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Salsa nights: Latin dance brings the party to Pulaski Park

  • Shayda Naficy of Boston and Raul Romero of Northampton dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shayda Naficy of Boston and Raul Romero of Northampton dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A group of people, including Alex Lanier and Kiana Dumas of Ware front right, take a salsa dance lesson during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Glenda Colon of Amherst and McCoy Jamison III of Hartford, Conn. dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Glenda Colon of Amherst and McCoy Jamison III of Hartford, Conn. dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • McCoy Jamison III of Hartford, Conn., front, leads a group in a salsa dance lesson during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • McCoy Jamison III of Hartford, Conn. talks to a group gathered for his salsa dance lesson during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jess Caldwell-O’Keefe of Northampton takes a salsa dance lesson while holding her son, Caden, 2, during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People practice salsa dancing during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jess Caldwell-O’Keefe of Northampton takes a salsa dance lesson while holding her son, Caden, 2, during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Samantha Rose of Enfield, Conn. and Juan Lopez of Boston dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Robert Martinez of Northampton gives Ann Sirignano of Worthington a lesson in playing the güira, a Latin American percussion instrument. Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Roger Aucoin, aka DJ Roger Jr., energizes the crowd. Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Katie Coleman and Jose Laboy, both of Northampton, dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People dance during the second installment of “Salsa in Pulaski Park.” Staff Photo/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Recorder
Friday, July 27, 2018

As a child, Robert Martinez used to play a metal grater — in his kitchen. It was the closest thing he could find to a güira, a percussion instrument from the Dominican Republic commonly used for merengue.

“That’s how I learned to play,” Martinez said. “Once I grabbed the real one, I was like, ‘I’m done!’”

Done as in hooked. On a recent Saturday, Martinez used a real güira to help more than 100 people keep the beat during a free salsa lesson in Northampton’s Pulaski Park.

“I love salsa,” Martinez said as he wove through the crowd. “I’m Puerto Rican, and I love it. I’ve been playing that music since I was 13. I like to entertain people.”

And people were definitely entertained. By 5:30 p.m., a growing crowd of dancers gathered in the park, drawn to the pulsing Latin music emanating from a disc jockey turntable and echoing down Main Street. Passersby stopped to watch the scene, which exceeded the expectations of the organizers, including Roger Aucoin, who, in the local Latin dance circuit, is better known as DJ Roger Jr.

With the support of the Northampton Arts Council, which recently awarded Aucoin $1,250 for the salsa series (July 14 was the second of three events; the third is on August 18), he and dance instructor McCoy Jamison III set the stage for a night of side steps, back steps and spinning in twos. The format is simple: a half-hour lesson by Jamison, followed by lots of music and dance.

“Dance is a beautiful thing, but it’s hard to get started, confidence-wise,” said Jamison, who lives in Hartford, Conn. “You see all these great dancers, and it’s difficult to see them do all these turns and tricks when you barely know how to do the steps. It takes a little courage. But once you get started, it’s wonderful, and nobody’s judging. As long as you’re out there, trying, it’s fine. Everybody gets better.”

Jamison should know. A digital marketer and a web designer, he spent a year in Brazil in 2013, taking some time off from a Ph.D. program he didn’t like, and discovered salsa during that time.

“I had money saved up, so it just made sense to do it at that moment,” he said. “I just took a leap and did it.”

At the time, he didn’t speak much Portuguese.

“I didn’t understand what anybody was saying, so I went right up and just shadowed the instructor,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was getting Portuguese and dance lessons. And it was very difficult: It’s hard enough to learn how to dance — and then to try to learn it in another language!”

On July 14, people practiced their newly-learned footwork on the sidewalk, by the bus stop, on the grass.

“This is magic,” said Aucoin, wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and matching brimmed hat.

Shayda Naficy, who was in town from Boston visiting friends, was just passing by when the event drew her in.

“I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I came here to sit and to see, and I wanted to dance,” she said, “but I don’t really know how to dance very well, and somebody came up and asked me!”

The man who asked her to dance, Raul Romero, of Northampton, had brought his young daughter with him.

“It’s the perfect time for everybody,” he said. “I go to The Iron Horse every Tuesday night for Latin music — that’s the best, but it’s a club, it’s night, so here it’s just wonderful.”

Not that it’s entirely new: “There are people who have been doing this for so long,” Aucoin said, mentioning the Anastasia Social Dance School and Latin Fridays at the American Legion, both in Hadley, as well as Dance Northampton, “and many people who have laid a lot of groundwork.”

Including Aucoin himself. By day, he is a retirement planning consultant at MassMutual Financial in Springfield. By night, he’s a DJ at The Iron Horse, which he said is “really one of the best Latin dance nights in western Mass.” That’s where he met Jamison.

A partnership soon formed. While Jamison’s love for Latin dance and culture stems from his time in Brazil, Aucoin’s passion for salsa is rooted in his fondness for community-building.

Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, Aucoin grew up surrounded by music that was deeply rooted in culture.

“Every Friday, we went to a dance, called a ceilidh,” he said, referring to the traditional Irish-Scottish social event of his childhood. “It was a very important part of the community.”

When he moved to Southbridge at age 15, he missed the warmth of the culture he had left behind.

“There happened to be a Puerto Rican community in my town,” he said. “I became friends with a lot of people, and it was through that community that I found out about dance.”

After living and working in New York City as a sales consultant, Aucoin moved to Northampton in 2010 and immediately sought out dance groups in town.

“I did take some dance classes here, but I knew I wanted to take dance classes with the Latin community,” he said.

He eventually took classes with Nector Garcia, who teaches salsa at the South End Community Center in Springfield.

“I noticed that, even though I’m a white guy in a Latin community, I never felt like I was getting any kind of pushback from that. It was cool — they were just like, ‘Oh, someone wants to learn more.’ I became so ingrained in the sense of community that it just overtook me to the point that I was dancing four days a week. I still had my day job, but I had to go to my class.”

He mostly found what he was looking for in those classes, but he also saw something that was missing: Both Aucoin and Jamison want to bring more dance events, free of charge, to public spaces.

The idea for their three-part salsa series surfaced about a year ago. Aucoin pitched the idea to Steve Sanderson, the Northampton Arts Council’s event producer, and applied for a grant soon after.

“The grant was for all three events,” Aucoin said, “It helps support the artists in the community, who, if they are performing, may have to take a day off from work and are losing money. The idea was, we need to help any way we can.”

Each event features local dancers. At the first event of the series, Latin Wildfire Dance Company from Chicopee presented two performances. Juan Mambo Lopez then performed on July 14.

At one point during the dance lesson, it began to drizzle. But the crowd was unshaken and continued to follow Jamison’s feet, as the music enveloped them again.

“We try to play as many styles as we can at the event,” Aucoin said. The crowd heard salsa, merengue and bachata, among others. “You have a lot of the folks who like the older salsa and a lot of people who like the new salsa,” Aucoin said with a smiled. “I try to play a mix.”

The event ended past 9 p.m., as people kept dancing and asking for “one more!” Afterward, there was a line to thank both men.

“I’m honored to be accepted and to be able to do this with the Latin community,” Aucoin said. “They say, ‘Always leave a party when it’s at its best,’ but I didn’t want to leave.”

He and Jamison both hope the party is just beginning.

“We plan to take advantage of a lot of grants, so that we can continue these events,” Jamison said. “I’ve seen so many different types of people at our events, people from all walks of life. Nobody is worried about where you’re from, what your gender is, how poor or rich you are. We just go out there, dance, and enjoy each other — and connect, which is what most of us need today.”