Learning Salsa Moves in Dolores Park

Donald Saldana (in white) teaches a basic salsa step on a makeshift dance floor in Dolores Park.

Donald “Donalio” Saldana squeezes the brakes of his red Univega Vivo Sport bicycle and slows to a stop on 19th Street. He reaches for the boom box that’s tied to his handlebars by two airless bike tubes, and turns up the volume. As he pedals the half-block to Dolores Park, heads turn to see who’s blasting the salsa con timba, or salsa with a little funk.

It’s two minutes to one on Saturday afternoon, and two couples — the first to arrive for his free, hour-long weekly salsa class — are waiting for him.

“It varies, man,” says the 25-year-old Saldana, who looks left and right, scanning Dolores Street for more dancers. “Some weeks I get 50 people and some weeks I get 20. Sometimes it’s been like two couples.”

Abhishek Bahl hurries up the steps for his lesson. “Wassup, man,” says Saldana, his long black ponytail, which reaches halfway down the back of his V-neck sweater, blowing in the light breeze. “Long time no see, man.”

This is exactly where Bahl wants to be. The clouds clear and the sun beats down. He removes his brown leather jacket to expose a Hard Rock Café Mumbai T-shirt.

“We’re just lucky, man,” Saldana says. “This is where the sun shines. All the time, man.”

But Saldana’s weekly lesson is about more than dancing in the sun. He’s here to share his passion, to have a good time and, most of all, to immerse his students in a tradition that began long ago.

No matter that he has only five to teach today; Saldana is ready to start. During the two years that he’s been offering lessons here, he’s found that once he gets moving, people jump in.

“Are you guys here for dance class?” he asks Kim and Ray Mooney. They reply with an enthusiastic “yes,” and head to the sun-splashed concrete. They came last week for the first time and enjoyed the lesson so much that they drove from their home in Concord to dance with Saldana again today.

“Let’s start off with the basic steps, as always,” Saldana says, after turning off the music. The Rooneys, an older couple, and Bahl stand side by side in a line behind him, facing his back and looking toward the park.

“Forward with your left, center, back with your right, center,” Saldana says, slowly demonstrating a basic salsa step.

All eyes are on his big gray Fila sneakers, which catch the folds of his baggy jeans. He holds a knitted Volcom cap in his left hand and snaps the fingers of his right.

The dancers mimic him, stepping forward with their left feet, bringing them back to center, then stepping back with their right feet. Saldana cannot see them, but they are focused and in sync. He repeats the directions, over and over, then shortens them. “Left, center, right, center. Left, center, right, center. Good.” Then he adds, “Caminamos” — let’s walk it out.

Extending his left arm to the side, he clenches his left fist, leaving his pointer finger and thumb out, like a gun. The dancers mirror it. “Forward, center, back, center,” he says. “Forward, center, back, center. Forward, center, back, center. Caminamos!

The sun, which has been hiding, comes out again, and Ray steps out of the line to toss his heavy winter coat over the chain-link fence.

“The next thing we’re gonna do is we’re gonna learn a turn,” Saldana says.

He demonstrates the basic step and adds the turn. “So when you put it all together, it looks like this.”

The lineup tries the turn, called exhibela, meaning “exhibit her.” Ray rests a hand on his wife’s back, and when Saldana says exhibela, he lifts his other arm and spins Kim under it. They’re both smiling.

Then Saldana leads them: “Forward, center, back, center. Forward, center, back, center. Forward, center, back, center. Exhibela!

The dancers laugh as they exhibit each other. Saldana knows that laughing goes hand in hand with the dance. After all, he says, salsa is an expression of joy. He’s been coming to Dolores Park to listen to live music and to dance ever since he was in kindergarten.

“People used to come and just jam,” he says, reminiscing about jumping around to little pockets of live Cuban music, rumba, samba, reggae and “you name it.”

