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Dancing The Salsa All Night And Day

Hone Your Moves At Weeklong Event

By DAVID MEDINA, Courant Staff Writer

September 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Popular dance forms, and the music that gives rise to them, are very liberating.

Whether they communicate the lament of the tango, the nobility of the waltz or the seductiveness of samba, when dances catch on and endure, they allow everyone to embrace a particular culture's take on how to (and how not to) delight in life.

In Puerto Rico, where inhabitants will turn even a wait at the checkout line into an occasion for merrymaking, the inborn sense that enjoying the ride is far more important than reaching the destination is communicated through salsa.

It's an attitude that the rest of world has embraced. Salsa dance clubs exist in almost every major city, and the music's top recording artists, nearly all of them based in Puerto Rico, spend more time on the road than they do at home.

For a U.S. territory that's seen a lot of its Latin culture vanish, its dance sensation's going international is a big deal. Check any travel brochure or tourist website on Puerto Rico, and salsa ranks high among the attractions.

To further capitalize on salsa's global appeal, the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., a public corporation, sponsors and markets the annual Puerto Rico Salsa Congress, an awesome event held on the final week of July. About 1,200 of the best dancers on the planet - and many who wish they were - came this year to study, perform, compete and play.

For a registration fee of $400, participants had full access to a wide range of activities centered at the Wyndham El San Juan Hotel. Dancers could, if they had the will and the stamina, salsa their fool heads off around-the-clock for a week. Take it from a novice who tried. If you haven't lost your inhibitions about dancing by the time the congress ends, you never will.

A typical day begins at 10 a.m. with three hours of workshops - about a dozen to choose from - on everything from basic footwork for beginners to the newest techniques for seasoned professionals.

It's best to get there on time. The classes get packed - heaven forbid that a salsero should miss a chance to add another killer move to his or her arsenal - and most instructors, not all, will graciously repeat the same turn pattern a thousand times until you get it.

For a rank amateur like me, the workshops were a real confidence booster. I realized I knew more than I thought I knew.

After workshops, registrants either hit the restaurants and beaches or spend their afternoons in a rehearsal studio practicing for a nightly stage show that runs from 8 to 10 p.m.

Each show features about a dozen troupes and couples, chosen from videotapes submitted in advance, premiering choreographed routines. Dancers came from Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Holland, Mexico, Switzerland, most of the nations in Central and South America, major U.S. urban centers (including the Hartford area), and, of course, Puerto Rico, to impress their toughest audience: fellow salseros.

Legs and bodies take flight in wondrous, never-imagined ways. And when something truly dazzling happens on stage, the cheering that erupts can be heard for blocks.

Social dancing, until 4:30 a.m., follows every show. Any two of salsa's top ensembles provide the music - take your pick:El Gran Combo, La Sonora Poncena, Jose "El Canario" Alberto, Andy Montanez, Roberto Roena, Willie Rosario or Bobby Valentin.

The hotel ballroom is a splendor of fit, buffed, bare-shouldered women in high heels and dresses that seem more like low-cut brassieres with short wrap-around extensions. Males, cruising the dance floor for ideal partners, wear party shirts, tucked out and occasionally sleeveless. Some sport a distinctive hat to draw attention. The battle to stand out in that sea of exceptional talent is fierce.

For someone accustomed to the salsa clubs of Greater Hartford and New Haven, dances at the congress could be intimidating. It took two days to muster up the nerve to get on the floor, and I had to be dragged in at that. But once I crossed the threshold, wild horses couldn't keep me away.

Most congress participants are likely to sleep after the social dancing. A few diehards, however, greet the dawn in after-hours hours salsa clubs a short distance from the hotel.

Workshops resume promptly at 10 a.m., subject to last-minute changes, depending on whether the instructor is able to roll out of bed. Here and there, a dancer staggers into class wearing pajamas or the previous night's outfit, mascara running down her face, ready for another day of this deliciously exhausting itinerary.

