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by Karl Ho
10 October 2004
The sizzling salsa dance is steaming up the dancefloors of Singapore, as more people get into its moves and grooves
UNLIKE many other guys his age, full-time national serviceman Wee Tze Yi's idea of partying isn't a crazy night out at Zouk.
Instead, the 20-year-old heads to Union Square at The Amara hotel for a hot night of salsa dancing.
'People my age have a misconception of social dancing. They think it involves old men in tight trousers tucked really high up and long-sleeved lycra shirts open all the way to the navel,' says Mr Wee.
Instead, his dance outfit of choice is usually a white, collared top with matching flat-front trousers and jazz shoes.
The fresh-faced young man started taking salsa lessons two years ago and now dances four times a week. He has even convinced some friends to pick it up.
'The first thing my friends asked me was 'Are you gay?', to which I replied: 'No. If you're a good dancer, all the girls will dance with you',' Mr Wee says.
Salsa hit the scene here six years ago when a handful of visiting instructors from countries like Brazil and Mexico taught it in places such as the YMCA.
The origins of salsa are vague because the dance has so many Latin American influences that no one can be sure which country 'invented' it.
But many believe it to be a street dance derived from Afro-Cuban music and the Cuban mambo. It was brought over to American cities by migrating Latin Americans in the mid-1900s.
The provocative music and dance was then given the name 'salsa', after the spicy sauce used in Latin American diets.
With fewer tricky steps to remember than other Latin dances such as the rhumba, and packing more verve and spontaneity, salsa has become very popular with the younger set, says dance instructor Gupson Pierre, 38.
The Haiti-born Canadian is one of the foreign talents credited with helping develop the salsa scene here. He opened Attitude Dance Studio in 1998.
Says dance veteran Shawn Tay, 43, a member of the International Dance- Sport Federation: 'You can also improvise in salsa and put in jazz or hip-hop moves. As long as you keep to the time, you're not wrong.'
He and his wife run a dance studio called Shawn & Gladys DanceWorld at Bras Basah Complex.
There are currently about 350 salsa regulars here, compared to roughly 50 in 1998.
Attitude's first class in 1998, for instance, had 15 students. Now, it has 360 students in 12 weekly classes.
Another school, LA Dance Connection, has seen a 10-fold increase in enrolment to an estimated 1,000 students this year compared to 100 six years ago.
Even the People's Association has introduced salsa to the heartlands in its community clubs. The number of students increased from 82 last year to 460 this year.
Instructors say the new fans are usually in their 20s to 30s. They range from university students to lawyers to Japanese housewives.
One reason for salsa's allure is that it is a social activity where it is perfectly acceptable to ask strangers in a club for a dance, says instructor Firhana Alsagoff of Attitude.
Indeed, when LifeStyle visited Union Square on Tuesday, even I was approached for a dance.
'Other more formal dances, like ballroom dancing, are monogamous dances, where you have a partner whom you're accustomed to,' says Ms Alsagoff.
'But if you're good, you can go up to anybody in a salsa club in any part of the world, and both of you can have the time of your lives on the dance floor.'
Management trainer Sam Lee, 32, agrees.
'The salsa club is the best hunting ground. You know how peacocks dance as a mating call, right?' says the man who took up salsa two years ago.
And if critics think that salsa is a passing fad, its supporters beg to differ, pointing to its growing popularity worldwide.
Mr Pierre says there are currently 12 international congresses held in countries like South Korea, the United States and Norway where fans perform, network and learn new moves.
At home, clubs like Union Square have benefited from the demand for salsa. Union Square became a full-fledged salsa club in October 2003 after launching Thursday salsa nights in 2001.
It was originally a dance club that played different kinds of music, from top 40 hits to drum 'n' bass.
Still, there have been Latin music clubs in the past like Mambo Kings and Latinos which have come and gone.
So what will keep salsa going?
Mr Tay says: 'There are dances that will come and go, like one-hit wonders lambada and the macarena, but salsa is a dance associated with a particular rhythm.
'If people still use that rhythm for their songs, there'll always be salsa.'
Log on to go.to to find out more about salsa in Singapore.
Falling under the spell of salsa
Mr Webster Low and his wife, Cindy
AT 120kg, salsa enthusiast Webster Low, 33, doesn't fit the stereotype of the lithe Latin dance machine.
