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Salsa Night Builds Community Amid Pandemic

Down a flight of stairs and past closed storefronts, Latin dance music echoes into the Ithaca Commons. Upstairs, antler chandeliers, a mounted bison head, and a mural of an American prairie decorate a bar, and Spanish lyrics mix with the laughter of the dancers. Since July, people have crowded the floor of The Range to learn to salsa dance and practice their skills every Wednesday night.
a prairie mural painted on the wall is lit up by the light from a chandelier made from antlers and light fixtures decorated with deer and elk
The country-western decor of The Range includes antler chandeliers and a prairie mural, as well as mounted antlers on the walls (Elizabeth Henning/Ithaca Week)
Michael Luis Ristorucci leads the classes and the party with his dance partner and guest instructor, Claridancer, and co-DJ Geraldo Iglesias. The night is organized by Salsa Ithaca, run by Ristorucci. Salsa Ithaca offers events related to various aspects of Latin dance and culture in Ithaca and the Finger Lakes region.

Responding to the Pandemic

Salsa Night at the Range began in July 2021, after a hiatus due to concerns about the coronavirus. Ristorucci said he has been hosting other salsa events at The Range for two years. Before moving to The Range, Salsa night was held on Wednesday nights at AGAVA, a farm-to-table restaurant on East Hill, for seven years prior to the pandemic.
Ristorucci said returning to the regularly scheduled Salsa Nights this year was a hard decision. He was worried about the spread of COVID-19 but decided that the benefits outweighed the risks.
couples stand in a circle holding hands and dancing
Couples dance in a circle around Ristorucci (not visible) as he leads them through some of the basic steps of partner salsa (Elizabeth Henning/Ithaca Week)
“Life is not sitting around at home, hiding from danger,” Ristorucci said. “That’s not life. This keeps you happy, mentally—sane—to get out.”
However, soon after he announced Salsa Night’s return, COVID-19 cases spiked in the county due to the Delta variant, and attendance dropped.
Now, dancers are excited to be back with the community, but to do so they must provide proof of vaccination.

Returning to the Community

Attendee Andrew Westphal said he was excited to be back with the staff and learn from them. As a DJ, he said he constantly uses Shazam to find out what tracks Iglesias plays, “because there’s so much good stuff.”
He also praised the dance instructors and their ability to teach students new skills and said it’s part of the reason he keeps coming back.
“What’s really going on here, what’s so amazing, is there are amazing teachers here.” Westphal said. “I’ve been coming ever since they started this [on Wednesday nights], almost every week.”
A woman in a black shirt and jeans teaches salsa steps on a stage in front of a colorful DJ booth
Claridancer leads the group in a bachata lesson after going over basic salsa steps (Elizabeth Henning/Ithaca Week)
Ristorucci was excited to bring the community back together through dance.
“For people who dance, people who come here every week, they’re very thankful for it, Ristorucci said. “It makes me wonder what they would do without it. They get release, form community, make friends, they find their husbands and wives, they develop their skills.”
“Life is not sitting around at home, hiding from danger.”
Mariela Nunez Santos described how important it was to her, as a Latina, to come to the events. She previously attended Salsa Nights held on Saturday nights, but they did not occur as regularly. She is thankful to have Wednesday nights to connect with others.
“It’s the community,” said Nunez Santos, “This is how I connect with the Latin community in Ithaca, and it’s my stress release.”

“Walking on Clouds”

Ristorucci also described the relaxing nature of dance for the attendees. Because he runs the events, the night is not as therapeutic for him, but he finds leisure through dance at other times.
“It’s like meditation, you can meditate. It’s therapeutic. For people who come from the culture, it’s part of who they are,” said Ristorucci.
people fill the inside of The Range, a country and western bar. The dance to salsa music in the dimly lit room
After lessons, dancers fill the floor and the bar is crowded with people until the music stops at 1am (Elizabeth Henning/Ithaca Week)
Westphal said dancing with a partner brings a kind of happiness that’s hard to find elsewhere.
“Once you’re in the moment, feeling that connection with someone, the dancing, the music, you’re like walking on clouds,” Westphal said. “There’s nothing better.”
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