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The Toronto Star

It's Not Dance. It's Life

It's Been Two Days Since Your Last Taste Of Salsa, And You're Already Starving You Have To Ask Someone To Dance, Often A Stranger, Writes Melissa Leong

By Iván Román

March 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Toronto Star. All rights reserved. 

'People become salsa addicts'

"We should consider every day lost in which we have not danced at least once."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

The rest of the day is just filler.

You survive until night, because that's when your body comes alive.

At the office. In a store. On the street. You shimmy, your feet tap, your hips sway - in anticipation.

It's been two days since your last taste of salsa. Already, you're starving.

At 9: 30 p.m., you rush inside Berlin Night Club. It begins with an extended hand. Two people can dance. But if they connect - they are one. And feel like they're on fire.

At the end of the night, you go home soaked in sweat, face flushed, heart pounding, a mix of floral, fruity and spicy cologne on your skin. Aching for the next time.

For salsa lovers, Toronto's the hottest spot in Canada; every day of the week, hundreds go Latin dancing at clubs. They have about 30 haunts to choose from and the dance floors are always jammed.

"Dancing makes you feel vibrant and passionate," says Stephanie Gurnon, a 31-year-old Latin dance instructor. "People quickly become salsa addicts."

Darlene Wang is gripped by "salsa-itis." The 27-year-old advertising account manager hits the clubs with the gang. Her boyfriend, the man who taught her to dance, is from El Salvador. One friend is from Nigeria, another from Palestine. The United Nations goes salsa, as she calls them.

"The beauty of it is it doesn't matter from what background you are," says Giovanni Torres of the Los Salsomanos dance company and school. He teaches at Berlin every week.

"Dancing-wise, we all speak the same language."

Salsa is a Latin-American partner dance. You move to music characterized by Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Cuban big-band melodies, a bit of jazz and a bit of rock. The dance originated in Cuba, though the word "salsa" was coined in New York, where it boomed in the '70s.

You walk into a club. Spinning bodies on the dance floor. Lights red, energy so strong it pushes back. And something in you understands. You need to move.

What's getting to you is the music. It's contagious.

DJ Fab "Salsero," who spins Latin songs at The Courthouse (57 Adelaide St. W.) on Fridays and the Left Bank (567 Queen St. W.) on Sundays, says dancers have to feel the music. "If it doesn't penetrate your soul, it won't transfer to your body."

On the polished dance floor at The Courthouse, under high ceilings and chandeliers, Rene Delgado, a teacher with dance school United Salseros, watches fiancee Michele Tanchoco spin.

She's a blur. Like a spinning top. Dark hair fanning out.

When Delgado was learning the dance eight years ago he was too scared to dance with her, he says. When you're first learning - when the music has yet to become your heartbeat - you trip, you stumble. You wrestle your partner. Literally. Wacking them in the face with your elbow. Twisting their arm the wrong way. "I looked like a discombobulated fool for three weeks," says salsa-freak Wang, who started taking dance classes at Ryerson University 10 months ago.

"I had no co-ordination. Nothing."

It's harder for men to learn, because they lead. It's their job to make the girl look good. And a beginner's first time at a salsa club is often an ego crusher.

Ziv Kenet was the victim of countless "mercy dances."

"I had nights when I was rejected so many times," says the 27-year-old, who runs - a Web site devoted to salsa in the city - with Rose Lau.

"The one or two girls who said 'yes' were better than me and they made sure that I knew it was a favour."

But you become determined to get better. To show up that person who "mercy danced" with you. With practise and good instructors, you could be a star, Lau says; most people whet their appetite for salsa by taking the free classes offered at different clubs before the dance floor opens.

"It takes time to learn, but it's so much fun," says Peter Djakovic, who has introduced hundreds of people to salsa over the past 10 years, through his Toronto-based company Dancing Thru Life.

He stresses breaking down the steps and the need to be totally aware of your partner. But beyond technique, he said, it's still about sensuality, flirtation and physical expression.

And soon, you're a regular. You walk into Babaluu in Yorkville and kiss both cheeks of the other regulars.

You get used to being slick with sweat and half-expect your feet to be crushed by someone's high heel.

You practice your cross-body leads and your shining (dance moves done solo) in the airport, at the bank.

Your wardrobe becomes divided into salsa clothes and non-salsa clothes.

