It’s about an hour before the real dancing begins here in Tampa, but already about 40 people are lined up in rows across the wide, hardwood dance floor.
The house lights are up, revealing the high ceilings and tall arched windows with elaborate wood craftwork. A nervous hush vibrates among the dancers – some of the women decked out in sequin blouses, tight skirts and sparkling stiletto heels, the men in cargo pants or jeans and button-down shirts – as they wait for the next word from their leader.
“Here we go! From the top!” guest instructor Sean Wilson from Orlando calls from the front of the group, as his toned, lithe body moves expertly in his white shirt, jeans and black shoes. He laughs and smiles easily, coaxing them to relax as he teaches them a variation of steps on the cha cha called the Suzie Q, before moving on to partner work.
“One, two, three, cha-cha-cha, six, seven, eight. All right, throw it back on six!”
It’s a Friday night, and these lovers of Latin music – from 20-somethings to seniors – are gathered for the monthly Noches de Salsa Caliente dance social in the historic district of Tampa called Ybor City, yet tucked away from the nightlife and bars pulsating with techno music farther down the road along Seventh Avenue.
Instead, these gatherings, hosted by Salsa Caliente Dance Studio, are located in the majestic Centro Asturiano – built in 1914 by the Centro Asturiano de Tampa, a social club established by immigrants and their descendants from Asturias, Spain that catered to the medical, health insurance and social needs of its members.
Constructed during a time when Spanish, Italian and Cuban immigrants developed a thriving commercial and social district around cigar factories, the beaux-arts classical revival building – listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places – was once used by its original members as a bowling alley, a cantina for cards, chess and dominos, a theater, and of course the grand ballroom on the third floor for social events. The building is still in use, now renting out its spaces.
Tonight’s dancers get to the ballroom by climbing the marble staircase, graced with crystal chandeliers and lined with old photos of the club’s founders.
Erika Occhipinti, the event organizer and owner of the Salsa Caliente studio, finds it a great venue to host the monthly Latin dance social, all in a smoke-free environment in a historic ballroom. The events are open to the general public, and they also provide a chance for students at her nearby studio to practice their moves.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” she says.
Each month the socials kick off with a dance lesson at 9 p.m. in a different genre – salsa, bachata or cha cha. The social dancing begins at 10 p.m. and runs until 2 a.m. – punctuated by guest performances from teams of costumed dancers just before midnight.
Once the social dancing begins – now about 200 people and counting – the lights go down, the music starts, the silvery disco ball turns on and dancers hit the floor.
“It’s a great place,” says Ray Martinez before taking to the dance floor with his wife, moving smoothly and slowly through their steps. Since they each practice different martial arts forms, Martinez and his wife were looking for something fun to do together. They started dance classes at Occhipinti’s studio and decided to check out the monthly salsa social – enjoying the contrast of the atmosphere to a typical nightclub.
“People come just to dance. It’s a throw-back to a different era.”
On the floor, dancers are of varying levels. Some tentatively move through steps recently learned. Others – like the man whose shirt is now damp with sweat, or the woman whose long legs rise out of red stiletto heels to a leopard-print skirt – throw acrobatic kicks, turns and whiplash arm flourishes.
Candace Wilson, wearing a purple dress, is ready to rest, heading back to one of the tables lining the walls.
“He lives to dance,” Wilson, 34, says about her fiancée, Angel Rodriguez, 27, who sports a dapper brimmed hat and had earlier made it all the way through the cha cha lesson without dropping out. Rodriguez joins her at the table for a break.
The couple plans to marry in several months in Puerto Rico and decided to take dance classes at Salsa Caliente so that they can storm the dance floor at the reception.
It’s their first time at the dance social, however, and they love it.
“It’s nice. You get a free dance lesson and you get to have fun,” Rodriguez says.
“No one will spill a drink on you,” adds Wilson. Then, after a few minutes and fully rested, she stands up, nudges Rodriguez and motions to the floor.
If you go...
The Noches de Salsa Caliente dance socials hosted by the Salsa Caliente Dance Studio are open to the general public and held once a month at the Centro Asturiano building located at 1913 N. Nebraska Avenue (at the corner of Palm and Nebraska Avenues) in Ybor City, Tampa. Tickets are usually $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Parking is free. All ages are welcome, but patrons must be 21 or older to buy alcohol from the full bar. For dates of upcoming socials, more information or to buy tickets, visit www.tampasalsa.com.