Off-season down-time: Ritz with salsa

After the formal Salsa dancing lessons, instructors Saskia and David Vanderhoop (at right), let loose. — Photo by Siobhan Beasley

It’s hot. It’s spicy. It comes from Cuba and Africa and New York City. It’s salsa, and every Wednesday evening, it’s on the menu, that is, the dance floor at The Ritz.

Salsa lessons begin at 7 pm at the Circuit Ave. establishment, with a sort of conga line that snakes into the bar area, back into the dance area, and continues in a circle there. A boom box thumps out a loud Latin beat. The wooden floor squeaks and groans under the bouncing weight of the dancers, and workday fatigue appears to disappear. The dancers range in age from 20-something to golden years. Retirees join construction workers and fitness experts. The dress-code is Island casual — mostly denim and tees.

The music ends and the 19 students are divided into two groups based upon their ability to perform a “right hand turn.” David Vanderhoop, one of the teachers, guides the advanced participants toward the front of the room and his wife, Saskia Vanderhoop — the other teacher — corrals the beginners into the back. The groups are further divided and the leaders — a few of them women because of a shortage of men – face the followers. A deep voice from one group rings out “Go!” The followers turn under the arms of their partners. And the music pounds again.

David gets his charges moving back and forth in the basic step, then shouts “Go!” The leaders raise their arms and the followers duck under and turn. This is week two. They know the drill. He shouts again, his low voice competing with the loud thump of the music. The leaders turn.

From the other group comes Saskia’s high-pitched directive: “This time I want to see hips! Now shoulders!”

Hips swivel, feet tangle, and people laugh their embarrassment at turning the wrong way or bumping into their neighbors.

“Cross body lead!” David trumpets.

“Okay, pair up!” Saskia shouts.

Saskia Vanderhoop, who, with David, founded and continues to teach at Sassafras Earth Education in Aquinnah, landed on the Island 16 years ago. She was born and raised in the Netherlands, and at 18 she began learning social dance, but salsa was still a distant dream. “When I moved to the Dutch Antilles for about a year,” she explains, “that’s when I really got in the groove.” Later, she studied in Amsterdam where she organized the first salsa event there. She studied jazz dance. She went to Cuba to learn folk dance and African dance — all of it feeding her salsa skills. “For a good 30 years now,” she says, “I’ve been studying salsa dancing.”

The roots of salsa, popular in the U.S. since the 1970s, are deep in Latin forms as well as Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean dances. There are also elements of earlier dance forms such as cha-cha and mambo and a step or two of swing and hustle.

When Saskia met and married David Vanderhoop, a native of Martha’s Vineyard and member of the Wampanoag Tribe, she taught him to salsa and they have been tag-teaming since. “We used to go out to New York and sometimes took workshops together,” she relates. “We studied both salsa and mambo.”

The dance is kind of a moving target on the Island. Lessons are sporadic. Another couple, Esther Deming and Sergio Racig, frequently teach in their home studio. Ballroom Dance MV, which meets on Sunday nights, includes salsa in their open dancing and occasionally in their pre-dance lessons. The lessons at The Ritz ($10 per one-hour session) are, at press time, in their third week out of eight. The couples give private lessons upon request.

As the class at The Ritz shakes into its second half-hour, the room is getting hot — with energy and Fahrenheit. David’s volume increases as he directs, “Cross body lead! Underarm turn!”

In the beginners group, a young woman wearing a purple top beams as she nails a move. She’s one of the few who seem sure enough in her steps to be able to hear the rhythm. She’s a natural and, no doubt, will be moving up to David’s group within the next week or so. Most of the others have, thanks to Saskia’s enthusiastic repetitions, caught on, but most are still stepping more than dancing. The men tend to be stiff and there’s counting in their eyes. But the beat of the music is strong, and they are becoming looser by the moment. Some of the women have already caught the groove and their shoulders dip in opposition to their hips.

The advanced group is also sporting more sway than when they arrived. There’s more lead-and-follow than choreography now and, with little variation, wrong turns and collisions with other dancers have been replaced by smooth precision.

Karen and David Kolb of Oak Bluffs dance with the advanced learners. They’ve had some experience with other social dances and taken lessons from the Vanderhoops before. “They’re fun and relaxed,” Ms. Kolb said. “They’re a good team. They work well together.”

And the draw of Salsa? “I’ve just always liked salsa and Latin dancing,” she said. “When you go to a dance it gives you another style you can do.”

The class is close to ending. The purple shirt girl is dancing with Saskia, watching her feet with determination. She’s going to get the step. You know it.

People are beginning to arrive for the open dancing. Jose Sanabria — grey-haired, and Latin-handsome — arrives for his weekly salsa fix. “I was dancing in my mother’s womb,” he insisted. A strength and conditioning coach at the YMCA, he speaks of growing up in Mexico City. “There were no parties that didn’t end with dancing. We would eat, and we would talk,” he added, his face expanding into a grin, “and then we would dance.”

Back at The Ritz, more dancers arrive and wait out the lesson in the bar or around the periphery of the room. Saskia announces that the time has come for everyone to show off what they learned. The advanced group clears the floor and the beginners move to the center. Saskia, all long legs and blond hair, towers over many of her charges. “Remember when you were little kids and made up dances and went all out?” she asks. “That’s what I want to see!”

Both groups perform with varying degrees of nervousness and competency, but all are forgiven and the applause is generous. Then the lights dim and the DJ takes his place. Saskia and David begin to dance together and, with their long limbs and her flying blond hair, become the floor show. Some of the students retreat to the bar for refreshment and liquid fortitude, while veterans join newbies on the boards. Soon the space is hip-to-gyrating-hip with dancers.

Just another off-season Wednesday night at the Ritz.