Edgar Ornelas walks into Leonore’s – a Venezuelan and Italian restaurant on Campbell Avenue in Downtown Roanoke. He immediately appears approachable; his lips curved in a subtle default smile, as he scans the front lobby. Edgar sports his usual iron-pressed khakis and staple ivy cap hat. When he spots a young Latino man sitting at the bar, he gives him a pat on the back in greeting. “Como estan? Estan aqui para la salsa clase?” Edgar asks. “De donde es usted?” The best icebreaker for Latinos who are coming to salsa for the first time is to ask where they are from, he says. “Honestly, anyone who comes in for the first time, I like to ask where they are from,” Edgar says. “Everyone has a different story. Asking them where they’re from helps them open up about something they’re proud of.”
Edgar is sure to linger in the lobby so he can introduce himself to anyone curious about the salsa lessons posted on the outdoor sign. He wants anyone with reservations to be reassured – all levels are welcome. If his intentions are not genuine, he’s nevertheless extremely convincing. Once the customers begin to clear out of the restaurant’s dining area, Edgar helps Leonore’s staff push tables and chairs to clear an area for the lessons. Perhaps the space isn’t ideal for a dance class considering the confinement and lack of mirrors, but Edgar makes the best of it. The staff is welcoming, the music is inviting and the regulars have high energy.
Edgar begins the lessons by stepping to the front of the room, back turned to the crowd. He makes up for the lack of mirrors with constant narration, metaphors and charismatic hand gestures. “Ladies, imagine you are confined to a bubble. You don’t want to expand your motions past the bubble, but you don’t want to shrink inside your bubble. Stay consistent,” Edgar says.
Edgar Ornelas was born in Mexico City where he was exposed to various Latin American forms of dance and music, including salsa, cumbia and mambo. While growing up, quinceaneras played a prominent role in his love for dance. Ornelas says his family’s Latin band “Sabera” was an influence as well, but he asserts that his salsa skills are primarily self-taught.
Edgar and his mother moved to California when he was in the first grade and then to Roanoke when he was in the sixth grade. His uncles were one of the first Latino transplants in the Roanoke Valley and established themselves with a chain of Mexican restaurants, including the El Rodeo restaurants on Williamson Road and Brambleton Avenue. Despite having left Mexico, Edgar always was able to preserve his sense of culture through his family. After several dance collaborations with the Jefferson Center, Edgar had the idea to provide his own salsa lessons to the Roanoke community. In 2010, Edgar created Salsa Noke with the intention of consistently providing the region the opportunity to learn Latin dance. Through Salsa Noke, Edgar has succeeded in fostering a diverse family of regular attendees. “We do have some Latinos who come to the weekly socials, but we also have people from all sorts of backgrounds. Black, white, Asian,” Edgar says. “It really is a melting pot.”
Zena Azar, a Lebanese American woman and owner of Azario Day Spa and Salon, has attended Salsa Noke classes for about two years. She has danced ballroom and Lebanese style dance for most of her life but wanted to branch out to something new. “I love to dance. It’s how I unwind all the stress,” Azar said. Salsa Noke “is like a little family, we are always checking in on each other. It’s like we take care of each other.” Azar attributes the group bond to Edgar’s kindness. “Edgar always makes sure to include people, he always says hi to everyone, [He] wants to know how everyone is doing, even if he has never met you,” Azar says.
In addition to bringing folks of all backgrounds together, Edgar also met his wife, Shirin Ornelas at the salsa lessons he taught. Shirin left Memphis to follow her parents to Southwest Virginia when they retired in 2011. “I’m the only dancer in my family, aside from my cousin Shonda,” Shirin says. One evening in 2013, Shirin’s cousin Shonda wanted to go dancing with Shirin. Shonda Googled “Salsa in Roanoke” and saw Edgar’s workshop for salsa dance. Shonda took salsa classes in college and encouraged Shirin to try it. It would be something new for Shirin, who now teaches ballroom dance for Arthur Murray Dance Center.
Shonda and Shirin arrived at the workshop, which was held at Havana at the time, a Cuban restaurant that has since closed. Shirin immediately fell in love with salsa… not Edgar. It “was NOT love at first sight,” she says. That’s because both Shirin and Edgar were in separate relationships. After several classes, Shirin joined the performance team, a group of six men and women, including Edgar. The performance team performs locally and travels to salsa competitions. Edgar encouraged Shirin to practice a bit more. “Well, I think you should probably take some more beginner classes.” Shirin was furious. “I think I was mad at Edgar for at least a month,” Shirin says, all the while grinning now. “I still joined the performance team.”
The team now consists of Edgar, Shirin, Shonda and her fiancé John, and two other couples. The performance team has danced in Washington, Toronto and Orlando for their “Salsa Congress” or at salsa festivals. The next performance will be at the White Party in Blue 5’s White Room on May 27.
Shirin and Edgar continue to dance in socials and in competitions, and build a sturdy foundation for their future relationship. They are friends, too. Through salsa, Shirin and Edgar continue to grow closer. “When Shirin dances, she is in her zone. She is free and always smiling,” Edgar says. The two would use the weekly salsa socials to catch up on each other’s day during their dancing. While the flirting and talking was meant to be subtle, they suspect the rest of the regular salsa dancers caught on quickly. Shirin describes the group as a family; like brothers and sisters who constantly check up on each other. If dating Edgar had to be a secret, it would not have been a secret that would have been kept for long. To dance with your partner is to know your partner on a different level – you learn the inner-workings of a relationship by observing how someone leads and how the other follows.
“Edgar is a perfectionist. He will do it again and again. For him, it’s all about repetition until everyone gets it right. He is so determined. He always has a plan,” Shirin says. “He is so devoted to this movement, he loves bringing people together… of all different nationalities, religions, backgrounds.” Most Roanoke salsa dancers and people close to Edgar will agree with Shirin: Edgar loves uniting people who are different from each other. Miguel Liendo is the owner of the Venezuelan and Italian restaurant Leonore’s, on Campbell Avenue in Downtown – where the salsa dance classes are now held. Liendo met Edgar about seven years ago when he started regularly dining at Liendo’s sister’s restaurant in Grandin. Liendo feels a sense of pride that Leonore’s is able to host the lessons.
“It’s important to me because it makes our culture more visible… while also being able to integrate people who are new to Latino culture,” Liendo says. “Music and dance is important in every part of the world. It’s how cultures communicate.” Liendo describes Edgar as outgoing, kind and above all else, caring. “He cares about people. He cares about Salsa,” Liendo says. “When you love and care about something, it comes naturally. It isn’t forced. It truly makes you happy.”