Salsa EngineeringPosted: November 7, 2011
It was an unexpectedly cold and snowy October evening in Boston and I was pleasantly surprised that Matei Livianu didn’t call a rain check on our appointment. As I approached our meeting venue, a restaurant in Cambridge, I saw him standing outside wearing his characteristic pin-striped bowling hat and an irritated expression on his face. He arrested his annoyance and courteously smiled when he caught my eye. “They shut an hour early,” he explained pointing to the restaurant, “I hate bad service”. As we crossed the street to find another venue, an oncoming car made a rude turn and scraped my side as it recovered speed. Matei spun around and pranced over to the driver’s side. What passed between him and the driver was drowned out in the snow and noise from honking cars, though I do remember seeing a bird and hearing some French. A few minutes later we settled down in another restaurant. Matei took off his hat, apologized for his outburst and repeated that he hated bad service.
29-year-old Matei Livianu has made it his life’s goal to deliver good service to the people who approach his dance school in Cambridge, MA. Named after the founder, Salsa Matei offers a range of Latin dance lessons including Salsa, Bachata, Cha-cha and special choreographed pieces for performance events. Several dancers at the school are engineers, researchers, computer scientists or are studying to be one of those. That’s not much of a surprise since Salsa Matei is located in Central Square, six steps away from MIT and half a dozen from Harvard.
Matei came to Boston in 2006 after graduating with a Masters in electrical computer engineering from Georgia Tech. His move here was in response to a job offer as a controls engineer from Boston Dynamics, a company that specializes in making biped and quadruped robots that can walk through mud pits or on steep staircases where wheeled robots would fail “It’s all about balance and movement,” said Matei, a statement that could have just as easily described salsa. He was cut short by a phone call from his wife, Hirlley, a certified aircraft mechanic working with the MBTA and a teacher at Salsa Matei. The two met in Boston while dancing at a local Latin dance club.
Matei was born in Montreal into a family of immigrant Romanian engineers. His parents moved to Los Angeles when he was five and enrolled him and his brother into piano and tap dancing lessons. Matei remembers hating tap dancing as a child. “I was a nerd surrounded by ten girls,” he chuckled as he nudged a plate of oysters towards me. In high school he turned down an offer to join a swing dance club, fearing that he was nerdy enough and didn’t need more. Balance, however, seemed to come naturally to Matei as he took to skiing and ice skating like hot knife to butter. His brother grew up to be the sporty one in the family.
Matei was introduced to salsa during his undergrad at Harvey Mudd Technical School when he finally decided to overcome his shyness and joined the ballroom dance club. In the following few years, he speedily progressed to an advanced performer and then a teacher. Engineering helped him dance. He could not have understood balance and weight if he wasn’t an engineer. Dancing, in turn, provided stress relief from studying. Politics between dance directors and judges prevented Matei from entering professional dancing and he stuck to learning and dancing in school. He never had much luck at dance clubs though as “no Latin girl wanted to dance with a scrawny white guy.” Matei’s old-school Romanian mother once told him that if a girl said no, she really meant yes. Those words came back to him in dance clubs as he would shamelessly ask the same girl over and over again till she would give in. Once young Matei had the chance to show off his moves, he never found it hard to find partners to dance the night away.
Matei started dance schools wherever he went, including one at Georgia Tech. He first paying students, however, were a young married couple in Georgia who were struggling to find ways to spend quality time together. One evening Matei had dragged them, along with a few others, onto a makeshift dance floor in a local restaurant and taught them some salsa steps- something he often did when he went out. By the end of the evening the couple begged him to give them formal lessons as they needed to find an activity together to fuel their marriage. Charging a humble fee that paid his gas money, Matei found a new calling- to provide good service as a dance teacher. Today, his school in Cambridge has an average attendance of 90 students and four full time teachers. He responds to every email personally, teaches every dance move professionally and emphasizes his hatred for bad service passionately.
Written for an ‘Opinions and Editorials’ class at Boston University with Boston Globe Columnist, Adrian Walker.