Latin Music and Dance to Fill Bronx Sidewalks, Stoops and Fire Escapes

By Patrick Wall on October 5, 2012 3:35pm 

LONGWOOD — Women with freshly coiffed hair strut out of a South Bronx beauty salon, prepped to dance the salsa.

They spot some friends sitting on a stoop, grooving to boogaloo music, loosening up for the evening’s party.

On the sidewalk, they pass a couple slow dancing as a man picks the bolero on his guitar.

Such scenes unfolded countless times when, decades ago, the South Bronx was a hotbed of Latin music. This Saturday, they will play out again when some 80 performers take to the streets of Hunts Point and Longwood for an outdoor show called “Paseo,” or “promenade.”

That show, along with a guided historical tour also on Saturday, are part of the South Bronx Culture Trail, a multiyear effort by the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education and Dancing in the Streets to celebrate the neighborhood’s musical heritage.

“It’s a vibrant, rich, cultural hub,” said Joanna Haigood, director of “Paseo.” “Extraordinary people have done extraordinary things here — and continue to do so.”

Beginning in the 1940s, when waves of Puerto Ricans and Cubans began streaming into The Bronx, neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Longwood developed buzzing Latin music and dance scenes. In those areas, old Italian, Irish and Yiddish theaters and clubs were transformed into cradles of mambo, pachanga and salsa.

“You name most of the big names when you think of salsa today — many of them came from that area,” said Elena Martinez, a folklorist with City Lore who has produced articles and a film about the area’s musical past and who will lead the historical tour Saturday.

Martinez will guide visitors past sites including the former Hunts Point Palace, once the borough’s biggest Latin music dance hall; Casa Amadeo, the city’s oldest continually run Latin music store; and the home of Pete Rodriguez, bandleader of the hit song, “I Like it Like That.”

“The South Bronx Culture Trail is a way to reclaim history,” Martinez said. “We know there’s a rich history and we want to make sure it’s recognized.”

“Paseo” will begin Saturday at Casita Maria, then wind along 11 blocks, where dancers and musicians in period outfits will revive Latin songs from the 40s through the 60s on fire escapes, stoops and storefronts.

The mobile show will culminate in a neighborhood dance party at 52 Park on Kelly Street, across from a public school whose alumni include Latin music greats such as Eddie Palmeri, Ray Barretto and Manny Oquendo.

Along with the show’s professional musicians and dancers are about 30 community members and local students, who for the show learned to play classic street games such as stickball and skelsies, where players flick bottle caps.

Veronica Gomez, whose son attends Casita Maria’s after-school program, read on a flyer that the show was casting community members.

“I thought they were doing something on the stage,” said Gomez, 48. “I didn’t think I was going to be doing something on the street!”

To prepare, she recalled childhood afternoons when she watched teenagers breakdance on the sidewalk or at parks, then she went home and taught herself to do the same.

For “Paseo,” Gomez will pull out her old bellbottoms and a Kangol hat, wear her hair in an Afro and burst into dance on the steps of an apartment building — all things she is happy to do.

“In these days, people forget their roots,” she said. “It’s beautiful to live through the years again and enjoy the music and dancing.”

The guided historical walking tour runs from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The roving musical performance, "Paseo," starts at 3:30 p.m. Both events begin at Casita Maria, located at 928 Simpson Street in Longwood.

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