Costume designer Laura Diaz builds a niche among salsa dancers
On the top floor of a building wedged between Third and Melrose avenues, Laura Diaz spends her afternoons seated at a sewing machine, piecing together neon fabrics, fringe and rhinestones, to create costumes bound for dance floors across the tri-state area and beyond.
Diaz is a seamstress for performers on New York City’s world-renowned salsa dance scene, who counts about 20 performance groups and couples among her clients. Some of those performers take their routines—-and Diaz’s creations—- around the world.
As notable as the geographical reach of her designs is the history behind Diaz’s location. Her workspace is a block from the former Caravana Club on 149th Street, a popular Latin music venue that opened in 1959, next to the Bronx Opera House. It’s there that Charlie Palmieri recorded “Pachanga at the Caravana,” in 1961. The hit earned that club the nickname ”home of the pachanga,” and inspired a group of patrons to form a dance team called “Los Pachangueros.”
Today, she dresses a new generation of salsa enthusiasts just a stone’s throw from East Harlem, where the sounds of the new music first emerged, and the dozens of clubs, theaters, and dance halls that were centerpieces of the Bronx’s golden age in Latin music.
Jazmin Tejada, a yoga instructor and professional dancer with the Queens-based Huracan Dance Company, has been one of Diaz’s customers for the past year and a half.
“She’s easy to work with,” said Tejada. “It’s rare that you find a seamstress that gives you exactly what you want. Sometimes you come in with an idea, and then you get a costume and it’s totally different from what you asked for. She doesn’t do that…she gives me what I want.”
Between World War II and the early ’70s, hundreds of Latino musicians lived and made music in the South Bronx, including legends such as Tito Puente, the Palmieri brothers, Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco. That period saw a surge of musical activity in New York City’s Caribbean community, which melded Afro-Cuban rhythms with big band arrangements and jazz to create contemporary salsa music.
The South Bronx “was of the great crucibles for the development of a New York Latin music sound from the 1940s onward,” explained ethnomusicologist Dr. Roberta Singer and folklorist Elena Martinez in their article, A South Bronx Latin Music Tale.
Diaz, who emigrated to the US from Cuenca, Ecuador, has designed and tailored clothing under the company name CJ Designs for the past ten years. Her team includes her 21 year old daughter, Doris, and two part-time assistants. Together, they create the centerpieces for many joyful occasions in the lives of clients: weddings, proms, quinceaneras and sweet sixteens.
She got her first customer four years ago, professional salsa dancer and instructor Shani Talmor, who found her website online and asked Diaz to replicate a costume. Since then, her list of clients has grown as word of her business has spread.
Her client base has expanded with each new costume she designs, explained Diaz. “Being that I work with so many schools, word of mouth brings customers,” she said.
Now, on any given day, dancers from across the five boroughs, Westchester and Long Island, line her work space waiting patiently for a fitting. Her customers routinely bump into dance acquaintances while waiting their turn. Under the shadow of mannequins lining a wall-to-wall window with a view onto the bustling commercial corridor below, they talk about salsa congresses and local “socials,” code for dance parties on the scene.
Diaz enjoys seeing her work come to life onstage.
“I see the [shows], I see the videos, I see my work up there… [and I think to myself], I did that,” said Diaz, flipping through a large binder packed with handwritten client notes.
Although she has many costumes under her belt, Diaz is not a salsa dancer. “I like the music. I like to see how they dance. But if I can dance? If that’s the question, no I can’t.” She’d like to take classes once her schedule allows.