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'Everybody’s mixing together' at Latin dance nights

People mingle on a dance floor.
Hanna Merzbach
Latin dance night in full swing at the Center for the Arts in mid-January. The events happen monthly and are either salsa- or bachata-themed.

Country swing is king in Jackson Hole. The Wild West vibe attracts tourists and locals to spots like The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and The Silver Dollar Bar for live music and nights of dancing.

But there’s another style of dance helping bring the region’s many different communities together: Latin dance.

In mid-January, about three dozen people of all ages and experience levels gathered in the Center for the Arts lobby to get an informal lesson from Stephen Vletas.

“One, two, three, tap, five, six, seven, tap,” said Vletas, counting out each footstep. “Make a big tap and make it really noticeable.”

Vletas was teaching them bachata, a style of Latin dance he picked up while living in Argentina. It’s slower than salsa and easier to learn.

A man and woman dance together.
Hanna Merzbach
Stephen Vletas demonstrates how to dance bachata. He said he can be “fairly strict” when teaching because he wants to make sure his students know the basics. “So ski racing, right? If you don’t learn how to carve a good turn, you’re not going to be a racer, if you don’t learn the basic good footwork,” he said.

He next told the group to partner up and grab each other's hands.

“This is good tension,” he said, lightly tugging on his wife Kim Vletas' hands. “Good tension you can feel. So we're never going to grab onto anybody like they do in country swing dancing and break their arms and elbows.”

It can be hard to find a bar that’s not western themed in Jackson. But, for over 15 years, the Latin dance community has been blossoming with classes like this and pop-up events in Jackson and Teton Valley, Idaho.

‘The integration, the unity, the excitement’

Jake and Ourdia Hodge started the Strictly Salsa program — which grew to also include bachata — after they moved to town in 2008.

“There was no Cuban dancing,” Jake Hodge said. “There was no salsa dancing. So we said, ‘Why don't we do it?’”

The couple had danced Cuban salsa with top performers in places like San Francisco and Miami and brought them as teachers to the Dancer’s Workshop where they have paid classes.

Ourdia Hodge, who’s French, said about 80 percent of the people they know in the Jackson area are through this community.

“We had so many people come and dance,” she said. “It was just so exciting to see the West really taking to Latin dancing and Cuban salsa, in particular.”

What makes Cuban salsa unique? Jake Hodge said an arrangement called a “rueda.” This is where dancers pair up and get in a circle, and someone calls out each move as they transfer partners.

“The integration, the unity, the excitement, the community that you feel in that rueda, I think, is the thing that separates it from any other dance done around here right now,” he said.

People dance on a dance floor.
Hanna Merzbach
Jake and Ourdia Hodge show off their moves at the dance night. They say they were just “instruments” of starting the salsa programming, and that they had a lot of help along the way.

Building connections

Once lesson time was over at the Center for the Arts, dozens more people filled the lobby for a night of social dancing.

Carlyann Edwards was standing on the side talking to some friends. She took a beginner salsa workshop last spring, which she said inspired her.

“I actually just went to Cuba for Thanksgiving to do some salsa dancing with two of my close friends,” she said.

Now, Edwards is retaking the level one class to learn how to lead. She said there are not that many art opportunities in Jackson, so she likes to take advantage of all of them — whether that’s theater or dancing.

And she said salsa has opened her up to a whole other community, and helped her get to know acquaintances better.

“I've seen my neighbor's babysitter in a salsa class and able just to further connections and build connections within the community,” Edwards said, before walking up to someone from her workshop last spring and asking him to dance.

“Would you want to dance? Do you remember we were in class together in the spring?” Edwards asked before the pair took off spinning around the dance floor.

People dance together.
Hanna Merzbach
Carlyann Edwards dances with a partner from the salsa workshop she took last spring.

‘Everybody’s mixing together’

Meanwhile, Juan Morales — a dancer and salsa teacher — leaned up against the bar.

He had a black and orange poncho, called a “Gabon,” draped around his shoulders.

“It keeps me warm, and I'm very proud of my heritage,” said Morales, who’s Mexican-American and grew up in Jackson.

He said it took time to get many in the Latino community to come out dancing.

“As we started years ago, it was mainly Anglo,” Morales said. “But now if you look around the room, there's Latino, there's Central, South American, obviously still very much Anglo, some French, of course.”

People dance together.
Hanna Merzbach
Juan Morales dances with a partner at the Center for the Arts. “It’s becoming more of a social openness, more, ‘Let’s go dance. Why not?'” he said.

He said they’re still working to get more people in the community to come out. Latin dance night co-founder Jake Hodges — who was leaning next to Morales — said they are trying to make it as inclusive as possible for all kinds of dance backgrounds.

“A lot of Mexican people dance cumbia,” he said. “We play cumbia music, and they get up and love to dance cumbia. It's exciting to see that everybody's mixing together.”

Latin Dance Nights are free for anyone and take place monthly at the Center for the Arts in Jackson.

Hanna is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter based in Teton County.

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