Salsa In Queens is going to open soon, so Jean Franco Vergaray grabs a broom and starts sweeping the wooden dance floor.
He moves back and forth, back and forth and back and forth again. Over and over and over.
Once his feet feel the beat, he establishes his own methodical rhythm, his movements reflected in the studio’s wall of mirrors.
This simple dance for this simple task is a far cry from the spicy, sassy salsa steps students come to Jean Franco’s studio to master.
Whether he’s sweeping the floor or sweeping a partner across it, Jean Franco, who is buff, brown-eyed and bearded, makes it look easy.
The funny thing is, he’s not a natural-born dancer, which is something he and his feet intuitively knew when he was 6.
His defeat occurred at a birthday party he attended with his friends in Lima, Peru, where he was born and raised.
“One of my only memories from that age is crying to my mom about this,” he says. “I asked her to help me.”
So it was that two dancing aunts and three cousins took Jean Franco and his feet into their arms.
“I just let my body do its thing to the music,” he says. “I could do the moves, but it took me a long time to feel comfortable doing it.”
He was confident enough, however, to play drums in the school orchestra and sing in the institution’s chorus.
But there were more changes in store for Jean Franco.
When he was 11, his father moved to New York City in hopes of getting a better job. Two years later, the rest of the family followed.
“My parents didn’t tell my younger sister and me that we were moving here,” he says. “We thought we were coming for a two-month summer visit.”
That September, Jean Franco enrolled at Astoria’s Academy of New Americans, where he learned English.
“It was really hard,” he says. “But all the other students were in the same boat.”
At 16, while he was attending the Flushing International High School, he got his salsa on.
“My aunt had been taking classes, and she invited me to a practice and a performance,” he says. “Everyone went out after the performance, and I danced all night with all of her friends. The rest of my family was like a fish out of water, but I was swimming.”
Two years later, he started taking his first formal lessons, eventually joining a performing dance team.
“It brought me back to when I was 6 because I was the worst in the bunch,” he says. “I cried a couple of times, because I sucked but I couldn’t run to my mom even though I wanted to.”
(Actually, he could have because he still lived at home, but you get the idea.)
Soon, he was dancing through the night, every night.
“It was a family-oriented group, and the studio felt like home,” he says. “But my parents were worried because I was staying out, rehearsing and dancing, and coming home at 1 a.m. They didn’t want me to do it.”
Although he was making good money working in restaurants, his family persuaded him to go back to college, which is why he has a degree from DeVry University in electronic engineering, a profession he is positive he will never enter.
“I had played chicken with college before, but I needed something under my belt just in case,” he says.
Two years ago, around the time he graduated, everything came together: Jean Franco opened Salsa In Queens, he moved in with his girlfriend, and he became a U.S. citizen.
About his girlfriend: In case you’re wondering, they did, indeed, meet while dancing the salsa.
“She was a student of mine when I was teaching at another studio,” he says. “She had a boyfriend, and they took the class together as a date. She kept coming, and he didn’t.”
There aren’t many dance studios in Queens that teach salsa, and Jean Franco thinks that’s a shame. That’s why he’s making it his mission to change that.
Down the road, he hopes to open five more studios in Queens plus more in other boroughs.
“I want to create more events around the dance,” he says, adding that he already has hosted a number of successful ones.
The steps aside, Jean Franco has discovered that salsa is a demanding dance partner.
He’s either at the studio or working on studio matters pretty much 24/7. He’s happy to do so, even if it means taking a phone call at midnight or not getting to dance much any more.
“Salsa has always been my happy place, my safety net,” he says. “It gave me lifetime friends and a job. Salsa has given me more back than I ever gave it.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling