The elevator opens up to a spacious room where club-goers are mingling by the bar in their high-heeled shoes, cocktail wear, and dress jeans. At a high-top table by the dance floor, Alex Albaig is signing in customers for the salsa classes her husband, Niss, is teaching at the Havana Club on Friday nights.
"Am I taking your change—last dollar? Oh, I'm sorry!" Alex says, laughing. She is bright-eyed and energetic, laughing often.
"I can't eat for the next two weeks," her customer jokes.
The 45-minute lesson in the L.A. style of salsa (currently the most popular style worldwide) covers basic steps and turns, as well as simple transitions and partnering. It will be enough for newcomers to dance comfortably when the lessons end and the free dance begins later in the night. The Albaigs have been doing this for two and a half years at the Havana Club, but their intro to salsa—and dance in general—started much earlier.
Alex studied ballet in the Ukraine, and, after coming to America, continued with other types of social dance, such as the Latin Hustle. "That's a lifetime hobby," she says.
Niss Albaig also immigrated to America—from Israel in 1978. He never imagined he'd end up teaching dance and only took a lesson when he was worried he wouldn't be able to dance with his sister at her wedding. "With only one month left . . . I went up at an Arthur Murray studio thinking I'll take some lessons," he recalls. "Except that instead of becoming a student they actually offered me a job as an instructor."
When he met Alex in 1994, Niss was already teaching salsa on weekends at Gardel's, an Argentinian restaurant and nightclub below the 1840s Ballroom. He was able to use his ballroom dance training to make the transition to club dances.
Gardel's closed seven years ago, so Niss and Alex Albaig had to search for a new place to dance salsa, which pushed them to start their own salsa company, SalsaNow, in the spring of 2009. Their first venue was a restaurant called Si Salsa in Pikesville, where they held salsa classes on Saturday evenings.
"We basically started promoting the place as SalsaNow because you can't just say, 'Alex is having a party,' right?" she jokes.
Now they have regular lessons and events every night of the week at colleges, their own studio, and venues in the city. Alex appreciates the differences in their venues because they all bring something unique.
They both want to expand the salsa community—not with more dance nights, but with greater turnout. "I think it's been growing steadily. At a very steady pace. The more people involved, the more people they get involved," Alex says.
"Back 10 years ago, there were only a couple of well-known and well-regarded instructors, and there were only a couple nights a week that you could go dancing," Niss adds. "Nowadays in Baltimore you can go dancing almost every single night of the week," he says.
Alex credits the recent success of salsa in Baltimore to its strong sense of community. Though not yet as big as the Washington, D.C. salsa scene, Baltimore goes one step further with its welcome, she says.
As the lesson draws to a close, the room seems to grow smaller, with club regulars pressing in, waiting to dance. Like the flip of a switch, as soon as the teaching ends, the music is jacked up to non-speakable levels, and the dance floor is soon covered end to end. Alex stands by, snapping pictures on her camera phone.