And no one cares who you are during the day. It's what you can do right there, right now.

Salsa clubs are an alternative to the clubbing scene, Wang says.

"I never found (the club scene) fun," Wang says. She shakes her head and the fake fuchsia orchid in her hair doesn't move. "I always felt it was missing something."

Salsa is intimate. You have to ask someone to dance, often a stranger. The men put firm hands around hips or on bare backs, and the women sling arms around shoulders and necks.

How else can you press your body against a stranger and not have them strike you?

Dance teacher Gurnon says people are yearning to connect with others. "Salsa's the perfect medium."

It's an icebreaker and transcends age and culture, she says.

Toronto's salsa scene is more than 10 years old, though it has changed much in that time. It began in Latin clubs, with a mostly Hispanic crowd. One of the first clubs was El Rancho (430 College St.), which is still kicking.

Frank Russo, a promoter for The Courthouse, says that when salsa night started two years ago, its success surprised him. "It's not a fad," he says. "Salsa's here to stay."

Five years ago, the dance was different. Most salsa dancers moved side-to-side or Cuban-style. But some Toronto instructors saw what was danced in New York and L.A. and wanted to bring it here. Now, more dancers do the mambo step, moving forward and back.

"It's boring," says 43-year-old Alberto Gomez of the new style. He's been dancing for 23 years. "There's no feeling. People dance too mechanical and they look like robots.

"It's not real Latin-style. It's something totally different."

It hurts Ana Hovanessian to dance. But she and her partner, Orville Small, have places to go. Small and Hovanessian, who's had back pain ever since she started salsa dancing three years ago, will perform and teach in Ireland, Chicago, Texas and Vancouver in the next six months.

In November, the duo won a competition at a salsa congress in San Fransisco - as many as 3,000 dancers from around the world gather at salsa congresses, which are held throughout the year and organized by different groups (professional organizations, informal salsa organizations, clubs). The first was in 1997 in Puerto Rico.

Anyone can dance, says Small, a respiratory practitioner at St. Michael's Hospital. (He banks a lot of overtime to be able to travel).

"People's passion for salsa has nothing to do with how good they are."

Salsa is like a love affair - powerful, intense, consuming. You may walk away from the scene. But, you'll come back.

And when you do, it'll still be hot.

Toronto by the numbers

The dance

25: Salsa Club listings in

36: Beats to a bar in a salsa dance

83,245: People who have Spanish as their Mother Tongue in Toronto, CMA (2001)

76,860: Number of people in Toronto, CMA, listing Latin, Central or South American as their ethnic origin (2001)

2,160: People of Cuban ethnic origin in Toronto, CMA (2001)

5: Regular scheduled weekly flights to Havana, Cuba from Pearson International Airport

44: Dancers in Burn The Floor at the Hummingbird Centre

$10-$15: Average cost per hour to learn salsa in a class

$40-$60: Average cost per hour to learn salsa in a private lesson

Compiled by Peggy Mackenzie / Star Library

All week long

Tuesday: Berlin, 2335 Yonge St. Beginners lessons: 7: 30 p.m. Intermediate: 8: 30 p.m. (dance on Tuesdays only)

Wednesday: Babaluu, 136 Yorkville

Lessons: 9 p.m. (dance Wednesdays to Fridays and Sundays)

Thursday: Lula Lounge 1585 Dundas St. W. Lessons on Saturday and Sunday: 9 p.m. (dance Wednesdays to Sundays)

Friday: The Courthouse, 10 Court St. Lessons: 9 p.m. (dance Fridays only)

Saturday: Plaza Flamingo 423 College St. Lessons: 8: 30 p.m. (dance Fridays and Saturdays)

Sunday: El Rancho, 430 College St. Lessons: 7 p.m. Sunday (dance Thursdays to Sundays)

Monday: Practice at home

Vincent Talotta/toronto star Dancers Ana Hovanessian and Orville Small have places to go, performing and teaching in Ireland, Chicago, Texas and Vancouver in the next six months. In November, the duo won a competition at a salsa congress in San Fransisco.Vince Talotta/TORONTO STAR Orville Small and Ana Hovanessian tear up the floor and salsa dance at the Berlin Night Club. "People's passion for salsa has nothing to do with how good they are," says Small.

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