Scarlet Mambo

Salsa Spins beyond its Roots – NY Times

Last Sunday, July 29th, the New York Times printed a story about Salsa dancing and its development through the last four decades. It is very entertaining to read because it discusses issues that, both, beginner and veteran Salsa dancers can appreciate.

It is apparent that the writer did her homework because this article contains quotes from seasoned Salsa gurus in diverse professions in the Salsa industry. But, as many other aficionados and newcomers to the Salsa dance scene, she makes the mistake of confusing Salsa The Music with Salsa The Dance. In my next post (very soon), I will politely disagree with a few assertions that she makes in her article. My disagreements are mainly rooted on the fact that the author groups Salsa participans (DJ’s, musicians, promoters, instructors, casual listeners, casual dancers, and veteran dancers) as one block entity of people, when in reality there are many players with conflicting business interests. More on this soon.

Ok. I am done debating and getting technical… for now.

So, enjoy the article because it DOES tell a colorful story with good quotes from important Salsa figures.

Salsa Spins beyond its Roots – NY Times


El Cantante

(Salsa, which once ruled nightclubs across New York City, has trouble finding havens there today. The Taj Lounge, in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, offers salsa dancing to live music once a week.)

SOON after Héctor Lavoe, the great salsa singer, arrives in New York in the new biopic, “El Cantante,” he finds himself immersed in a vibrant scene in the Bronx: a nightclub crammed with bodies drenched in sweat moving to the pounding beat of congas. As the film, which is to open nationwide Aug. 3 and stars Marc Anthony as Mr. Lavoe, shows, it could have been any night in New York in the late 1960s, when dancing was a genuine physical manifestation of the energy of the streets. Read the rest of the story…

El Cantante

(Salsa moved from the rough streets to the refined studio.)

But salsa dancing has changed dramatically since the heyday of Mr. Lavoe, whose career thrived throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, when hundreds of clubs throughout New York were packed nightly with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans and other Latinos dancing to the music of people like Mr. Lavoe, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto.

Salsa is experiencing a revival in popular culture, with “El Cantante,” and “In the Heights,” the Broadway-bound musical that’s set in Washington Heights, along with moves spotted nightly on television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance.” But the dance form has largely disappeared from the New York clubs where it was born. The Cheetah Discotheque, Ochentas, Corso Ballroom have all long been closed. The last holdout, the Copacabana, was shuttered early this month. Like many mercurial dance trends, the demise of salsa’s club life was due in part to the changing times. Hip-hop began to attract young Hispanic-Americans who might otherwise have gravitated to Latin music. At the same time ballroom denizens began to embrace salsa as a serious dance form, which further alienated young clubgoers. Today salsa is kept alive by an ardent band of semiprofessional dancers, not only in New York but around the world.

“Salsa has gotten bigger in the sense that more people are taking lessons, but the people who came up in the streets and know about the music aren’t dancing,” said Henry Knowles, a D.J. who has been spinning salsa for more than 30 years. “In the ’80s and ’90s you could go out every night of the week in New York and have four or five places to choose from, and all of them had live music, and you don’t find that, especially in the Bronx, which used to be known as the barrio of the salsa.”

Maria Torres, the woman responsible for bringing the dance scenes in “El Cantante” to life, has lived through the evolution firsthand through 20-plus years as a salsa dancer and choreographer. She danced on Broadway in “Swing!” in 1999, choreographed “4 Guys Named José … and Una Mujer Named Maria!” in 2000 and now teaches salsa and her own brand of Latin jazz throughout the world.

Over cups of café con leche at a Cuban coffeehouse near her home in Edgewater, N.J., Ms. Torres, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, recalled the days when salsa emerged.

“My father played the congas and on Saturdays my mom would cook and then we would spend the rest of the evening, all five of us, dancing,” she said of her early childhood in the ’60s. “The music and the dancing was a norm, and I knew young that I wanted to be a performer.”

When she was 12, she got her mother to sign her working papers early — the legal age was 13 — so that she could earn money to take dance lessons. Still, “there was no salsa at the time,” she said. “There was African, there was ballet, there was jazz. But there was no Latin.”

By the mid-1970s the 15-year-old Ms. Torres and her peers had begun to fuse mambo steps and movements with a grittier street style that reflected the changes people like Mr. Lavoe were making to salsa, giving it a harder edge.

Until then, she said, there were primarily only two styles of Latin dance known to the public: mambo and cha cha. “I went to this competition, it was freestyle, they were doing mambo, and I started laughing because I was like, ‘You don’t know what the kids are doing,’ so I started doing street stuff.”

