the pandemic precautions forcing him to cancel private and group classes and appearances at social events such as quinceaneras.
In response, Ramos has upped his presence on the Internet and through Facebook and other networking platforms often turning his living room into a dance floor for instruction and exhibitions with his dance partner Amanda Duvall.
Ramos uses his Baila Con Gusto CT page on Facebook and YouTube to post schedules for mixed-level footwork on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and beginner salsa and bachata steps every Monday at 8 p.m.
In addition, there are special classes such as ladies’ salsa styling sessions lead by Duvall who is a University of Hartford student trained in ballet.
“This is the best we can do to share and collaborate and to help people stay positive,” said Ramos, who does not charge for the classes but asks for voluntary donations through Paypal and other online payment services.
Reliance on Facebook for connecting with salsa friends is a far cry from Mora’s pre-COVID-19 schedule when the dance floor became her “home away from home” on Wednesday and Thursday at New Haven venues and on Saturday nights at the Casa Mia in Rocky Hill. The recently retired state employee would also attend occasional salsa cruises and be in attendance at annual salsa congresses.
Sundays were special, with Mora heading to New York City with her “New York partner” Christine Plavnicky, an accomplished dance and a friend since the two were introduced by a mutual friend several years ago.
Salsa had its roots in Cuba but blossomed in New York City more than 50 years ago through the city’s large Latino population. “New York has hundreds of clubs schools and studios with the best instructors,” Mora said.
The city is also where Plavnicky first encountered salsa at the iconic Copacabana night club as a 14-year-old wearing a lot of makeup and a fake identification to overcome the age-21 restriction. “It was the most beautiful dancing and music and I was mesmerized,” the Fairfield County resident recalled.
At 21, Plavnicky began learning the basic steps and was “horrible,” she said. However, she persisted and advanced through the salsa ranks and there was the moment a few years ago when during the course of one dance she began to hear the music more profoundly. “This improved my dancing markedly.
Mora noted her friend is “a fabulous salsa dancer and performs with a dance group.”
Since the COVID-19 shutdown, Plavnicky, the granddaughter of Russian ballroom dancers, has kept in touch with her current instructors online. However, most of her attention and devotion are now focused on the 14 horses in her care at Blue Spruce Farm, her equine rescue center in Monroe.
“She is passionate about her horses; she babies them,” Mora observed.
Still, Plavnicky, like Mora and many others misses the dance floor. “Salsa events created a comfortable atmosphere and became a home away from home for people who love the music and the art of the dance,” she said.