Svenja Wacker is trying to teach her daughters Stella and Luna that it’s OK to move to their own rhythms. So when she found out that a big, public dance lesson was rolling into town, she didn’t miss a beat. Or in this case, a one-two step. She scooped up her daughters into the car, and drove right for downtown New Haven.
Priming the city’s new stage — and the audience — for musical acts Troker and Fulaso, salsa instructor Alisa Bowens-Mercado whizzed through the basics of salsa, bachata, cumbia, and merengue, making dancers out of even the crowd’s most hesitant.
“One, two, three, hip,” Bowens-Mercado cried from the stage. “One, two, three and hip! You are officially dancing bachata!” (Bachata is a style of music that originated in the Dominican Republic.)
Wacker soaked in the directions from the front of the stage. She said she doesn’t like dancing, but wouldn’t have skipped the event even if it had rained all Saturday afternoon (it stopped just in time for the event). Joining hands with Stella and Luna, she stepped from side to side, applauding as Stella worked in an impromptu spin. Her husband Zac Elston bounced from foot to foot beside them, pumping his arms and raising them over his head as a bachata version of the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me” hit its chorus.
“I want to teach them that it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad or you suck, you just gotta enjoy it,” Wacker said, unbuckling the black straps on her sandals as she spoke. “I can’t wear these, I wanna dance!” she said as music bubbled up for the next song.
Just an arm’s length away, Nivia Mendez was mastering the same bachata steps, adding a wave-and-shimmy combo with one arm while finishing chocolate-studded ice cream with the other. A friend she had come with, Cynthia Boll, had just mastered bachata as the music faded again, and Bowens-Mercado announced that the group was going to transition to samba.
“I love this!” she said.
“All right, here we go!” Bowens-Mercado shouted into the mic. Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” crackled over the speakers. “One, two, three, four. Front back, and we walk! Let’s do it again!” Before her, the crowd had grown from around 20 at 5:45 p.m. to over 100. And it was still growing, with people streaming into the green with lawn chairs, towels, picnic baskets and bottles of water, juice and wine.
Inching closer to the stage as Mars pronounced don’t believe me just watch!, New Havener Karla Neugberger worked her steady hands up her mother Nancy Durnholz’ biceps, holding onto her as the two rocked to the music, dissolving into laughter ever other verse. The two had come together to slip into Durnholz’ past life as a dancer, Neugberger said.
The music melted into a pulsing remix Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”. Neugberger and Durnholz took hands, and began to pound out dance steps over the still-damp grass. Tengo que bailar contigo hoy, Fonsi and Daddy Yankee sang over the speakers.
Closer to the center of the green, fellow mother-daughter pair Nilsa and Olga Nieves had joined hands to the song, closing their eyes as they danced. Around them, the crowd continued to grow.
So did Kimberly and Bobbi Lawrence, who took salsa lessons with Bowens-Mercado before the event, and said they didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get another lesson.
Other families had come out as a chance to let their youngest members learn a few moves before they were even walking. With eyes glued to his older brother Qiyao Wang, Lucas Wang got his first salsa lesson from his grandfather’s arms.
“Okay, this is our last one!” Bowens-Mercado said as a Latin version of Coldplay’s “Clocks” crackled over the speakers for the last number. “Join hands with your neighbor.”
From the stage to the flagpole on the green, groups of friends and new acquaintances held hands, bodies linked in new configurations as they bobbed to the music. Across the green, members of the still-growing crowd joined hands and began to sway, some employing new salsa moves.
“One heart, one love, one people, one truth,” Bowens-Mercado said, looking out over the crowd.
A smattering of applause went up into the air as the song wound down. Bowens-Mercado and fellow dancers took their bows, and left the stage. An assistant came out to ready the sound system for Fulaso. And in the silence and rising sound of chatter, a few people kept dancing on their own.