In terms of impact on Puerto Rico's economy, the off-season congress is one of the island's largest yearly attractions, according to Marco Gonzalez, who heads special events for the tourism company. It began in 1997 at the Caribe Hilton Hotel, with about 300 attendees.

This year, although final figures aren't in, the congress was expected to pump a minimum of $1.2 million into the economy.

Eli Irizarry, a former sportswriter for El Nuevo Dia newspaper, is the man most credited with originating the congress. At the time, salsa had taken a back seat to merengue, a Dominican import. Hardly alone among the brooding salseros, Irizarry said he searched the Internet for salsa and got more than 380,000 hits.

"Half of them were for food. The other half were sites for dance schools, clubs, recordings, musicians and dance groups. That's when the concept for the congress hit me."

Irizarry's idea was simple: Gather the best of the best dancers to refine and promote the craft. Besides workshops, stage shows and social dancing, the congress includes competition among children's groups, adult groups and couples, and a certification program - complete with a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony - for salsa instructors.

"Why not? It's our music. San Juan is a short plane ride from anywhere. The best musicians all live here. The beach and hotels are down the street from the airport. And nobody puts conventions together better than we do," Irizarry said.Irizarry talked the tourism company into providing modest support the first year, and before long, he was running an economic-development engine steeped in cultural nationalism.

Today, dozens of cities the world over stage salsa assemblies modeled more or less after Irizarry's. His former business associates, for example, who in an ongoing legal dispute retained the event's original trademark name, held a rival gathering 11/2 hours from San Juan, in Ponce, to much less attendance.

"Eli's reputation has a lot to do with it, too," said Sandi Rodriguez, whose six-member group of 10- to 18-year-old girls from the Areyto Latin Dance Studio in East Hartford placed fourth this year in the youth group competition. "There's always room for improvement, but when he gives you his word, he keeps it." Translation: Irizarry pays the help well and on time. Everything runs smoothly.

For the uninitiated, salsa is basically a series of six steps imposed over two measures of music (eight beats) that propel a dancer back and forth and side to side: left, right, left, pause; right, left, right, pause. Simple as they seem, the steps lend themselves to an infinite number of glamorous spins, turns and footwork, limited only by the dancer's creativity and desire to have a good time.

Therein lies salsa's universal charm.

The dance form has existed under various names for ages. At first, couples restricted themselves to the basic steps and an occasional turn, and the music was scripted.

Today's salsa actually originated in New York City, an outgrowth of the mass migration of Puerto Ricans there in the 1950s and 1960s and of the Cuban embargo. Bandleaders such as Tito Puente began blending American jazz improvisations with innovations they picked up from exiled Cuban musicians and from short-wave radio broadcasts from the forbidden island.

Eventually, the experimentation evolved into a distinctive musical style, which encouraged more movement. A new generation of musicians - Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and others - had taken over. In the 1970s, Fania Records of New York, which had many of those musicians under contract, decided to market the new sound as "salsa," the Spanish word for sauce, and the name caught on.

At some point in the 1980s, musicians in Puerto Rico added their own embellishments, and the center of gravity shifted back to the island, where it remains.

Ruth Dorotheo, a professional who performed at the congress with the 30-member Salsa Team Canada from Toronto, said salsa enables her to incorporate elements of other dance forms she knows, at a much faster pace.

"For any dancer, that's a great rush," she said. "It's even greater when you're doing it here in San Juan."

Robert Chrosicki, a businessman from Manhattan and a fairly good dancer, said he attended for a different kind of rush: "I just come to hang out with gorgeous Puerto Rican women."

David Medina, when not doing the salsa, writes editorials for The Courant.



September 7, 2004

*A story on Page F1 Sunday about the annual Puerto Rico Salsa Congress in San Juan incorrectly characterized Puerto Rico as having seen much of its Latin culture vanish. In fact, the many expressions of Latin culture on the island are thriving.

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