This May, Jennifer Aucoin was going to celebrate the 19th anniversary of her salsa school, Steps Dance Studio, now co-owned with Angelo De Torres. But instead of throwing a big party, the duo met with the students for a virtual chat. During the lockdown, the school is offering online classes, and the team is trying to figure out how to prepare for the new normal, whenever that may be.
“I’ve had a lot [of challenges], but this tops everything,” Jennifer admits.
When she organized the first salsa congress back in 2003, Toronto was tackling the SARS outbreak.
“I remember worrying that it would stop people from travelling, but it didn’t,” she says. “I don’t remember SARS affecting my daily life in any way; it didn’t affect my dance classes – and I was teaching full time at that time – and it didn’t affect my business. Nothing stopped.”
With COVID-19, the situation is entirely different. “Before all this happened, we would have at least one hundred people at the studio per night,” she says. Now, classes have moved to Zoom, and instructors are mostly teaching from home. The studio is also offering free 15-minute livestream sessions on social media.
The 18th annual Canada Salsa & Bachata Congress, planned for October 8-12, will not take place given the present risk related to large events like these, but Jennifer is keeping an open mind about alternative smaller-scale formats. Normally, the event gathers around 5,000 participants and entails flying into town around 60 international artists.
She is not alone in having a rethink. Congresses around the world are being either postponed or cancelled, and the organizers of Toronto’s popular summer fiesta, the TD Salsa in Toronto Festival, have also just announced that the festival will take place virtually this year.
“I couldn’t believe that existed here”
Jennifer had already been a ballet and gymnastics teacher when she had her first Toronto salsa experience. It was at El Rancho, the then go-to Spanish and Latin American restaurant and salsa club. “I remember walking down that hallway, and then kind of just turning into the nightclub, and it was just a sea of people dancing salsa,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that existed here.”
She took her first lessons with Alberto Gomez, one of the most prominent salsa figures in Toronto, at the iconic Berlin Nightclub in Yonge and Eglinton. Soon she was hooked.
“I eventually started helping him as his class assistant, and then I started performing salsa and Argentine tango,” she says. “We danced ‘cumbia’ style, which is side to side, and there weren’t as many moves. You could really learn most of the moves in 16 weeks.”
The salsa scene looked a little different then: “There were several clubs to go to, but you dressed up … the guys often wore suits, women wore skirts and dresses, and dressing up was half the fun. At the time it was salsa music, merengue, some cha cha and some cumbia, and at the end of the night they played slow love songs.”
“At the time it was salsa music, merengue, some cha cha and some cumbia, and at the end of the night they played slow love songs.”
Salsa was introduced to Toronto in the 1970s chiefly by immigrants from Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and El Salvador, but dedicated Latin dance schools did not start to appear until the late 1990s, early 2000s.
“Socials didn’t exist, and full-time salsa schools didn’t exist,” Jennifer says. “There were a few teachers and some of them taught at nightclubs, some of them taught structured classes. But almost all the teachers at the time were men. I think Stephanie Gurnon, and myself, and Elizabeth Sadowska were the first women to teach salsa full time in Toronto.”
Not that it mattered. “I don’t remember being worried that I was a woman. I don’t think I was raised that way. I was just like, ‘well, I know how to teach, I’ve taught ballet, I’ve taught gymnastics, I’ve taught dance, so I’m just going to teach salsa.'”
“There was definitely a machismo in the culture, but I always took it with a grain of salt because I also loved the culture,” she adds. “I wasn’t out to prove this or that, not at all. I just loved salsa – the music and the dance. And I was really lucky that I was surrounded by people who loved music and loved talking about music and about the bands.”
Heart of Times Square in Toronto
The concept of salsa congress, meaning a multi-day festival of workshops, performances and social dancing, was pioneered in Puerto Rico in 1997, but it quickly spread around the globe. Jennifer attended her first congress two years later in Washington. It was there that she met such salsa legends as Eddie Torres, Nelson Flores, David Melendez, Ismael Otero, or Joby and the Vazquez Brothers from Salsa Brava.
“We learned how to dance ‘on 2’ and how to dance en linea. That hadn’t existed in Toronto, not many people were dancing forward and back, so Stephanie [Gurnon], and Giovanni [Torres], and I first started teaching linear salsa,” she recalls.
But it took another four years before Jennifer decided to bring the congress experience to salsa dancers in Toronto.
“I really felt … that 99 percent of the scene in Toronto did not go to salsa congresses – there were no events in Canada at the time, and this was before Youtube and Facebook – so none of them had been exposed to these dance performances, teachers, mentors,” she explains.
With the support of David Melendez, she organized the first salsa congress in the country in 2003.
“The first night … I remember coming into the ballroom at around midnight and thinking, ‘oh my God, I’m at a congress!’ The energy was the same as in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Amsterdam or Puerto Rico. I always describe it as being in the heart of Times Square. It’s this crazy energy. After that year, I ran the event on my own, and David Melendez was the master of ceremonies. The rest is history.”
Dancing in the ‘new normal’
Dancing salsa in the era of physical distancing may sound like a contradiction in terms. But as the Ontario economy is slowly being restarted, Jennifer and Angelo are coming up with new protocol for their studio to enable the students to practice safely.
“When we reopen, we will just be teaching footwork and technique for a little while, maybe have one or two partnerwork classes per week, with people coming with their own partner and not rotating in class,” Jennifer says. “We’ll have to limit class sizes initially and have shorter classes to allow people to leave the room, and to allow us to sanitize everything in between classes.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever stop in-person classes because that’s the whole point of dance.”
“Online classes will definitely continue so that the members who don’t feel comfortable coming to the studio can still learn online or maybe come less often,” she adds.
In her view, online classes are here to stay for good, if only because they offer so much flexibility. At the same time, “I don’t think we’ll ever stop in-person classes because that’s the whole point of dance.” And for many students, coming to the studio is not just about dancing, but also about being a part of community.
“It will be a very slow climb until we get back to normal, and we will likely have to wear masks and gloves initially,” she predicts. “But we’ll do whatever we have to do. I’d rather dance that way than not at all.”
After all, salsa is like a drug, but a healthy one. “It’s like a vitamin.”