IT'S SATURDAY morning, and the parking lots at Safeway, Giant and Whole Foods along Route 123 in McLean are packed with minivans and SUVs. But in a lower-level room in a nondescript brown building tucked away along the same stretch of road in Vienna, it feels more like Havana than suburbia. Salsa blares in Spanish as dance instructor Barb Bernstein leads a class in casino rueda, a form of salsa dancing also known as salsa rueda.
About 15 students ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties have been divided into couples and stand in a circle.
"Back on the right and forward on the left!" Bernstein directs. "Back on the left, forward on the right!"
Bernstein walks the class through the basic step, called guapea, several times. She also explains that the constant rhythm of casino rueda is "Quick-quick-slow." Then she calls out "Dame una," another basic step that involves a partner exchange, and each student gets a new person to dance with.
Casino rueda is roughly analogous to Western square dancing. Both styles have a caller who shouts out moves (or signals them with his hands, in the case of casino rueda), both involve couples changing partners and there is a pattern to the progression of both dances. Indeed, some people refer to casino rueda as "Latin square dancing," Bernstein says, admitting that the term makes rueda experts shudder because the styles are so different. Casino rueda, she says pointedly, is "sharper and more sexy."
Weekend drop-in sessions at Bernstein's Vienna location start at the beginner level. An hour or so into each class, she begins to call out more advanced steps, which are longer and often more difficult to execute than basic moves. Today, a few students choose to sit out and watch the more challenging moves, but most have casino rueda experience and continue dancing. Her students return week after week in part to gain more dance proficiency, but for other reasons as well.
"We love it," says Niss Albraig, 39. He and his wife, Alexandra, 35, have traveled from Owings Mills and left their two young children in the care of grandparents to attend the class for the fourth time. "It's always a challenge and gets our hearts going," Niss Albraig says. Alexandra Albraig agrees. "It's a good workout," she says. "And once you get going, it makes you sweat."
Norman Froomer, 58, of Vienna began coming a year ago when he moved to the area from New Orleans. "Usually, the man has to think about what to do next, and there is a certain anxiety about leading," he says. "That anxiety goes away here because there's a caller."
Falls Church resident Gilda Ascunce, 57, has been taking the class since November. "The music is very much in me," she says, explaining that she was born in Cuba and lived there until she was 13. "But I like casino rueda better than regular salsa because it's a group thing, which makes it more fun."
Jeanette Ortiz, 39, of Arlington, who has been dancing casino rueda for about 10 years, loves "the fact that people here are different ages and come from different cultural backgrounds, yet they share this one passion for dancing. It's almost like belonging to a club where you find kindred spirits."
The first half of "casino rueda" comes from the Havana social club -- El Casino Deportivo -- where the dance became popular in the 1950s. "Rueda" means wheel or circle and is a reference to the dancers moving in a circle formation. It is sometimes referred to as Miami-style salsa because it arrived in that city in the 1970s and '80s via Cuban immigrants. It remains hugely popular there, with some ruedas composed of 100 or more dancers.
Like most dance forms, salsa rueda takes time to master. "It's a thinking man's dance at the upper levels because you never know what's coming, [but] it's very accessible to anyone at the basic level," Bernstein says. Stephen Denlinger, a Washington area instructor, agrees. "If you can walk, you can dance," he says, adding that beginners can glean considerable satisfaction from a single session. "It's empowering that you can come in at ground zero and be able to dance six to eight moves at the end of the lesson," he says.
Both instructors say beginners tend to have difficulty timing their steps to the music. "People have a hard time hearing the beat," Bernstein says. As a result, they do steps out of sync, which affects everyone. "Casino is a group dance," Denlinger emphasizes. "If one person is messing up, it ruins the experience for all."
Performance anxiety notwithstanding, Denlinger says his drop-in sessions in Bethesda and Chevy Chase have a partylike atmosphere. "Everyone gets to know everybody," he says. His classes have grown significantly in the past two years, from six to 10 people showing up for each session to as many as 50 to 60 lately. "We're two to three years away from where casino rueda is a regular part of every salsa club evening," he says.
Some casino rueda enthusiasts say dancing at clubs has less appeal than doing so in classes. "I don't like clubs," says Jerusha Gittlen, 23, of Alexandria during a break from Bernstein's Saturday session. In class, she says, "no one is trying to pick me up. I can come here as a single person and just dance and have fun, and I don't have to worry about whether I'll have someone to dance with."
Others just love the dance form, no matter where they engage in it. "It satisfies so many different needs -- artistic, social, physical and creative," says Froomer, heading back from a break to dance some more.
Barb Bernstein offers year-round drop-in classes open to dancers of all skill levels. Discounts for groups of five or more. For more information, call 301-464-6244 or 301-980-6043, e-mail BarbBtalks@aol.com or visit www.danceintime.com.
PSDC ROOM -- Formerly the Vienna Tap Room. 146 Maple Ave. E. (Route 123), Vienna. Saturdays from 11:30 to 1:45. $10.
THE AVALON STUDIO -- 15 Mellor Ave., Catonsville. Sundays from 5 to 7:15. $10.
T. K. SHARKY'S -- 2072 Sommerville Rd., Annapolis. The first and third Thursdays of each month from 8 to 9. (This class is followed by two hours of general dancing.) $7.
Stephen Denlinger offers year-round drop-in classes open to dancers of all skill levels. For more information, call 202-246-5194, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.ruedausa.com.
MARYLAND YOUTH BALLET -- 7702 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. Fridays from 7:30 to 10. $10; $5 with student ID.
CHEVY CHASE BALLROOM -- 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Sundays from 4 to 7:30. $10; $5 with student ID.
STUCKONSALSA.COM -- www.stuckonsalsa.com. Salsa news and events in the Washington area.
SALSAWEB.COM -- www.salsaweb.com. Salsa news and events worldwide.
SALSALOVERS AND SALSA RACING -- www.salsaLovers.com and www.SalsaRacing.com. Sites of SalsaLovers and Salsa Racing dance studios in Miami. Both establish conventions and steps in the world of casino rueda and drive activities in the field. They also sponsor annual events such as workshops and rueda contests.
SALSA RUEDA CONGRESS -- www.salsaruedacongress.com. Information about the Salsa Rueda Congress of the Americas 2005 at the Radisson Hotel Miami Nov. 11-13.