After five years of running the Albuquerque Latin Dance Festival, James Foley stepped down to relax into life outside of the hectic business of organizing massive, national-scale events. His new laidback lifestyle, however, didn't last long. After five months, he had a realization after a conversation with a salsa instructor visiting from San Diego. The dancer had made an offhand comment that the salsa scene was dying, in a way. “What he meant by that,” Foley explained, “was that we need to get going. There's not enough instruction, there's not enough people taking classes. It had gotten very exclusive. … People needed to be actively learning.” And so, the New Mexico Salsa Congress got its start.
A little over three years ago, the Congress was incorporated as a nonprofit, under the umbrella of a dance advocacy organization called LMB Productions. It soon launched activities with the explicit mission of exposing more New Mexicans to Latin dance, changing lives by offering access and education, and celebrating the rich traditions of Latin dance and music in all its variety as it exists in the region. Now, the organization hosts bi-monthly socials, dubbed Salsa en la Bodega at a building Downtown near the Cell Theatre loosely known as La Bodega Social Lounge and Studio (708 First Street NW). The group also offers occasional workshops and free weekly classes thanks to grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. They've got range—the all-volunteer group recently acquired a classic DJ set so they can spin old school salsa on vinyl, but just the same, they offer workshops in popular and up-and-coming dance styles like zouk or the super accessible bachata.
“We really are hoping to build up the education component of it,” Treasurer Miguel Robledo Jr., said. “That's been the focus of 2017 and going into 2018. We want to create space that … provides a safe environment where people can have a good time.” Robledo himself came to N.M. Salsa Congress out of a pure love of the environment the organization aims to create, and brings his background in business and hospitality to amp up the Friday night socials, making them all the more welcoming and world-class. “We sometimes forget what the word hospitality means,” Robledo continued. “It is to provide an experience so that everybody has a memorable time, so they can go back and think, 'Oh yeah, I was at La Bodega, and this song was playing.' ”
The Friday night socials—Salsa en La Bodega—happen every other Friday (check their website, newmexicosalsacongress.com or their Facebook page @NMSalsaCongress for specific dates), meanwhile, unprecedented free dance classes happen every Tuesday. These run as progressive series—you can find information on start dates on their website. That free education component is really almost unheard of, but just the same, it is vital to the work the organization is doing. “We thought it was probably more important to do this on a more frequent basis, multiple times a week,” Foley said. “It's more important to the dancers to gain from instruction and practice instead of just popping up twice a year for some grandiose event.”
And the lessons teach more than just how to move your feet. “There's a lot of focus on rhythm and musicality,” Foley continued. “We're teaching people how to listen to the music—how to find the one, the two, how to listen to the congas, the cowbell. Eight counts, two measures. It's so neat to be teaching musicality. I didn't get that a lot when I was coming up.”
That coming up phase for Foley began in Santa Fe years ago. He affectionately described an old roommate who was a dance instructor—“I saw tango and salsa in our living room, and I realized, oh, this is what I want to do,” he recalled. It was the Latin rhythms that caught his attention, which was then held by the myriad other benefits that came with dancing. “You're really connecting with people and that's important. It's not important to dance fancy or pull out all the stops—it's the connection you have with your peers and your dance partner.”
That laidback, welcoming attitude has done a lot of New Mexico Salsa Congress. The organization is evermore successful in their efforts to bring the joy of dance to more people. Part of those efforts include bringing the benefits of dancing—the physical and cerebral exercise of it—to even more people by developing dance programming for the elderly, the blind and people diagnosed with degenerative disease like Alzheimer's. “It's really recognized for keeping us sharp in later ages,” Foley said.
All around—it's a horizon-broadening exercise that offers all sorts of benefits. “If you're taking lessons, you're working on bettering yourself,” Robledo said. And that's unequivocally true, plus, dropping in for a social or a class means you can enjoy “the visual sport of it, the socializing, the camaraderie, the hospitality, the food and the drink,” Foley said. “Our content has been really rich, and it's going to keep improving.”
Newbies and veteran dancers alike benefit from connecting with the organization and the breadth of the programming they have already set and are always developing. Stay connected with the opportunities like the upcoming Bacha-Zouk workshop with Erika Paloma Lopez and Kelvin Rico-Pineda that runs April 20 through 22 by visiting the organization on the web at newmexicosalsacongress.com, on Facebook (@NMSalsaCongress) and on Instagram (@labodegadancestudio).