The elevator opens up to a spacious room where club-goers are mingling by the bar in their high-heeled shoes, cocktail wear, and dress jeans. At a high-top table by the dance floor, Alex Albaig is signing in customers for the salsa classes her husband, Niss, is teaching at the Havana Club on Friday nights.
“Am I taking your change—last dollar? Oh, I’m sorry!” Alex says, laughing. She is bright-eyed and energetic, laughing often.
“I can’t eat for the next two weeks,” her customer jokes.
“1-2-3, 5-6-7,” Niss calls out through a headset mic to at least 20 dancers. His long black curly hair matches that of his wife, who is wearing a sleek black dress with deep red lipstick.
The 45-minute lesson in the L.A. style of salsa (currently the most popular style worldwide) covers basic steps and turns, as well as simple transitions and partnering. It will be enough for newcomers to dance comfortably when the lessons end and the free dance begins later in the night. The Albaigs have been doing this for two and a half years at the Havana Club, but their intro to salsa—and dance in general—started much earlier.
Alex Albaig was born Alex Rabinovich in the Ukraine (then part of the Communist Soviet Union) in 1969. She says her family believed that her opportunities would be limited, due to religious persecution in the country, so they sought permission to leave the Soviet Union and went to Western Europe. “You had to have a place to go, otherwise they wouldn’t let you out,” she says. “Afterwards they closed the borders and no one could come out until, I believe, the late 1980s.” Eventually, thanks to a sponsorship by the Jewish Community of Baltimore, they found their way to Baltimore.
Alex studied ballet in the Ukraine, and, after coming to America, continued with other types of social dance, such as the Latin Hustle. “That’s a lifetime hobby,” she says.
Niss Albaig also immigrated to America—from Israel in 1978. He never imagined he’d end up teaching dance and only took a lesson when he was worried he wouldn’t be able to dance with his sister at her wedding. “With only one month left . . . I went up at an Arthur Murray studio thinking I’ll take some lessons,” he recalls. “Except that instead of becoming a student they actually offered me a job as an instructor.”
When he met Alex in 1994, Niss was already teaching salsa on weekends at Gardel’s, an Argentinian restaurant and nightclub below the 1840s Ballroom. He was able to use his ballroom dance training to make the transition to club dances.
“When we came to Gardel’s, he knew the Mambo, which is the ballroom version of salsa, and very quickly picked up on the salsa style, because he already could dance,” Alex says. “Everything that you do socially in a club has to be confined to a certain space . . . There is no ballroom Bachata. Salsa was also born on the street—street or club, not in a ballroom.”
Gardel’s closed seven years ago, so Niss and Alex Albaig had to search for a new place to dance salsa, which pushed them to start their own salsa company, SalsaNow, in the spring of 2009. Their first venue was a restaurant called Si Salsa in Pikesville, where they held salsa classes on Saturday evenings.
“We basically started promoting the place as SalsaNow because you can’t just say, ‘Alex is having a party,’ right?” she jokes.
Now they have regular lessons and events every night of the week at colleges, their own studio, and venues in the city. Alex appreciates the differences in their venues because they all bring something unique.
“Anastasia, because it’s in Fells Point and it’s during the week, it allows people that are under 21 to come in, so you do have a lot of people that are from colleges coming in and learning . . . and then of course [Havana] is our upscale place, so you actually have a dress code . . . and then Sunday night [at Cancun Cantina] is our casual night . . . It starts a little bit earlier but it really does go until 1:30, even on a Sunday.”
They both want to expand the salsa community—not with more dance nights, but with greater turnout. “I think it’s been growing steadily. At a very steady pace. The more people involved, the more people they get involved,” Alex says.
“Back 10 years ago, there were only a couple of well-known and well-regarded instructors, and there were only a couple nights a week that you could go dancing,” Niss adds. “Nowadays in Baltimore you can go dancing almost every single night of the week,” he says.
Alex credits the recent success of salsa in Baltimore to its strong sense of community. Though not yet as big as the Washington, D.C. salsa scene, Baltimore goes one step further with its welcome, she says.
“If you’re brave enough and you come up to them, they absolutely will bring you in,” she says of D.C. dancers. “Now, will they go looking for you somewhere on the outskirts? No. Whereas in Baltimore, even if you were a wallflower somebody’s going to ask you to dance.”
As the lesson draws to a close, the room seems to grow smaller, with club regulars pressing in, waiting to dance. Like the flip of a switch, as soon as the teaching ends, the music is jacked up to non-speakable levels, and the dance floor is soon covered end to end. Alex stands by, snapping pictures on her camera phone.
“I’m probably going to be 100 years old still doing this if I’m alive,” she yells, laughing. ¿