Every Wednesday night at AGAVA, it is normal for vibrant music and energetic dancers to fill every corner of the restaurant. People pair up with one another and move to the rhythm of Latin music, as the restaurant’s typical rustic vibe is transformed to accommodate a party and a massive celebration of Latino culture.
Michael Luis Ristorucci, a dance instructor at both Ithaca College and Cornell University, teaches Salsa Casino style along with other Latin dances. Ristorucci has been a promoter of Latin music and dance in the Finger Lakes region since 2005. He started organizing salsa nights at AGAVA in 2013 to integrate his students with community members to spread awareness for his classes.
Ristorucci’s team for Salsa Night consists of a receptionist, the DJ and whoever is giving instruction. He has his own staff that works with the bar and security staffs at AGAVA. Ristorucci does other events in the area like running the salsa nights at the Range and the Red Barn.
Ristorucci said that salsa is the most common style of music at the event but that he tries to incorporate other forms of Latin dance music as well.
“Salsa is about maybe 50 to 60% of the music played, along with other social Latin dance genres popular in the United States like bachata, reggaeton and the cha cha cha,” he said. “And then sometimes, we’ll play the salsa versions of your favorite pop songs.”
At the start of every Salsa Night, there are beginner-oriented lessons that take 45 minutes to an hour. After the lessons, the party begins, and the event is open to the general public, with a $5 admission at the door. This training session is what Ristorucci refers to as a “survival lesson.”
“It’s a mix of standards and variation, but it’s always oriented toward the beginner dancer while emphasizing space and safety,” Ristorucci said. “People really appreciate being able to enter a vibrant Latin culture and be able to touch each other and connect in a healthy and consensual way. … People need to be with each other; we’re that kind of a social animal.”
Yhon Salvatierra is a Latino international student studying at Elmira College and attends AGAVA’s salsa night twice a month. He said it was difficult to find other Latino people in Elmira at first, but now, this night has become a social outlet for him.
“You meet awesome people that will always encourage you to learn new things, especially for Latinos, as we are really welcome and very affectionate,” Salvatierra said. “No matter where you are from or if you don’t believe you are well-coordinated, you will be able to dance with all the Latino dancers. That’s why I encourage people to try new things including salsa dancing or any kind of dancing that we practice here and have fun.”
Lisa Gaul was visiting Ithaca for a work vacation, and even though she’s been practicing salsa dancing in Rochester for months, it was her first time attending Salsa Night. She said she felt at home thanks to the welcoming environment the event cultivates.
“I am an extrovert, but I would be lying if I said there’s not a small intimidation factor when I come to a completely new place alone,” Gaul said. “The dance culture … is like an open door to connect with someone. It’s like you’re speaking the same language. So I can connect with you over dancing even though I’ve never met you before because we both speak the same language.”
Ristorucci said it’s important to have a sense of inclusion and community where anyone can jump in and feel comfortable. He said he believes the people who are producing these events are accountable for building a positive environment.
“A lot of times in a scene, people can easily cluster or form cliques as well as create a hierarchy due to the different levels of skill,” Ristorucci said. “The technique is important because you want to get better at what you’re doing, you want to progress and you want to have something to show for what you’re putting into.”
Robert Okun is a salsa instructor in Syracuse and drives to Ithaca every week to attend the event. He said that it is very common for salsa teachers and experienced dancers in the area to meet up at AGAVA and catch up.
“I love the dancing crowd,” Okun said. “It’s a great place to come and enjoy music and have fun. Everybody is very friendly, and you can dance with everybody and have a great time. It’s a very beautiful venue and is very different than just going downtown. I swear Ithaca is the most beautiful place you can be, which is why I come from Syracuse every week to be here.”
Ristorucci said he would like to see more instructors step up in Ithaca and focus on more traditional genres like folkloric, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban.
He said he plans on continuing building a sense of community in Ithaca and spreading the love for his Latin culture.
“My idea when creating a Latin dance community was to make an outlet for people involved in the community and welcome social activists to come and connect with each other and share community and political ideas,” Ristorucci said.