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The Moves Of Salsa Congress Becoming More Fluent
By Achy Obejas, Special to the Tribune
18 February 2005
Rosita Ragin-Alamin still remembers her first encounter with Latin dancing, back in the early 1960s. "It was at a little club on 63rd Street and Cottage Grove called Basin Street," she says. "I had just moved to Chicago from South Carolina and, though I knew the cha-cha because of Sam Cooke, this was different--this was dancing the likes of which I'd never seen. I was just blown away."
This was highly stylized, passionately sensual mambo--then the rage up and down 63rd Street, which was a whirl of nightlife in those halcyon days.
One of the most formidable dancers on the floor was the very handsome and smooth Saladeen Alamin, who'd already been performing professionally for about a decade. Ragin-Alamin, his future wife--though they wouldn't formally meet until 1979--couldn't take her eyes off him.
These days, the two work together as executive producers of The Chicago International Salsa Congress, which runs through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, 2233 S. Martin Luther King Drive. In its fourth year in Chicago, the conference has grown with each outing, from just under 2,000 in its first year to more than 3,000 participants last year. Ragin-Alamin figures they'll top that easily this time.
For this edition, the Congress features 45 dance and music workshops (including ladies styling, partnering and mambo rhythms), showcases for professionals and aficionados alike and nightly concerts, including shows by Andy Montanez Friday and a blowout concert headlined by the legendary Eddie Palmieri on Sunday.
"Our intention is to be informative, educational, multicultural and multigenerational," says Ragin-Alamin, whose day job is as assistant dean for multicultural and student affairs at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine. "It's exhibition, though, not competition. I think this way is best: In the last few years we've really contributed to a reawakening of salsa in Chicago. The number of places that there are to dance have waxed and waned over years, but now there are more nights at mainstream clubs and many more performance groups."
Besides stirring up interests in salsa and its roots, Ragin-Alamin says the congress has been instrumental in raising the level of dance in Chicago.
"We've brought people here from Puerto Rico, New York, Miami--from all over, really--so that dancers here can see and learn from them," she explains. "Dancers from Chicago are now reaching levels we'd never seen before. And it's paying off: More performance groups from here are being invited to congresses in Puerto Rico and in Europe."
Maritza Valentin, the artistic director/choreographer of Latin Rhythms, a dance studio in Pilsen that has hosted thousands of dancers in its first five years, has been an enthusiastic participant at the Chicago congress each year.
"It just keeps getting better," she says. "Even though the congress here is one of the newest--the oldest is in San Juan although there's also one in New York and one in Miami; Boston has two!--this one is really one of the best because it's so diverse. It's just great fun to see all the people involved and affected."
Valentin, who has a degree in dance from Columbia College, has taught choreography at the congress but she gets almost a bigger kick out of taking classes there.
"Let me tell you, it can be a humbling experience but I love learning new things," she says with a laugh. "Usually, when I take classes, I take musical rather than dance classes, though. I'm a sucker for understanding the music."
That's vital, agree Ragin-Alamin and Valentin, because only after understanding the music can dancers really express their creativity.
"In salsa creativity is really in the partner work; the steps stay essentially the same," says Valentin. "Salsa is more of a social dance, people don't realize there's a structure to it. There's more feeling and it's more personal in salsa, especially at clubs. The current trend is mambo--salsa's the music, mambo is the dance."
Ragin-Alamin agrees. "Salsa is really a marketing term in which all this music falls. But the moves, the feeling, the soul of it is mambo."
Valentin continues: "Mambo requires discipline and you need to understand the music more."
"The dance evolved up from the feet, to turns and movements," says Ragin-Alamin. "But when you get going and get midriff isolation, that makes it an emergent experience, that's when you're approaching a deep and profound effect."
For more info about the Chicago International Salsa Congress, check out www.salsacongress.com or call 773-206-5438. For more about Latin Rhythms, go to www.latinrhythmsdance.com or call 773 890-1900.