Outdoor dance group brings community for lonely Venezuelans

Baila al aire libre meets every Satruday to dance under the sun.

“Si se cae el cielo, bailo bajo la tormenta/ la cosa está mala, mala/ te aseguro el que busca encuentra.”

The chorus rumbles this bright November morning at Plaza Los Palos Grandes, a middle-class neighbourhood in Caracas. The contagious salsa music could well be the anthem of this activity called Dance in the Open Air, or Baile al aire Libre. Every Saturday for two hours people dance here; some as a couple, others alone at their own rhythm. They get carried away by the swing of the salsa brava and the chachachá and the guaguancó and the merengue and the danzón.

One of them is Leoncio Barrios. He is a founder of the group and is dancing as if he was floating in the new shoes he is wearing for the first time today. He used to come wearing shoes unworthy of a good dancer - as he considers himself - gray and worn that did not stand out in the photos. Instead, these new rubber sneakers, in a bright electric blue, draw attention and provide comfort. Barrios spent the whole week looking forward to dancing; this time has become a source of energy necessary for him amid the turbulence that Venezuela is going through.

A social psychologist with a doctorate from Columbia University, Barrios has been teaching for over two decades. But he always wanted to be a dancer. He did not dare to go professional, but he took lessons, learned danzón in Mexico and organized parties in his house to put his new steps into practice. He went out into the street with his headphones on and on the platform, while he waited for the subway to arrive, he danced. Alone.

Leoncio Barrios founded the dance group after missing the socialization of dance parties.

Barrios greatly enjoyed Caracas for its spaces for rumba - or party in Spanish. But in recent years, the city has changed: now everyone goes home early, as soon as the sun goes down. Nostalgic, he longed for those parties. When he met with friends, the topic of dancing always came up. One day they set aside the complaining and went to find a safe place for people to go dancing without paying an entrance fee. They found some studios, but they had to rent them; and being so, the activity could not be free.

One Saturday morning, Barrios was in the open-air street market in Los Palos Grandes, when a salsa rang from a record stand: it was Marc Anthony. “Voy a reír/voy a bailar/vivir mi vida/lalalalá”. He could not stay still and began to dance. After a while, he observed that there was an empty space nearby in front of the exit of a parking lot. "This is the place I was looking for," he thought. He recalled that in Mexico and Spain it was common to see people dancing in markets and squares. Encouraged, he returned the following Saturday with a group of friends and there they began dancing. After a while, some women joined them: they danced and enjoyed.

The group stated dancing at an open-air market before moving to the Plaza Los Palos Grandes.

Weeks later, they were asked to stop: that this was not a place to dance and that, in any case, they should ask for permission from the mayor's office. The authorization was delayed. In the meantime, they danced in the house of Barrios, a few blocks away. But it wasn’t the same: the idea was to dance in an open space so that anyone could join. They complained through social media and, months later, they were allowed to dance in the Plaza Los Palos Grandes.

Now between 30 and 40 people usually come to dance. For Barrios, the group dynamic has surprised him: “Many of those who come feel alone: ​​they are people whose children and grandchildren migrated. In the dance they have found friends. It’s moving when they send videos to their children abroad and they, from a distance, enjoy watching them,” he said as the music began to play.

Outdoor dance is self-management: one person carries the speakers, another the cables, and others take turns looking for a dj, who is paid a fee. Barrios paid the dj himself for several months, but the group is already organizing ways to generate its own funds to cover the service. They plan to ​​charge modest amounts for teaching dancing classes or by organizing birthdays of people who go - alone or with their guests - to dance to good music, eat cake and celebrate life. A few months ago they put on a birthday party for the first time. “A girl ordered a party from us. We brought her cake, we received her warmly, we danced with her. She enjoyed and thanked us. When it was over, she told us she had been sad because she had no one to celebrate with. And here she found company and joy. ”

Barrios, remembering the anecdote, laughs, as everyone does now, as they dance under the blue sky of Caracas.