In Step With a Latin Beat

By Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2000

   


All you need to know . . . to dance salsa is how to count to eight," shouts dance instructor Ricardo Loaiza into his headset microphone. "Oh, and you have to know how to tell your hands from your feet!" He's marching in place between two rows of people, each row about 25 people long, men in one, women in the other. We're in the back room of Lucky Bar south of Dupont Circle on a frigid Monday night.

Loaiza is counting as he marches eight steps. "One, two, three," stomp, "five, six, seven," stomp. I start stomping along, not quite in line with the other men. I'm off to the side hiding behind the pool table, still dealing with the chronic condition of many "Anglo" men. I can't dance.

A couple of years ago I was inspired to take a salsa dance lesson at Habana Village, the Adams-Morgan dance club. It started well. I got the basic step down and thought I could fake it from there. But use it or lose it, as I discovered recently at a concert by salsa biggie Victor Manuelle at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Not having danced at all since that initial class had left me clumsy and self-conscious in that ballroom full of astonishing dancers.

I watched the couples on the dance floor that night more intently than I watched the musicians. Face to face, the couples played out high drama with their steps. The man moving forward with cocky confidence, the woman mirroring him, but stepping backward. Their hips swiveling as if with ball-joints (how do they do that?). He lifts his arm, she glides beneath it, a two-person game of London Bridge, endlessly folding in on itself. They turn in circles, arms draped across each other, hands meeting behind each others backs, twining and untwining so fast the eye can barely follow. I was determined to someday be out on that floor with them.

Over the recent holidays, my sister flew in from Los Angeles, where she's deep into the salsa scene. For Christmas, she gave me a CD by the great Cuban dance band Los Van Van, and at my folks' house before Christmas dinner we cranked it up. My sister tried to teach me some steps, but I quickly begged off. She made a face at me and said, "You're not bad, mi hermano. You just need to shake your booty a little more."

So, in the interest of learning to shake that booty, I've been checking out the local salsa dance lesson scene, rounds that have included Loaiza's weekly class at Lucky Bar. He's one of the liveliest of several instructors working the booming circuit, and as the beginners class grows to overflowing that Monday night (nearly 80 people finally turn up), he keeps everyone's spirits up. "One of the basic things of salsa is . . ." (big pause while everyone marches through the eight-count one more time and waits for trenchant words to fall from Loaiza's lips) "YOU'RE SMILING!!!"

And most of them are smiling, somewhat self-consciously. If they're there, it's because they can't dance, so they feel funny surrounded by people watching them, even though those people are in the same boat.

Why are so many people marching in place on a cold winter night, trying to learn this dance we call salsa? "As soon as you see people dancing salsa, you say, "Oh my God, I want to do that!'?" says Eileen Torres who teaches several classes around town. "And the music, it pulls you in. It makes you want to move. It's very inviting, very sensual."

Ah, sensual. Booty shaking! I'm clearly on the right track.

Salsa is a relatively recent phenomenon, a dance that's a combination of '50s mambo steps with some rumba, some lindy hop, some hustle and other moves thrown in for flash and style. "To me it's like the urban melting pot of dance," says Jim Byers, an instructor in mambo styles (salsa's most obvious dance floor antecedent) and a Friday night Latin jazz DJ on WPFW-FM (89.3). "It's a distilled version of all the postwar dance styles. It's Latin steps done to an American swing sensibility, but clearly with that Latin intensity, and the combination is absolutely electric."

It's that electricity people are hoping to find by signing up for salsa lessons. Looking to find human contact in our nightlife experience, we've embraced a swing revival that gives us a chance to hold each other while we dance; but something feels a little phony about that, like we're playing dress-up or something. Salsa on the other hand has never really gone away. It was never "our parents' salsa" because it's always been a cross-generational phenomenon. It's also a series of steps and moves that lets each dancer find his own level of expression.

"There was a saying popular in the '50s, I think attributed to [legendary Latin jazz figure] Tito Puente, that anyone who dances mambo is a star," says Byers. "And it's essentially the same as salsa. In dancing to rock, you can get by with just shuffling from side to side, but even the simplest steps in mambo and salsa have drama."

Torres, who teaches beginning and intermediate classes Monday nights at MCCXXIII, Wednesday nights at Zanzibar and Sunday nights at Las Tapas, has begun giving special workshops in what she calls "salsa on 2." That's really another term for mambo, since mambo (which developed out of Afro-Cuban dances brought to New York after World War II primarily via Puerto Ricans) begins its steps on the "two" beat of that eight-count we were talking about before. Modern salsa has essentially the same steps as mambo, but begins them on the "one" beat.

"When I teach salsa, I try to explain the history of the dance as well," says Torres. "I feel very strongly that people need to know where the music comes from, to talk about the path from Africa to Cuba and the parallel developments in Mexico City and New York City. To talk about the American jazz musicians who played with the Latin bands and created Latin jazz, and the dancers who spread the dances. It makes a difference in how you hear the music, hear the beats and, ultimately, in how you dance."

Torres, like many instructors on the local scene, has a Web site, www.salsamundo.com, a forum for her historical writings as well as an excellent resource guide. Another instructor with a Web site, Jeri Dembrak (www.thesalsanews.com) learned to dance while living in Costa Rica as a youngster. She was a confident "freestyler" when she wandered into Habana Village one night and realized there were plenty of steps to learn. After some lessons with instructor Miguel Dutary (now a manager at Latin Jazz Alley), Dembrak became his frequent demonstration partner.

