Where to get started learning and practicing Latin dance, including salsa, bachata, merengue, and more.
Salsa, which has roots in Afro-Cuban dance, is one of the most famous styles of Latin dance in the United States. But there are also plenty of other styles to learn like bachata, an often slow-paced dance based on a side-to-side step from the Dominican Republic, and merengue, a fast-paced dance from the Dominican Republic. Latin dance nights also often include kizomba, which isn’t technically a Latin dance — in fact, it originated in Angola. None of these classes require a partner, and many can be done on a drop-in basis, making them perfect for an impromptu night out. Because schedules can sometimes change, be sure to check the venues’ websites before heading out.
La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, LaPeña.org) is a nonprofit community arts and culture center, founded in 1975. If you’re brand new to the world of Latin dance and want to get a taste of multiple styles, try La Pena’s beginning salsa, bachata, and merengue class. The four-week Monday night progressive series is taught by dance performer, choreographer, and teacher Juliana Mendonca, who earned her degree in dance in Venezuela and has taught dance at the university level.
Rather than delving immediately into footwork and turns, Mendonca’s class takes a more organic approach. Students learn to connect with their own bodies and the rhythm of the music, isolate the movement of different parts of their bodies, and have fun improvising and expressing their creativity. By the end of the series, you’ll have all the tools you need for social dances. Intermediate classes are also available for those looking to hone their existing skills. Check LaPena.org to see upcoming class sessions.
Looking for a quick intro class or a place to practice your skills? Mendonca also offers salsa lessons every second Friday of the month in September at La Peña, followed by social dancing and music from DJ José Ruiz.
If you’re wanting to experiment with a variety of styles on a drop-in basis, head to Allegro Ballroom (5855 Christie Ave., Emeryville, AllegroBallroom.com) on Sunday evenings. Instructors Garry Johnson and Isabelle lead an hourlong beginning salsa class, which takes you from beginning steps all the way to more complex moves like cross-body leads. That class is immediately followed by an intermediate/advanced salsa class, then a beginning bachata class and a beginning kizomba class. After classes, three different ballrooms open up for social dancing: one dedicated to salsa, one to bachata, and one to kizomba, so you can dedicate your practice time to your favorite style of dance. Allegro is also a nonprofit, and Sunday nights are a bargain — just $15 gets you all four classes, plus free access to social dancing afterward all the way until 1:30 a.m. Visit AllegroBallroom.com to learn more or to view other class schedules.
Perhaps a live band is what you’re looking for. Then look no further than Cornerstone (2367 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CornerstoneBerkeley.com), which offers free salsa nights on Wednesdays. Start the night at 8 p.m. with a beginning salsa rueda lesson led by Sara Herrera. In salsa rueda, pairs of dancers stand in a circle while a caller announces moves that are performed in unison; followers rotate around the circle and dance with different leads. Afterward, show off your moves to the music from the 20-piece Josh Jones Salsa Big Band, which features brass, woodwinds, strings, vocals, and percussion. Check out CornerstoneBerkeley.com for more details.
Another hot spot for salsa rueda is Luka’s Taproom (2221 Broadway, Oakland, LukasOakland.com). Every Thursday night, Sean Foster offers a beginning salsa rueda lesson at 8 p.m., followed by a mixed-level lesson at 9 p.m. After the lesson, resident DJ JuanLove takes over for a night of salsa, timba, and reggaeton dancing. For more information, visit LukasOakland.com.
The Beat (2560 Ninth St., Suite 119, Berkeley, TheBerkeleyPerformingArts.org), a nonprofit organization, offers lessons in many different styles of Latin dance. It’s an especially good place to learn bachata, which is taught by bachata power couple Jhonatan and Daniela. Classes are offered every Tuesday and Wednesday evening for a $15 drop-in fee. Tuesdays focus on footwork and partner work; Wednesdays delve into partner work. Learn more at TheBerkeleyPerformingArts.org or JhonatanAndDaniela.com.
Throughout the month, Ashkenaz (1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, Ashkenaz.com) offers classes taught by championship-winning bachata dancer Kathy Reyes. The first Thursday of the month is dedicated to Bachata Nightz, where attendees can take a crash course in bachata before the dance floor is opened up to tunes spun by DJ Migz. Reyes also teaches monthly Kizomba Nightz classes. It’s also worth making the trip for the once-a-month Rico Fridays event, typically on the third Friday of the month. Start off the night learning basic steps and simple combinations during the salsa lesson from Reyes. Stick around after the lesson, when DJ Migz takes over for a night of salsa, bachata, merengue, kizomba, and more. For more information, visit Ashkenaz.com.
If you’re interested in a more experimental, contemporary approach, head to Malonga Casquelourd Center (1428 Alice St., Oakland), a city of Oakland-sponsored performing arts complex, for a Latin contact dance lesson and jam session (pictured above, photo by Alejandro Caminos). Latin contact dance is a new form of dance pioneered by Juliana Mendonca, and it combines elements of salsa, bachata, merengue, and tango with contact improvisation, which involves keeping constant physical contact between dancers. The next class and jam session will be held on Saturday, Aug. 10, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., and tickets can be purchased for $20 on Eventbrite. To learn more or purchase tickets, visit LatinContactDance.com.