Some like it hot

How salsa dancing lead to romance for three Ventura County Couples


he salsa community in Ventura County is both tight-knit and inviting. Dancers connect not only on the dance floor but off of it. They travel together to the salsa night in Santa Barbara once a month, or to conventions in other towns. They attend house parties together, which someone holds at least once a week. Strangers to the scene don’t stay that way long, quickly becoming part of the group’s structure and character. And within this context, some dancers get even closer to each other than usual: New romantic partnerships form, existing relationships get stronger, weddings are held – about 10 of them, actually, according to local instructor Jay Byam.

It shouldn’t be any wonder, though, that salsa and love are connected. Not only do partner dances and interpersonal relationships mirror each other (the coupling, the push/pull, learning to trust), but salsa is a particularly sensual dance. Lacking the politeness of most European ballroom dances or the raunchiness of club dancing, salsa seems to be the perfect middle ground for expressing, exploring or experimenting with romantic interaction. So for existing couples, it can be a great vehicle for new levels of intimacy. And for singles — who appreciate both the built-in safety of partner dance rules and also the social acceptability of expressing a bit of sexiness — it can be a great way to look for or explore a connection.

In the interest of seeing how salsa dance and love are related, we caught up with three local couples. Each couple is involved in the scene and in their relationship on a different level. But all agree that salsa is part of what makes their connection, well, caliente.

Juan and Yadira

When Juan Sanchez, 18, and Yadira Valencia, 17, entered the back room of the Lobster Trap one chilly Wednesday night in December, it was clear they were new. For starters, they seemed timid and shy as they approached Byam’s sign-in table. But more importantly, Valencia was the only woman in the room not wearing high heels.

It turns out, that’s because the class was a surprise. After nine months together, Sanchez still liked to take his girlfriend on mystery dates. And knowing her fondness for salsa dance (she’d been trying to teach him some moves at home), he figured a trip to Byam’s all-ages class would be the perfect mystery night. It is clear he was right.

The pair stayed close together during the initial warm-up period and explanation of basic moves. And during the part of class when men and women line up in two rows and rotate partners, they kept smiling at each other from across the room. They may not have spent the whole evening together, but there was no mistaking one thing: They were on a date with each other.

That is exactly the purpose of salsa in their lives. “Whenever we go out together, it’s something we can do … and it’s something we can do at home,” said Valencia, who met Sanchez while both worked at Del Taco. (Sanchez, a musician, now works at DW drums. Valencia is finishing high school.) Besides their usual trips to movies, parks, Six Flags or hanging out at each other’s houses, “It’s something else we can do together.”

Twyla and Robby

Twyla and Robby Brayton. Photo by Jeff Clark.

It was dancing together that first connected Twyla and Robby Brayton when they met at a Dargan’s bar in Santa Barbara five years ago. “He’s a phenomenal dancer” said Twyla, 32. But that was bar dancing. They wanted to learn partner dancing for their wedding two years ago, which is how they found their way to Byam’s Western Swing class.

When their wedding day arrived, they were so nervous they forgot all the moves. “The song went on forever,” Robby, 41, recalled. But those classes planted a seed, and the pair recently returned to Byam for instruction – this time in salsa.

Though they’re still beginners, salsa has already become a large part of their lives. They practice at home. When they can’t make it to class, they schedule private instruction with Byam to make up for what they missed. And they spent their New Year’s Eve at Byam’s five-day salsa convention in Palm Springs.

They haven’t quite reached the level where they feel connected and intimate during the dance itself. Right now, they joke, it’s mostly trying not to step on each other’s feet. But it’s still bringing them close. They like to talk about class after they leave – something the independent couple doesn’t often get to do with their daily lives. And they’re enjoying the process. “It’s a teamwork thing” Twyla says. And even when it’s difficult, the couple goes “through the struggle together.”

Jay and Zeanie

Jay Byam and Zeanie Yoon. Photo by Jeff Clark.

Jay Byam and Zeanie Yoon were both dancers long before they knew each other. In the ’80s, Zeanie was already trainng as an International DanceSport Ten-Dance competitor. At the same time, Byam was perfecting his skills in social dances like West Coast swing and salsa. But there’s no denying that it was salsa that brought the pair together.

Yoon wasn’t even interested in salsa at first and she only attended Byam’s class as a favor to a friend. But when she saw Byam, she was hooked.

“I saw this big guy dancing so lightly,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘He’s so cute.’ ” When she found out he was single, she started attending class regularly. She danced with Byam every chance she got. At first, he didn’t seem to know she was interested, but soon they were closing the clubs together.

“She was an awesome dancer,” Byam said. “She became an incredibly sensuous beautiful creature — and I was allowed to go up and touch her!” That was four years ago and they’re still going strong.

