PENINSULA PROFILE: Instructor heats Port Angeles with passion for salsa

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Profile

Salsa on the Peninsula

■ SALSA IN PA, a new gathering open to dancers of all levels, premieres Wednesday at Aglazing Art Studio, 207 W. First St., Port Angeles. Instructors Paul Kelly and Rosalynn Rees are hosting the event, with a beginning salsa lesson from 7:30 p.m. till 8:15 p.m. and social dancing till 11:30 p.m. A $2 admission charge covers lesson, dancing and refreshments. More information is on the Salsa in PA page on Facebook and at

■ At The Upstage Theater & Restaurant, 923 Washington St., Port Townsend, salsa lessons and dancing are held on the second Sunday of the month — which means this evening. Janice Eklund and friends will teach two 45-minute classes: Latin waltz at 5:30 p.m. and beginning salsa at 6:15 p.m. Then Jean Bettanny is the DJ for dancing from 7 p.m. till 9 p.m. A $5 fee covers everything, and more details await at 360-385-6919.

Peninsula Profile
Paul Kelly always did feel like dancing. Salsa, that blend of African, European and Latin rhythms, appealed to him. But the boy from Grand Ledge, Mich., hadn’t found many opportunities to learn.

So Kelly pursued other interests, like earning a degree in zoology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Then, in 2008, he joined Teach for America, the Peace Corps-like organization that sends schoolteachers into impoverished towns across the country. For two years, he taught math and science — a whole range of courses — at Southern High School in Durham, N.C.

And Kelly, having grown up in a small town known for its outdoor activities — especially rock-climbing on the sandstone cliffs along the Grand River — developed a variety of passions. He loves music, from bluegrass to classical. He’s into camping and, as Facebook puts it, “general outdoorsiness.”

So you might peg him as nature guy, or science guy, what with his latest line of work: field science educator at NatureBridge, the outdoor education program based at Lake Crescent. He shepherds school groups out to see the Elwha River in the midst of its transformation; other open-air classrooms include the Hoh Rainforest, Hurricane Ridge and Salt Creek’s windswept beach. Kelly teaches all of NatureBridge’s curricula: forest ecology, geoscience, watersheds and marine science.

He added on another track this summer: Upward Bound, Peninsula College’s mentoring program for high school students.

“His enthusiasm for teaching really comes through,” said NatureBridge education manager Jen Kidder. “He’s got that great smile. You can ask him to do anything . . . he’s a go-getter.

Kelly is also “such a science nerd,” Kidder said, adding that when NatureBridge was missing an air horn one recent day, Kelly wrote the chemical formula for an air horn up on the wall.

So it would seem unlikely that Kelly, the outdoorsy, studious Michigander, would be a salsero.

But he is unmistakably that. Rosalynn Rees, a devoted salsera and teacher of salsa dancing, Spanish and other subjects in the Upward Bound program, met Kelly one day earlier this year.

Seeding salsa

Both Rees and Kelly wished for salsa opportunities in Port Angeles. Rees had tried a dozen years ago to get a salsa scene started by holding dances in various restaurants, but it just didn’t develop.

Kelly, for his part, had gone out for a fateful evening just before finishing his Teach for America service in August 2010. A friend took him out to a Cuban restaurant, where he participated in a salsa lesson. It was the beginning of a new musical path.

A look at the history of salsa reveals that this dance isn’t merely a bunch of steps.

It’s a sinuous creature born of West African moves, carried to the New World by the slaves who worked Cuba’s sugar plantations. Add some Spanish guitar, some percussion, some heat to bring people out into the streets of Havana — and you have the ingredients for what salsa looks like today.

This dance has been bringing people of differing backgrounds together for about a century now. During Prohibition, Americans went to Havana to party; there they saw the mambo, sister to salsa, and heard the infectious clave rhythm.

From the 1940s forward, Cuban musicians were coming to New York, where they fueled a salsa scene in places like the Palladium Ballroom. Singers, dancers and band leaders such as Hector “El Cantante” Lavoe and Oscar Hernandez packed the venues.

By this century, salsa fever had spread from the East to West, to dance floors in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma.

“This is not a Latino-only endeavor,” wrote Los Angeles Daily News columnist Mariel Garza. “Salsa nights are a sea of brown, white, black, yellow. Salsa crosses cultural, economic and age boundaries. And no one thinks twice about it.” This dance, she added, is “a heck of a lot more fun than a cultural sensitivity training seminar.”

Kelly, meanwhile, wasn’t living anywhere near Los Angeles or New York City. But he found himself a salsa community after returning to his home town, in the Michigan State University Salsa Club.

This group knew how to have a good time. There were Wednesday-night come-as-you-are dances, at which “you don’t need a partner, you don’t need special shoes, you don’t need a special outfit,” the club’s website proclaims.

So Kelly went.

And despite being “ridiculously bad” — that’s his self-assessment — at first, he kept at it. This son of Irish- and German-American parents loved the Latin music, loved the stylishness and fluidity of the dance. He found this isn’t just a mechanical execution of steps; it’s a way to express yourself.

“Salsa can be as formal as you want,” Kelly says, “or as close and sensual as you want it to be.”

And he does not subscribe to those widely held stereotypes about who can and cannot dance.

“The salsa club is mostly computer nerds and engineers,” Kelly said.

And the co-presidents, who go only by Andrew and Jenny, are pre-law and finance majors respectively.

And so Kelly learned to dance, and since he’s a teacher, he learned to teach dance.

Then he moved to Port Angeles.

Hired by NatureBridge toward the end of last winter, he soon found that this city lacks salsa-dancing venues. Salseras such as Rees get their fixes in Zumba classes at various health clubs. The closest salsa classes are at The Upstage in downtown Port Townsend, and those are only held on the second Sunday of the month.

But when Rees and Kelly met, they realized something: Instead of lamenting the lack, they could make some salsa happen in their own home town.

Rees has the venue: her downtown pottery studio, Aglazing Art. It holds up to 150 people — and Rees just went out and bought it a mirror ball. So she and Kelly made their plan, set up a Facebook page and posted fliers all over town. They want to host salsa nights each Wednesday, beginning in September — and they’re launching the whole idea this week. Kelly will lead the instruction at 7:30 p.m., and after about 45 minutes, social dancing will get started and continue till 11:30 p.m. The $2 admission covers everything, including refreshments.

Kelly, who has taught at The Upstage and goes to Seattle’s Century Ballroom now and then, is delighted to be creating something closer to home. And this isn’t just for the expert dancers among us, he emphasizes.

“It’s all practice. I’m going to cover the basic step, and probably a turn and the cross-body lead,” plus a few more moves, depending on the student body.

Kelly has heard there are experienced salsa lovers out there in Clallam County, dancers looking for a place.

“That makes me excited,” he said. “Hopefully, everyone will come out of the woodwork.”

He’s also well aware of the gender disparity in other partner-dance classes. In swing, foxtrot and waltz workshops in Port Angeles and Sequim, the females often outnumber the males.

So to those absent men out there, Kelly has encouraging words.

“Women love guys who can dance,” he said. “You just have to show up, and you’re already winning.”

Last modified: August 11. 2012 6:27PM
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