It’s Thursday night in Edmonton and, if I’m around, there’s only one place you can find me. Even if an icy wind hisses through the downtown core, even if the roads are slick and snow buries cars with a vengeance, I’ll be there. My bare legs might tingle as I dash across the parking lot in a miniskirt, but I’ll make for the warm glow of the bar’s neon sign. One foot inside is all I need. Humidity hits like I’ve stepped onto the tarmac in Cancun, but the music takes over. The DJ waves hello as he changes the song. A Colombian friend clangs a cowbell, adding his own spice to the track. Maracas rattle, and the clave picks up: Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.
For the past decade, Salsa Thursdays at On the Rocks have formed the heart of Edmonton’s thriving salsa scene. It was this community that powered me through my final years in Edmonton while I finished my degree and started working. Now, it’s this community I look forward to re-joining on my trips home. For most of my life, I didn’t know this world existed. My time at the University of Alberta had revolved around Rutherford Library and research papers, but a summer spent studying in Mexico changed all that after I took a few Latin dance classes, unaware of what this would set in motion. That autumn, I signed up for lessons back in Edmonton with ETOWN SALSA and FiestaCubana. Soon, I was addicted. I joined a performance team and began dancing five days per week. I mamboed on the sidewalk at red lights, practised turns while waiting for the elevator at work. At night, my bedroom still spun to the crooning of Celia Cruz.
Growing up, dance was the only sport I wasn’t completely miserable at. I got my start with highland dance competitions in school gymnasiums across the city, testing my stamina by dancing over-top of two crossed swords, but that hardly prepared me for the sultry hip movements or Latin rhythm that salsa demands. Somehow, my lack of grace has never mattered much. Like any good recipe, Edmonton’s salsa crowd is a surprising mix of flavours. From students to IT engineers, recent immigrants to elderly couples – as long as you can drum up the confidence to slip on your dancing shoes, you’re always welcome here. By now, the scene has grown impressively with schools that offer a range of styles and produce championship-winning dancers.
I remove my coat, and other dancers rush over to greet me Latin style – with a kiss on the cheek. There’s shared trust and understanding here, visible in the unattended bags scattered around the bar. Someone approaches, hand extended in invitation. We join the crowd that spins, shimmies, free-styles across the dance floor. Sparkling heels flash their suede soles, as couples sing along in whatever battered Spanish they know. It’s a bitter cold night and the snow won’t stop falling, but, inside, you’d never know.
Ellen Keith is a writer and graduate of the University of Alberta (B.A., 2011). Her debut novel, The Dutch Wife (published April 2018), won the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction and became an instant bestseller in both Canada and the United States. Ellen was born and raised in St. Albert, but currently lives in Amsterdam.
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This article appears in the December 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton.