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Heart And Salsa

Young People Learn The Dance, And Lessons In Culture, Tradition Along The Way

By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

October 14, 2007

A small blond boy cups his hands over his eyes, pressing his face against the glass door to get a peek inside the darkened studio. He spots a cluster of women lying limp on the floor, their strains of chanty yoga music spilling into the hall where he waits with a gaggle of other antsy children.

That is definitely not salsa music, his raised, confused eyebrows seem to say.

On the floor behind him, a long-haired 11-year-old named Genice Perez hoists a lazy heel on the knee of her aunt, who hurries to fasten her strappy black heel a moment before the Thursday night class begins.

The lights go up. The glass door opens. And up stands Genice in her pretty dance shoes. She scampers inside with about 20 other boys and girls ready to turn the hardwood floors of the Hartford yoga space into their own personal salsa studio.

On this, the second session of their 10-week course, some are more eager than others. One girl with worried brown eyes clings to her mother's arm. A boy plants his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans, head bent down and feet shifting in their shiny shoes.

They take their positions. Girls lined up in the front row. Boys in the back. Parents huddled in the corner.

"My name is Rey Bermudez. I'm your dance instructor," says the man with slick black hair, round cheeks and eyes that smile from behind their glasses. He welcomes the newcomers, and gives an approving nod for the brand new shoes worn by last week's crew.

Cue the music. Percussion and horn fill the space, as a train rumbles in the distance. Bermudez calls out the steps to these novice dancers who, in some ways, he sees as his most treasured pupils. With the youngest 7 and oldest 15, they could very well be the next great generation of salseros.

"There's a shaping of minds," he says. "At this point, if they're taking classes now, imagine them at 21? At 35? You got what I'm saying? These guys will be tremendous dancers.

"These guys will take it to the next level."

1,2,3...5,6,7. 1,2,3...5,6,7.

A staple of the local Latin dance scene, Bermudez has been teaching his Salsa Fundamentals course for the past six years. In rented spaces like the Fuller Movement Salon on Park Road, in corporate settings and after-school programs, he's been teaching a style of Latin dance that refocuses its emphasis on rigid form and rules.

"I grew up with the old-school salsa. It had a lot more humor and romance and energy to it. It wasn't necessarily a serious dance," says Bermudez, 33, born of Cuban-Puerto Rican decent in Queens, N.Y., before moving in his early teens to Hartford, where his mother raised him and his two younger brothers.

His memories are of his grandmother turning up the salsa music in the kitchen, and of his grandfather dancing his old-school style - hunched over, backside out, facial expressions exaggerated for comedic effect.

"So I became really frustrated at the way it was being taught," says Bermudez, who now lives in New Britain with his wife, Janet, and their 4-year-old son, Gabriel Rey. "It wasn't about where this music, this tradition comes from. It wasn't about where your heart needs to be. Nobody was talking about that."

And Bermudez wanted to start talking about that. And he especially wanted the next generation to listen.


`Respect For The Dance'

Through the years, he had taught salsa to youth groups and in school settings with success. Kids wanted to learn the dance form whose steps they recognized in their own Hip-Hop and Reggaeton. And parents wanted them to embrace the cultural tradition they had been raised with.

Bermudez began a formal "junior salsa" training through his Salsa Fundamentals course in late 2005. His only caveat?

"They had to want to be there. I wanted them to learn because they wanted to learn, not because their parents told them they had to," says Bermudez, who has a long résumé of working with youth, first as a program director at Mi Casa Family Services and Educational Center, and now at the Institute for Community Research.

And to his surprise, the kids packed it in.

"I was blown out of the water," he remembers. "I didn't expect all those kids to show up, and moreover expected that they'd be so interested."

A success, yes. But demands of work and family life kicked in, and Bermudez had to cut back somewhere. Reluctantly, he opted against launching another junior salsa session.

"I had parents left and right asking me when I was going to start a kids' program again," he says. The parents spoke, and he listened and launched it again last month. Registration filled so quickly, Bermudez plans another 10-week session in Wethersfield starting Wednesday.

"I want to teach them a respect for the dance and give them that cultural connection they won't get anywhere else," says Bermudez, who eventually wants to see a dance curriculum launched in public schools, much like art and physical education.

"I want them to learn other styles of dance so that they see they don't necessarily have to do the whole grinding style," he says. "They can do flashy [salsa moves] and feel like the superstars at their school dances. Because what kid doesn't want to feel like a superstar?"


Jittery Partners

Back in the dance studio on a recent Thursday night, after refreshing the kids on the basics, it's time to partner up. Squinted faces and nervous laughter aside, the girls turn to face the boys, who take their hands in their palms. Still, such proximity induces a bit of anxiety.

Eye contact is not to be had, as most kids keep their gazes downward. To alleviate the jitters for one particularly shy girl, Bermudez hovers over her and her partner, keeping one safe hand on each of their shoulders, lest they be alone and in danger of contracting cooties.

They practice the steps, and soon enough the music is getting into their little bodies.

When it come time to demonstrate their first embellished dance move - an open-hand turn - Bermudez couples up with a girl, making sure to poke fun at his own short stature.

"This is the first time my partner is shorter than me," he says to their giggles. "Usually my partners are always taller than me."

Leading the blushing student, he twirls her around before she knows how she got there, instinctively following his direction.

"Oooooh!" a few students coo.

"Oooooh, right?!" Bermudez says, promising they'll get to more of the "fancy stuff" once they get the "basic stuff" down.

In the corner, the parents stretch their necks to see. One raises a camera phone to snap a picture. And there sit sisters Bernice and Melissa Perez, watching their respective children, cousins Genice Perez and Isaiah Quintana, 10. Since their first class, the pair have been firing up the salsa CD Bermudez gave the students, practicing any moment they can.

"When I was little, my mother used to play salsa music all the time, and I would say, `Oh, my God, why do we have to listen to this music?,' Bernice Perez recalls in a whisper during class. "You don't really appreciate those things as a child. You take your culture for granted, I think. But now I really appreciate it."

She and her sister are regulars at local salsa spots like La Casona. And they love the thought that the tradition will likely be kept up by their children.

"I just think its great that they really want to learn," she says.

At the end of the hour's session, Genice explains she likes salsa so far because it's fun and a little different. Isaiah just thinks it's cool.

Both say they're relieved to have their cousin to partner with in class. Each is pretty certain the other is cootie-free.

More information on the classes is available online at www.trysalsa.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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