In New York, You Want Salsa With That?

The best salsa clubs, in Bolivia, Colombia or New York, welcome dancers who share a certain spirit:
The best salsa clubs, in Bolivia, Colombia or New York, welcome dancers who share a certain spirit: "We're alive only briefly, so let's enjoy." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007

When it comes to salsa dancing, I've got a bit of Manhattan Guy in me. Maybe you remember him from "Sex and the City." Miranda dumps him after she discovers that he hasn't left the island of Manhattan for 10 years. What, he insists, could possibly exist beyond the bridges and tunnels?

When I'm not traveling, I call Queens home, but I suffer from a mild case of borough envy. Every weekend I cheat on my neighborhood, abandoning Queens for Manhattan's smooth salsa.

Wouldn't you? Manhattan is unquestionably the best place in America for Latin jazz -- perhaps the best in the world. And nowhere in the Big Apple can top the famous Copacabana. When not changing locations (the club has moved three times since its founding in 1941, and is currently looking for a new space; see box below), it's been featured in such Hollywood hits as "Goodfellas," "Tootsie" and "Raging Bull," and celebrated in Barry Manilow's 1978 song "Copacabana."

Before its most recent temporary closing in June, I went to Copacabana on a Saturday night with my old high school friend Dudley, who had just returned from a decade in Beijing studying Chinese medicine. And Chinese salsa, I surmised, as he beelined it to the first girl he saw, bowed aikido-style and began dancing.

Dudley, not a tall man at 5-foot-8, moved this woman, a tall Latina, around perfectly. My blond, blue-eyed friend executed a vast array of spins, some that I didn't know existed. They didn't exist. Dudley was improvising a tai chi and salsa fusion.

I prefer my salsa straight up, por favor. Asian fusions make for great dining and terrible dancing. I learned in Latin American salsa joints like Manizero in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the dancing spills out onto the sidewalk at sunrise.

Perhaps that's how I unwittingly became the first Irish American salsa teacher in Bolivian history. My fellow expats, fed up with a Cuban teacher -- who was too darn talented to teach nursery school salsa to Germans and Brits -- heard that I had my friends dancing after a single class. Sometimes it takes a gringo to know a gringo. My two-step method is simple: rhythm and relaxation (R&R).

First, I march my students around the room for an hour like a drill sergeant, hammering the 1-2-3 rhythm into them. Second, I tell them to completely forget that rhythm and let their body relax. They do. Their feet automatically keep the beat, but they are enlightened by the secret of salsa: It's not about the hips. It's about the feeling of trust and groove you have with your partner. Get the basic rhythm down and then just have fun.

But back to Saturday night at Copacabana, with Dudley. He was on a mission to dance kung fu style with every girl in the club. I soon found my perfect match, a 29-year-old American doctor in the first year of her residency. As Puerto Rico's top bands crooned, it felt like destiny. But I soon discovered it was fatigue. This gal had melted into my lead not out of passion but exhaustion after a 25-hour shift. With a yawn, she waved goodnight.

That's when I had my first doubts about Manhattan salsa. When that overworked MD fell asleep on the dance floor I knew there was something missing at Copas. They call it la joda in Bolivia; in Colombia, la rumba. La joda is alert play, floating on an undercurrent of that fatalist ethos popularized by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: We're alive only briefly, so let's enjoy.

A few days later the obvious hit me: I live in Queens! The borough is home to a quarter-million Latinos. My neighborhood is just three subway stops from Roosevelt Avenue, a melting pot of Latin America. Going into Manhattan for salsa is like living in Italy but crossing into France for a cannoli.

I Googled "Queens NYC salsa," already sensing the strong pulse of la joda.

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