After spending most of my summer and winter breaks in college working in a filthy book factory, I swore I would never step foot in a factory again. I was done breathing in paper dust, almost breaking my back trying to lift pallets of books and coming home smelling like a combination of a Christmas tree and diesel fuel. Despite my promise to myself, about ten months later, I was in a factory again-a tobacco factory. But this time, I wasn’t working.
I knew when I came to Madrid that I wanted to do something besides teaching English and going to language exchanges all the time. I wanted to find a way to meet locals and, of course, practice my Spanish in my free time. I was really interested in learning how to dance so I started going to free Tuesday night salsa classes with my friend, V, in one of many self-managed social centers in Madrid. I enjoyed the classes, but the space was small and the teacher often had to cancel or postpone class due to meetings. (The people in charge often have meetings to discuss events, funding, etc. Their objective is to offer interesting free classes and events and to encourage people to keep coming.)
While standing in line for a class which I later found out had been cancelled, I met another dedicated salsa-goer, E, who told me about an even better free class on Thursday nights… in an old tobacco factory! Needless to say, I was very intrigued.
La Tabacalera, located near Metro stops Embajadores and Lavapiés, is an old government-run tobacco factory in Madrid. Due to the privatization of tobacco companies during Aznar’s presidency (between 1996 and 2004), La Tabacalera de Lavapiés was shut down in 2000. After being abandoned for ten years, it was turned into a self-managed social center under the supervision of Spain’s Ministry of Culture.
La Tabacalera’s Schedule
La Tabacalera is open most days of the week and offers a variety of art classes, dance classes, language classes, workshops, movie screenings, social events and other cultural events. They have everything from tango lessons to African drum class to soap workshops. The classes and workshops are almost always full and are a great way to meet locals. And the best part? EVERYTHING IS FREE. YES. FREE. As in 0.00 € ! These cultural centers are part of a greater movement here in Spain (yes, there are centers like this in all the major cities!) to keep cultural and social events accessible to the public especially during the current economic crisis.
Unlike the horrid book factory where I slaved away hours and hours of my young adult life, La Tabacalera is a very comfortable and relaxing place. Both the outside and inside are decorated with vibrant graffiti and some of the rooms even feature small art exhibitions. Inside, it feels like you are walking through a maze that starts with the an enormous main auditorium with thick concrete pillars. As you exit the auditorium area, you pass by small rooms which are used for classes, workshops, and social activities. The rooms are covered in colorful artwork and graffiti and the people inside look like they feel at home, but they will welcome anyone in with open arms.
Salsa class is in a special part of the old factory. After walking through the auditorium and past some smaller classrooms, you exit the main building and go down a narrow iron staircase to enter a small courtyard area. The inside of the walls that enclose the courtyard are adorned with paintings like the inside of the building. You enter another door and find yourself in the middle of what seems like a circus. Brave people climb up 20ft cloth-like ropes that are suspended over mattresses using no safety gear. There are also people juggling bowling pins and sometimes riding unicycles. You have to weave through jugglers and climbers to make your way to the classroom.
The last part of the journey to salsa class is climb another narrow iron staircase, which is nearly 30ft high, and shakes a little as you climb it. (I’m sure La Tabacalera would fail many building safety codes in the U.S.) You get to the top and enter a large room with grey and blue pipes and dusty old factory machinery.
The class starts promptly at 9pm with a warm-up and a brusque welcome.
“There will be no talking in this class. Those who want to talk can leave,“ says the tall, intimidating man who is the salsa teacher.
All of the new students cower in the back of the class, wondering what they got themselves in to. However, after the warm-up which incorporates the four main pasos, or steps, and the main turn, the dile que no, they know they came to a quality lesson. After reviewing the main steps and turn, students must find a partner to start dancing in la rueda, or wheel.
The next step is to learn the dame una (literally: “give me one [girl]”), which is when the guy behind puts his hand on the girl’s shoulder and she has to change partners and dance with him. The teacher makes us practice this a few times, moving from man to man, until we are ready to learn the enchufa, which is when the man spins the woman in front of him and she moves on to the next man. We practice this a few times, until we are ready to learn new pasos. Then, the teacher kicks out the new people and makes them watch. After two classes, I was finally able to stay in this second rueda. I was so proud.
The second rueda typically ends in mass chaos because many of us do not know what we are doing. This requires the teacher to kick all of us out. He then calls on a select group to dance in a small third rueda. These people are usually salsa experts who know all of the complicated steps. Sometimes, he has two ruedas going at once. The outside rueda is the less-experienced one, a.k.a my rueda, which is typically a mini disaster zone. When there is only one advanced rueda, he allows us to dance on the side with partners.
My friend,E, and I at salsa
Eventually, this leads to free dancing. There is usually 45 minutes to an hour at the end of class to practice new steps or to just have fun to hip salsa music. I usually practice new steps with my friends and take advantage of this time to actually be able to socialize. (During class, the teacher will seriously kick people out for talking. He means business.) It is one of the best parts of class because, despite the fact that we all dance at different levels, we are able to intermingle and learn from one another.
La Tabacalera is a fun place to get to know new people while learning or practicing a new activity. Whether you are new to Madrid or you’ve been living in Madrid for years, it is a great cultural center with a lot to offer. For more information, check out their website. (It is in English, French and Spanish)