Salsa Stories and Other Condiments

Dipping into Salsa
I first started dancing salsa in 1995, when a fellow modern dancer came back from Cuba and showed me some moves. It was easy learning the basic step, and being a good improviser I was able to convincingly approximate the look of salsa. But it was years before I was able to really lead a partner, thanks to a fiery redhead, and do the choreography correctly, thanks to another redhead inviting me to be her partner in a salsa dance company. And after all these years, I’m still a little lax about keeping count, and loose with proper orthodox forms. But that’s me, I’m not much of a stay in the structure kind of guy.

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In the picture above, I was dancing with a friend (not one of the redheads) at the now defunct Rumba Room. During this period, there was a boom in salsa. Salsa congresses or festivals were being organized all over the world, and there were perhaps five places a salsero could take his salsera to dance in even a small city like Eugene, Oregon.

At these salsa clubs the dancers were predominantly Latin guys and white girls. And there were plenty of cross-cultural romances that sparked in the midst of a triple spin. It was another case of art breaking down social barriers and destabilizing taboos.

Wherever I visited on the West Coast, I could find some place to salsa. And later when I moved to England I found salsa also thrived there too. Even in an economically depressed immigrant town of South Asians, Irish and a hodge podge of international students, there were three places to salsa. In fact, salsa was everywhere I traveled around Europe.

Salsa con Japon
Even here in Japan, there are whole areas of Tokyo filled with salsa clubs. In fact, this past weekend I attended the Saturday night performances of the 2007 Japan Salsa Congress. The main reason I went was to watch T perform with her group, Team MoniMoni. There was a typhoon that night and when I arrived, completely soaked carrying a broken umbrella, I was amazed to find a full house. The four hour program featured about 40 performances, a video tribute, an awards ceremony, as well as numerous announcements, all without one intermission or break! The production values and the venue were professional but the lack of an intermission was unforgivably amateur.

It was great to watch the range of salsa styles performed by groups from all over Japan, as well as L.A., San Francisco, NY, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. Of course, T was the star of her group; she danced front and center. And a few other groups stood out. Some of the highlights were:

  • CHEE’S, a company of little girls who brought the house down with (problematically) suggestive adult movements. They were certainly cute but I think most Americans would feel uncomfortable watching five year olds bending over and shaking their asses at the audience.
  • Cinquenta de MAC’s, on the other hand, were four pairs of middle aged dancers who unabashedly incorporated sensuality into their dance. In contrast to the self-consciously thin, young, and fast dancers that predominated throughout the evening, the Cinquenta dancers were comfortable in their bodies, and they came closest to what I feel is the spirit of salsa, which is creating desire between two people.
  • Afrodita paid a homage to the roots of salsa by dancing a powerful salsa-ified interpretation Afro-Cuban dance.
  • Los Valientes were very talented adolescents who were clearly choreographed and coached by people experienced in performance. Their movements were confident, effusive, and an inspiration to watch, incorporating jazz, modern, tap and Broadway. While most of the other groups wore skimpy outfits that you might see in ballroom dance competitions, they wore loose flowy trousers more typical of a modern dance performance. And they had fantastical make-up with spiky purple hair. I loved it! I searched for a video of one of their performances on the web but couldn’t find anything.
  • One video I could find was of Salsabrosa. They incorporated modern dance movements into their choreography and their tight circular movements were often breathtaking. Here’s a video I found of them in another event. They start dancing at the 1:30 minute mark.

Salsa for Breakfast
It’s remarkable to find salsa so popular in Japan, a non-touching culture where people sometimes ignore me when I try to shake their hands, or cringe when I come in for a big happy California hug. I think having a socially acceptable outlet to be in close contact with strangers (other than in a cramped subway) is appealing to many Japanese. Although when I go out salsa dancing here, I find that many of my partners are not quite at ease dancing with a stranger. Or if they have some experience, they’re still unwilling to break that last couple feet of distance that’s necessary to make it a real partner dance. So perhaps some are not at all interested in having an outlet to be in contact with others. Maybe they just want the challenge of mastering an art. And that’s perfectly cool with me.

To be fair, there are plenty of Japanese salseras who are not afraid of being sensual and moving their hips. They’re more into getting in synch, moving together, rather than getting the movement ‘right’. In Latin cultures, from which salsa arose, dance is just something people do, like eating breakfast and driving to work. It’s not necessarily a hobby or special skill, or some technical skill to be mastered. And that’s really how dance, and art in general, should be. A daily activity so commonplace that people start dancing spontaneously even as they’re chopping vegetables, or having a conversation about what to eat with the tortilla chips.

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One thought on “Salsa Stories and Other Condiments”

  1. I really enjoyed this one! I’ve gone dancing very few times in Tokyo but I’m always amazed at how much I love it. I feel alive and bright. it brings the best out of me…

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