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Review of the 2002 West Coast Salsa Congress

 

By Stephanie Palmeri, salsa_queen_25@yahoo.com

 

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When I heard about the 1st West Coast Salsa Congress in L.A. three years ago I was just starting to get serious about salsa.  I had done a lot of club dancing, but never taken a lesson.  I thought the Congress would be the perfect opportunity for me to take my dancing to the next level.  Boy was it ever.  I came away from the whole experience ready to move to L.A. (I didn’t of course).  I was blown away by the shows and the level of freestyle dancing.  It was also my first introduction to ladies’ styling.  That Congress was really what inspired and motivated me to get to where I am today with my dancing. 

 

Since then I have been to every West Coast Salsa Congress.  I have really seen the Congress evolve and change.  The first Congress was so small and intimate compared to what it has grown into. This 4th Annual West Coast Salsa Congress welcomed over 3,000 attendees and 112 salsa dance team performances from over 40 countries and 700 cities in the U.S.  The event also included 40 workshops and eight world-renowned salsa bands and international DJs.  While this Congress didn’t impact me the way the first Congress did, I enjoyed it nonetheless.

          Just to preface the following comments, my Congress vacation did not start off on the right foot, to put it mildly.  At 6:30 in the morning on Friday, while my boyfriend and I were loading up the car to go to the airport, all of our luggage was stolen out of the back of our SUV.  The items stolen from us included our video camera, our best salsa shoes and clothes, all our toiletries, my driver’s license and my boyfriend’s custom-made Darth Vader costume for the RicaSalsa routine to be performed the next day!  So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I arrived at the fourth West Coast Salsa Congress. 

I arrived in L.A. and went straight to the Swingtime Dance Studio to attend the seminar, “How to Run a Successful Dance Company & How to Teach L.A. Style Salsa” by Joby and Luis Vazquez of Salsa Brava Productions while my boyfriend went shopping for a new Darth Vader costume.  Now, I have to admit that I’m super biased when it comes to anything having to do with Salsa Brava.  Joby and Luis are my friends and mentors, and I am the assistant co-director of their new Bay Area dance company, Son Bravisimo.  But still, the seminar was informative and a great opportunity to network with others.  The workshop included lots of practical and detailed information on how to run a dance company, being a successful salsa instructor and choreographing routines. 

 

From the seminar we headed to the Hilton.  I had always been happy with the Crowne Plaza (the sponsor in past years), but chose to stay at the Hilton this time because we wanted to be where the action was.  I have to say that I really thought that there was no difference between the two hotels, however I was really bothered by the fact that there was no free workout facility at the Hilton.  I have nothing against 24-Hour Fitness, just that I pay a monthly gym membership somewhere else and expect to workout for free when staying at a nice hotel, such as the Hilton.  So when I got down to the gym on Saturday morning, I decided instead to run the 13 flights back up to my room as exercise rather than pay the $6 fee. That’s when I finally did see the little note in the bathroom informing guests of the gym fee.

 

But getting back to the Congress, by the time the all-day seminar ended, we had missed the early Congress registration set up at the Hilton.  While I was dreading the registration line at the Hollywood Park Casino, when we got there that evening, it wasn’t that bad, even with the photo line for the ID cards.  We arrived in time for the first set of the night shows.  I was happy to see the stage back where it had been for the 1st and 2nd Congresses, because I thought it was hard to get a good view of the shows last year.  I was also grateful for the ubiquitous video screens.  I am short, even with heels, and was happy to be able to look up at the screens to get a full view of the performances. 

 

Even though there were many performances, the quality of the productions and the creativity of the dance companies improve every year and it’s exciting to see what each dance company has to offer.  Who doesn’t wait in anticipation to see what troupes will come up with each year?  While I didn’t watch all the performances (who could?), some of my favorites this year were: Salsa Brava’s jungle production (OK, there’s my bias again), the many kids’ groups, Seaon Stylist’s incredible production including dancers on stilts, Rudy Zalez’ Royalty Salsa routine to a Michael Jackson song and his solo routine with Jennifer Silva, Victor and Gaby from Mexico who had Banda mixed into their routine, and the group who did the Thriller routine and stayed in character as corpses throughout the whole dance (I think they were from Sweden).   It was also great to see the Bay Area so well represented.  All of the Bay Area troupes were well received, and Mambo Romero was even given a standing ovation.

