New Salsa Dancing Classes Are Good for Both the Body and Soul

The thought of taking a dance class can be intimidating. But the thrill of learning a new skill–and having fun doing it–can often trump that fear. That’s the goal of Marley O’Neil and Justin Penney, the founders of Mambo Soul Dance Company, who teach a salsa basics class each Monday night at the Arts at the Armory.

O’Neil and Penney started their company a few months ago after years of dancing socially in clubs and, for Penney, professionally as well. Both of them have experience in the education field, so combining their love of dance with their knowledge of teaching was a natural next step.

The only thing stopping them was finding the right venue to host Mambo Soul’s classes. O’Neil and Penney looked at spaces all over the Boston area until they found the Armory (191 Highland Ave.), which turned out to be the perfect fit.

“We looked for a venue for a long time,” Penney said. “It made sense to find an organization with an arts component.”

Mambo Soul Smile

O’Neil initially discovered the Armory when she attended a Somerville Local First event. “Somerville has been great in lots of different ways. It’s really into the local thing and supportive, which is awesome,” O’Neil said.

Penney has more than a decade of experience with the Latin social dances, which allowed him to combine his love of music and motion. He began playing the piano at age 8 and was very active in martial arts until his early 20s.

“I’ve always been kind of physical and musical,” Penney said. Dancing “put it together and made a lot of sense.”

O’Neil first tried salsa dancing in 2005 when her office offered free lessons. She was resistant at first, but once O’Neil got a taste, she never looked back.

“Some friends dragged me to do it. It took off from there. I went to dance clubs and the people are serious. I never back down from a challenge. I threw myself into it,” O’Neil said. “I found my soul and passion in all of this.”

Penney and O’Neil met at one such club a few years ago and began dancing together a lot. They started meeting for coffee, which led them to realize they both shared a deep passion for salsa and for helping others learn this style of dance.

“It was very organic,” O’Neil said.

Mambo Soul DancingMambo Soul classes are open to anyone, including teenagers and older adults. There is no experience necessary and you don’t have to come with your own partner because everyone switches off throughout the hour-long class.

O’Neil and Penney bring a certain style and flair to their dancing by wearing beautiful outfits that evoke the New York of the 1950s and 1960s, but class participants are encouraged to wear anything they will be comfortable in for an hour of activity. The one no-no is wearing rubber-soled shoes because as O’Neil said, “it acts like a brake.”

And though O’Neil and Penney are serious about salsa dancing, Mambo Soul takes a relaxed, fun approach to learning the steps. Penney said that it’s important to enjoy the journey of learning salsa because it takes time to become proficient.

“We want to be very accessible. We want to bring it in a mainstream way,” Penney said.

“Really and truly anybody can do this,” O’Neil added.

And when you do hit your stride with salsa and have a good connection with your partner, Penney said it can be like “two pieces of smoke twirling together.”


Mambo Soul Dance Company
Salsa dancing lessons
Mondays, 7 p.m.-8 p.m.
Arts at the Armory Cafe, 191 Highland Ave.
$15 per class, $50 for four classes, $90 per couple (any two people) for four classes

Images courtesy of Mambo Soul and taken by Somerville resident Alex Navarro.

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