Christina Montoya teaches dance, Salsa Suelta Cubana style


Christina Montoya is an explorer — an explorer of dance with an open mind, curiosity, and the ability to analyze broad cultural contexts. She thinks, she teaches, and she dances, for real.

Montoya has come to find herself seriously studying — and teaching — Salsa Suelta Cubana, a form of salsa dancing from Cuba that is done without a partner. In Spanish, salsa means “sauce” (and yes, the dance is spicy). Suelta means “loose” (as in without a partner). Think of a solo form of what is often thought of as a partner dance. Her next round of classes take place in October at co-housing and the Oak Bluffs library.

“I am very much a student of Afro-Cuban and Cuban dance, and always will be,” says Montoya. “And to understand the dance, you really must understand the music, because they are very intimately linked … The more I learn, the more I am overwhelmed and inspired by how much there is to learn. It is so very rich, complex, and vast.”

The path that led Montoya to Cuba and to this style is a cornucopia of self-reflection, study, and commitment. To put things in context, it’s probably best to start with Montoya’s background. Her grandfather was the internationally renowned flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya, who hailed from Spain and referred to himself as “Gitano puro” or “pure Gypsy.” Montoya’s mother, Heather Rynd, is a practitioner in healing arts. Her father, also named Carlos Montoya, had R & B, soul, and funk playing as part of the family home’s soundtrack. And he often sounded out “palmas” around the house. (“Palmas” are just what the word sounds like — rhythmic clapping — and one of the percussion “instruments” in flamenco.) 

A flamenco performance during a family trip to Spain is what did the dance trick for Montoya. She wanted the dress, the earrings, the castanets, and she knew she wanted to dance. She was just 5 years old.

Montoya’s pursuit of that goal has paradoxical yet rich elements. Study of ballet and modern dance as a child on Martha’s Vineyard with Kathy Costanza. Ballet in New York City, where she lived in her teens, hoping to become a ballerina. Specific balletic requirements of anatomical attributes meant Montoya would not be a ballerina. No dance for a while. Falling in love with Latin ballroom. A gap year shaped by Montoya’s thirst to study other cultures. Bennington College, with one of the most experimental dance departments in the world. A stint studying flamenco in San Francisco with her cousin, Rosa Montoya. Deciding Flamenco would take total, single-minded commitment at the cost of giving up other types of dance, something Montoya was unwilling to do. Afro-Brazilian, yoga. Hip-hop, Jacob’s Pillow Cultural Traditions Program. Clearly searching, she eventually found “home” in the world of Cuban music and dance. 

Acting on a suggestion from her father in 1998, Montoya ventured to Cuba on a study trip, interested in Cuba’s mix of African and Spanish heritage and culture. Since then she’s made four other trips, delving deeper and deeper into Cuban history and arts.

Cross-pollination of music and dance around the world is an organic fact. Culture doesn’t stand still, and Cuba is an amalgamation of African and Spanish cultures, jazz, and other popular forms. Latin American dances, each with their own idiosyncrasies and origins, include cha-cha, mambo, merengue, and rumba. Adding to the continually morphing scene, salsa itself actually came into being in the 1960s in New York City, becoming a global phenomenon. Johnny Pacheco, one of the founders of Fania Records, said on NPR in 2008, “It’s Cuban music, but the thing is, like, the idea came because we had Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans in the Fania All-Stars; two Jewish guys, and an Englishman. And when you make a salsa, you have different condiments. I said, ‘This is perfect to cook a salsa.’” 

The solo version, Salsa Suelta Cubana, which Montoya will be teaching, is a Cuban mix of styles, including “casino,” which originated in prerevolutionary Cuban clubs, currently known in Cuba as “timba,” and elements of other Afro-Cuban and Cuban popular music and dance. Montoya uses the word “salsa” for her classes, which contain a combination of styles, as “salsa” is an internationally recognized name.

“As incredibly joyful as many of these dances are, I never lose the awareness that although the deeper roots of the dances and music precede the horrors of colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, the dance and music that emerged from Cuba, like in the U.S.A, Brazil, and many other places, was born within these unimaginably horrific circumstances,” Montoya shares. “Circumstances that continue to have very painful consequences today. It is the people of African descent who have made the largest contribution to the beauty of these expressions, and honoring the context in which they were and are created honors not only their artistry and cultures, but the awe-inspiring strength and spirit of the people.” Soul. Spirit. Dance. Joy.

Join Christina Montoya for her upcoming classes in Salsa Suelta Cubana, no partner necessary, on four consecutive October Saturdays. At Co-Housing, 17 Rock Pond Rd., West Tisbury, on Oct. 5 and 19 for $20, and at Oak Bluffs Public Library, 56R School St. on Oct. 12 and 26, free.