Put some spice in your step

Put some spice in your step

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The Artful Dodger Coffeehouse & Cocktail Lounge teaches weekly salsa lessons.

 STORY | EMMY FREEDMAN

PHOTO | LOREN PROBISH

A maracas-meets-Mariachi version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” booms over the speakers of The Artful Dodger Coffeehouse & Cocktail Lounge as about 20 people line up on the dance floor. The restaurant has been transformed into a groovy hot spot for Harrisonburg residents with a desire to do something unique with their Friday night: learn how to salsa dance.

“And a 5, 6, 7,” Kaity Garnett, who’s leading the salsa lesson, calls from the front of the line.

The song switches to something a little less pop-y and a little more jazzy, full of conga drums and horns. The class follows Garnett’s tap-tap-tap rhythm, some stumbling or stepping with their left foot while the rest are on their right. But Garnett started out the night by saying it was a beginner class, so she remains patient with her eclectic, well-intentioned group.

The Artful Dodger has offered lessons on Thursday, later changed to Friday, nights since salsa dancer Pablo Cruz approached the Dodger’s owner and operator Thom Metroka with the idea nine years ago.

“I didn’t have a place to dance in Harrisonburg, so I had to drive to Washington, D.C., or Richmond to dance,” says Cruz, the coordinator and promoter of the salsa nights. “And I thought maybe I could do it here.”

Since its conception, salsa night has become a staple of Harrisonburg nightlife.

“Back in the day, there was nothing happening on Thursdays so we were like, ‘Let’s put it on Thursday and see what happens,’” Metroka says. “And it became its own thing. We became a very popular destination spot.”

The night starts out at 9 p.m. with a short lesson on the basics of salsa dancing and then at 10 the dance floor is turned over to a freeform atmosphere. The Latin music continues to pulse through the restaurant, but with a couple of popular hits thrown in to cater to the younger college crowd.

“Salsa is a mix of different ingredients,” Cruz says. “That’s why they call it salsa.”

But salsa night isn’t just for dancing. It’s also become a social event, with many people coming to the Dodger each Friday.

“My friends come here just to dance and chat and socialize so it feels more like a social environment for me now,” says Deion Porter, who graduated from Bridgewater College this past spring. “Dancing is just another plus.”

Besides finding a friend group, many people have met their spouses at salsa night, including Cruz and Garnett.

“My husband went to Eastern Mennonite,” Garnett says. “We met here, at the Dodger. Right there in that corner at salsa night,” pointing to a booth in the front.

For Garnett, knowing how to salsa also allowed her to communicate with people through a medium other than language.

“A lot of the countries I went to I didn’t speak the language,” Garnett says. “I was able to communicate through dance with a ton of different locals without having to actually speak their language at all.”

Cruz agrees with this, seeing salsa as a medley that can appeal to many in Harrisonburg. On a typical Friday night he sees people of all different nationalities and ages.

And as the lights dim to a blue tint and the dancers swing their way around the room to mix up their partners, the aim of the night is clear.

“It just goes to show there’s a community that feels so big in a tiny place like Harrisonburg,” Garnett says.