Outside of Mudd Hall at USC, the sky is a deep and dark cobalt blue. From inside on the last Friday night of February, warm yellow banks of light splash outside onto the cool concrete and brick campus. A low hum of percussive beats float through the air, with the occasional blast of horns, intermixed with laughter, streaming from the tall windows of the dance hall. It is USC Salsa Night #6!
From Cal State Long Beach, to UCLA, members of the college salsa scene have arrived to practice Latin social dancing late into the night. The event is one of the many hosted by USC’s salsa club, Break On Two, a reference to a style of salsa that is danced on the second beat of music (known as ‘dancing on two’). This is opposed to the LA salsa style that is danced on the first beat, and dominates the Latin dance community in Southern California.
USC is one of the few college clubs that teaches the salsa dancing on two, making it and its socials unique for a great diversity of dancers. Break On Two is also sure to provide some training wheels for newcomers with hour-long, beginner salsa and bachata lessons held before open social dancing. This is the 6th event USC has held this academic school year, although the club is in its 11th year of existence. After payment of a simple $3 entrance fee and a heart drawn on the right hand with a Sharpie, the night has begun.
The dark emerald green floor hosts an array of many people spinning, gliding, and taking precise steps to lively music. People border the walls of the room, chatting amongst themselves and watching the couples that fill the center of the floor. At the blaring end of a song, many ladies are dipped, with their heads being carefully guided backwards, hair flipping, and smiling faces greeting the ceiling. Hugs, handshakes, and kind words are exchanged as the pairs separate, and disperse. Gentlemen then approach other ladies, who stand either on the sides of the room or in the center of the floor, and ask them to dance for the next song. More often than not, the ladies accept the gentleman’s offer, and are taken by the hand to another area of the floor. By this time, the next song has already started and all that’s left to do is dance.
The two dominant dance styles are salsa and bachata, with some cha cha cha and kizomba thrown into the mix. As social dances, these styles require two people who have two different roles: lead and follow. Usually, the leads are male and the follows are female. The Latin social dance community has a history of men in slacks and dress shirts, and women in skirts and dresses who meet in night clubs to shimmy the night away. However, this is a college event, so most people are dressed casually in jeans and sneakers–with the exception of ladies’ high heeled dance shoes, that range from half an inch to a full three inches tall.
Co-president of Break On Two, Laz Peraza explains the process for dancing leads, “You just gotta be nice and ask a lady to dance. You know, extend your hand, introduce yourself.”
Dances last as long as a song, which can range from three to six minutes, depending on the style of music. Salsa is often faster, with a full band of horns and percussion, and a rapid Spanish vocalist. Bachata is usually slower, with less percussion, more pop influence, and sometimes sung soulfully in English.
“It’s very intimidating if you’ve never danced before, but once you get used to it and you know, take the initiative and stay there and not be a wallflower, you pick it up–you pick it up,” reassures Peraza.
The majority of the dancers here are in college, although once one gets involved, it becomes difficult to stop. Luis Perez, 35, works in information technology and with computer systems, but grins widely in reporting: “I’m a member of both Cal State Long Beach Salsa Club and Cal State Fullerton Salsa Club.” Shanelle Henry has been dancing for five and half years, currently works at an optometrist’s office, and is a regular of the college salsa scene after graduating from CSULB over a year ago. When asked about her continuance with social dance, she replies, “My friends are here, it’s young, it’s energetic; it’s my kind of people.”
Non-dancers have also come to see the spectacle of salsa dancing, and they watch from the sides of the room, sometimes daring to jump into the center of the room to move, sway, and attempt to copy more experienced dancers. Smiling, Perez says, “It’s a really fun and lively environment, where even if you don’t know how to dance, some people give you a chance to show whatever skills you have, even if you lack them.”
While the rest of the campus seems to stand still in the dark, USC’s salsa club has transformed what is lecture hall by day, into a dancer’s escape at night. “You always know there’s gonna be good dancers here. You can’t go wrong with USC,” Henry exudes. The dancing progresses into the night, having started at 10:30 p.m., and running until 2 a.m. the next morning. With $1 water bottles and club apparel being sold throughout the night, collected funds go towards the club’s annual showcase held every spring. The hall slowly starts to empty around 1 a.m. as beginners tire, leaving more space on the floor for more active social dancers.
Finally, someone announces, “This is the last song of the night!” and thanks the crowd for coming to the social. Gentlemen and ladies quickly scan the room for a partner; friends smile at each other, lock eyes and hold hands, walking towards the center of the room for one last dance. The percussion bubbles in, knees start to bounce, ladies are being whirled around gracefully, and gentlemen carefully revolve around their partner. Some people peel off their worn dance shoes from their tired feet, as the horns blare joyfully, and warm jackets are being put on. As people begin exiting the tall glass doors, the glistening dark green floor and glowing yellow lights still remain, and traces of playful Latin music escape open windows, complimenting the dark blue of the night.