At first I tried to settle my nerves by talking with the others in the room. Not much help there, as they were ‘newbies’ too, so we shared our nerves, crossed our arms, and leaned against the wall to wait. We had showed up early enough to watch Café Rumba, a Peruvian Deli located at 1140 North State Street in Bellingham, transform into a salsa club. Antonio Diaz, co-owner and our salsa teacher/DJ for the night, moved tables and chairs and set up the sound system. At 10:00 p.m. there were six of us ready to dance and by 10:15 p.m. that number easily passed thirty. A salsa club immediately emerged. Music, sweat, rhythms, footwork, partners, isolations, and undulations instantly filled the room. I was soon to learn… I had definitely worn the wrong shoes.
Rumba Northwest (RNW), directed by Antonio Diaz and Heather Haugland, is a Latin dance company based in Bellingham that hosts salsa night most Saturday evenings at Café Rumba. The night starts with an introductory lesson and is followed by Latin music, including salsa, bachata, reggaeton, and merengue, for those in attendance to dance the night away. RNW also offers classes in the community on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
“I feel happy every single time I leave class. I can walk in grumpy and by the time I leave I am happy.” Maggie Bates started dancing in 2010 when her second child left for college. Between classes, practice, and social events, Maggie now dances 4–5 times a week. “Dancing is kind of like making the perfect pie. In Casino-style salsa, when you and your partner connect with the music and each other, the ensemble is complete. Antonio teaches us how to create this ensemble.”
Originally from Lima, Peru, Antonio trained in Cuba (with legendary rumba instructor Juan de Dios, among others), Puerto Rico, Peru, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver, BC. He danced for years in Seattle and won first prize at the Seattle Salsa Contest in 2000. He and his wife Heather Haugland lived in Juneau, Alaska and ran a successful dance company, Rumbalaska, from 2002–2010. They founded Rumba Northwest in 2010 when they moved to Bellingham to be closer to family in the Seattle area.
“In the world of Latin dance, Antonio has a breadth of knowledge, both of the music and the dance,” says Heather: “Many Latin dancers only teach one style, but he can teach a huge range of styles. Likewise, many DJs are only familiar with a few specific rhythms, whereas he plays music from different countries, time periods, and rhythms. He is a musician himself so that adds to his understanding of the dance and music.” This may explain why, when watching Antonio dance, the music is actually visible. He plays inside the quality and rhythm with as many body parts as possible.
On a Monday night in the Belltower studio, eighteen students filled the room at RNW’s Cuban Salsa beginner’s class to learn how to play in the music like this. “Bend your knees, free your hips, soften your arms, and listen to the music.” While Heather taught the step pattern, “one, two, three, hold four,” she stressed the importance of the connection with the music as well as the style. The room was filled with both smiles and confusing stares. One student’s facial expression clearly said, “You want me to WHAT?” But it didn’t take long for that same student’s expression to say, “A-HA!” Heather and Antonio are able to create the space for students to figure it out. They are experts at guiding our straight-spined, non-undulating-pelvis culture into salsa.
Beyond the dance and the music, RNW’s events provide something else: “Building community is one of our main goals in teaching dance.” Heather goes on to state, “We don’t get too hung up on technicalities, we want people to have fun, enjoy moving their bodies, and connect with other people.” According to Maggie this is working. “There is a feeling of fun and friendship. You become a part of a super healthy community.” This community is palpable in Café Rumba on salsa night.
As the night went on, I watched the more experienced dancers take to the floor. I now understand Maggie’s draw to salsa. I witnessed the perfect pie, the ensemble. No amount of words on a page can capture what this looks or feels like; you will have to experience it yourself. I dare you.
Visit www.rumbanorthwest.com for more information.