But when LifeStyle saw him on the dancefloor at salsa club Union Square last Tuesday, he was twisting and twirling his partner as nimbly as any agile, hot-blooded man.
The area manager for an electrical components firm took his first class at the YMCA in 1998.
'It's a great way to meet girls,' he admits.
He was so crazy about salsa that he helped introduce it to Union Square in 2001 when he and his friends had very few venues to patronise.
'I told the management, let us bring our music, the crowds and see how it goes,' says Low, who now dances about twice a week there. 'It grew from Thursday nights until they play salsa every night now.'
He hosts a website which provides information for the salsa community. When it started in February 2001, it drew 50 members. Now, there are 800 members. Membership is free.
'I'm grateful for salsa. It's given me more confidence, friends for life and my lovely wife, Cindy. Salsa's not a pastime for me now. It's a passion,' says Mr Low, who has been married for 11 months.
The couple met when he was asked by his YMCA instructor to help out in classes which had a shortage of male students.
They dated for 4 1/2 years before getting married. Cindy, 35, is an exhibition manager and they live in a five-room flat in Punggol.
'She had big eyes that spoke volumes, so when they played an extra song at the end of class, I had to ask her for a dance,' he says with a twinkle in his eyes.
Cindy, who was also at the interview, adds: 'At that time, I just wanted to practise. But I soon realised that he was sincere, persistent and cute in a big, teddy-bear way. He also knew how to treat a lady.'
Mr Low says the best way to treat a woman is to be a gentleman on the dancefloor. That's when his size works to his advantage. He can do a dip with Cindy effortlessly and protect her from reckless dancers.
Salsa is also keeping him healthy, though it has not helped him lose weight. A medical checkup last year gave him a clean bill of health. 'The nurse said: 'For a guy your size, you have a strong heart rate and great blood pressure',' he relates.
'It must be the salsa,' he adds with a hearty laugh.
Mr Wee Tze Yi and Ms Nicole Tan
SHE is a sexy and worldly-wise lawyer while he is a fresh-faced NSman.
Meet Ms Nicole Tan, 29, and Mr Wee Tze Yi, 20, who have been dating for six months.
When LifeStyle met them at Attitude Dance Studio last Wednesday evening, the salsa lovers were dancing away with arms intertwined and eyes locked in a passionate gaze.
'My parents don't really approve of us, but they know that if I wanted to get up to nonsense, I'd have done so when I was studying in Australia,' Mr Wee says.
Ms Tan adds: 'It was a gradual thing that happened over time, not a raging inferno of passion, although salsa was a catalyst for our relationship.'
Her parents know she is dating a younger man, but not the exact age difference.
Ms Tan picked up salsa at the studio about two years ago just to try something new. Mr Wee started taking lessons there about a month after her. He was bowled over while attending a salsa event at the Singapore Island Country Club with his mother.
They crossed paths when he asked her for a dance at the Union Square salsa club in April last year. They became friends and dance partners, taking part in the Malaysian Open Salsa Competition in October that year and coming in second.
Now, the couple perform at corporate events and Latin festivals here and overseas, such as the 2004 West Coast Salsa Congress in Los Angeles.
They credit the social nature of salsa for bringing them together.
'I can't begin to count how many girls I've asked to dance,' Mr Wee says.
He adds with a boyish grin: 'But she's the one I'm giving my heart to now.'
As for Ms Tan, she has dated younger men before but they were never as young as Mr Wee.
She says marriage is far from their minds now. Mr Wee, after all, will be going to Los Angeles for studies after national service.
'Life is short, so when a good thing comes along, you go for it,' Ms Tan says.
Hot, hot, hot
Latin culture charms the world
FROM Ricky Martin to Ronaldo, bossa nova to Argentinian tango, Latin American culture has made its presence felt here.
Be it the result of globalisation, influx of Latin American expats or rise of Latin superstars such as Jennifer Lopez, Singaporeans are realising there is more to Latin America than La Bamba.
'Latin America is rich with cultural heritage, natural resources and is a growing economy. It's an exciting place to be in,' says Ms Alejandra Grobet, president of Latin Circle, an association for the Spanish-speaking community in Singapore.
Latin America refers to the countries from South and Central America, and the Caribbean islands. Countries include Cuba, Puerto Rico and Brazil.
