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Even A Pandemic Can't Keep LA's Salsa Scene Shut Down

Salsa instructors dance at a 2007 event at Inner-City Arts in L.A. -- long before the pandemic. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
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Dancing on the promenade. (Courtesy Solange Castro)

Solange Castro has been dancing salsa for the past 15 years. She was excited to release a memoir of her experiences in the Los Angeles salsa scene -- and published the book on March 5, 2020, just before the world shut down.

Even with the pandemic shutting down in-person events all over the city, there's still salsa dancing happening right now, according to Castro. But she's opting out until after she gets the vaccine, and probably for a while after that.

"I don't know if I'm ever going to a social event again for a year or two -- it's gonna be a long time," Castro said. "I feel like, for the younger dancers, it's much more of a loss."

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She knows there are dances every Sunday on Venice Pier, which is just two blocks away from where she lives. But she's doing her best to avoid the temptation.

"When I look at videos of social events, people are wearing masks, but not everybody -- maybe half," Castro said. "If I ever do that, I will wear a mask. But honestly, you're dancing -- it's the most aerobic activity. Your mask just becomes a wet cloth, so it doesn't really help that much at that point."

Considering the close proximity of dance partners, combined with the physical activity that leaves you breathing heavily, Castro feels that dancing anytime soon is fundamentally unsafe.

She hadn't gone out to dance since March 8, 2020. But she started to feel the call -- and recently made plans with a friend, who brought a dance floor and music so they could dance outside.

"Even meeting my one friend to dance feels like I'm risking my life -- but it also feels like I really need it, so I'm willing to take that risk," Castro said.

In some areas, people have been much more open about dancing -- and Castro said that she believes that a lot of those dancers were transmitting the virus, but didn't care.


All of this is a big change, although the salsa world was already evolving before the pandemic largely shut it down, according to Castro. Other dance styles were starting to rise, with salsa increasingly being seen as a bit old-fashioned.

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"Even though in the '90s, they were dancing to music from the '40s," she said.

There has been such a strong salsa community in Southern California for decades that a unique Los Angeles style developed, which Castro traces back to the 1990s.

"It's a little bit ballroomy style of partner-dancing to salsa music," Castro said. "It was very flashy and a lot of big movements -- more lifts and spins ... more dancery."

L.A.'s biggest style difference is that it's danced "on one," with dancers breaking on the first beat, as opposed to the "on two" style that came out of New York.

"On two is more just wanting to enjoy the music, however you feel it inside. And it's not about, 'How do I look making these big, bold movements?'" Castro said.

She's worked to transition from an on-one to an on-two dancer herself.

"I can't even believe I used to let guys throw me in the air," Castro said.

Castro always appreciated that dancing let her have a hobby where she didn't have to feel competitive, rather than her experience in her other career as a stand-up comic, always trying to advance her career.

"Obviously, a lot of guys use it to get laid, but I think dancing in general creates connection between people," Castro said. "It's so lacking in our culture to have something that's a bridge between people -- I discovered in the last year how many Trump supporters dance salsa."

Her book explores Castro's relationship with the men she met as part of the salsa scene.

"All the hashtag-MeToo stuff, it happened in salsa, as much if not more," Castro said. "There is definitely an ugly underside to that, so I didn't want to create this false idea that it's this utopian existence of dancing. It is partying and bars -- and that part of it, I actually really don't miss."


Solange Castro at the Mambo Outlet social. (Courtesy Solange Castro)

She started blogging in the early 2000s, so when she wanted to start dancing salsa a few years later, she chronicled her dancefloor adventures online. Her life became work, sleep, and salsa, moving from dancing a few nights a week to joining a dance team.

"When I would watch really great woman dancers, I was just so in love with it," Castro said. "I gradually became this on-two dancer who is really snobby about the music."

Castro said salsa has helped her get in touch with her mixed-race white and Latino background.

"One thing salsa is, is it's not white. The idea of 'whiteness' doesn't apply to salsa," she said.

Castro developed her own dance persona, with the dramatic outfits to match -- but says she doesn't think she was ever as big a character as many of the male dancers she met.

"Your personality can really come out in dancing," Castro said. "So whatever you do in your day job, you can have a creative thing. I worked in digital advertising. It really helped with shyness, and it helps a lot with being comfortable in my body."

Another aspect that Castro loves about salsa is the lack of ironic detachment. As a stand-up comic, that detachment is a big part of her sense of humor. It's one area where she feels she never fully embraced the salsa spirit.

"If you watch salsa dancers on Youtube, it's drama. It's theater. It's telling a story, and it's intense," Castro said. "If you see pictures of dancers, they're looking at you like the power of the world is in them -- I think a lot of that is Latino culture, too. It's like this spiritual ecstasy."


She does miss dancing, deeply. Castro hopes what happens after the COVID-19 shutdowns end will be similar to the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic.

"If the first pandemic is any indication, [salsa will] come back with a vengeance, and we'll be entering this new dance craze era," Castro said. "Eventually, when it's safer, people need that kind of outlet."

One advantage of living in L.A. before 2020 was always being able to find somewhere to dance salsa. She likes to think that, in the post-pandemic world, there will be a lot more dancing in all different styles.

She's excited to salsa dance at summer concerts in the park -- once she's been vaccinated and COVID-19 is no longer a fear.

Watch Castro teach comedian Maria Bamford how to salsa dance here:

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