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The Nation (Thailand)
November 28, 2003
The revolution continues.
Latin cool could be making a comeback in Bangkok, between rock legend Santana's recent sell-out concert and the Cuban dance extravaganza 'Havana Night' in town this weekend.
The global Latin explosion can be traced to Puerto Rico-born Ricky Martin's hip-swinging performance in front of an international television audience at the 1999 Grammy Awards, singing "Livin' la Vida Loca".
It wasn't long before a host of crossover Hispanic pop singers " including Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Shakira " were doing the same. Combined with the worldwide success of music from 'Buena Vista Social Club', Latin music and dancing salsa suddenly became the in thing.
In Thailand, the local glitterati didn't miss a beat, with TV actress Nusaba Vanichangkoon opening Thailand's first all-Latin bar, Que Pasa on Silom Soi 4, and later a salsa nightclub, Baila Baila on Ekkamai Soi 4. Media stars Sonia Cooling and Duangta Tungkamanmee also encouraged the craze, swinging their hips to Afro-Cuban tunes on their TV shows. All of sudden everyone was at it.
Three years ago, Bangkok was undergoing a mini-Cuban revolution, with nightclubs like La Havana, El Nino/La Nina, Salsa Club, Cubanos and Casa Salsa opening across the city. But it wasn't just the music that was new: musicians and dance instructors from Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and Chile were also appearing regularly at these venues.
But unlike other cities experiencing a salsa explosion and then keeping it going as a permanent fixture, for most Thais, it was just a craze that came to an end after 18 months.
"Thais are a very fashion conscious people, and the whole Latin thing for them is a fashion," says Arpo "Pom" Meksawad, 30, owner of La Rueda, a salsa club in the Sukhumvit district.
For a while, salsa dancing looked like an endangered species as fickle celebrities moved on to the next big thing, just as the new 2am closing time was enforced and police began to clamp down on bars with live music and dance floors.
"The early closing cut our earnings between 30 and 50 per cent," says Oscar Lezama, a Colombian national who managed La Nina at the President Hotel, one of Bangkok's longest lasting Latin dance venues before it closed last year.
But it's not all doom and gloom for the Latin scene today. The number of venues may have shrunk and all the clubs of old have closed down, but there are still places to dance for people in the know.
On a narrow slither of Soi 18 off Sukhumvit, La Rueda, Thailand"s only exclusively salsa bar, has been serving up mojitos and salsa six nights a week since opening in 2001. The bar, which began as a Latin dance studio in 2000, is named after a popular Cuban dance group, La Rueda de Casino ("the roulette wheel"), in which four or more couples dance in a circle.
Pom opened the bar with two Cubans who had come to Bangkok as part of a band hired to play at Senor Pico's Mexican restaurant at the Rembrandt Hotel. Her partners have since left, but Pom continues to run the club on her own. La Rueda's attractions are its relaxed atmosphere and mixed crowd, as well as the free salsa lessons.
"People come here because it"s cosy and not so snobbish,' says Pom.
"I like it here because it's not sleazy. It's not a pick-up joint and there is no expectation that you're here for that," says Iffaf Khan from Glasgow, who started learning salsa in April.
Jiraroj Tikkawee, 32, who hosts the club"s English-language salsa lessons, says the classes have been growing over the past five months, with Thais comprising around 30 or 40 per cent of his students.
"My classes are about having fun and are for people who've never taken dance lessons before," says Jiraroj, who began dancing in 1999 in San Francisco while doing an MBA there.
Customers also like the music, which, apart from your garden-variety salsa, can flick between Colombian vallenato, merengue from the Dominican Republic, Cuban timba or even zouk, a dance popular in the French-speaking Caribbean islands.
In August, the Conrad Hotel began holding a salsa night every Wednesday called the 'Cuban Revolucion', at their sophisticated Club 87, run by Greco Mora, a Cuban dance instructor, who also oversees the Greco Salsa Studio in Chitlom. Walking into La Rueda or Club 87, you may feel surrounded by experienced dancers, but plenty of beginners are increasingly claiming their ground on the packed dance floors.
While scores come to try their hand at Latin dance, getting Thai men to overcome a reluctance to dance in public is a major, although not insurmountable, obstacle, says Poonyapa Dhanwilai, a Latin ballroom instructor at the Dance Centre and School of Performing Arts, on Sukhumvit 49/9.
Poonyapa urges her students who are serious about dance to take up Latin ballroom, but she suggests that newcomers first try their hand at Salsa. Unlike the ballroom tradition, Cuban salsa offers the average person a taste of Latin dance without making any strict demands on students.
'Ballroom is about posture and perfection, but salsa is more about the heart than the head. That's the attraction,' says Pom, who grew up in a family of ballroom dancers.
'You learn some simple steps, then you improvise. That's it,' Pom says.
WHERE TO GO:
The main clubs to dance salsa are La Rueda, or Club 87 on Wednesdays. The Talisman puts on occasional Latin nights, usually with a live band, and Mexican restaurant Senor Pico has a Cuban band playing six nights a week.
Just inside Sukhumvit Soi 18, near the Asoke BTS station.
Open every evening except Sunday until 2am.
The Cuban Revolucion
Club 87, Conrad Hotel, All Seasons Place, Wireless Road,
near the Chitlom BTS station.
Tel: (02) 690 9087
Wednesday nights only, no cover charge.
Sukhumvit Soi 20 between Phrom Phrong and Asoke BTS
Telephone: (09) 501 9433 (Oscar)
Some weekend evenings, with Bt400 cover charge, which
includes two drinks.
The Rembrandt Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 18 near Asoke BTS
Telephone: (02) 261 7100
The Cuban band Candilejas plays every night except Monday.
WHERE TO LEARN:
See venue details above
Free classes with Jiraroj Tikkawee or Roj are held on Thursday
evenings: Intermediate classes are from 7 to 7.30pm and
Beginner"s classes are from 8.30 to 9.30pm.
Pom also offers private lessons in her dance studio upstairs,
Bt5,000 for 10 classes. Telephone (02) 261 9669 or
(01) 811 4103 or e-mail <a href='mailto:email@example.com'>firstname.lastname@example.org</a>.
Greco Salsa Studio
or e-mail <a href='mailto:email@example.com'>firstname.lastname@example.org</a>.
Dance Centre (for Latin Ballroom)
ON THE WEB:
If you want to take your dancing shoes with you, check this website on where to salsa around around the world: http://salsapower.com/cities/bangkok.htm
For information about a new Thai salsa association which organises salsa events, visit thailandsalsaclub.com