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The West Coast Salsa Congress 2001

Salsa Dancing on an Epic Scale

 

The West Coast Salsa Congress, now in it's third year, has become the premiere multi-day dance event held on the West Coast.  Drawing thousands of dancers, this event highlights dance troupes, bands, and the music.  They promote "Unity throgh Salsa" - a great tagline eh?  Do they succeed?  Read on. 

The Article is broken down into numerous sections.  It's a long article, so if you want to skip to a particular section, click on the appropriate link below.  This is a diary and reflection on my trip to the Congress.

The Night BeforePre CongressFirst Day - The ShowsDancingClassesComments (Wrap-up and Tips).

Photos courtesy of Gil and Naomi, visit their site for flash movies and more photos, MamboSf!

The One Line Highlight Summary (for those who don't like to read):  The Salsa Congress is a unique, exciting, huge and fulfilling experience for nearly all attendees.  If you like Salsa music or dance, or even hold a shred of interest, you won't leave disappointed. If you've never been - go.  If you've gone every year, you may have been disappointed by this years showing.  If you want a lot more info - Read on!

The Drive Down and the Night Before

I drove down early - a six hour trip from San Francisco, racing along highway I-5 at incredible speeds. Gas prices are insane!  I made it to Santa Monica at around five in the afternoon, parked my car in their plentiful free lots, and walked along the 3rd street promenade, grabbing a bit of dinner at the 2nd Street Deli (great place to eat). It was getting late, and I had no plan for the evening, except to check out a salsa club on the Promenade.  It was Wednesday night, and I knew there were probably better places to dance in Los Angeles, but I wanted something different, and a little club in Santa Monica was sounding pretty good.  I found the club on the SalsaWeb Cityguides <www.salsaweb.com>, an indispensable partner for travel if you want to know the best places to dance!

Once I had decided on the club, I had to find somewhere to stay.  Santa Monica is NOT cheap!  I wanted to stay near the Pier, but realized that I probably couldn’t afford a room.  The Travelodge on Pico Blvd (3 miles away) is REALLY nice, and far more affordable at $59-$69 than the $150 a night Holiday Inn that is right off the Santa Monica Pier.  However, I decided to walk in and try my luck.

I entered the Holiday Inn, walked right up to the front desk, and asked, with all the charm I could muster, for a single room.  Their least expensive single room. "That’ll be $150 plus $10 parking!",  I remained undeterred, put a huge smile on my face, and said “Is that the cheapest?”.  “Yes”.  “Really, I’ll sleep in the basement, I have AAA, I’ll work in the Kitchen”. She gave me a long look and as I was turning away, resigned to going to the Travelodge, she said $119.  I turned back and said $89, that’s really all I have, and she said OK!  Then, with all the charm I could muster, I said “including parking?”.  She gave me an exasperated look, but agreed. “Any chance of including breakfast?”.  “uhhh, no”. Well, at least I tried. Excellent.  I was set, at the oh-so-very-nice Holiday Inn in Santa Monica.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I still spent a ton of money on a room, but it certainly wasn’t $150!  For those new to doing a bunch of traveling, this works.  Always negotiate!  All through Europe most hotel rooms are negotiable, and it’s the same in much of the United States.  Even at big chains! It certainly won’t happen all the time - but it’s always worth the effort. 

Anyway, enough chatter about that.  Let’s talk Salsa!  At about 8:30 I made my way up the beautifully lit third street promenade - making my way past street artists and vendors.  There were a ton of people on the street, and it was a beautiful night.  I made it to the club, on the North end of the promenade. The Monsoon Cafe.  It looked very nice from the outside.  Upon entering I was informed that salsa takes place upstairs.  But before going up, I took a look around the restaurant.  This looked like a nice place.  Sushi bar and thai food!  Weird mix, but still, I wouldn’t have minded eating there if I was with a group of people.  I later learned that the food is actually good, but the service leaves something to be desired.

