By Eric Brace
Friday, February 11, 2000; Page N34
"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
I watched the couples on the dance floor that night more intently than
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
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
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
Looking to find human contact in our night-life 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,"
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
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
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 night-life 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
Within the African American night-life world, there's a booming salsa
scene, led by the Soulsa group that holds lessons at DC 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 (see story, Page 35). "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
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
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
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
"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?
FEEL THE MUSIC
If you're just delving into the world of salsa, picking the right music
important first step. I've asked some folks on the local scene to pick some
titles that they would consider a solid foundation for a salsa music
collection. Many of these CDs are compilations, and if you're wondering
where to buy them, one of the area's best selections of salsa CDs is at
Warehouse International at Baileys Crossroads, though the downtown
Tower and area Borders and Best Buy stores are doing a good job
keeping lots of salsa in stock as well.
Nancy Alonso -- hosts "The Latin Flavor" radio program, Monday nights
at 9 p.m. on WPFW 89.3 FM, and also DJs the Friday night dance party
at the Havana Cafe in Arlington:
1. "Cuba L.A." by Cuba L.A.
2. "Yo Soy Del Son a la Salsa" by various artists
3. "The Buena Vista Social Club" by Ry Cooder & the Buena Vista Social
4. "Live in Puerto Rico 1994" by the Fania All-Stars
5. "Salsa Dance: The Rough Guide" by various artists
6. "The Magic of Salsa . . . Ayer y Hoy" by various artists
7. "From the Beginning" by Marc Anthony
8. "Quien Mato a Hector Lavoe?" by original off-broadway cast
9. "El Rumbero del Piano" by Eddie Palmieri
10. "Viva Cubop!: Jazz the Afro-Cuban Way" by various artists
Jeri Dembrak -- dance instructor and salsa promoter with
Top five recent releases:
1. "Contra La Corriente" by Marc Anthony
2. "Herido" by Jose Alberto "El Canario"
3. "Inconfundible" by Victor Manuelle
4. "Back to the Future" by Willie Rosario
5. "Una Voz Mil Recuerdos" by Cheo Feliciano
Top five compilations for dance students:
1. "Salsa 32: Se Bota La Salsa" by various artists (two volumes)
2. "Salsa Mascara" by various artists (Gold Series)
3. "Salsa Buscadas" by various artists (two volumes)
4. "Echale Salsita" by various artists
5. "La Combinacion Perfecta" by various artists
Top five all-time favorites:
1. "Te Invita" by the Alegre All Stars
2. "De Regreso" by the Puerto Rico All Stars
3. "Jerry Masucci's Super Salsa Singers" by various artists (three volumes)
4. "Cobarde" by Impacto Crea
5. "Rikoson" by Rikoson
Eileen Torres -- dance instructor and salsa historian with
(In alphabetical order)
1. "Back to the Mambo" by Jose Alberto
2. "From the Beginning" by Marc Anthony
3. "The Best of . . . " by Cheo Feliciano
4. "3 Con Cache" by Gilberto, Willie and Tony
5. "Grandes Hits" by Grupo Gale
6. "12 Anos" by Grupo Niche
7. "Gold" by Eddie Palmieri
8. "Greatest Hits" by Ray Sepulveda
9. "Afuera" by Bobby Valentin
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