Latin dance nights in Montpelier. Photo by Juan Vega de Soto/VTDigger

That Sunday, the train was late leaving New York City.

Loaded with passengers, it followed a long curve northwards. Floodplains flashed outside the window; the cars rattled past church spires and houses; we crossed over into Vermont and the snow began.

All along the journey, people descended, were received by families, became smaller in the distance behind us.

By nightfall, it had become a ghost train, lurching further and further north. As the brakes tightened and we slowed to a stop in Montpelier, we wore coats in our seats. Standing on the platform, I watched the train pull out through frozen drifts of snow, blast its horn once, and depart.

I knew no one in Vermont. The station was just a small, red house by the side of the rails. I had the distinct sense of having arrived at the end of the world.

That was in late March. I had not known it could snow like that in late March. I didn’t know you could wake up to frost inside the windows, or that temperatures dip below 0 degrees fahrenheit.

When I left Madrid the plane trees were in leaf and people took their lunch on terraces under the shade. Here, I soon learned that before spring came mud season — but before mud season came the early April nor’easter.

On my third day in Vermont, I embarked on an expedition to the library. There I met Donald from Nicaragua, recently arrived like me, who told me about Latin dance night. It was held every other Wednesday, he said, on the third floor of Hugo’s Bar and Grill. There was one that very night, he said, and he would see me there.

As I stood scraping the snow off my boots outside Hugo’s that night, I thought of how improbable the whole affair seemed. On the second floor, I paused before climbing the stairs. I looked up and saw the ceiling was shaking with the stamping and moving of feet on the floor above. They were dancingI thought.

The facts of Latin dance night are simple enough. At 7 pm, a salsa instructor leads a free class for anyone willing. At 8 pm the dancing starts in earnest — merengues, bachatas, cumbias, and reggaeton as the night goes on — and people shuffle in pairs, or mingle in groups, or lean against the bar with a drink, until 11 pm when the music must come down.

The truth has more to do with the joyous communion among the people who attend. There is Evaristo from Nicaragua, a longhaired giant who warps the floorboards when he break-dances. There is Steve, who lived in Barcelona in the ’70s, and shakes like mad when his favorite song comes on. There is Chimmy from Guinea, who’s been here nearly two decades, whose feet seem to glide rather than step.

There are Guatemalans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Salvadorans…There are Vermonters whose families have lived in Middlesex for as long as they know. There is every stage of life from high schooler to senior citizen.

There is also — somewhere in the fray — a lanky American-Madrileño all flailing knees and elbows, trying valiantly not to get his legs tangled, or step on someone else’s feet.

People dancing in a dimly lit bar decorated with string lights and colorful flags, with a few patrons standing near the bar in the background.
Latin dance nights in Montpelier. Photo by Juan Vega de Soto/VTDigger

It is about what exists among all of us, the particular confluence of Latin hospitality and good-humor with Vermont’s welcoming generosity. This is the motivating power of Latin dance night in Montpelier, the animating force that keeps everyone dancing.

The first mover is Amanda Garces. She is the one who reached out to restaurants until Hugo’s agreed to host them last September. She is there from beginning to end, waltzing between people like a Colombian fairy-godmother, making sure everyone is comfortable. At the end of the night, she takes to the mic to lead everyone in a round of applause for the bartender, the bar, and the dancers.

At the latest dance, the door to the deck was left open to let in the air. Less than two months ago, winter coats had been stacked on the couches. Now, everyone sweats in shorts and short sleeves. The sun, striking the windows obliquely late in the day, caught a row of wine glasses and glowed red on the faces in the room.

These are the faces I see when I climb the stairs now, turning to me in greeting. They are the faces of friends and they ask me about my life and how I’m doing.

I am doing fine, I say. Vermont, it turns out, it is not the end of the world. It is only a small world, and very far. But on the third floor of Hugo’s, on odd Wednesdays, it is easy for anyone to imagine they belong.