Every Monday night during the summer months, hundreds of dancers gather with electric energy under the banner of community and Latin heritage on an outdoor dance floor in Boston’s South End for Salsa in the Park.
Anchored by a DJ and a huddle of musicians holding down a music corner rife with conga drums, claves, and other instruments, the party invites sweaty bodies to gyrate and play counterpoint to the natural aural rhythms of the park. But more than that, it fosters a greater sense of community with local residents from the Villa Victoria community in the primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood in the South End where it all goes down.
It’s something of an after-work crowd, but as a local cultural event it’s a rich tapestry woven together with the dancers and musicians who frequent the event, teenagers from a local youth program who help run it, and nearby residents.
“[In Cuba] you feel connected to music, history, dance, and people,” says Anara Frank of MetaMovements Dance Company, one of the creators of Salsa in the Park. She has been traveling to Cuba since she was a child and now leads trips there with MetaMovements. “When we leave Cuba, I tell everyone, ‘Remember what you felt here. We need to bring this [home].’”
There is a long history of such community-driven salsa and dance parties happening in Boston; this one was born at its current location in the South End when Frank started working with a director at the the Blackstone Community Center who was looking to use dancing as a “uniting tool” in the community. Concerned that the center wasn’t properly serving the Latino population in that area (and specifically Villa Victoria), the director was looking for creative outreach programs to confront local social issues. During this time, Frank notes a conversation she had with an older Latino salsa dancer, who mentioned that one of the primary ways the Latino community stayed healthy during his “prime” dancing days in the ’60s and ’70s was through coming together at outdoor salsa events. “He complained that this wasn’t happening anymore, and he thought that if salsa came back as a solid force, people would start to work together,” says Frank.
For Frank, this was an aha moment.The event started to take shape soon after, with the Latino man reaching out to residents in the Villa neighborhood and Frank hustling to spread the word throughout the Boston salsa community. She says in the beginning there were a lot of tightly wound nerves among authorities worried “that something negative could happen” during an open-air party in a neighborhood that was labeled as “vulnerable” to such outcomes. However, she notes that after a short time, concerns that the event would draw violence or negative energy ceased completely. “People started to realize that the event was going to [help] prevent violence in that area, not propel it,” notes Frank.
The presence of Salsa in the Park in the Villa Victoria today speaks both metaphorically and literally to the neighborhood’s strength and ability to maintain and foster a positive Latin (and specifically Puerto Rican) voice in Boston. This is significant considering the history of the neighborhood, in which residents once infamously banded together and resisted the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the ’60s amid attempts to raze their homes in favor of luxury housing. The success of the community’s resistance is why the neighborhood now has the local nickname “Victory Village.”
Aside from its bringing a top-notch community-centered arts and culture experience to Boston, Frank notes that for her, one of the most important parts of Salsa in the Park is the involvement of local youth. The event is in part produced by MetaMovements Youth Ambassadors, part of a program the dance company runs that pays teenagers to teach, perform, market, and fundraise for Salsa in the Park and other community-oriented dance and arts projects.
“For me, this is what makes me want to keep doing this every year,” she says.
SALSA IN THE PARK. MONDAYS. BLACKSTONE COMMUNITY CENTER. 50 W BROOKLINE ST., BOSTON. 6-9PM/ALL AGES/FREE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT MMSALSAINTHEPARK.WEEBLY.COM