It’s Wednesday night and you’ve got this itch to do something. But you don’t feel like going to the usual bars and staring vacantly into your iPhone.
Yet tucked away in an unassuming Italian restaurant, something magical is happening. Hips are swaying. Women are twirling around, their vibrant dresses glittering under the lights. Men, dressed in their Friday best (even though it’s Wednesday!), lead their partners with precision and focus, their feet moving to the pulse of the beat.
This is Salsa Haven, a tight-knight community of salsa dancers in the New Haven area who come together every Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday and sometimes Saturdays.
These people aren’t messing around. And they want you to join them.
Welcome to Salsa Haven
When I first walk into Fornarelli’s, I’m nervous. I don’t know what to expect. They charge a $5 cover and for some reason nobody believes I’m a “legitimate” journalist.
(Which is fine. I’m not.)
I pay the cover and say hello to the dance instructor and one of the leaders of Salsa Haven, Jeff Hudson. He looks like one of those fitness instructors you see in late-night informercials.
Jeff is entirely a self-made man. He taught himself finance, programming, and, most importantly (for us), salsa.
The evening begins with a free Bachata lesson. Bachata is a social dance from the Dominican Republic. The lesson is open to everyone, and varies each week, depending on the skills of the dancers.
Jeff steps through the basic sequence of steps before moving on to a few more flairs. Just cause you can keep time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sway your hips… like this.
Next, people pair up and try out a few moves. He has a natural leadership style and you can tell he’s very comfortable with himself. Plus, he’s pretty much the best finger snapper I’ve ever met in real life. (Make sure that’s on your resume, Jeff.)
I spoke to a couple of young women who had never attended before, and they both told me the lesson was really fun and informative, and they immediately felt comfortable trying the social dances after the lesson.
The lesson lasts about 30-45 minutes. And that’s when the real fun begins.
Social Dancing For All
Salsa Haven has been around for a long time. One salsa veteran who’d been dancing for over 15 years regaled me with tales of the days when they danced at Indigo, Malcolm’s, and Backdoor Botega, which apparently were all real places.
Most recently, the group has met at Russian Lady (RIP), Kelly’s (RIP), and now Fornarelli’s. New Haven Bar Churn won’t slow these people down.
Meanwhile, there’s a blood feud between the two salsa studios, Rumberos (where Jeff works) and Alisa’s House of Salsa (Alisa Bowens, rival salsa instructor). Day and night they plot vengeance against each other. Many have died in the Great Salsa Wars.
Okay, not really. I’d say they’re professionally competitive, but mutually respectful. Booorrrrinnnnnggg.
The community itself, though, is warm, welcoming, and, in many ways, a family.
Rob, another salsa lifer, told me about how he broke his ankle and was stuck at home, bored, when fellow salsa vet (and my friend) Aileen texted him and dragged him out to come hang out with the entire salsa crew when they were going out that night.
The sense of community is palpable. They all know each other, and you’ll see them constantly switching partners, learning from each other, and exchanging friendly banter as they take much-needed breaks (it’s a heck of a workout!).
One thing which struck me is how open and friendly everyone was. They encouraged me to come hang out, meet people, and learn. It didn’t matter that I was a salsa pleb who didn’t know a Cumbia from a Bachata. All were welcome.
Except for this one guy, Serious Bachata Guy, who was all, “I don’t waste my time with bad dancers, I’m here to DANCE, not shake my booty like some kind of hip hop club.”
He was basically the salsa equivalent of Grandpa Simpson.
Braving the Unknown
If you’re going to show up at Salsa Haven with no prior knowledge, I strongly recommend taking a lesson, either from Jeff on Wednesdays at Fornarelli’s, or Thursday from Alisa at Diesel Lounge (for real).
Especially as a guy. The barrier of entry tends to be significantly higher.
Following someone else’s lead without knowing anything is probably a little bit easier than trying to lead someone else without knowing anything. Which seems confirmed by everyone I spoke to (including Cloud Guy).
So go ahead and take the lessons, cause they’re absolutely worth it once the dance floor breaks out into a flurry of activity. You don’t want to be the weird guy standing in the corner with the notebook. Believe me.
A Cast of Characters
What struck me most was the wide variety of people who existed in this little universe.
There was the recently broken up couple, who had recently entered a stage of “it’s complicated” in their relationship, because who can turn away the pull of the dance floor?
And Rebecca, who came from a ballroom dancing background, but confided in me that the “Woodbridge JCC Social Ballroom Dancing” event was not a great place to meet people below the age of 72.
Chevelle, from Hamden, with her light-up smile. Previously friends with Jeff, she came to appreciate the warmth and community of Salsa Haven on her own, and when she told me she’s often the first to greet newcomers, I believed her.
Samir from Seattle, with his background in Kizomba (a form of dancing originally from Angola), who had trekked from Middletown to try something new. Like me, he was welcomed with open arms.
And maybe you.
Okay, I’m in. Now what?
The Salsa Haven group meets constantly. Once you’re in, you pretty much have to give up all your old hobbies and probably discard your old friends as well. They’re part of your Old Life. You belong to the dance floor now.
You can check out any of the following nights for social dancing:
- Wednesdays at Fornarelli’s
- Thursday at Diesel Lounge
- Fridays at Pacifico
- Monthly Saturdays at Van Dome (see their site for details)
Sure, that seems like a lot of dancing. But once you’ve got it in you, it’s hard to give it up.
And if you don’t love dancing, there’s always this:
Check out the Salsa Haven Facebook Page for more info.
This isn’t necessarily a place to meet The One. But it’s a place where you can be welcomed for who you are, regardless of your background or dance skill.
Except by Cloud Guy.
Great article and on point We are part of a community… a family. I would like to point out that Wednesdays at Fornarelli’s is pretty casual. Jeans and t-shirts are the uniform of choice though there are still some who like to come decked out, adding to the flare of the dance. Also, although Salsa may be limited to a few nights a week in the New Haven area, for us serious Salseros/Salseras (definition: Salsa dancers), we can manage to find worthy Salsa venues pretty much any night of the week in CT and Western MA …except Mondays (dunno why that is…Perhaps everyone is recovering from an intense weekend of dancing)….AND many of us travel regularly to Boston and NYC for even more opportunities to get our Salsa fix (yes, we are addicted). I for one dance 4-5/nights a week wherever I can find a good dance floor, great music, and my Salsa-familia. It’s more than a lifestyle. It’s a way of life.