Around 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, the atmosphere inside of downtown South Bend’s Vegetable Buddies changes. Tables get pushed aside, the energy rises, and pairs of people stand in two rows, their feet ready to step to the flow of the Latin music that begins to fill the space.

In front of the group, Bridget Hardy, a founding member of South Bend Latin Dance, demonstrates some basic steps for the group to follow. Some are better than others, with a seasoned dancer in the corner sashaying in perfect time, while another stumbles over her own toes.

Despite the differences in skill level, the dancers work together as they flit from partner to partner, teaching each other and sharing laughs — a fact that Bridget is proud of.

“There is no judgment here,” she says. “This is a community — a family. If you have never taken a dance step before and have no concept of what you are doing, you can come in. If you are at the intermediate level, you can jump in and really contribute with someone who is brand new, or you can master a technique.”

The 7 p.m. Wednesday dances at Vegetable Buddies, also known as South Bend Latin Wednesdays, is just one component of South Bend Latin Dance, a local dance group that hosts activities to promote salsa, merengue, bachata, samba and other Afro-Latin dances — and also works to foster a community atmosphere. Every South Bend Latin Wednesday begins with a 30-minute instructional portion to allow new dancers to get up to speed and learn basic dance moves.

South Bend Latin Dance was founded seven years ago by Bridget, along with former South Bend residents David Seymour and Joel Barrett. According to Bridget, in the early days of the club, fewer than 12 people would meet at Lang Lab in South Bend to dance and learn together, and the club had no funding for food or sound equipment.

Now, having moved the regular South Bend Latin Wednesdays location to Vegetable Buddies, the group attracts upwards of 80 to 130 participants at events. Bridget attributes the growth of the club to the family and community atmosphere that she is proud the group has been able to maintain over the years.

“Those early days of the club were about setting a tone,” she says, as dancers practice steps behind her. “Efforts to be an open welcoming and diverse community were critical. Now, it just comes natural. The beginning was about being true to who we are. If we strayed from that, we would not be here.”

For those who are involved with South Bend Latin Dance, the community aspect is more than just a company line.

“It doesn’t matter your age, your gender, your dance level, what your immigration status is. You are here to dance,” says Kristen Garcia, a 39-year-old South Bend Latin Dance assistant. “You are a human being that is here to be a part of something, and we are not going to turn you away if you are something that has a passion, and we will work with you to help you learn.”

The dancing bug hit Kristen early, and she had wanted to join a dance group ever since she moved to South Bend in 2002. Once she learned about South Bend Latin Dance, it took her a while to work up the courage to attend a session, but now she says she has never looked back.

The club has become family to her and helped her through difficult times in her life — and she says she is not the only one for whom this is true.

“I know it is not typical, but it is a rare and beautiful thing. This group here in South Bend is almost beyond words in how amazing the sense of community is,” she says. “We have been there through divorces, the deaths of parents. We have celebrated the births of new babies and marriages in this community. [South Bend Latin Dance] makes you feel like you are not alone.

“People will tell you that some of their greatest friendships come out of this group, and that’s not a lie.”

For Ridge Alencar, 24, of South Bend, South Bend Latin Dance gave him a community after moving to the area from New York. He first attended a dance session on the invite of a friend nearly five years ago, and he has not left since.

“On my first night, I thought, ‘I have no idea what is going on,’ but it was so warm and welcoming,” Ridge recalls. “Everyone said, ‘We’ll see you next Wednesday,’ so I was part of a group and I had to go back. … Once you come, you’re in.”

Now, as he does a confident twirl in flashy red dance shoes, Ridge says he now works to welcome newcomers to the group.

“It’s just this transfer of positive energy,” he says. “It teaches you about friendship and trust and all these positive goals. It transforms you into a better person.”

Part of what fosters that community atmosphere is the act of dancing itself, Bridget says. She finds dancing — particularly partnered dances, such as salsa — to be therapeutic and promote closeness.

“There is something about social partner dancing that really helps me to be in the moment and de-stress,” she says. “It has this kind of therapeutic quality.”

“It’s a form of art,” Kristen adds. “It’s not a form of art that lasts, because it only exists in the time that you are doing it. Every time is different, but every time is good in a different way, and once you let go of whatever you are holding on to, it is amazing.”

No matter the reason for someone coming to South Bend Latin Dance — for exercise, the love of dance, to let go, to make friends — Bridget says she hopes members feel a part of the community she and the group have worked to cultivate.

“What I really love about our community is how bonded we are that people talk about the South Bend Salsa family,” she says. “[I] want to continue to be that family.”

To learn more about the club or to follow its events, visit South Bend Latin Dance on Facebook.  χ