Anyway, Salsa takes place on the second floor, in a nice room in back (actually two rooms, fairly sized).  When I arrived, the salsa “lesson” (and I use the word lesson loosely), was taking place.  I pulled up a chair at the bar and got a drink as I tried to figure out what was going on.  There were about 10-12 people on the floor, each in two’s or three’s, but I couldn’t find a teacher.  They all seemed to be doing something, but each was doing something different.  At first I though it was individual private lessons that were taking place.  Finally, a teacher emerged, and beckoned me over to a group of three ladies (followers) with no leader.  I muddled my way through the next half hour of dancing with the ladies, and the teacher only briefly re-appeared to quickly show a move, and then was off.  However, I did meet plenty of people to dance with.  After the lesson, I relaxed and chatted with the new friends I had made.  All of the women were from LA, or surrounding LA, and for most of them, this was their first time at the club.  They were beginners, but had good rhythm, and were fun.  At about 10:00, the band (Charanga Cubana) was setup and by 10:30 the band was in full swing.  The place never got overly crowded, but was filled up with a fair array of people. 

Were there die-hard dancers there? Well, no.  There was one couple who was fairly accomplished, but they were only dancing with each other (a.k.a. - I was turned down when I asked her to dance).  Luckily, I found another group of three ladies sitting in a far corner who all turned out to be fun, great dancers.  Like me, they were there for the Salsa Congress and were actually performing.  They were from Seattle, although the name of the group escapes me.  Great dancers, fun and energetic.  I actually got my salsa-fix!

The Band, Charanga Cubana, was good - and a fun band to dance to.  The drinks were reasonably priced, the back room had sofas and air conditioning, there were a fair number of people - I would recommend this place, and will definitely go back when I find myself in Santa Monica again. Parking in Santa Monica is very easy, with plentiful, inexpensive lots. Not sure how it would have been without the other Congress dancers there.  I stayed all night - which ended around 1:30.

Pre-Congress Parties

The next day, after a good breakfast, I wandered around Santa Monica, briefly stopping in to the Pre-Congress SalsaWeb party at the Santa Monica boathouse.  I arrived there at around 2pm, and the party went from 1-5pm.  I only stayed for 45 minutes or so, but there was a fair turnout.  It wasn’t crowded, but I hear that it got jam packed later. It’s a fairly small space, very casual.  Lots of dancers, but for some reason I found it hard to find someone to dance with. I like the boathouse.  The DJ was great!  He just played slamming-fast salsa, after slamming-fast salsa.  The energy level was very high (if not explosive). 

I made my way along the 15 minute drive from Santa Monica to the Crowne Plaza hotel where I was staying.  I love the Crowne Plaza - I had been to the Congress once before, and this is the hotel to stay at if you want to be near all the other dancers.  I took a brief nap (too brief based on how late I stayed up the night before), and made my way out to the busses at 8:15 (the busses were supposed to leave at 8:30).  At 9:15 there were still no busses . . . I was starting to feel like I was missing something at the Mayan.  Luckily, a group of friends, and people I recognize from the Bay Area, came by and gave me a lift to the club.  Supposedly, the busses came by shortly after I had left and took the rest of the people over to the club.  The club was not very close to the hotel, a full 30 minute drive, so you probably could not have taken a taxi there (or it would have been expensive).

When I arrived at the club I was seeing people I knew all over the place.  It felt good to be in a new place, going to such an exciting event.  The Mayan is one of the best known salsa clubs around, with a huge interior space, and well known salsa dance competitions, <www.themayan.com>. When I set foot in the Mayan I was blown away. Wow! Let me say it again. Wow!  Oh-my-god.  Astounding.  Huge. Endless people - stretching as far as I could see. Everyone was dancing and the music was incredible.  Upon entering the Mayan, there was a splurge of adrenaline as a SEA of people stretch out before you, music is blaring, and the grandeur of the Mayan theater all come together and rush over you. When I walked into the Mayan - I knew I had made the right decision to come to the Congress.  It was packed - the music was blaring, and the energy was inebriating. It was a great feeling. 

I immediately made my way to the dance floor - danced several dances with several different people, and was on a high.  Little did I know that those dances might be nearly my last for the night, as the crowds continued to pour in.  As things got more and more crowded, sometimes I’m still amazed at how poor “floorcraft” can be with so many professional dancers on the floor. As the band finished their first set, the shows were set to begin.  Unfortunately, even with video screens set up, there was no way for more than a handful of people would actually be able to see them!  Luckily, we were one of the few people let onto the balcony, and got a great view! Wow - the Shows were great that night.  Salsa in the Mix - great choreography, especially in the beginning.  Gold outfits with a mix of hip-hop and jazz dance.  Salsa Kids did an African inspired dance which was incredible (African dancing with a liberal inkling of modern dance).  Edie, a.k.a. The SalsaFreak - Founder of SalsaWeb, also did her incredible routine with her partner/husband dressed as a futuristic silver guy show - fantastic as always! A perfect amount of shows for the night.

