Horns blare through the haze of colored lights. The dancers move as one, their hips and feet electrified by the salsa rhythm. Marc Anthony’s impassioned tenor cuts through the crowd from a tall stack of speakers, “Vivir mi vida, la la la laaaaa … !” It looks and sounds like a scene from somewhere closer to the equator, but this sultry evening isn’t taken from Miami’s Little Havana or Puerto Rico’s Old Town San Juan. Nope, this hot night is happening in Pittsburgh.

Western Pennsylvania may seem an unlikely place to run into the sounds of salsa, bachata and merengue, but it appears that Latin dance has found its place in a city obsessed with Sydney Crosby and plates of pierogies. Pittsburgh’s salsa enthusiasm is booming.

“We just fell in love with the music the first time we heard it,” says Colleen Shirey. She and her husband, “Salsa Jeff,” began dancing back in 1995. Two of the many people who contributed to the growth of Pittsburgh’s Latin dance scene, Jeff and Colleen first took lessons locally and then began traveling cross-country to attend workshops and salsa congresses in Los Angeles for a month every summer.  There, they met some of the top names in the game — people like “Edie the Salsa Freak” and Al “Liquid Silver” Espinoza. Jeff even caught up with the most famous salsa promoter of them all, Albert Torres.

Inspired by their friends and teachers in the L.A. scene, Jeff and Colleen set out to bring some of the west coast’s salsa magic home to the Steel City. “We really wanted to develop social dancers here in Pittsburgh — it was either that, or move to L.A.!” Colleen jokes.

Starting in 1999, they began teaching lessons, producing salsa workshops and bringing in some of the biggest salsa names from Los Angeles to fuel the excitement and grow the Latin dance community in Pittsburgh.

One of Jeff and Colleen’s key steps was creating Salsa Pittsburgh, a website to organize and promote the city’s Latin dancing activities. Their website, established in 2008, showcases clubs, DJs, bands, workshops, social dances and lesson opportunities. It also helped popularize “Salsa Fridays,” a weekly lesson and dance hosted by Jeff and Colleen at Cabaret at Theater Square in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Little by little, their initiative in Pittsburgh grew.

Across town, another salsa enthusiast, Nicolette Pawlowski, was hard at work pushing the Latin dance scene as well. A new Pittsburgh resident hailing from Wisconsin, Pawlowski’s story began on the second floor of Mexico City restaurant on Wood Street in Oakland. Agustin Garcia, Mexico City’s owner, who would go on to become Pawlowski’s business and dance partner, cleared out the upstairs for lesson space and hosted weekly salsa nights. Seven years later, their shared vision for Latin dancing in Pittsburgh has become Los Sabrosos Dance Company and Salsa Fuego, an annual three-day dance workshop that now attracts around 500 dancers each year. 

Starting small and remaining “community focused,” Los Sabrosos has grown into a new space in Garfield/Friendship, where Pawlowski and Garcia pump out a steady selection of weekly lessons for kids and adults, and produce salsa and bachata performance teams. They also tip their hats to the international roots of the dances they teach by bringing in pros like world champion Darlin Garcia, and introducing colorful styles like Salsa Calena from Cali, Colombia — the salsa capital of the world. “It’s all about people finding freedom, confidence, passion and self-expression through the dancing,” says Pawlowski. 

Years after the movement began to grow, in part with the efforts of Jeff, Colleen, Pawlowski and others, much has changed in the Pittsburgh dance scene. Today, Latin music and dance pour out of Pittsburgh venues seven nights a week at hotspots like Seviche, Steel Cactus, Perle and CAVO. The floors fills up with young professionals, students, out-of-towners here on business, and the Pittsburgh natives who’ve been here from the start.

Pittsburgh blood will always run black and gold (even “Salsa Jeff” admits class attendance is spotty at best on a Steelers Sunday), but the fact that plenty of Pittsburghers can now boast a smooth cross body lead is a feather in the cap of its diversification, culture and evolution.

Want in on the action? Grab a collared shirt or a set of heels and head down to “Salsa Friday” at Cabaret at Theater Square. Jeff and Colleen will be waiting for you.

Story by Jonathan Warner