Twenty couples gathered around instructor Sharonne Vinokurov one early evening in January. Art in Motion’s dance studio was hosting its grand opening party since moving from Chinatown to Blackwood.
“Remember which is your left," she said, pointing to a student’s foot. "Not that one, the other one.”
Vinokurov, 36, had been teaching cha-cha, salsa, merengue, bachata, and Latin hustle at Art in Motion since it opened on Vine Street in 2010.
But rent had gone from $3,700 to $5,500 a month for the 3,400-square-foot space, and clients — nearly 150, primarily Chinese, Indian, and African American students — complained about the lack of parking, including those from as close as West and North Philly, and as far as Reading and Allentown, said studio founder and owner Darlin García, 36.
This makes it at least the fourth Latin dance studio in the last five years to close or have to relocate in a city that touts itself as a culture-rich salsa town, but that, according to some of the region’s longtime owners, doesn’t offer enough resources for these institutions to thrive.
Eight Latin dance studios still operate in the area, but the loss of any school, say experts, threatens an ecosystem that both cultivates the region’s peculiar-to-Philly dance styles and showcases its local talent across the United States and abroad. Studios also provide important, cultural safe spaces for Philadelphia’s Latino population, 61 percent of whom are Puerto Rican, some of the most ardent salsa lovers.
“These schools have a very important role, as they keep the Latin dance scene alive, while participating in worldwide conventions that export the local talent and local styles to other places,” said Jairo Moreno, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Music.
The rise of salsa in Philly
Philadelphia’s Latin music scene goes back to the 1960s, when salsa was developing from the mambo, rumba, and cha-cha fever that ruled New York City before the 1962 trade sanctions on Cuba. Collaboration between Afro-Cuban musicians and Puerto Rican artists gave birth to the golden years of salsa music in the 1970s and ’80s; at the time, New York City had more than 50 clubs solely dedicated to salsa.
Similar to New York City — where large numbers of Puerto Ricans moved to Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side — Philly’s Puerto Rican population soared starting in the 1940s and though the ’70s as islanders migrated to the mainland, settling in Fairhill and Kensington to seek better job opportunities.
By 1986, Philly had its first dance program, when Grammy-nominated producer Jesse Bermudez founded the Latin School for the Performing Arts in Fairhill. Three years later came Philadelphia’s first studio, when partners Evelyn Figueroa and Edwin Munoz created Salseros Internacional Dance Studio.
Over time, as more ballroom competitions took place in New York and Miami, demand spread in the surrounding areas: Grupo Fuego opened in Hunting Park in 1996, Atrium Dance Studio in Pennsauken in 2001, La Luna Dance Studio in Bristol in 2003, and Maestro Flaco Dance Factory in North Philly in 2005. Of this group, only La Luna and Maestro Flaco remain, while Atrium has new ownership.
Working with salsa promoters from New York City, the studios wanted to bring the music to the masses to make salsa less like ethnic music and more like a Philadelphia style, said Bermudez, 76. (Engaging with mainstream audiences is the reason many studio owners say they want their schools close to Center City, as 70 percent of their clients are non-Latino.)
The result: public performances like the Philadelphia Salsa Congress, and events like Philly SalsaFest and Salsa Caliente. Eventually, Bermudez joined promoter Robert Bernberg and musician Carlos Sanchez to cofound Siempre Salsa Philly in 2015. This led to a City Council resolution that declared Philly a salsa city, and the annual weeklong celebration in The Schmidt’s CommonsPiazza that attracts thousands of multicultural salsa lovers.
Bernberg said events like these continue to expose Latino culture to a larger audience.
“The Latino community has been isolated from the mainstream. So these events benefit the local Latino community, because it brings the music — and them — into the light,” Bernberg said.
A case for studios
Yet these one-off social events aren’t enough to keep the Latin dance scene flourishing, said Moreno, the Penn professor, because lessons there don’t extend beyond the basics.
“I didn’t want someone to just tell me, ‘Do this, do that,’ but someone who could teach me why you would do it in a particular way,” said Giang Nguyen, 28, who started visiting Art in Motion’s Vine Street location in 2017. Now, she has a group text set up to carpool to its New Jersey location, a 20- to 30-minute trip.
Also, studios act as a laboratory to create new dance styles, which are born from different time periods, regions, and music scenes. For example, Santiago de Cali’s dance style in Colombia features more acrobatic stunts than the Cuban salsa dance, which has less choreography. And, though the universal standards for salsa teaching and dancing competitions start with the left foot, men in the Dominican Republic guide their partners with their right.
In studios, these communities co-exist, and each person is able to bring “body accents” — his or her own rhythms and backgrounds — to create particular, specific-to-the-locale dance styles.
That can, ironically, create a barrier for some people to participate, as these unique “touches” or styles could seem too distant from the moves they were taught in their households.
“So, for someone who has learned to dance this music in a certain way, it can be confusing and completely disorienting to hit the dance floor and not understand your partner,” Moreno said about Caribbean dancers attending U.S. social nights. “It’s like knowing how to walk but having to learn from scratch again.”
That is, in fact, what Northwestern University professor Frances Aparicio found when researching why Latin women had stopped visiting social clubs and studios after years of devoted salsa dancing in Chicago in 2010: “Even though they loved salsa, they refused to go back because they were dancing with non-Latino partners who told them that they don’t know how to dance,” said Aparicio, program director for Northwestern’s Latino Studies Department.
‘It is something that we need to be conscious about'
Art in Motion’s García, an instructor, performer, and competitor for 18 years, has been a sought-after teacher among dancers around the world. He also is known for cofounding a program last year for students with Down syndrome called Down2dance.
When he was unable to afford rent in Chinatown, García took out $40,000 in loans to move to a 2,900-square-foot facility in New Jersey. Many of his clients followed him, including Beth Sanchez of Wilmington and her husband.
“We didn’t think twice,” Sanchez said. Now, her 21-year-old daughter is taking a beginners’ class at the studio, a 40- to 60-minute commute.
Joe Figueroa foresaw García’s absence as a void. He opened his first studio, Living in Rhythm, in Frankford on Feb. 1, wondering aloud whether it would be beneficial to be in Philly’s Latino neighborhoods.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” said Figueroa, 44.
It’s a risk many owners acknowledge — making ends meet while offering affordable lessons can be a struggle but also rewarding. “Dancing is an artistic cultural expression that can sometimes help keep kids off streets,” said Hector Serrano, 39, who has a 22-year history teaching Latin dance in the area.
After a rise in rent at Second and Jefferson Streets in North Philly, he moved in 2015 to La Fortaleza gym in Hunting Park — a decision many owners are starting to make because they don’t have to install floors and mirrors that they can’t take with them should they have to leave. He ended up retiring in August.
The Maestro Flaco Dance Factory also moved because of rising costs. After eight years at Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Second Street, Marck Best, who goes by Maestro Flaco, moved his studio in 2013 to Chestnut Hill, where rent was cheaper, he said.
Best, 54, said Philadelphia seems to be a place dedicated to the arts, but there are few well-marketed resources.
For instance, the City of Philadelphia’s Office for Arts Culture and the Creative Economy offers an annual series of free arts and cultural performances in parks and plazas, Best said, but many artists don’t always know what grants exist or understand how to use that money. He’d like to see more coaching for creative-arts business, like how to develop dance curriculum over time, or what legal and financial support is available to buy their own place.
Best cited CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, an arts incubator that provides resources like workshops on tax reporting, as a model.
“It is something that we need to be conscious about,” he said, "so we can impact it.”