On a Tuesday night in late August, I anxiously approach a doorway in Central Square. A single light illuminates the address, with “Havana Club” painted in fluorescent letters above the doorway. I walk up a flight of red stairs and enter a white-walled dance hall decorated with string lights. Although I’d grown up dancing salsa at family gatherings in Colombia and Philadelphia, and learned bachata in college, a dance social is uncharted territory for me. What’ve I gotten myself into?
About 30 people sit in chairs along the walls and gather by the bar (closed on weekdays). A bachata remix of “Pareja del Año” sets the mood as everyone waits for the dance lesson before the social begins.
Every week, around 900 people come for classes, socials, and weekend parties, club owner Jeff Robinson tells me. “[Latin dance] gives them freedom,” he says. He opened Havana Club in 2004 when he realized Boston needed a judgment-free dance haven. “I didn’t feel comfortable in other clubs where people were drinking and being stupid,” he recalls. Havana’s nights are a dance hall-club hybrid, by design.
People trickle in throughout the salsa and bachata lesson (some nights, it’s only bachata, which has Dominican roots) and mingle. Robinson is in the DJ booth as several instructors on stage show us the steps. As the class winds down, Robinson invites everyone to stay for the social. He kicks things off with his favorite: Gloria Estefan’s “Mi Tierra” — a song about yearning for one’s homeland.
I’m familiar with it. It was one of my mom’s favorites, too. She passed in April, but with the percussive intro and Estefan chiming in — ”de mi tierra bella” — I close my eyes, sway to the music, and feel my mother singing along.
“There is something about Latin music that hits your soul,” Deysi Melgar had told me. She’s a Havana Club veteran and first performed here in a high school dance troupe. “The different rhythms and the lyrics — it makes you happy.” Most salsa and bachata songs narrate a passionate romance (“Burbujas de Amor,” for example) or a history (“Rebelión”).
I smile, wanting to dance. Looking around, I realize the Cuban son montuno rhythms are having the same effect on the dozens of people who were once strangers, now moving freely together no matter their skill level. The sounds of timbales and claves envelop me and I lose track of time dancing with a stranger. Hazy lights flicker greens, blues, and reds onto the dancers. A feeling of safety and kinship comes over me as my partner twirls me to a salsa track.
Many dancers move to the salsa and bachata beats like they were born for it. “I shouldn’t be able to do this,” Vlad Davidkovich tells me, laughing, after we danced. Originally from Ukraine and an engineer by trade, he’s been going to Havana Club for a decade, returning for the respectful environment, the opportunity to socialize with “people from different cultures,” and the freeing feeling.
After a 15-month shutdown during the pandemic, the desire for human interaction drew many back. “There was a line down the street,” Robinson recalls. “COVID reinforced that people need people.”
As the night unfolds, the idea of “needing people” holds true — dancing in a place Robinson describes as “not taking itself too seriously” feels essential. Weaving in and out on the dance floor, I don’t want to leave.
I feel a connection to a community. To my family miles away. To my mom.
Romeo Santos’s “Propuesta Indecente” plays toward the night’s end as couples dance all around me. I can’t help but grin, remembering how my mom and I sang along to this song, laughing at its cringy lyrics. Santos starts the song in a whisper: “Hola, me llaman Romeo.” And as the instrumentals roll in, I move my hips and feet — melting into my memories.
Read more from the My Boston History issue:
- What does it mean to lose special places where Latinos gather in Boston?
- Ahead of Central American Independence Day in Boston, I went searching for a taste of home
- A lighting designer shines a spotlight on the lack of diversity backstage
- My life was in danger trying to help children in Guatemala. I had to choose exile.
- Honoring 100 change-making leaders across Massachusetts
Anna Guaracao is a researcher at Boston Globe Today. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.