T he 800 block of Chapel Street, just east of the Green, teems most days with pedestrians going somewhere in a hurry. Little do most of them know that, up a flight of stairs at address 817, they could be stepping and strutting while their stresses do the walking.
Active but relaxed—that’s how Alisa Bowens, owner and primary instructor at Alisa’s House of Salsa, likes it. “I wanted people to feel like they were in the tropics,” she says as she preps for a weeknightly 6:30 salsa class. Amid vibrant reds, yellows and oranges painted on the reception area’s walls, arriving students (several of whom are pictured above) greet each other with exclamations and hugs—so, mission accomplished.
Both the reception area and mirrored studio at Alisa’s are small, but that’s to a student’s advantage: when performing salsa, merengue, bachata or any of the other intimate Latin dances taught here, being up close and personal with your dance partner is something you have to get comfortable with.
In 13 years, Bowens has watched many newcomers go from wallflowers to enthusiasts, eager to get on the dance floor, and she can probably relate. Classically trained in ballet, jazz and tap, Bowens had been working a management gig in construction when a trip to Puerto Rico offered a chance introduction to the dance styles she now teaches. Quickly enamored, she changed careers without a doubt in mind, she says.
She’d found her calling, which helps explain the plentiful smiles and enthused exclamations that punctuate her instructions. “I love this song!” Bowens shouts, even though she’s probably heard it a million times, and she still gets a thrill from teaching newbies after all these years. Indeed, “I specialize in beginners,” she says, adding, “We have people who have walked in off the street and have been here for eight years.”
Novices get the benefit of observing those more seasoned students. The 6:30 weeknight salsa class, for example, teaches individual and partner dancing for “all levels,” with Bowens keeping everyone engaged by splitting them into groups to practice more or less advanced skills together.
Salsa isn’t the end of the line even in a salsa session. Bowens infuses her classes with other Latin dance specialties and holds additional classes and workshops dedicated to them. She’s also stepping outside of Latin traditions with, for the über-daring, a burlesque class currently happening Wednesday nights at 7:45 and a Saturday modern dance class in the near future. Time each Saturday is already reserved for her youngest students, with children’s salsa classes—for four-year-olds and up—held at 11 a.m. The weekly sessions cost $110 per month, with 50 percent taken off of a second child’s enrollment fee.
Adult classes are priced in a similarly affordable and flexible fashion. $110 will get you a six-lesson pass, redeemable during any regularly scheduled adult classes; $20 lets you pop in for a single class sans pass. Bowens also offers private instruction, including lessons for couples hoping to wow wedding guests during their first dance. Booked by appointment, the rate is $95 per hour for a couple, or $65 per hour for an individual.
On Thursday nights, students anxious to take their moves out on the town head to salsa night at Palmeira Brasil restaurant (56 Orange Street), which begins at 9:30. Bowen says she’s often there until closing.
Perhaps you can’t picture yourself letting that loose at some public-facing hotspot, but take a lesson and you might be surprised. “I’ve seen transformations here,” Bowen says. During the class, as hips begin to sway and new steps are practiced, expressions transform from concentrated to gleeful. People spin, clap and dance with controlled abandon.
“This is my little island,” Bowens says. “This is a place to have fun.”
Alisa’s House of Salsa
817 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.