“We used to go out to clubs when we were teenagers,” says Eduardo “Ed” Caballero, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to New York City as a young child. “The problem was that I didn’t know how to dance. I would just sit down while everybody was having a good time.”
“It was our sisters and brothers who were salsa dancing—we weren’t doing it,” adds Beverly “Bev” Caballero, who was born in Harlem and met her future husband in junior high school. “We would just watch them do what they do. We were on the sidelines in terms of movement and dancing, but he was into the music big time.”
“I was raised on R&B,” Ed affirms. “My brother was really into salsa, so we started playing it in the house. And my [record] collection just kept growing.”
New York in the 1960s and ‘70s was a hotbed for Latin music, and salsa was born of its neighborhoods—a rich fusion of Cuban and Puerto Rican influences that reflected the city’s melting pot of ethnicities. Unbeknownst to Ed, his sizeable collection of vinyl records, including salsa legends like Eddie Palmieri and Cheo Feliciano, would lay a solid foundation for their far-off future interests. Over three decades later and nearly 1,000 miles away, Ed and Bev Caballero would blossom into a mighty force for Latin music, dance and multicultural fellowship in the heart of the Midwest.
Salsa Comes to Peoria
Bev Caballero arrived in Peoria in 1975, freshly recruited by Caterpillar after graduating from the City College of New York. Having dated on and off since high school, Ed soon followed her to Peoria, and the couple married the following year. While she had a long career at Caterpillar, he held jobs ranging from a sheet metal apprenticeship to stints with AT&T and Ameren. It was only years later, in 2004, that they learned to dance.
“We took lessons from a guy named Berfan Kochgiri, who was from Turkey,” Bev explains. “Berfan became aware of Eddie’s record collection, and he knew a place on Farmington Road where he could play records.” That would be Edie’s Oasis, a nightclub on the outskirts of Peoria with “a fantastic dance floor,” she adds. “Berfan offered to teach, and Eddie provided the music. And that’s how we started developing our skills.”
Soon the Caballeros were teaching salsa classes on their own, first at Bradley University and the Peoria Park District, then at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria (CAC), where they’ve held a regular gig since 2007. Each month, Salsa at the CAC kicks off with an hour-long lesson, followed by open dancing to the tunes of DJ Ed Caballero until midnight. “If there’s a social, we always try to precede it with a basic lesson,” Bev notes, “so people feel a bit more comfortable getting up to dance.”
Though salsa is their primary focus, the couple incorporates other Latin dances in their musical repertoire, including merengue and bachata. “We also introduce them to the cha-cha,” Bev adds. “It’s a group thing and they just follow what we’re doing. And then Ed will play cha-cha songs throughout the evening.”
On any given night they may incorporate tango or disco as well—a fusion of dance styles and cultures that is analogous to the participants they attract. “A lot of different people come to our dances,” Ed notes. “Black people, white people, Puerto Ricans, Panamanians, Romanians, Hungarians…”
To underscore this incredible diversity, at one recent gathering Bev counted nearly a dozen different countries of origin among just 14 people. “We’ve had everyone from high schoolers to people in their 80s,” she adds. “We discovered that salsa attracts all kinds of people, including many who you would never think would be interested.”
These days, the Caballeros are busier than ever. Besides their regular gigs at the CAC, they’ve taken their passion for Latin music to venues ranging from Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, to Pho Noodle House in East Peoria, to the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center in Peoria Heights. “We are also teaching kids twice a week,” Bev adds. “We’re at Lincoln School on Tuesdays and the Romain Arts & Culture Center on Thursdays. We have been to Washington Community High School and Germantown Hills Middle School… among others. We also do private parties, weddings and graduations.”
After more than 17 years of teaching in central Illinois, the couple has clearly demonstrated the staying power of salsa. “I just like the way the music makes me feel,” Ed suggests. “It’s upbeat and I like to see people dancing and enjoying it. Dancing brings people together.”
This is not just talk; genuine connections are made at their events. “I think we are responsible for six couples getting married,” Bev says with a smile. “They either met at our class or at one of the socials. It’s something for people to look forward to—to meet other people who don’t necessarily look like them. It’s a good time for fellowship.”
And for the beginners out there, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. “We’re not looking for perfection,” she stresses. “We just want you to give it your best shot. If you stumble along the way, we’ll help you out… We try to create an atmosphere where, regardless of your skill level, you can just get out there and have fun.”
After a 21-month pandemic-driven hiatus, Salsa at the CAC returns later this month on December 17, with an introductory lesson at 8:30pm followed by open dancing until midnight. Two weeks later, Ed and Bev will return to the CAC for a special New Year’s Eve salsa celebration.
Looking to 2022, the couple will continue their regular gigs at the CAC and return to Mackinaw Valley Vineyard in the summer, with dates at other venues sprinkled throughout. They’re also involved with Fiesta en el Rio, the Peoria Park District’s annual celebration of Hispanic heritage held each July. It all demonstrates the enduring nature of salsa—as durable as Ed and Bev’s 50-year partnership.
“We tell people if you learn how to dance salsa, it’s forever,” Ed notes. “Some dances come and go, but salsa never goes away.” For more information, visit facebook.com/DJEdCaballero or email [email protected]. PM