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Salsa In Estonia: Erasing Traces Of Lenin


September 14, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

GET DOWN: Kaitlin, who didn't give her last name, tries out a Latin beat at a salsa club in Tallinn, Estonia's capital.

I finally worked up the nerve to take salsa lessons. But not at a dance studio in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Strange though it may seem, I took my first tentative salsa steps in Estonia -- the northernmost of the Baltic States.

In this Nordic land of dark, brutal winters, summer is as short as the skirts worn by ubiquitous six-foot blondes. But while sun can't seem to melt the stoic Estonian demeanor, salsa's Afro-Cuban rhythms may have done the trick.

Allow me to explain.

Triinu Onton, a 21-year-old Estonian beauty, is a salsa lover. Such provocative dancing might have been unthinkable from 1944 to 1991 when the country endured a repressive occupation by the former Soviet Union.

Had couples been caught dancing salsa during the 4-year occupation by Nazi Germany (1941-1944), they might have been arrested by Gestapo agents. But in 1991, when the yoke of communism lifted and Estonia gained its long-awaited independence, the country began to change.

Estonian replaced Russian as the country's official language. Bananas, a previously unattainable fruit, suddenly appeared in local supermarkets. MTV began broadcasting.

And on one fateful day nearly seven years ago, Miguel Verdecia arrived in Tallinn, the capital.

''I was working at the Eeslitall Hotel in Old Town when I first saw him,'' says Triinu.

``I walked into a ballroom and there were all these people dancing to this incredible music. A good-looking guy [Miguel] was in front, showing the dance steps to everyone.''


So began Triinu's love affair. Not with Miguel (the Cuban dance instructor is married to a Finnish woman), but with salsa music, dance and Latin culture.

She took dance classes with Miguel and joined a local club for salsa devotees. She immersed herself in salsa music and practiced the dance steps relentlessly. She enrolled in a language course and learned to speak Spanish fluently, thanks in part to hours spent deciphering lyrics from hundreds of salsa tunes.

And while other Estonian girls her age tripped to the latest techno music, Triinu danced the night away to the music of Los Van Van, one of Cuba's most prolific bands. Her favorite singer? Celia Cruz, the undisputed Queen of Salsa.

Over time, the young Estonian grew to worship the aging Cuban singer and her music. In 2001 she spent a fortune on a ticket to what would be Celia's final concert in Helsinki, Finland, and one of her last performances ever (the singer died in July 2003, at the age of 78). But shortly before one of the most anticipated moments of her life, Triinu seriously injured her knee in a bicycle accident. A doctor told her she might never dance again.

On the day of the concert Triinu ignored her doctor's orders and removed the metal leg brace she'd been forced to wear. She slipped into a sexy dress, rode the high-speed ferry across the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to Helsinki, and then limped into the auditorium to watch her idol perform. Inspired by sizzling salsa sounds belted out by the legendary singer and her band, Triinu danced all night on a knee that would soon require surgery.

''It was worth it,'' she says. ``I live to salsa.''

I first met Triinu during a visit to Tallinn two years ago. She immediately invited me to Club Havana, a restaurant/dance club where she had recently begun giving salsa lessons to fellow Estonians.

Dripping in sweat, she motioned for me to join her on the dance floor. Embarrassed, I retreated to a far corner of the room and watched the lesson from a distance.


But during my current trip to Tallinn, I loosened up.

With tropical murals on the interior walls, Cuban-themed Club Havana seems glaringly out of place among the 14th-century cathedrals and bell towers of Tallinn's renovated Old Town. I left the quiet cobblestone streets, stepped inside the club and into a powerful wave of salsa music that seemed to roll in from the faraway Caribbean.

It was Friday night in the Baltics. Salsa Night! The club bulged with Tallinn's small but devoted Latin-loving crowd. While the few expert dancers twisted and turned expertly with their partners, a larger number of wannabes, me included, tried in vain to move our feet . . . one, two, three, four . . . one, two, three, four . . .

Triinu, who now moves like a panther, was there as well. Led by a tall, blond Estonian who resembled Swedish actor Dolf Lundgren but worked his hips a bit (just a bit) like Puerto Rican crooner Ricky Martin, she spun around the dance floor as if rollerblades had been attached to her high heels. Miguel was there too, having arrived from Helsinki with Carlos Correa, a fellow Cuban salsa instructor at Baila Baila (, one of Finland's premier Latin dance schools.

Together the two salsa experts form ''Miguel and Company,'' and conduct a series of ''salsa nights'' at Club Havana. Both men took turns at the D.J. booth. They would cue up a record, let it spin, and then leap onto the dance floor in perfect step with a conga line that might have been in San Juan or Santo Domingo, if not for the preponderance of blond-haired, blue-eyed salsa dancers who spoke with Estonian accents.

Triinu was good enough to spend a few moments assisting the salsa-challenged. She danced beside me, imploring me to follow her lead.

But in the end, Miguel beckoned her to center stage, and they showed everybody how salsa should be danced.

As for Triinu's troubled knee? Judging by the hours she spent twirling on the dance floor, it seems to be working just fine.

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