A brief word about the Mayan management!  Argh - We had a great view in the balcony, but for some reason the management decided to move people out of the balcony AS Edie was performing!?  We missed half the show, and if they had just waited an extra 2 minutes, the show would have been over.  Not sure why they elected to do this, but it was rude. One more note about Mayan management.  I left the club to go outside to see if a friend was out there, and they wouldn’t let me back in.  Yikes!  I even told them I had left a jacket.  I had to argue for 5 minutes to get back in the club.  Very strange . . .Not exactly the most customer friendly location.

Regardless - this was a great start to the Congress!  The exhilaration and feeling of grandeur (that the Mayan delivers in spades) really starts the Congress off with a bang.  It really brought home the epic scale of the event and how salsa has just grown SO huge. The ability salsa has to give people such joy and freedom of expression. The one thing you can see when looking upon the hundreds upon hundreds of people on the dance floor - among everyone, you can see such a rapture and joy.

The First Day - All The Shows

Grace, Style and beauty: Mambo Romero gave a great performance!

Some interesting things - First thing, got a chair.  I arrived early on Friday evening and there was a line to get in.  They started letting people in right on time, at 8pm.  Upon entering, there is a fairly sized ballroom, the salsa music was going, and there’s a large tent outside, with a raised stage where the performances take place. There were rows of chairs on the left and right side of the stage, but only a few rows actually facing the front of the stage. There are also huge T.V.’s liberally splashed throughout the outside and the ballroom. Being reasonably early in line, I got a good chair on the side.  Much like my entrance into the Mayan - walking into the Congress is a lot of fun! You meet all sorts of people - the music is blaring - there are booths setup with loads of things to buy - food is cooking off to one side . . . it just feels exciting - and big!

I immediately went out and grabbed a few dances.  This early in the evening, the dance floor is usually quite empty, and I’d always get in a few before the first set of shows start.   What a great way to start the Congress!

After my dances, the shows were quick to start, and throughout the entire weekend, they were amazing.  Every year, ever since my first Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico, I’ve been impressed with the quality of salsa dance troupes from around the world.  This year, I was also impressed by the quantity!  Not only were these groups fantastic, but there were SO many of them.  Salsa Dancing has taken off throughout the world - as dance troupes were amply representing almost every possible major city, state and country you can think of.  Seattle, Portland, Japan, New York, London, Italy, and the list goes on and on.  The shows were simply amazing. All of the performers were so good - it’s hard to put into words.

One trend, which has grown since earlier congresses, is to start a routine off with a story, and usually an entirely different form of music.  I still think the best routines are those that are done with strong doses of individual style.  Whether that style is set into the context of a story or a set of dance number to different types of music or even something we’ve all heard before done in a very individual way, these are the performances that are going to get the most attention (at least from me). 

Salsa routines can start with hip hop, ballet, jazz, hustle - you name it!  The strange thing is - these portions of the routines became my favorite.  I think, of everything, this portion of the many routines has shown the most growth.  Don’t get me wrong, the salsa dancing was incredible - however for many of the routines, you’d seen at least some of it before. The individuality of each group and each performance was really brought out by either the sequences they did before or after their salsa routine, the storyline context they put their routine in to or the graceful finesse with which their entire routine echoed.

The Latin Symbolics gave an outstanding performance mixing hustle and salsa!

Apart from different styles of dance, there were also many stories to be told.  Gangs of kids, jail scenes with really gorgeous jail guards, blood sucking dancing vampires, a re-enactment of the gang fight from West Side Story, robotic silver machines, - you name it.  This just touches the tip of the iceberg.  So much creativity went into so many shows!

