Steven Messina, and samba in a downtown apartment

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Julie Hips (foreground) dances with Jordan Alayna in Steven Messina's home studio in downtown Greensboro. (photo by Lauren Barber)

Steven Messina doesn’t stop moving.

Messina’s affection for dance began with his mom dancing and swinging him around every night before bed as a child. These days, he wakes up with dance on the mind and is the one swinging others around dancefloors, often in a makeshift studio space in his apartment.

The devotees organically initiated the start of class with a rueda circle, a form of spontaneous call-and-response social dance where alternating dancers yell out calls, each of which denote different dance moves. As the circle spun tightly with a partner for a minute, everyone switched partners as the circle itself rotated.

Before shaping the Latin dance scene in Greensboro, Messina earned a degree in aerospace mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute outside of Boston, his hometown. His degree took him to West Palm Beach, Fla. and Miami where he learned Cuban-influenced dances in a casual club setting while working as a contract engineer by day. A pay raise enticed Messina to come to the Gate City but after his contract ended, the prospect of returning to daily life in a gray cubicle made him nauseous.

“I was on a phone interview with [a company in] Seattle and I realized the first thing I was thinking was: Where would I teach dance?” Messina said.

He stayed and deepened his study of older dances from Cuba and Afro-Cuban folklore with the intent to sustain those cultural traditions by teaching authentic representations.

“When I teach the classes I try to blend street and social [styles] versus only [teaching] academically in a studio setting so that the dancing doesn’t look soulless,” he said. “Right now, what’s going through me is samba; it just runs through me,” Messina said as he ran a finger up and down his arm veins.

As much as his appetites for certain styles evolve, the people who come to events vary as a community of dancers begins to blossom in Greensboro.

“The face of the group always changes,” Messina said. “We really do have people from all different countries, religious backgrounds… but at the end of the day we love and respect the dance and love and respect each other.”

The most dedicated dancers tend to show up on Thursday evenings but, as with any class, Messina sets no skill requirement. Many only attend events around town like the recurring Monday-night Cuban salsa classes at Limelight nightclub or Tuesday kizomba nights at LaRue.

Brian Drury, who started training with Messina three years ago, knew nothing about Latin dance before his first class.

“I was struggling with the fear and uncertainty of, What if they judge me?” said Drury, who is 28. “But from Day 1 Steve and the community he’s created have been so supportive. They’re family now. I travel 50 percent of year but I always have this to come back to.”

Learn more about Messina Dance Company at messinadance.com.

Messina teaches casino, son Cubano, rueda, Afro-Cuban folkloric, kizomba, and bachata at several weekly classes in Greensboro both at his home and places like LaRue, where he teaches kizomba every Tuesday. Lately he treks across the state to the Old Havana Sandwich Shop in Durham and, most recently, Infinity Ballroom in Charlotte.

Messina still loves the intimacy of his home studio classes, though. As a total of 14 dancers petered into Messina’s Elm Street apartment— previously a small art gallery with track lights already installed — on Jan. 11, they joined the rueda circle as others clapped in applause to welcome them like familiar friends entering a house party.

“All of a sudden, there’s an instant party, infectious energy,” Messina said. “It’s a credit to them.”

Wearing a mixture of casual, evening and athletic wear, the dancers spun their heels, tennis shoes and Vans on the worn, wooden floorboards partitioned by a brown suede couch between the dance floor and Messina’s kitchen, a simple metal fan offering what breeze it could. Some concentrated when dancing while others laughed, unreservedly throwing exulted arms in the air every now and then, but smiles showed on nearly everyone’s face during breaks.

“There are times I worry about money,” Messina said. “But I’m reminded that often this is the best part of people’s days…. Not trying to fake humility, but it’s an honor and very humbling to be able to share that and bring that to people.”

Meaghan Hilton, a cake decorator who joined the group in August, finds the solace in the fun-hearted, fast-paced classes.

“I’ve always wanted to dance and I’ve never really had the opportunity until life changes happened and I said, ‘Dammit I’m going to go dancing,’” said the 38-year-old Hilton. “It’s about the only time I go out because I work two jobs. This is my time to be social, to meet people with no pressure and I still get home at a decent hour.”

“It boosts your confidence and you feel good about yourself,” she added. “And I get to use the other parts of my body because I work with my hands and arms all day at work. This is my relief.”

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