 

My biggest complaint about the performances has to do with the length of the routines.  While Albert Torres’ guidelines state that group routines must be no longer than five minutes and solo routines no longer than three minutes, this is not strictly enforced.  Maybe Albert Torres could require performers to send in their music ahead of time to be timed, or he could check it at stage rehearsals.  If he does not get stricter, it will only get worse.  I did think it was a good idea to let the newer troupes perform at the Hilton during the day.  This gives more dancers a chance to perform without increasing the length of the night shows.

 

Since I spent all day Saturday shopping to replace the items that had been stolen from me, I wasn’t able to take any of the Saturday workshops.  I did take three workshops on Sunday.  While the workshops will never be as small and intimate as at the first Congress, I was not disappointed with the workshops I took this year.  I decided to start off with an “On 2” workshop since I’m new to the “2” and I want to be able to dance well on both the “1” and the “2.”  I chose a workshop with Jai and Candy of New Jersey.  The pattern they showed was doable and well taught, the class was not over-crowded, and they were super-helpful when offering individual help.  Then I moved down to the L.A. Tricks on “1” workshop taught by Francisco Vazquez of Los Rumberos.  “Learning dangerous tricks along with a couple hundred other dancers of all levels all in one room,” I thought to myself.  “That ought to be fun.”  It actually wasn’t too bad.  My boyfriend and I came away with a new version of the “neck-drop” and no one was taken away in a stretcher.  We then stayed for the well-taught Advanced Tricks on “1” workshop by Joby and Luis since we were already in trick mode, while my daughter took the free workshop for kids taught by Jeanette Valenzuela.

 

Speaking of kids, the Congress is great for kids if they have any interest at all in salsa.  My daughter, Angelica, who just turned 10, has attended the past two Congresses and enjoyed both.  There are plenty of kids’ groups who perform and many other kids just hanging around attending the events.  Since the security is really good, I felt comfortable letting my daughter run around with other kids once we got inside.  She really enjoyed the performances, especially since she has the advantage of being able to get into the front rows to watch the shows without anyone getting mad at her.

 

While it wasn’t that critical to my enjoyment of the Congress, the best change for the better this year was the food offered inside the event.  The food was good and reasonably priced.  I enjoyed the tacos, the empanadas, the chicken and the “platanos.”  And there was never a long line.    

 

The biggest change for the worse from the first Congress is definitely the social dancing.  While it’s great to see how the salsa community is growing, it is very frustrating to social dance at night on such a crowded floor.  It was great to see Oscar De Leon and the other musicians live, but it was almost impossible for me to enjoy a social dance or even watch others do so to the live music.   Unless I was dancing on the very edge of the dance floor, I was stepped on or elbowed repeatedly.  I joked that a workshop on “social dancing safety” should be offered.  The dance floors during the day at the hotel were a wonderful idea, but I still want space to dance at night too.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no solution to the problem.  Albert Torres keeps the Congress at the Hollywood Park Casino because it’s the only venue in L.A. where you can keep the party going until 4 am.  So when choosing between more space or more time he chooses more time.  I must say that I think it’s a good decision.

 

One of the most pleasant surprises of the Congress, was the absence of outward animosity between on “1” and on “2” dancers.  The whole theme of the Congress is “Creating Unity through Salsa,” and I really did feel a strong sense of community between all the dancers.  It was nice to see the flags of all the countries attending displayed throughout the venue.  Albert Torres even mentioned observing a Palestinian dancing with an Israeli.  I guess that’s really what keeps me coming back to the Congress every year:  that feeling that I’m a part of something bigger than just a dance company or even a Bay Area salsa community.  All salsa dancers are part of a worldwide phenomenon of people who use salsa as a way to challenge themselves physically and express themselves creatively.  But salsa is more than just a physical activity or even a social activity - it really is a way of life.  It was thus fitting that the final performance of the Congress was a routine by Salsa Brava in which three couples danced the styles and timing of L.A., New York, and Puerto Rico and  “UNITED” was spelled out across their backs.   

 

All in all, the West Coast Salsa Congress continues to be an event worth attending.  While there are Congresses sprouting up in major cities across the world, including an upcoming San Francisco Congress scheduled for this fall, the West Coast Salsa Congress will always be considered one of the most significant events in the salsa world.

 

About the author:  Stephanie Palmeri is the assistant co-director of Son Bravisimo.  She and her dance partner, Danny Zepeda, have been performing, competing and choreographing together for over two years.  They currently teach all levels of salsa dancing at the Mexican Heritage Plaza and Club Miami, both in San Jose.  Stephanie is a regular feature contributor for the Salsacrazy website.  You can contact her at (408) 806-0787 or salsa_queen_25@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

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