While the shows were very good, they were also very long.   There are only so many salsa shows you can sit and watch before becoming really anxious to start dancing youself.  Especially when all the shows are this good! You really want to dance!  After 2-3 hours of watching performances, you begin to ache for a break. There were a LOT of dance troupes performing, as well as many awards that were given out.  During past Congresses there was always music playing so that people could decide whether they wanted to dance or watch, during the performances.  Since it is impossible for everyone to be able to watch the performances, it’s important to let these people have the ability to dance.  Unfortunately, during the first two days worth of shows there was NO salsa music playing during the performances.  This led many people to feel as though there was not enough actual  Salsa Dancing at this Salsa Congress.   

On Saturday night, our very own Anthony (last name with-held to protect the guilty), took a CD player from one of the booths outside, bought a salsa CD, and started playing music on the back dance floor.  Kudos to Anthony!  Within minutes of doing this, dancers came from all over the hall to dance. He started a trend - and single handedly fixed one of the glaring problems with the Congress (the strange lack of music and dancing).

By the last day of the Congress this problem had begun to get ironed out.  A full DJ booth had been setup. There was a jam-packed dance floor (too small for the number of dancers) in back that had salsa music playing during performances.  One note - the DJ’s back here were AMAZING!  I have never heard so many jamming, fast, driving, inspirational and dance-til-you-drop salsa songs played, in a row, in my life.  It was very-very cool, and a lot of fun.  If you weren’t watching the shows - the back dance floor was the place to be. The music, and this goes for the entire congress, was absolutely top notch! 

The Dancing

I love the shows - but the reason I generally come to a Congress is to dance with as many people as I can.  To learn different styles - share some time with friends, see great shows, and get swept away in all the intensity.  While there was not enough dancing at this Congress, as I commented above, I did get my share of dancing in!  With the many teachers - to the fewer than usual rote beginners, I danced with just about anyone I could get my hands on.  Japan - London - Alaska (yep - and she was great) - Portland - Seattle - Kenya (yes, Kenya, as-in Ken-ya) - San Diego - Los Angeles (of course) - San Francisco - Puerto Rico - Paris - Madrid - Italy - Canada . . . Where else can you dance with so many people from around the world in one place?

I danced with many people on the “2”.  The strange this is - most women that I ran into that danced on “2” could very easily dance on “1” as well.  I would say 3 out of 5.  I’m not so sure the same applies in reverse.  Anyway, the ones that couldn’t dance on 1 - were giving me ol’ look “oh my god - you're not dancing on the two - how could you”. 

My main comment is - Everyone has gotten so good!  Looking around - even the beginners were fantastic.  Obviously our community of dance teachers are doing a great job.  Everywhere people were listening to the music and having a great time!  The only thing that hasn’t significantly improved from last year, and this is probably due to the crowds, is what I call “floor-craft”.  This is the ability to dance in small spaces, without hurting those around you. To effortlessly glide around the dance floor, keeping your partner protected, and being respectful of those other sharing the space.  Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to do here. 

Another note, there were fewer beginners here than previous years - although I would still highly recommend new people to salsa dancing come to the congress.  You’ll meet plenty of people to dance with in class and you’ll be exposed to so much - it’s an absolute blast.

Overall - The dancing was incredible, and a highlight of the trip!

The Classes

At the Salsa Congress there are two full days of classes and workshops that take place.  From 9:00 a.m. until the dancing starts at night, there are plenty of classes going on!  At any given hour there are classes for beginners, intermediate and advanced dancers.  Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by many teachers and classes!  Despite absolutely huge crowds, and very difficult teaching conditions, some managed to teach some very good lessons.  Unfortunately, some classes were just too crowded to actually be able to see. 

Anyway, I saw an amazing on 2 lesson taught by Isamel Otero of Caribbean Soul (from New Jersey).  Wow! A huge amount of footwork and a really long and complex pattern.  One of the only truly advanced classes around.

Clifford, from Paris, taught an intermediate class that consisted of a lift and a dip!  He kept on making excuses for his English but he’s a great teacher and everyone got these great, difficult, patterns. That class was a lot of fun.  Clifford is a great teacher, and a good friend, who has overcome a great deal of adversity to keep on dancing!  

Johny Vasquez taught an absolutely huge class and pulled it off against the odds (through sheer force of voice and energy). A huge class, wit no headset, poorly organized, but by the end Johny was up on stage and doing what he does best, and inspiring everyone through a complex shine pattern. Well done!

Unfortunately, I missed Saeon's "on 2" class at 10:00, and consistently missed Salsa Aerobics at 9:00. Oh well, maybe next year right? 

