Rodrigo Fernandez swiveled and shook his hips with what looked like chaos inside the Tucson ballroom but in fact was the precision of his body moving with each pounding beat of the salsa music.
Fernandez, 28, a junior network administrator at DLC Resources Inc. in Phoenix and a 2005 University of Arizona graduate with a double major in computer science and math, said dancing salsa in his spare time is one of his passions.
“I say, people should try dancing at least once in their life,” said Fernandez, who speaks softly and always with a slight smile. “I think it’s one of those things you have to do before you are no longer on Earth.”
Fernandez said he has been through a lot in his lifetime, including confusion over and opposition to immigration laws in Arizona, but when he dances, he can forget each poor experience.
Fernadez isn’t alone in his love for salsa dancing. There are a few consistent venues for dancing in Tucson, and the salsa community is ever-growing in the Old Pueblo.
El Parador, a Mexican restaurant at 2744 E. Broadway Blvd., and Sapphire, a nightclub at 125 E. Congress St., feature salsa dancing and music. A Sunday Salsa Social is held every second and fourth Sunday of the month at the Arizona Ballroom, 5536 E. Grant Road, in Tucson.
Mikey Maliner, one of the regulars in the salsa community, was once CEO of an investment-banking firm in New York, but now he lives in Tucson and produces an emailed newsletter for dancers.
Maliner would not divulge his age. Instead, he said, “Once you hit 60, you would rather not be reminded of your age and certainly would not want someone to tell you to act your age. Now, I’m doing nothing but enjoying life.”
Maliner’s newsletter tells people where they can salsa and also includes birthdays, quotes and jokes.
Maliner is one of the dancers who participate the Sunday Salsa Social at the Arizona Ballroom. He’s hard to miss in his sleek white pants and slicked-back hair as he struts to the music of “Tito y Su Nuevo Son,” a local salsa band that plays occasionally at the social.
“People often come from surrounding towns to enjoy our salsa scene and many from Nogales, Mexico, and from as far away as Hermosillo,” Maliner said. “I have gone to a number of weddings of friends from Mexico that I met in our salsa scene. We also often have salsa dancers visit from Phoenix and we go there.”
Gerardo Armendariz, a 33-year-old software developer from Sonora, Mexico, and one of the instructors at the social, said he’s ready to promote salsa music and dance whenever he can.
He said his dedication to salsa stems from the “beauty of the dance” that entertains “all kinds of walks of life, not just Latinos.”
Gerardo Armendariz demonstrates a salsa dance with Karin Holmfeldt during the salsa class at the Sunday Salsa Social at Arizona Ballroom. (Photo by Josh Morgan/ASNS)
During the classes, there’s a round-robin practice session with a partner, so there’s no way to avoid the socializing portion of the evening. Armendariz teaches the more advanced students during the session. While he’s with his students, he constantly pays attention to the little details such as the volume of the music.
Armendariz also runs the website TucsonSalsa.com, which contains articles and videos relating to salsa, and promotes the club Ritmos Latinos at the UA, which is one of the first places Fernandez began to dance.
“Gerardo used to have a quote on his website that said something like, ‘Dancing is my drug,’” Fernandez said. “And to a certain extent that is what it is for many people, including me. It is a healthy drug. It doesn’t cause any damage and gives you the feel of good vibes in a natural way.”
Fernandez said he does not use alcohol or drugs and prefers to surround himself with people that don’t do such things. He came to the United States from Mexico in 1990 and said that salsa has offered a niche in his adult life where he can thrive and belong.
“Dancing is dancing, wherever you go,” Fernandez said. “This is the fun in it. It’s like a universal language. You don’t have to speak the same language per say, but if both of you can dance you can communicate accordingly on the dance floor. For the most part, a salsa dancer can take his dance skills and dance with someone on the other side of the world.”