With a new freestyle club background and formal dance training, Ms. Torres and others represented a new era of Latin dance, what has come to be recognized as salsa today.

Still, salsa remained a dance of the street, not taught but absorbed. That changed when Eddie Torres (no relation to Ms. Torres), brought the street into the studio in 1987. Mr. Torres, who runs the Eddie Torres Latin Dance Studio in Midtown Manhattan, grew up in Spanish Harlem and performed as a dancer with Tito Puente in New York throughout the 1980s.

“During the ’70s there was such a need for the education of this dance, and I was one of the guys that wanted to learn this, but there were no schools available,” he said in a phone interview.

Mr. Torres began teaching salsa as a dance technique after he choreographed a show for Puente at the Apollo Theater in 1987. “I hand-picked about 60 dancers from the nightclubs and I started teaching these dancers a routine. Afterwards I asked 12 dancers to stay with me and we formed the Eddie Torres Dance Company.”

For the most part Mr. Torres taught the dance as it was performed in clubs and on the street, but he made it more sophisticated by changing the emphasis of the steps to the music’s second beat, now known as breaking on two.

“There’s something in the rhythm section in a Latin dance called the tumbao,” he said. “It’s a time pattern that the conga player plays, and you’ll hear an accent, and it’s always on the second beat. This is why Tito Puente said breaking on two is natural, there’s a feeling in that beat that you gravitate to.”

Mr. Torres’s dancers soon started their own schools, spreading the more formal approach to salsa that is practiced today.

All the emphasis on technique has had a negative effect on the clubs. That change is evident at the Taj Lounge. For the past year this Indian restaurant in the Flatiron district has converted itself every Monday night into one of the city’s few remaining salsa clubs with live music.

Under billowing saffron canopies one recent Monday, one couple moved seductively around the dance floor, the man guiding his partner with his fingertips. The band, members of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and well-known salsa musicians like Bobby Allende and William Torres, played for no more that 15 people, all at some point expertly spinning and snapping around the dance floor.

Mr. Knowles, the D.J., was lukewarm about this new, serious breed of dancer. Most focus more on moves than on socializing and drinking. “The clubs depend on the bar,” he said, adding that if the dancers “want nice venues to go to, they need to understand what it takes to run a venue and support it and buy a few bottles.”

Franklin Ayala, a professional dance instructor who had come that night to perform a salsa routine for the other clubgoers, was also nostalgic about salsa’s grittier beginnings. “In the new age of dancing salsa mambo, the heart and soul are disappearing,” he said, sipping a bottle of Perrier. “Most of the people lack the cultural knowledge. The Copa used to be really great. Now everything is in the studio.”

But Mr. Torres said he believed that the changes are for the better. “Young salsa dancers are becoming Olympians, athletes in the dance, so they’re not thinking of drinking and doing drugs, like we did years ago.”

He admits that dancers with such strong technique can be intimidating. “You see people spinning like tops and flying in the air and gyrating, and doing this amazing movement and you want to run for your life,” he said. “It’s gotten so sophisticated. Before, we’d give the girls a little turn here, a little turn there. Now we start her off with 14 spins in the first bar.”

Besides the studios, salsa dancing is also thriving at salsa congresses, several days of workshops and performances that attract thousands of dancers from around the world. The original Salsa Congresso started in Puerto Rico in 1997; there are now congresses held in places as diverse as Los Angeles, Chicago, Britain, Romania, Dubai, Israel and Japan. New York’s annual congress is set for Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 at the Hilton New York.

John (Choco) Knight, who started as a vendor at the salsa congresses selling T-shirts and is now the promoter for this year’s New York congress, hopes that the presence of salsa in pop culture will encourage young people to return to the clubs and reinvigorate the scene. “The youth like the hip-hop culture,” he said, “so we have a program for kids all over New York City and part of this is going to be the basics of salsa dancing and the other part is showing the kids how to play the congas.” The name of the seminar, he added, is “Salsa Is the New Hip-Hop.”

Ms. Torres joins Mr. Knight and Mr. Knowles in hoping that a resurgence of salsa in the mainstream draws back people who have turned away from it. “It’s not about 5, 6, 7, 8,” Ms. Torres said, “I tell people, ‘Close your eyes, move.’ Right or wrong, with that music, you can’t help it. I feel that, now more than ever, this generation wants to go back. We need to relax, simplify it, and hopefully it will come back here.”

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