Now Dembrak teaches classes at Habana Village every Wednesday (as well as on Tuesdays at America restaurant in Tysons Corner and Thursdays at America restaurant at Union Station) and finds great hope for humanity in the salsa scene. "Dancing is the one thing that can unite people regardless of their economic position, their political views, their age, their race, any of that stuff," Dembrak says. "When I first walked into Habana Village, no one asked what I did for a living, what kind of car I drove, where I lived, and I thought, "Gee, how not Washingtonian this all is!' It was very refreshing."

Indeed, the mix of people at any given Latin music event, such as the Victor Manuelle concert, is astonishing. The entire spectrum of age and skin colors was present, testimony to the notion that Latin American cultures are, generally speaking, more united by language than divided along color or generational lines. While the area's salsa dance lessons are more heavily attended by young Anglos (meaning white Americans whose primary language is not Spanish) than perhaps other groups, even within that subset of the salsa scene, diversity reigns.

"I teach people from everywhere," says Miguel Abrego, whose Thursday night classes at Coco Loco are little melting pots of dance. "It's not just Anglos in my classes," he says. "I teach people from Italy, Russia, Japan, England, France. Even plenty of Latinos who don't know salsa." He cites himself, a native of El Salvador, as an example. "When I came here 11 years ago, I used to only dance the merengue [a somewhat simpler Latin dance, but still with plenty of flash], but I slowly began to learn salsa, and now I love it. It got into my body, you know?" Abrego, who teaches at Latin Jazz Alley on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, says salsa dancing is "like a fever" and that it's not going to stop spreading anytime soon.

I run into Aaron Frazier at a Habana Village class one night, a young African American who's pretty smooth in the intermediate class. But the instructor is riding him hard. "Your cross-body lead is no good!" the teacher practically yells at Frazier, who nods and tries again. "Don't go all over the place with your feet. Keep traveling in a line!" Frazier nods again. Later he says he chooses salsa clubs more than any other nightlife option. "There's a style, a romantic quality to salsa that you don't get from a lot of modern music," says Frazier. "And I like that it requires a definite level of skill."

Within the African American nightlife world, there's a booming salsa scene, led by the Soulsa group that holds lessons at D.C. Live every Thursday night. Though Soulsa night is a truly international scene, its existence is part of the continuum of Washington's Afro-Latin dance history, which has its roots in the 1950s at clubs like the Casbah, the 2011 Club and the Caravan Ballroom. "I really just started dancing this past summer," says Frazier, "but salsa's been popular in the African American community for years, way before this Latin craze that's going on now. A few years ago I went to a salsa night one Thursday at Republic Gardens and what I liked about it was that everyone was there to dance. They weren't there to try to pick each other up or just lean against the wall either."

He doesn't deny, however, that talent on the dance floor will help you with the ladies. "I've heard some women equate dancing ability with sexual prowess," Frazier says laughing, "so I guess your chances are definitely better if you know how to dance." Instructor Dembrak concurs: "I think that's why most of the men take the class. It's a great way to meet ladies. Because even if a guy is not really great looking but is a great dancer, he can get the most gorgeous woman in the club." (Dembrak explains the flip side of that situation: "Sometimes I want to tell some of these women, "Dance with him, but don't date him. He'll break your heart.'")

Back at Lucky Bar, Loaiza is looking up and down his crowded rows of students, who by the end of the night will have learned to do a few simple turns and spins and will feel pretty good about their quick progress. Into his headset microphone Loaiza yells, "Is everybody having fun?!" Awkward smiles all around. "Okay then. On three: Wepa! One, two, three: WEPA!" Cool. But what's "wepa"?

"I've always yelled 'wepa' whenever I dance," says Loaiza when I call him a few days later. I make him spell it and explain it. "It just means an inner feeling, that you're having fun or enjoying something." A couple of years ago he turned the word into an acronym for his company, World Entertainment by Professional Artists, which administers his classes (besides Mondays at Lucky Bar, Loaiza and his partner Elba Garcia also teach Tuesdays at Lulu's); his Web site (www.salsaweb.com); and the four-couple performance group he founded, DC Salseros, which dances at professional events all over the world.

"It's the fastest-growing partner dance in the world," Loaiza says. "All the classes are growing, and it's increasing every minute." He cites "the whole Latin euphoria" that's sweeping pop culture. Well, maybe, but I just want to shake my booty better. At Zanzibar one Wednesday, Torres pulls me aside, shaking her head. "You know, you give me a couple of hours and you'll have a line of women wanting to dance with you." She's being nice. She's saying I have potential. She's saying I need a lot of work, is what she's really saying.

After sitting in on several lessons with various instructors at various clubs, I'm not a heck of a lot closer to being a sleek salsa king than I was when I started my exploration of the scene. But now I'm committed to learning the steps and turns and cross-body leads. It looks so graceful, so fun, so sexy!

And the music! I've heard so much of it lately, and it's so different from that "modern rock" baloney that's still all over the place. Tito Puente! Johnny Polanco! Oscar D'Leon! Celia Cruz! Willie Colon! Even whippersnappers like Marc Anthony are catching my ears. This is the stuff I'm digging lately. I'm resolved to go hear more live local salsa (Orquesta Peligro, Orquesta Zeniza, Orquesta La Romana, Son Reinas, Orquesta La Sensual and more). I'm resolved to learn Spanish so I can dive even deeper into this world. I'm resolved to shake my booty. How're you doing with yours?



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