Part of a series of stories highlighting the path toward post-pandemic normalcy.
CAMBRIDGE — Tucked away on an otherwise quiet street near Central Square is what many call “the best dance party in Boston.” After 14 months of silence, Latin beats are again pulsing from the Havana Club, filling the summer air with music five nights a week.
“I dance salsa in a lot of cities around the country, and this is the most impressive weekly gathering I’ve ever seen,” said David Wang, a Boston resident and dancer at Havana Club since it opened in 2004. Wang got his start in ballroom dancing, but it wasn’t long before he fell in love with salsa and bachata — a step-and-tap dance sequence that originated in the Dominican Republic in the late 1900s, with roots in bolero.
Wang was devastated when the club was forced to close its doors in March 2020, and he returned about a month after it reopened in late May.
“Coming back was a little surreal. I didn’t know what to do with my body anymore,” he said. “Everything felt exactly the same and not the same all at once.”
On Monday night, Wang was back for bachata, one of a handful of masked dancers who swayed and stepped fluidly across the floor.
“I wear a mask every time I come here, anytime I’m indoors really,” he said. “Everyone has their own comfort levels, but that’s what I like about this place — everyone is very respectful.”
Despite the drizzle outside, a steady stream of people flowed into the club for bachata lessons at 8 p.m., followed by a dance party from 9 p.m. to midnight. Shaking droplets from their coats, regulars flashed IDs and photos of their vaccination cards at the door before heading upstairs to the dance floor, while newcomers paused to fish cards out of wallets or find a picture on their phone.
“Dancers need to dance. If somebody is a dancer, and bad things happen in your life, you express it through dance,” said Jeff Robinson, founder and owner of Havana Club. “For so many people who love salsa and bachata, they didn’t have that opportunity anymore because they were quarantined and isolated, so I wanted to come back as soon as I safely could.”
When Governor Charlie Baker announced the state’s reopening date in May, Robinson posted on Facebook that he was planning to enforce a vaccine requirement at the venue. The post was liked 253 times, with more than 50 people offering feedback in the comments, largely in support of Robinson’s decision.
“There were a few anti-vaxxers in there, people who are going to call you a Nazi and tell you you’re discriminating,” he said, “But once the community responded favorably toward the vaccine-only policy, I knew we were good to go.”
On Monday, more than 150 dancers of all ages and abilities mingled on the floor, worn smooth from countless pairs of sneakers, stilettos, and jazz shoes shuffling across its surface, twisting and twirling beneath the silver “salsa ball.” Rugged jeans met ruffled dresses and button-downs mixed with bodysuits, smiles flashing every color under the glow of the rotating stage lights.
The brassy horns and rumbling drums were softened by the metallic whir of seven standing fans, nearly twice as many as before the pandemic.
Ever the attentive host, Robinson seemed to be everywhere at once: tipping his newsboy cap toward the DJ as the evening transitioned from lesson to party, snapping pictures of dancers from the edge of the floor, and grooving his way around the room to make sure every duo felt safe and had fun.
Longtime dancer Sena Oran, 26, brought her friend Rishika Dawkar, 25, to the club for the first time after pitching the idea several weeks ago on a hiking trip. Dawkar grew up dancing but hadn’t stepped foot on a dance floor in years.
“This is the first time that I’ve held hands with a stranger since before the pandemic,” Dawkar said. “It’s so good to see people getting out of their comfort zones. I missed that human connection.”
Oran, who has been dancing at the club for “three years — minus one because of COVID,” said the experience was “even better than before” after over a year away.
“I didn’t listen to any of the music the whole 14 months, so it means even more now,” Oran said. “I love how much I involuntarily smile when I’m here.”
With the Delta variant on the rise, Dawkar was somewhat apprehensive about COVID-19 transmission, but decided she finally felt comfortable enough to give dancing another try.
“A big part of me is still worried about catching it, and part of me feels like this is too much — I’m constantly like, ‘Where’s the hand sanitizer?’” she said, laughing and gesturing toward a bottle of Purell on the table.
“But I’m also just so tired of being stuck inside, so I knew it was time to get back out there,” she added. “It’s so good to be here.”
In its first two months since reopening, Havana Club didn’t report a single case of COVID, Robinson said. But with the rise of breakthrough infections — including the recent cluster in Provincetown — and the movement of dancers across other venues in the city that don’t require vaccination, the club has become hypervigilant about the virus, encouraging dancers to get tested at the first sign of possible exposure.
“I thought that once Provincetown happened, when there were hundreds of cases, that people would catch a clue,” he said. “What happens around the corner on a Wednesday night, five days later on Monday night can have an impact here and put this community at risk.”
Roger Correia, a 27-year-old from East Boston, was one of several people who discovered dancing more recently and was eager to get moving as the city began to reopen.
“If it weren’t for the pandemic, I never would have started coming here,” he said. “I never thought of dancing as something I’d like to do, but once the lockdown happened, I just wanted to do anything.”
Correia said he heard about the club last month in Newbury Street’s Trident bookstore at a “Skip the Small Talk” gathering that aims to do just that — launch complete strangers into serious conversations. Sensing his apprehension, a friend he met at the event offered to join him.
“I’ve been coming Mondays and Thursdays for bachata ever since,” he said, adding that dancing has given him the confidence to learn new moves and meet new people.
“I’m an introvert,” he said. “But when I come here, I realize that maybe there’s more to me.”
Across the floor, Irma DiShnica shimmied and spun with the ease of an expert, despite taking her first class only a few months before lockdown. DiShnica, 42, sought out dance as a stress reliever and found the club was one of the only places she felt comfortable coming alone.
“Everyone was really open and friendly,” she said. Within a matter of weeks, she found herself completely immersed in the Latin dance community. When the club reopened, she happily took her place in a line that wrapped around the block, filling Green Street with a chorus of song and dance before people even stepped inside.
“It feels exactly the same as before the pandemic, and in the best way,” she said. “Because of the vaccination requirement, we feel safe.”