Interested in learning something new, Esmeralda Williams, 34, visited dance studios in College Park to check out the classes. She knew a little about salsa dancing but wasn’t convinced she wanted to try it. One day, she saw people performing a Latin dance known as the bachata — similar to the salsa, but simpler.
“I fell completely in love with it,” said Williams, who was waiting Saturday outside a ballroom of the Washington Hilton hotel, where she and hundreds of other dance aficionados, instructors and professional performers from around the world gathered for the D.C. Bachata Congress, a four-day extravaganza of Latin dance classes, concerts and dance shows that began Thursday.
From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, attendees learned dance styles such as bachata, tango, mambo, kizomba and merengue. Then, starting at 9 p.m., professional performers were set to show off their best routines, followed by concerts and more dancing. The fun continues Sunday.
Jana Torello, 35, drove from New York to attend the dance congress. She discovered bachata while she was on vacation in the Dominican Republic. When she came back home, she started taking classes regularly. She viewed the event as an opportunity to cultivate her knowledge of bachata.
“When you go out to a regular club, you see only a handful of good dancers, but still people who are learning. Here you dance among professionals, on a different level. It’s inspiring and you improve your moves,” she said.
Gabriel Berlanga, 32, and his dance partner, Bego Collado, both of Spain, travel to teach different bachata variations, the tango and even Zumba. They said the congress in the District is special.
“It’s multicultural, more of an international feeling. It has quality, a larger crowd, plus people are really warm,” Berlanga said.
The D.C. Bachata Congress started five years ago when Lee Smith, a professional dancer from Gainesville, Va., wanted to increase the popularity of the bachata.
He said he became interested in Latin dance when he took a salsa class at George Mason University. He even failed a regular class he had scheduled right after his dance class. “I always stayed extra time to practice. I was always late,” he said.
After college, Smith became a salsa instructor and performer, but it wasn’t until he traveled to the Dominican Republic that bachata caught his attention.
“In 2004, you Googled bachata and nothing came up. I had a feeling that it might be the next big thing,” he said. Smith started organizing meet-ups in the Washington area for people interested in learning more about bachata, and eventually expanded to other cities. In 2009, he organized the first bachata festival in the District with performers from San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
“We didn’t have a lot of money or anything,” he said. “Performers drove all the way from Chicago because they wanted to participate.”
People also traveled to the District to help at this weekend’s event. Nicolette Madanat, 29, of Pennsylvania, was one of the 150 volunteers working more than 12 hours during this year’s bachata congress. For her, it’s all about the love of dancing.
“Salsa is my husband and bachata is my lover,” Madanat said.
This year’s event was the first one for Williams, of Hyattsville, who has danced the bachata only since October. Many of her friends think it’s strange that she dances the bachata because she doesn’t speak Spanish, nor is she Hispanic.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you are connected to Latino culture. It’s all about dance,” she said. Bachata is “more smooth. It’s more sensual without being freaky.”
Williams said she plans to audition soon for a local bachata performers group.