Chennai’s night life brims with salsa, bachata and African dance nights at pubs and clubs

Step, slide and sway with us as we join the city’s growing dance community as they party though the week courtesy high-energy Latin and Afro dance nights

July 26, 2023 05:55 pm | Updated August 04, 2023 01:01 pm IST

Salsa dancing at a social night in Chennai.

Salsa dancing at a social night in Chennai.

A flurry of dancers in bright dresses, pointed shoes and a plumage of confidence, effortlessly glide across a crowded yet synchronised dance floor at Watsons, a pub in T Nagar.

It is 9 pm on a rainy Monday night in Chennai. Most participants are here after a long work day. As I enter, there are at least 20 other people, who are standing toe-to-toe, learning basic moves that comprise the dance form Bachata from the Dominican Republic.

“Step, slide, tuck your hand over the elbow, and step again,” says Arun Pauer, founder, Salsa Madras, in quick succession, as he takes a half-hour training workshop before their weekly Latin Dance Night commences.

I, a reluctant dancer, move carefully, hoping not to step on my partner’s toes. But I do so, many times. Before my string of apologies, I am reassured. “Don’t worry, just hold my hand and sway with me,” he says.

In minutes, I am stepping, sliding and tucking away alongside gentlemen who move with panache. We give each other a high-10 and switch to others who ask, “May I have this dance?”.

Five fast-paced songs and several cups of water later, I sit down to speak to Sneha Vakkala, who is among the organisers of this salsa night that takes place every Monday. “Isn’t salsa the perfect end to the everyday? It almost feels like a treat for having worked — something to look forward to,” she says.

Sneha informs me that the crowd is thin, despite it being sizeable, because of the rains. It is usually packed with students from dance schools across the city and instructors, out to test out their most recent moves.

Since the pandemic-induced lockdown lifted, there has been a steady rise in the number of novice dancers who are flocking to pubs across the city on different days of the week to try their hand at dancing too, says Arun, her co-host and the instructor of the night. While Latin dance nights take place at least four times a week, people are experimenting with other forms of dance from the African continent, in a bid to cut footloose.

Dance nights become the perfect spot to make friends, go on a date, form a community and go out for plain old fun whilst dancing intimately with strangers. With free workshops at places such as The Big Bull Lounge in Kotturpuram, Winchester in Egmore and Same Old Story in Nungambakkam, Sneha and Arun say that the growing trend earmarks a shift in the attitude of a city often associated with the ‘conservative’ tag.

A crowd dancing Latin dance forms at a social night in Chennai.

A crowd dancing Latin dance forms at a social night in Chennai.

Treading on the tempo

It is Samanvitha G Sasideran’s first time at a salsa night. This dancer, trained in Bharatanatyam and classical music, is here with her friends after seeing a post on Instagram. “I have learnt Bharatanatyam all my life but it was time to come out of my comfort zone. Today, I have spoken to several new people and have discovered how freeing it is. It seems like everyone is having fun,” she says.

“Salsa nights are social, easy, safe and uncomplicated,” says Arun. The instructor who has been dancing and teaching for about 17 years now says that salsa nights have always garnered a crowd in the city.

However, the last two years have seen an eclectic mix. People like Samanvitha are prime examples of those who try their hand at dancing on social nights as a sample. Once they are comfortable, they go on to sign up for classes.

Jaffer Sadiq, general manager, Watsons, says that when they began in 2019, only between six and 10 people would regularly turn up. This has drastically changed. “Monday nights in all other pubs are usually empty but we end up packing quite the crowd. Those who are here for the first time get access to a new skill and we build a community. If you notice, some people will just watch. They will join in after two weeks,” he says.

Bonny M Avanoor who runs the salsa nights at Winchester every Friday and Big Bull Lounge on Sundays says that there is a floating crowd of at least 100 people who show up each week with 40 regulars between the two locations. He says that new batches at salsa studios begin only once every three or four months. However, salsa nights require less investment of time but also help interested dancers pick up skills.

Sneha Vakkala and Arun Pauer at a performance

Sneha Vakkala and Arun Pauer at a performance

“We have CEOs of companies, doctors, architects and engineers besides a host of young students who take part. It also seems like the ratio of women is increasing significantly. This was not necessarily the case earlier. It is probably because more women are organising these salsa nights,” he says.

Besides picking up skills, social nights at pubs help people meet and open up. Snigdha Ramdorai who hosts the Latin and Afro night at Same Old Story on Thursdays, says that it helps introverts find confidence. When she arrived in Chennai, this Hyderabadi DJ and pre-sales engineer, says that she suddenly found that her friends were leaving the city. Salsa saved her, she says.

Although she says that she has two left feet, she has been able to look at the dance objectively. “I make it a point to visit a salsa bar every time I travel to different countries. Within minutes, I have new friends and great recommendations from locals about where to go and what to eat,” she says.

Prassanna Sithambaram, another dancer, echoes similar views. After having undergone a significant loss during the pandemic, Prassanna says that getting out to dance during one of the several festivals held in the city, changed his perspective on life. “The space, the energy, helped me find inspiration,” he says.

Besides the Latin dance nights, Afro Party nights by dancer Alisha Ajit’s Afrontal dance company too sees enthusiastic gatherings. Alisha attributes the growing interest in African dance style to the rise in the popularity of Afro music in pop culture. Take the example of ‘Calm Down’ or ‘People’, she says. Although these nights are held only once every three to six months in Chennai, crowds pack the pubs where afropop, dancehall and soca island tunes are played. She says that consistent patronage and sponsorship continue to remain challenges in the world of African dance nights but she is hopeful of more consistent sessions in Chennai soon.

As we wind down and slowly begin dispersing by 11.30pm, my first dance partner of the night comes up to me. I do not remember his name. Nor he mine. “I will see you next Monday, won’t I?” he asks.

“Yes, of course” I respond.

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