Dance Culture in NYC

Tuesday, March 7, 2017 by Derrick Washington and Pilar Jefferson


In the fall of 2016, as New York at Its Core launched, we embarked on an exciting adventure in the Museum’s Frederick A.O. Schwarz Education Center where we created a unique course for students in grades 8–12—Dance Culture in NYC. This collaboration between the Education Center and the Curatorial Department was established as a step forward in fostering relationships between the Museum and the vibrant communities we serve. As co-teachers, we brought together our expertise and highlighted the exciting dance history of New York City by pairing the important stories of our city’s diverse communities, such as the Puerto Rican community of East Harlem and the South Bronx, with the Museum’s collection. The course itself was inspired by the upcoming exhibition and program series, Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York. This project traces the history of how a quintessentially New York cultural phenomenon—salsa—went on to change the culture of music and social dance around the globe.

Each Saturday’s dance lesson prepared students for an interview with that session’s teachers about their experiences as New Yorkers in the dance community. From swing to bachata to bomba to, of course, salsa, each week our students learned the history of a different dance from phenomenal teachers. The bomba lesson exemplified the meanings of Rhythm & Power—intergenerational knowledge based on the joy of sharing culture through dance. Juan Gutiérrez of the renowned dance collective Los Pleneros de la 21 brought instructors Nelson and Ines Cabassa, all experts on the Puerto Rican dance and music form of bomba. Nelson and Ines were accompanied by their young daughter who had no problem demonstrating the moves with her mother while Nelson and Juan played the drums. 

During the interview, our student Julio said he had heard about bomba but never experienced it in his neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He was excited to share what he had learned from the class with his high school salsa group: the intense concentration and skill needed for the dancers to connect with the musicians.

The 18 students who completed the course took enthusiastic ownership of the dances and the community they created amongst themselves. Students expressed a range of dance interests and experiences when the classes began. The students hailed from nine schools in three of the five boroughs and most had never met each other until the first day of class.

They quickly proved the value of teamwork through their growing bonds. While all of the students were friendly with one another, two students, Emely and Vanja, ended up being both friends and co-choreographers as they presented on salsa at our final celebration. Week by week, it was exciting to see how they strategized about their dance moves. Even students who did not have a chance to plan together trusted in each other to create a wonderful final performance.


Their commitment to the program was tested on the day of our final class and celebration when we all awoke to the first real snow of the year. Despite the weather, students trickled in throughout the first hour of class with Edwin Ferreras and his dance partner Dakota, who taught us the history and steps of bachata. They were out in full force in time for our final celebration in front of a crowd of parents, siblings, and educators. We were all excited to honor the students and to see their hard work come to life. Everyone was impressed by how the students showed up for one another. Shaquille, a student who joined the course a few weeks in, performed an impressive Charleston even though he was not present for the swing session. At the other end of the spectrum, Autumn showed great courage when she presented bomba solo as the only representative of her largely snowbound group.

You too can be involved with Rhythm & Power! We will have a free International Day of Dance festival for families on Saturday, May 13, 2017. Join us for an amazing day of dance spotlighting New York salsa, kizomba, Puerto Rican bomba, capoeira, and more! We also invite everyone to come and dance at our New York Meets Havana party with live music, Cuban dance, visual art, and delicious refreshments on Friday, April 28, 2017.

Special thanks to our guest teachers: Adrienne Weidert, Richard Kurtzer, Juan Gutiérrez, Nelson and Ines Cabassa, Jeffrey Taveras and Julie Aponte of Huracan Dance Company, Nelson “Chief 69” Seda, and Edwin Ferreras and Dakota Romero of LFX Dancers

And thanks all of our incredible students who made this course possible!

The Museum is grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports the fellowship of Rhythm & Power curator Dr. Derrick León Washington.

By Derrick Washington and Pilar Jefferson

Derrick León Washington, Ph.D. is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and curator of the upcoming Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York exhibition. Pilar Jefferson is a Museum Educator and Saturday Academy Coordinator.

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