Let Salsa Move You Into the Night

Posted June 14, 2018 9:10 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Hidden from the world four floors below, a sweaty sea of partygoers — all twisting, turning and swiveling — transform the Dancesport ballroom studio into one of the city’s largest salsa parties. Walk along 34th Street on a Sunday evening and you may catch a hint of the dueling trumpets and insistent rhythms swirling in the air.

This is Las Chicas Locas (The Crazy Girls), a weekly salsa party that takes over the ballroom late each Sunday afternoon and doesn’t end until early Monday morning, when most New Yorkers are fast asleep. Around 300 to 400 dancers descend on the darkened space — set aglow by a mix of multicolored and Christmas lights — for the party that inherited its name from a now-shuttered restaurant in Chelsea where it began. There are also smaller classrooms for other Latin and African dances (like bachata and kizomba), but most of the party stays out front, where the room’s temperature rises as the bodies multiply.

“You can go in and dance with someone who’s a beginner or dance with a four-time champion from Italy,” Kaleb Hughes, 40, a student at Nieves Latin Dance Studio in Brooklyn, said of Las Chicas Locas.

Kelsey Burns, 26, who teaches at the salsa studio Piel Canela in Midtown, said she enjoyed the creativity and challenges of social dancing at Las Chicas Locas. “I always leave with more energy than when I come in.”

New York-style salsa, in which couples start their count on the two, is mostly what you’ll see on the dance floor at Las Chicas Locas. (Some dancers visiting from other cities may sneak in on the one count, and occasionally the music switches up for a bachata break.)

Burns explained that the sense of controlled movements in New York-style salsa sets it apart from other types. “It doesn’t spread out,” she said. “It’s linear, super tight, a little faster.” She added, “Each dancer has their own styles and shines — that’s when you break away from your partner and mess around with the rhythm on your own. You get to play with them for a second before they pick you back up.”

“I know so many people by their hands, bodies or physicality, but I can’t tell you their name,” she said.

The DJ will keep playing as long as dancers are twirling. But around 11 p.m., the DJ stops the music and tells everyone to clear the floor. The dancers are now audience members cheering, screaming and whistling as professionals or students emerge from backstage for their performances.

The performers vary each week, and performances range in styles and levels. Some dancers are champions showing off award-winning routines, but most of them come in from local dance schools in the five boroughs and surrounding states. All of them are greeted enthusiastically by the crowd.

“There’s a very liberating feeling you get when dancing salsa,” Meagan Larkin, 33, said. As someone who wasn’t raised with Latin dance in their home, it was really exciting to embrace it and learn how to feel confident with the movement.”

Salsa dancing relies on confidence and expression as much as skill, and that was all on display during the several Sundays we spent on the dance floor at Las Chicas Locas, documenting a range of techniques and experiences as well as the joy salsa brings the dancers.

“Salsa is really freeing for your soul,” Berger said. “I become my true self with it.”

Weekend after weekend, Xiomaris Cotto Rios, who organizes the party with Alejandro Bouza, remains one of the friendly faces at Las Chicas Locas.

“It’s very different from what I do at my regular day job,” she said, referring to her work as a scientific researcher. “Sometimes you need your brain to reset. For me, this is my refresh.”