Supporting small business: It’s all rhythm and no blues

Alisa’s House of Salsa dances to a new beat in a time of crisis.

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Alisa Bowens-Mercado began dancing at the age of three and hasn’t stood still since—not even when the world seemed to come to an abrupt halt when COVID-19 hit. She may have been forced to close the doors of Alisa's House of Salsa, the Latin dance studio she founded 20 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, but thanks to her love for music and her community, she hasn’t skipped a beat.

Pivoting quickly and taking her classes online, Alisa is bringing her high energy and unshakeable spirit to the screen.

“My community, my dance studio and Salsa mean everything to me—they are my passion, my joy, my happy place!” says the classically trained ballet, tap and jazz dancer who majored in criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and ran a general contracting firm her family owned before launching her business. (An entrepreneur at heart, she also owns Rhythm Brewing Co., becoming the first African-American woman to brew beer professionally in Connecticut.)

“La Morena Que Baila Salsa”

“Though I had danced other styles for years, it was a business trip to Puerto Rico that really inspired me to take up Latin Salsa,” she said. “The hotel where I stayed and the beautiful people that were dancing to live music was like a scene out of a movie.”

When Alisa returned home, she started taking classes, and in time, after endless practices and a scuffed-up kitchen floor, she and her then dance partner began performing at local parties, corporate events, dance benefits and senior homes.

Everyone in the community started to notice her passion for Salsa, and Alisa quickly became known as “La Morena Que Baila Salsa” (The woman that dances Salsa).

Welcoming people of all ages to get up on their feet at a festival in New Haven, Connecticut, Alisa Bowens-Mercado makes history teaching the world’s largest Salsa class.

Personality and perseverance

Almost overnight, Alisa developed a devoted following of Salsa dancers who enjoyed her patient teaching ability, her warm personality and her “Let Me Entertain You” Broadway style of dance. And it wasn’t long before requests came pouring in for her to teach on college campuses, appear on local and national television and stage.

“Over the last couple of months I have really missed my students, the face-to-face interaction and Thursday Latin Nights in the community,” said Alisa, who landed in the Guinness Book Of World Records as “Dance Instructor of The World’s Largest Salsa Lesson” when she taught thousands from a stage during the 10th anniversary of New Haven’s Arts & Ideas Festival.

Facing a challenge with optimism and unbridled support

“It was very difficult having to cancel the private lessons, weddings, corporate events and school diversity programs we had lined up. But, with support from my determined community of dancers—and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)—our doors are opening in new and exciting ways I never expected.”

A grantee of LISC’s Verizon Small Business Recovery Fund administered by the national non-profit to which the Verizon Foundation has committed up to $7.5 million in funding, Alisa has been able to keep the momentum going—and her students moving—through the current crisis. Using the grant for online class programming and outreach, as well as rent on her studio, she is finding the silver lining, with her virtual classes well attended by people in New Haven and beyond.

Though Alisa is still weeks away from opening her physical studio, she is encouraged that business will be better than ever, and that her growing community—online and in person—will be stronger and more resilient in the months and years to come.

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