Walking into The Underground Cafe on a Wednesday or Friday night presents you with a large, cleared space in the middle of the establishment. Chairs, lamps and tables are clustered along the sides of this cleared space, leaving room for five men and a laptop hooked up to a speaker system playing salsa music. One of the men shuffles back and forth between the laptop and the others, pausing the music so they can hear him give specific orders on how to execute a more difficult step routine.
"Come on this side of me so you can see," he instructs one of the men as he performs an 8-step routine, increasing the tempo to pace with the lightning quick salsa accompaniment.
The instructor, Nick Robinson, has given salsa lessons for almost a year in Columbia, spending much of his time at the twice-weekly salsa night at The Underground Cafe on Cherry and Ninth streets. From 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Robinson instructs regulars and newcomers for $7, running through classic 8-count patterns and coaching on the integral importance of hip sway.
The beginning, slower period of dance instruction gradually picks up as people in club attire spill in for the salsa-dancing portion of the evening. Hugs, informal greetings and a general familiarity between dancers make it clear the crowd is comprised of friends and regulars.
"I've been coming to these for years," Columbia resident Laura Draffen said. "My boyfriend Zennie took me here the first time we went out and we've been coming here since."
Draffen casually sits at the bar area set away from the dance floor, watching as Robinson continues to give instructions to the growing crowd.
"Zennie and I have our own unique club style, we don't have specific patterns or step counts like other people do," Draffen said. "I'd say our style is more improvised, we do what we want and I let him take the lead. The man always, always takes the lead in salsa."
Her boyfriend, Zennie Reynolds, takes a slightly different approach.
"I wouldn't call it club style, it's probably more Cuban style," Reynolds said. "I've been doing this since '97, and I've always been more improvisational, never ballroom style."
As the night goes on, lights go off and the crowd grows to more than 30 dancers, reducing the open space on the dance floor to nothing more than wiggle room between couples.
Tyle Tonini, dance instructor at Studio B, said salsa dancing is more than just any other kind of dancing.
"To be honest, salsa dancing can turn into an addiction, a lifestyle," Tonini said. "It's a passionate expression of yourself, your emotions. It's emotional, it's sexy, it's a workout and it's a great opportunity to meet people and just have fun."
Salsa nights at The Underground Cafe are popular and draw a diverse crowd, Tonini said.
"Even on a school night, like this, it gets pretty packed," Tonini said. "And it's always a diverse crowd. It doesn't matter what age you are, what race or creed you are or how good you are at dancing, and you definitely don't have to be Hispanic to enjoy it. It speaks to the hearts of anyone."