With Latin Americans migrating to the rest of the world in the mid-1900s, their cultures evolved and incorporated influences from their host countries.
Most of the Latin American cultural imports in this region are hybrids. The famous bossa nova standard, Girl From Ipanema (1964), for instance, was a collaboration between American jazz saxaphonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto.
Experts say the culture came into the limelight again in the late 1990s with pop icons like Martin and Enrique Iglesias.
In Singapore, Latin culture comes in many guises. There are restaurants such as El Patio in Holland Village, Latin festivals in Chijmes, and Brazilian and Mexican films.
People dance to music from bands like Buena Vista Social Club and learn the salsa or merengue.
There was even an economic networking forum called LatinAsia Biz 2004 held here on Sept 15.
Colombian dance instructor Eddy Johanna says the appeal of Latin America lies in its 'passionate and hot-blooded people'.
'When people see us dance, it's not just the technique, it's also how we feel it in our hearts,' says the woman who works in salsa club Union Square.
Dance instructor Gupson Pierre believes multi-racial Singapore can relate to the tropical climate and cultural diversity of Latin America: 'People think Singaporeans are not daring but that's not true. When you see the girls here, you think 'They're hot'.
'And that's how Latin American culture is like, too: spicy, hot and easily acceptable in Singapore.'
Perfecting the flick and dip
Where to learn:
Attitude Dance Studio70 Palmer Road, #02-01, Palmer House (off Shenton Way)Tel: 6226-2381 www.asiasalsa.comFounded by Haiti-born Gupson Pierre, one of the pioneers of salsa in Singapore. Lessons start from $70 for five one-hour lessons for beginners to $90 for advanced modules.
JJSalsaRengue@anceHub 24A Murray Street, 2nd floor, Murray Terrace (opposite Maxwell Hawker Centre)Tel: 9671-8985 www.jjsalsarengue.comJJ stands for June Gan and Jackson Tan, a couple. Started in 2001. Lessons cost $80 for six beginner sessions and $90 for six advanced sessions.
LA Dance ConnectionTel: 6244-8782 www.ladanceconnection.comSet up by Los Angeles native Lionel Araya over a year ago. Because it does not have its own dance studio yet, instructors teach at two venues - Jazz Taps Studio at UE Square and the YMCA at Orchard Road. Eight lessons cost $104.
Jitterbugs Swingapore9 Raffles Boulevard, #03-02, Millenia WalkTel: 6887-0383 www.swingapore.comJitterbugs teaches a variety of salsa techniques, such as the Cuban or Los Angeles style. Fees range from $96 (members) to $144 (non-members) for eight beginner lessons. Advanced classes cost $12 (members) or $18 (non-members) per session. Membership fees cost $50 per year; $25 for full-time national servicemen and students.
People's AssociationTwelve community centres and clubs host salsa classes. Fees are $15 (members) and $20 (non-members) for one-off introductory workshops, and $65 (members) and $76 (non-members) for eight sessions. Go to www.pa.gov.sg for more information.
Where to dance:
Union SquareThe Amara, 165 Tanjong Pagar Road, #02-05Tel: 6224-6116The definitive salsa club in Singapore. Opened five years ago by NTUC Club, it plays salsa music every night except Sundays, when it is closed.
Tuesdays are beginners' night when you can bring your own music, while Fridays are ladies' night when women get free drinks. A two-man Latin band from Cuba spices up the salsa beat while a dance instructor offers free tips.
Members of the public pay $6 from Mondays to Thursdays and Saturdays, while union members enter free. On Fridays, ladies go in free while men pay $10 (members) or $15 (non-members) for two drinks.
Xenbar34A, Pagoda StreetTel: 6225-2620Learn salsa in a club setting, as this Argentinian tango-cum-salsa bar offers classes throughout the week. The bar charges $15 for the first drink for men and women.
BrixGrand Hyatt Singapore, 10 Scotts RoadTel: 6416-7107It hosts Latin band Los Caballeros, which performs salsa and merengue numbers on Sunday nights. Admission is free and drink charges apply.
Harry's Bar28, Boat QuayTel: 6538-3029Latin band Alma Latina plays hits every Monday night, except the first Monday of each month. Entrance is free, and drinks cost 20 per cent less compared to other nights.