“It’s been around since Carlos Santana was at Mission High School. He would just come here with his friends and make music, and sure enough, there was dancing.”

It was less formal in those days, Saldana says, and more of an exchange of information. People have told him that he is the first to promote dancing in the park as a class. And even though he’s taken formal dance lessons, most of what he knows has been passed on from friends.

“Forward, center, back, center,” he repeats. “Exhibela!

The dancers exhibit each other again. Some stare at Saldana the entire time, while some, like Bahl, are confident enough to allow their eyes to wander around the park.

Saldana is pleased. “That’s it,” he says. “Now let’s try it with some music.”

He walks to his bike, removes the boom box from the handlebars and places it on the ground. The salsa begins to blare. The dancers are excited. The Rooneys are still smiling, as are another young couple that have joined in.

An older gentleman sheds his backpack and wool coat. He’s down to a plaid shirt, conductor overalls and a little black beret. He hardly takes his eyes off Saldana, mouthing the steps as Saldana announces them.

Another young couple join in, along with two girls in short flowery skirts. Ray’s knit cap gets tossed with the jackets. It’s getting hot.

They practice the turn again, but the newcomers miss it. The two young girls giggle because Saldana is moving quickly and they can’t keep up. A pair of older women walking past the park stop to observe. One of them, in a purple windbreaker with matching visor, holds her cane and starts to bounce in place. Her friend does a few steps at the bottom of the stairs before they are ushered along by their husbands.

“All right,” Saldana says. “That was the warm-up. Now we’re gonna go to the partner section.”

Since salsa is ultimately a dance for couples, it only gets better when the dancers pair up.

They form a rueda, or wheel shape. The followers face their leaders with right feet inside the circle. They place their right hands on the right shoulders of their leaders, while the leaders place their right hands on the backs of their followers. The leaders gently guide their followers forward and back.

“Guys forward, guys back,” Saldana says. “Good. Guys forward, guys back. Nice.”

Saldana is patient and full of praise for his students, a skill he probably honed during his paying job as a dance consultant. For the past seven years, he’s taught dance curricula to teachers at schools all over the city, making sure they are then able to pass on the knowledge to their students. “Usually they want me to teach ballroom or ethnic dance,” he says. “I don’t ever teach ballet.”

A pink jacket is tossed outside of the circle, and two other jackets follow it.

“Guys forward, guys back” Saldana says. And then they rotate partners.

The dancers guide one another forward and back, forward and back. Some pairs have it down; others struggle.

“Now we’re gonna add two new moves,” Saldana says. The circle erupts in nervous laughter. “Don’t worry. They’re extremely easy.”

Saldana begins to walk around the circle, and the pairs follow. “You’re just walking,” he says. “But you’re walking with rhythm.”

“Walk, walk, pause,” he says. “Walk, walk, pause.” Then he teaches them un tarro, and they switch partners.

“Walk, walk, pause,” he says. “Good.” And then he adds, “Un tarro!”

As they practice un tarro, a car driving by on Dolores slows down and a man in the back seat yells to Saldana out the window. “What’s up, Z?”

Saldana laughs and continues rotating around the rueda. “You guys are ready for music,” he says. “Come on.”

The guy in the car gets out and runs down the street to talk to Saldana. He is pushed into the rueda and finds himself dancing with a girl in a flowery skirt as the music comes on.

“It might be a little faster,” Saldana says. “You guys can handle a faster song, right?”

They rotate around the rueda a few times before Saldana teaches them “how to get some water.”

“In, out, in, out,” he says. “Now get some water!” They dip into the circle as if they are scooping up water.

“In, out, in, out,” he repeats, and they retrieve more water. Everyone is smiling.

“You guys did great,” Saldana tells them when the lesson is over. He leaves the music on, hoping they’ll keep dancing.

In addition to salsa, Saldana introduces dancers to the romantic bachata from the Dominican Republic. The free lesson begins at 1 p.m. every Saturday at 19th Street and Dolores.

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