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St. Louisans are brushing the dust off their dancing shoes after two cautious years

Mauricio Villanueva has been a salsa dancer for years. He enjoys moving on the dance floor but also loves the connection he has to other dancers.

He's spent much of the past two years dancing outside, or sometimes alone at home — all to stay safe from the coronavirus. For him, putting those relationships on hold has been tough.

“People have fallen in love, get married and travel around the world because of salsa,” Villanueva said. “So when the pandemic happened, it really hit hard in the salsa community.”

The coronavirus pandemic has kept many dancers at home as they tried to stay safe. As dance studios and clubs struggled to survive, owners and instructors required dancers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and wear masks. Some held partnerless dances and offered online classes.

Carmen Guyenn, right, high-fives Teresa Sunier, of Chesterfield, after nailing a dance move on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, during a mambo class at Guyenn’s home in the “The Gate” neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. Guyenn has been a lifelong dancer and has a special appreciate for Latin styles of the art, so much that she has been teaching them for the last 23 years. “I just salsa being dances and wanted to lean into more Latin and Afro-Latin styles.”
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Carmen Guynn, right, high-fives Teresa Sunier, of Chesterfield, after nailing a dance move during a mambo class at Guynn’s home on Feb. 9 in the The Gate neighborhood of St. Louis.

Villanueva was excited to get back to dancing with others, so he decided to take lessons from Carmen Guynn, one of the region's leading salsa instructors. On a recent day, eight dancers gathered in Guynn’s basement dance studio to learn the steps to the mambo, a Cuban dance that is a big part of a salsa dancer’s repertoire. Students wore masks and spaced out about six feet for social distancing.

Guynn, the founder of Almas Del Ritmo Dance Company, a Latin dance studio, said she taught about 10 dance classes a week before the pandemic but has had to cut that number in half. She also teaches a couple of online classes.

“The thing with, with the Latin dances, or even just partner dances, you know, we are so close, I mean we can literally feel each other breathe in partner work,” Guynn said. “And the way this virus is transmitted, we just have to be very careful.”

Michele Ardrey started taking one of Guynn’s classes earlier this year as the omicron variant surged throughout the region. The online courses were more convenient than in-person classes and a safe alternative, Ardrey said.

“I don't feel as uncomfortable as a lot of people do, but at the same time I do live here with my mom,” Ardrey said. “She's a little older, and I don't want to bring anything to anybody, I don’t even want to bring the flu home.”

JitterSwing Dance Club teacher Mona Frame on dancing during the pandemic
JitterSwing Dance Club teacher Mona Frame describes how she and other continued to dance during the pandemic.

Dancers are at a higher risk of catching the virus because they’re in close contact with others, especially when in packed places where drinks are served, said Ross Brownson, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Washington University.

Brownson said that the virus isn’t spreading as fast in St. Louis as it was earlier this year and that it’s safer for dancers to return. But dancers should still take steps to protect themselves. He said that starts with getting the COVID-19 vaccine. If dancers think they might be ill, he said, they need to do the right thing.

“If you're in a risk group, you might want to take extra precautions,” Brownson said. “Making sure that if you don't feel well, if you've got any symptoms, whether it's COVID symptoms, or a cold, or the flu or anything, don't go.”

There are plenty of precautions in place at Yes Honey Studio in the Grove, which offers lessons in hip-hop, salsa and other dances. Students have to be vaccinated but no longer need to wear masks because the St. Louis region no longer has a mask mandate.

Dancers are starting to come back and people are excited to see each other again and live their passion, especially those who dance for a living, owner Jenny Hill said.

“From burlesque dancers to drag queens to theater actors to dancers, not having that has been really, really hard, because they need that,” Hill said. “Dancing is a very underpaid profession, they're doing it because they love it, and they're good at it.”

Haley Rolsma, of Dogtown, leads a pop dance class on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, during a dance class at Yes Honey Studio in Forest Park Southeast.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Haley Rolsma, of Dogtown, leads a pop dance class on March 29 during a class at Yes Honey Studio in Forest Park Southeast.

A lot of people who love dance are gathering at the lower level of Chesterfield Mall, where Barbara and Terry James hold the JitterSwing Dance Club every Friday, Saturday and Monday. The organization offers dance classes and nights dedicated to swing, line and country dancing.

The past two years have been particularly rough for the swing community, Terry James said.

“In the first half of 2020, we had dancers that went to events, came back with COVID, and died,” Terry James said. “I mean, it wasn’t a lot, but there were a few, which made the other dancers stay away.”

Barbara James said the last month has been like seeing family again.

“When we first started those first two weeks at the mall, I'd stand up there and look around at people and it was more like a reunion,” James said. There was less dancing than there was reunion.

JitterSwing dancer and dance teacher Elizabeth Oglesby said a lot of people have returned to dancing and are getting the vaccine and booster shots, and she's been able to see other dancers again.

“When you can’t get out and you can't dance and you can’t see your friends who are people you consider family, it sends you right down the tank, so it’s been a big help for me,” Oglesby said.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.