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Orlando Sentinel

Salsa's Beat Goes On, Uniting Nations, Bonding Generations

By Iván Román

August 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Every time Jhomar Rivera swiveled on the beat or marked a change in the music by slicing his arm through the air, his shiny white outfit with silver sashes shimmered in the bright lights.

And when on that dance floor as big as a basketball court he went down in glittering splits, the crowd roared with applause, dazzled by the child's acrobatic skills to the beat of the salsa classic "Yambú pa' quí."?

At 12, Jhomar's debut in the World Salsa Congress San Juan 2002 was a hit.

Just two years ago, this child from the Manuel A. Pérez public-housing project didn't dream of being on his way to dancing salsa professionally, much less, walking -- or dancing -- away with third place in this year's competition.

"It's a rhythm and flow that you just feel, something really nice," said Jhomar, who is entering the seventh grade. "You feel it and enjoy it for the public. But you have to have that swing inside you."

There was a lot of that swing onstage during the 6th Salsa Congress' 10 days at the Caribe Hilton. And it was brought there from around the world: Canada, the Netherlands, Venezuela, Spain, the United States, Colombia, Italy, Argentina and Mexico, just to name a few.

But it was the youths from Puerto Rico showing up daily with relatives along with hard-core salseros who dished up what only a true cradle of salsa could offer: the cheers and proud applause of those who know that more than music, it's part of who and what they are.

Many Puerto Ricans, particularly those raised to the tunes of the so-called old salsa -- more or less recorded between 1950 and 1980 -- learned to dance almost by osmosis.

With the rhythm genetically implanted, they imitated their parents at house parties when El Gran Combo's "Ojos Chinos [Chinese Eyes]" spun on old phonographs in New York City living rooms.

Or they learned from fabulous couples who drew admiring stares when they grooved to Tito Puente's band playing "Rankankan" in Manhattan's legendary Palladium nightspot.

Or their sons and grandsons got up the courage to practice with a svelte woman in a bikini at a beach festival as Bobby Valentín played "La Boda de Ella [Her Wedding]" under a blazing sun.

That still happens. But now, thanks in part to kids such as Jhomar, salsa, including the old salsa, enjoys a revival that seems to be here to stay, no matter how many also listen to merengue, rock, rap and reggae.

More children and adults are learning it in a more organized or structured way, dancing in choreographed groups, taking large group classes offered by the city of San Juan -- some of them aspiring to be professional salsa dancers and to join a growing worldwide industry.

Jhomar's inspiration was the Jala Jala Dancers, who thrilled the crowd at a local dance studio.

The Salsa Magic Feet group from Canóvanas, one of 16 children's groups at the competition, started with four girls three years ago and now has 22 dancers -- 11 couples -- between 6 and 15 years old.

"The competition existed, but never at this level," said Krisia Torres, 14, a Salsa Magic Feet founder and an aspiring criminal lawyer and choreographer. "This helps me feel more sure of myself, and it keeps people away from the bad things all around us."

And the rhythm keeps spreading to more places around the world.

Marina Prada, a Swede whose father is Venezuelan, came to the Salsa Congress in San Juan two years ago and returned to preach the gospel.

"We started a small salsa club in Sweden because we love what we do, and we're teaching people a lot," said Prada, 41. "Swedish people come to you pretty stiff, and you get them moving, and I love that. And here [in Puerto Rico], it's wonderful. Everybody dances here."

Well, not everyone. But for many, moving to the beat of congas is as natural as breathing, and the hometown crowd didn't let the tourists down.

After giving Jhomar the third-place trophy, the Congress' dancers and the public came together in a tangled mass of salsa, stretched arms, flashy and more-modest turns, and shimmying hips.

With sweat dripping down his forehead, Jhomar handed over the trophy for safekeeping and kept on going. Why?

Pointing to the veins in his wrist, he said, "because it's in here."

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