Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Interview with a Salsa Dancer

Location: New York City

Mileage: 4,338

Meal: Ultra Vegan Salad

Music: “Everybody Salsa” by Chocolate

Before I discovered Salsa dancing at age 19, I was convinced I was a dance pariah, born with two left feet and rhythm comparable to an eplileptic attack.  Dances in high school mortified me; my awkward body felt much more comfortable plastered to a wall of a gymnasium than pretending to feel graceful in some pubescent boy’s arms.

After my sophomore year of college I went to Spain, eager to dive into the language, land and culture.  Perhaps it was the copious amounts of red wine, perhaps it was the awakening of my adventurous spirit, but I let myself get dragged along to Salsa lessons by some other students in my class.  Although I tried to merely be a casual observer, making detailed notes in my wire bound book, I found myself whisked away on the dance floor immediately, the sultry beats infusing my bloodstream.  I had no idea it was possible to feel that sensual with one’s clothes on.

Although I remained horrendous at any other type of dance attempt, the passion infused beats of Salsa remained with me for years and I eagerly went to Latin clubs in Latin America and the US.  When I came to New York, I knew I had to meet with a Salsa instructor, not just because this aging body could learn a few new tricks, but also because I was deeply inspired by someone that devoted their life to such a glorious dance, the only one that my uncoordinated body could work with.

I was honored to meet with Sheena, a co-partner of “Step Into Salsa,” a Salsa studio in midtown.

Sheena hailed from Utah, not the typical place you would imagine a Salsa star to come from.  However, Sheena informed me that many of the Dancing with the Stars performers come from Utah.  “It’s a big dance community.”

Sheena started her dance career at age seven, taking classes in jazz, ballet, and tap before moving on to ballroom in college.  I asked her how she became interested in Salsa.  ‘”Well, I always was interested in the Latin culture,” she said.  “My first boyfriend was from Honduras and didn’t speak English so I learned Spanish to converse with him.”

However despite her language ability Sheena didn’t know about the Latin dance culture until she saw a Samba routine on television.

“I didn’t even know partner dancing could do that!  It looked so sexy and fun!  I was envious!”

Thus when Sheena was invited to go to a Latin dance club with friends, she heartily agreed and entered a Salsa dance competition.  Sheena, and her strong lead of a partner, took first place.  She was hooked. “I went every weekend after that,” Sheena said.  Sheena auditioned for the Salsa team in college and started touring as well as offering private coaching sessions on the side.

Her parents always encouraged her to keep dance as a hobby, and focus on a more serious degree for a “real job” once she graduated.

“I tried to keep it just as a hobby but I always fell back on dance to earn money either coaching or performing,” said Sheena.  After college she tried the “real job” route and worked in a real estate office.

“I hated it.  It was 9-5, and I am not 9-5.”

Thus Sheena picked up various classes and dance activities on the side to fuel her soul.  “I love dance in general.  The progress is endless and it’s such a creative expression, natural high, and of course a great way to stay in shape.”

Sheena knew dancing was going to be her future, and not just as a hobby.  Inspired by Frankie Martinez (a disciple of Eddie Torres, the Mambo King) Sheena decided to come to NYC with her boyfriend to take a Latin Dance workshops, hone her skills, and then move back to Utah to open up a studio.  However, even though life in New York was hard, Sheena couldn’t deny the amazing dance resources the city provided and decided to stay.

“The first year here was rough.  I was coming from Utah where a two-bedroom apartment with a fireplace cost $400.  It was hard to adjust to the prices.”   The high cost of living was not the only adjustment Sheena needed to make.  She broke up with her boyfriend, became very ill with no medical insurance, and had to relocate to the Bronx, living up a two bedroom apartment with seven people.  After a few more apartment mishaps (pot smoking roommates and pricing scams), Sheena finally landed a place in Queens, a new boyfriend, and renewed confidence that she could make it.  Sheena’s boyfriend was an investor on various business ventures and taught Sheena the importance of investing and business structure.  Although today the two are just friends, Sheena comments that the business skills he taught her were invaluable.  Art alone is not enough to have a viable dance studio in Manhattan.  Sheena is currently taking a class in options, intrigued to learn more about finances.  In addition to running a studio, Sheena also choreographs weddings, works with performance teams, assists with music videos, and helps coordinate Salsa socials.  However, unlike other Salsa professionals, she claims she does it all to “have fun” and not focus on making a big name for herself.

“Most dancers don’t want a partners for their studio,” she mentions. “They want to focus on their own name.  However I want to partner with as many people as possible!”

With her partners, Sheena hopes to spread her love of dance across the world, starting with a little place called New York City.

Sheena is proof that anyone can turn their dream into reality.  It may take a short -term apartment in the Bronx, but the payoff to commitment is priceless.  Sheena has proved to her father, and more importantly to herself that dance is both a hobby and a career.

Next time I am in New York I plan to go to one of Sheena’s Salsa socials to reconnect to the passion of dance, grease my hips, and support someone fully living their dream.

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