“Having a common dance to do together was a very big deal,” said Yoon, a Korean-born, formally trained dancer who, on the surface, had little in common with all-American social dancer Byam. “It was a good foundation.”

Two become one

Yoon and Byam say they’ve seen salsa transform a couple time and time again. What usually happens with singles is they fall in love with the dance first.

For starters, said Byam, “it’s a really engaging rhythm: fun, exciting and alive.” It’s also an easy dance to learn in beginning, second in ease only to merengue, for partner dancing. But unlike other easy dances, salsa has a high ceiling of complexity, which helps more advanced dancers stay stimulated. For example, “East Coast swing and jitterbug become boring,” said Byam. “But I first learned [salsa] in 1986, and I still love it.”

Salsa class is a place where women can be women and men can be gentlemen, where chivalry is alive and well and where manners still matter. It’s also highly democratic. What matters is how you dance and how you interact with your partner, not your skin color, your weight or the clothes you can afford.

In real life, said Yoon, you see in other people what you want to see. But in dancing, you see who a person really is. And the important thing is how you connect. “It’s the person you’re with, whether it’s a 10-year-old boy or [Ventura regular] Big Daddy, who’s pushing 60,” said Yoon. Like the childhood instinct to play in the sandbox with anyone who’ll share in your game, Yoon says it’s our instinct to connect to people who share a common goal: in this case, the rules and the beauty of salsa. “If you stick to the rules of partner dance, you become open-minded. That’s what dance brings out of you.”

In fact, she says, “everybody wants to dance. It’s our primitive instinct.” Not unlike love.

And so many people come for the salsa and, unexpectedly, find something more. For existing couples, said Byam, it gives them “something beautiful to do together.” It can also be a good lesson in appreciating each other in a relationship. In order to do salsa, couples have to compromise – learning when to lead and when to follow. They have to maintain their boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. And they have to work together.

“There’s something about teamwork, interaction, respecting each other and each other’s space,” Yoon said. She remembers one situation in which a dance partner kept violating her personal space and she finally pointed it out to him. He not only started working on it with her, but realized he needed to apply the same lesson emotionally with his girlfriend at home.

There’s also an implicit lesson in the power and beauty of the whole as something separate from its parts. After all, to create the beautiful shape of salsa dance, the woman is just as important as the man. It’s their union, not the individual talent of either one, that’s the goal, “the beauty created by two bodies.”

Yoon agreed.

“Dance is not just dance,” she said. “It’s about lifestyle, how you interact.” She said. “I learn something all the time.”

Feel the rhythm in your feet

Try salsa dancing in Ventura County

Salsa has its roots in many Latin and Afro-Caribbean dances, owing much of its origination to Cuba and Puerto Rico. But it’s certainly not a dance limited to the Latin community (though the local dance community is 70 percent Latino, which is both a reflection of the local population and that culturally, “Latin people already have rhythm in their body,” said Yoon).

In fact, Yoon calls it a “global dance.” And in Ventura County, dancers run the gamut from Asian to Scottish, from 16-year-old students to 60-year-old retirees, and from novices to experts.

There are many styles of salsa, depending on who’s doing it and where they are. For example, the sensual street style of Cuban salsa is much different than the pattern-heavy, performance-focused style of L.A. salsa. What Byam teaches in Ventura is “salsa suave,” a smooth, accessible blend of several different styles.

Most classes start with a warm-up and instruction in salsa’s basic moves. Then students line up (men on one side, women on the other), and rotate partners as they learn and practice more complicated moves. More advanced students arrive later for more complicated patterns. And after the advanced class is open dance, where the DJ spins salsa tunes as long as there are dancers to enjoy them.

As for choosing a class, the main difference between Byam’s courses is intensity. Wednesday is a more casual, homey class, due in part to its location at the all ages Lobster Trap venue. Monday, held in a nightclub, is a bit more advanced. “When I come to Monday, I feel people are there to have adult fun,” said Yoon. “Wednesday is a loungey feel.”

Beginners are welcome at all classes, though, and should feel free to walk-in with or without a partner.

Mondays: Nicholby’s Night Club, 410 E. Main St., Ventura, Over 21, Classes start at 6:30, open dance at 9:10, $10 for lessons and dancing, $7 for dance only after 8:45pm

Wednesdays: Lobster Trap, 3605 Peninsula Road, Oxnard, All ages, Classes start at 6:30, open dance at 9pm, $10 for class, $5 after 9pm

Thursdays: California Lutheran University Cafeteria, 60 West Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks, All ages, Doors open at 6:30pm

Sundays: Ruby’s Café, 348 Oxnard Blvd., Oxnard


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