First-timers expect to see Arthur Murray standing in a striped bow-tie, but all they see is me in my 501s and a black turtleneck, and a lot shorter than Mr. Murray, which is why I started to teach dance in the first place. I didn’t have much going for me except a strong center of balance.
I washed dishes, waited on tables, made calls for some loser trying to sell his jalopies to the rent-a-car business, while I dreamed about taking classes at the Hunts Point Palace, weekends danced to the music of Eddie Palmieri, who hooked up his truck around Third Avenue and Southern Boulevard and let the salsa roll before anyone knew it was salsa. At that moment, it was just a bunch of musicians who stood on the back of a flatbed, speakers wired to the railings with cords that looked like they’d been borrowed from someone’s brother-in-law that morning, sweat beading off their foreheads, people dancing around in a cloud of cigarette smoke; hips, feet, and arms, causing such a ruckus, you could see the truck bouncing up and down in the soft black summer tar of the street. A Red Sea of people opened up as I danced toward the truck, leaping over garbage cans and police barricades in time to the music.
Eddie invited me onto the flatbed where I danced under the lampposts past midnight—mother-in-laws with son-in-laws, husbands with wives, and everyone else not caring who stood opposite them as long as they were looking good and moving to the beat, and may my mother forgive me, forget about Christmas; it was a miracle that night. Everything had funneled into sound and came out laughing. Later, Eddie gave me a quote to print on my business card surrounded by red hot peppers.
The dance business didn’t pick up and I kept working dive jobs, but I had this cousin who kept his eyes trained on everyone’s business. “Alberto,” he said to me one afternoon. “You ain’t looking too good, brother. Don’t see your two feet dancing.”
My feet were too busy at La Isla Cuchifrito where crowds piled in every night for take-out. I’d moved up from waiter to being the host where I handed out menus and passed orders back to the kitchen.
“There’s a storefront,” he said to me, looking around to make sure that no one could overhear his big tip.
“Claro.” They’re all boarded up.”
“No, your oportunidad,” he said. My cousin was taller than I and had accidentally sprayed my hair with saliva. “You can rent the place. Build your own studio.”
Turned out that my cousin owned the storefront. I paid rent during the first two years until I could buy him out, installed hardwood over the vinyl flooring of what had been an old shoe store; once I tore down the shelving, the back room became the place for lessons, rented out the front for parties, anniversaries, birthdays, even a small wedding where the bride was expecting.
Over the years, those parties built my business.
These days people come to Alberto’s Dance Studio because they’ve heard about Eddie Palmieri and his boys smoking their hot stuff here on the dance floor before leaving for their first national tour. The studio is like a Bronx landmark.
All those high and stacked heels, oxfords, flats from McCann’s, and super-clean white sneakers.
They come to learn how to dance, but while they’re holding on tight to each other, they find something else.