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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Salsa dancing sees rise in popularity locally

For a horse trainer with a Southern drawl, 60-mile treks to attend salsa classes might seem unusual.

Still, Gordon Adair is willing to make the trip so he can squeeze in two good hours of salsa dancing at a Gainesville studio.

Nestled among the bistros and bookstores on West University Avenue is Salsa Caliente, a school that holds classes in the Unified Training Center.

Pulsating, percussive "1-2-3" rhythms stream from underneath the door, where space is reserved for salsa students to share their spicy steps with anyone who wants to learn.

Adair didn't develop a taste for salsa music and dancing right away. But now he's hooked, and he's not the only one.

Salsa's growing popularity has attracted a wide variety of students in recent years. Darren Stuart, owner and director of the salsa school, said he first noticed the salsa boom in 2004.

Professors, students, local residents and retirees pack the room, letting their feet give in to the music as the shrill blast of the trumpet comes through the speakers.

The instructors are from a diverse set of ethnicities, which was Stuart's goal. He said he wanted to create a dance studio that not only employed but catered to dancers from all backgrounds.

Stuart was born and raised in Barbados, and the assistant director, Kareen Young, is Chinese-Jamaican.

The 12 other instructors hail from the U.S., Lebanon, Italy, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, to name a few.

Born and raised in Michigan, Adair is a salsa master in his Wrangler high-waist jeans and flannel shirt. Accustomed to training horses, Adair has a knack for leading, and he sweeps his partner in a snappy set of loops. For more than two years, Adair has been making the commute from his home and equine center in Ocala to Salsa Caliente. What keeps him coming is the fact that even at the most advanced levels, there is still a new turn or style to be learned, he said.

With Los Angeles-style salsa steps like the Suzie Q, tap loco, alley cat, magician and Jimbo, there's no end to the learning process.

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Plus, the workout helps him stay in shape.

"It keeps me young," said Adair, who would only reveal that he's in his 50s. "I guess most people my age just want to sit on the couch and get fat."

Wearing dress pants and a sweater, Chris Aytug, a director of marketing and sales, takes the floor.

As soon as she starts twirling, her face glows and she tosses her head back.

Aytug, a Gainesville resident, has attended classes for the past three years. Her interest in salsa began when she dated a Hispanic man.

"Now, I keep on coming back just because I love to dance," she said.

While her husband doesn't share in her love of dance, Aytug is never in need of a partner. Men and women are evenly matched on most nights.

Jose Bello, a fourth-year UF anthropology student, dances salsa because it's an integral part of his Colombian heritage and also because it gives him something else to do when he goes out at night. Bello, 26, pointed out that many people go to nightclubs with the intention of dancing, but sit around drinking instead.

"Sitting around and drinking gets boring," he added. "Salsa gives me something else to do."

The art of the dance also appeals to Bello because it's sensual while still classy.

"When you dance salsa, you're doing something more coordinated than bumping and grinding," Bello said.

As the congas fade into the background and the dancing dies down, people of all ethnic backgrounds stroll out of the studio after another night of salsa. Adair slips back into his Southern drawl as he says goodbye. Some already begin discussing their next lesson.

Young, one of the dance instructors, smiles as she watches them leave.

"It's not about whether you're Hispanic," she said. "It's about a passion for dance."

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