A Night Out In The Louisville Salsa Underground

“1,2,3…face your partner…5,6,7…1,2,3…Leads turn…5,6,7… let’s try that two more times,” said instructor David Sommer at beginner’s salsa night at Butchertown Social. The makeshift dance floor was crowded with people of varying ages, ethnicities, genders and dance skills, together shifting their feet forward and back to the instruction of a trained salsa dancer.  

“A little tip, guys: You don’t have to hold on to her hand the whole time. Keep it light, don’t grasp on and be like, ‘Don’t let go, don’t let go,’” Sommer said with a smile into his headset as he showed the move with a woman standing in front of him. 

Everyone was smiling, and the room was full of laughter and lightness. The instructor counted off again and they moved to the count, this time with less of a grip and, happy with their progress, Sommer told them to “high five your partner and booty bump.” Then, they rotated and found a new partner. It was noticeable when a couple felt equally matched by the big toothy grins and belly laughs, but it’s a fleeting moment until the next count and rotation.

The event was hosted by Louisville Salsa Underground, which got its name “because what we do is not yet mainstream in Louisville. It’s very much a niche thing around here,” said Rob Nickerson, musician and founder/organizer of the organization. Nickerson, born and raised in Indianapolis, moved to Louisville to attend graduate school at UofL with a concentration in music performance. When he joined a salsa band a few years ago, something clicked, and he decided to host salsa dancing nights all over Louisville. Free salsa socials are hosted two to four times a month by Louisville Salsa Underground at various venues throughout the city. Nickerson said he moves the event for variety. “We all get burned out on something. Each venue offers a different atmosphere, and dancers love to dance in new spaces. Thus, it helps sustain our interest.”

Tessa Hines, 45, is a seasoned salsa dancer who has body twists to match the curl in her hair. For the past two years, she’s traveled 45 minutes from Bardstown every week to attend the LSU-sponsored events, and, she said, it “is so worth the drive.” 

“It’s a very welcoming and inclusive community,” she said. “The salsa dance community serves as a connector. It’s such a diverse group, from different ethnicities, careers, ages, stories and all these people come together and share this common interest or love or passion of dance, but more so the desire to belong to a group.”

And a group it is. On the dance floor there were roughly 30 to 40 people. 

“Depending on the weekend and what’s going on, there’s a different crowd, but well attended,” Hines said. “There’s a certain set base that go to all of them, and then there’s some people who are coming in new and bringing friends or their family.”

Hines recently brought her mother, who resides in Madisonville. “She just wanted to see what it was about, and she loves dance, too, and I knew this group would embrace her as they did me.”

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Back inside the Butchtown Social, the instruction happened without music to not complicate things. There is always an all-levels or beginners portion at the beginning of each event, because, Nickerson said, “the only way to grow our social dance community here is to teach people how to dance.” There were plenty of bystanders who were either too shy or too salsa trained to participate, but they all watched, even if it was out of the corner of their eye. The pub volume began to increase with random chatter and additional people arrived through the door, expressing a “what the…?” under their breath from not knowing what they just walked into. 

Sommer belted, “Guys, I want you to place your right hand on their left hand and tell them you’ll never treat them bad and that this dance will be incredible. Take her right hand across their left. Left hand cross, two hands, then cross. It’s like Twister but their hands are the red and blue.”

The instruction lasted roughly 30 minutes with moves accessible to most with groove and willingness. But the key is facing your partner and eye contact. It’s intense and not for the faint of heart. Through this partner dance you’re deemed a Lead or Follow and the instructor labels you so.

“We have a group of highly-competent professional dance instructors here in Louisville, and I lean on them heavily,” Nickerson said. “But, for sake of perspective, I also try to bring in instructors from neighboring cities at least once a month.” 

This month, Sommer, co-founder of DaytOn1 Salsa, was the visiting instructor. “When you’re doing these turns remember you’re dancing with somebody. The idea is you dance to your partner. If you have to take a few extra steps no big deal. Easy concept, had to stress it,” he said. “Back step and forward step. For the cross body move it’s like stepping through a mirror. I’m going to step through this mirror and go on the other side of this mirror and continue my basic. So back step, step, step…step through the mirror. It’s like a line dance, but really it’s for the women. In order for them to move in a line, you have to get out of their way and let her walk her path. Leading is taking her hand and guiding her through the mirror. How do I guide? By the hand and looking, not too much. Too much staring is creepy face.”

“Alright we’re ready for the grand finale,” Sommer eventually said. “The final test of the night. Let’s get that music DJ.” 

When asked about how they find their DJ for the night Nickerson said, “I started hiring local DJs in the beginning, but as I grew to understand the music more deeply, I decided to DJ my own events. Latin social dancing is an art that is very diverse, both demographically and stylistically. Certain people are very particular about what they want to hear and dance to. As I began to understand what those things were, and just paid attention to who likes what, I was able to build and cater my playlists to our dance community.”

The instruction was finished, and as the music started to play after the lesson, the seasoned pounced in their sequins and suits. The lights dimmed, the disco ball illuminated and everyone danced with freedom and promise of finding new dance partners wherever they go.

If you want to learn basic salsa steps and enjoy the Louisville community, you can find more information at event dates at the Facebook page Louisville Salsa Underground @Louisvillesalsa.

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