I was amazed that even during the lunch break, there was no music! Very strange.  Tons of people, milling around, practicing, yet no music. However, there were live bands that played after each day of workshops.  The bands only played for about 45 minutes, but it was nice to be able to practice the moves you learned to live music.  The floors were not crowded, and there were not many people there at these times, but I had a great time.  I probably got the most dancing of the entire weekend in during these afternoon band-sessions.  Since there was very little salsa music played, by the times these bands came on - you were thirsting to hear music!

A brief words on the shows - Cachao, Son Sublime, Johny Polanco, Roberto Roena, Son Mayor, Julio Bravo - wow, lot’s of great music, and most of it very dancer friendly.  It was an interesting choice of bands!

Final Comments and Tricks for Next Year

Comment #1: Am I going next year? Of course! Despite the Congresses problems, it's a lot of fun.  I probably won't go to them more than once a year, but I had a great time, and I wouldn't miss it.  For all levels of dancers, this is the place to be if you're even remotely serious about dancing.

Comment #2: Dancing on the “2”: This means so many different things to so-many different people, but generally, the “2” contingent of dancers were there in force.  I would say up to 50% of the entire congress danced on “2” this year, which is a dramatic increase from previous years! Everywhere - people were dancing on the “2”.  I was swept away myself - and am now adamant to learn to dance on the “2”.  It’s a not-so simple process of re-training yourself from breaking on the first beat of the music, but it has proven to be elusive for me, probably because of lack of practice. Well, after seeing all the amazing dancers on the “2” - seeing how much fun they were having and how much creativity is available in the style, I’m sold!  Next year - on the 2, really!

Through numerous dances with a variety of people I confirmed a nagging suspicion for myself.  I was trying to dance on “2” to every song and it just wasn’t working for me.  Some songs it would come naturally, some songs it would be totally forced.  I would lament how difficult it is for me to dance on the “2” during one song, and then have it come totally naturally the next.  From this I learned a couple of things - maybe they will apply to you as well. 1) The music is what dictates the beat of the music I am going to dance on.  Some music cries out to me to be danced on a certain beat.  There is no correct beat!  The beat is what you feel - and what speaks to you during the music.  You will stay on time, to the beat you dance to, if you are listening to the music.  Don’t get caught up in being an on “1” dancer or an “2” dancer - be a musical dancer! 2) My advice is for everyone to learn every style (forget about your day job).

Note for Bay Area folks: We’ve been lucky to have people teaching on the “2” for quite some time!  Fred Flores (of Jillians), Audrianna, Ava Apple and Gabriel and Alicia have all been teaching some of their classes on two. HOWEVER, If you are a beginner dancer - learn the prominent form of dance in your regional area FIRST, before attempting to learn variations!  It does you NO good to be the only dancer on “2” if everyone in your area dances only on the  “1” and if you can’t lead or follow on the 1. You won’t be able to practice and you’ll eventually get frustrated. Learn your area’s style of dance first - be able to dance to the beat - then expand.  How long does that take? No set amount of time, but be prepared for 6-12 months. For the Bay Area, the prominent style of salsa dancing remains on the “1”.  For intermediate dancers and above (and I don’t normally do this), check out Gabriel’s class at The Beat dance studio in Berkeley on Saturday afternoon 5-8.  Great class on the 2!

Comment #3: So, when is the best dancing at the Congress?  The best dancing is before the shows start, and between 1-4 a.m. At least this is the least crowded time!

Comment #4: Great shows and performances by ALL our Bay Area Salsa Dance Troupes: Latin Symbolics did a great show that really impressed me. Gabriel’s troupe was fantastic and flawless. Pretty Boy and Girls did a stellar job. Ricasalsa and SalsaMania both wrapped up the show on the last night, not an easy place to be, and had fantastic performances .

Comment #5: I noticed a difference between people that are obviously entranced by the music, versus those that have a technical understanding of the fundamental step, but aren't really in tune with the music necessarily.  However, there is running through the entire Congress an unparalleled and unending well of enthusiasm and excitement about the dance. You can still find that one couple on the floor, dancing in a corner most likely, not in the limelight, not in front of the crowd - that are just incredible.  Inspring in their connection to each other.  Such passion, such connection - you just see that there is something special happening there.  And when you come in you see ALL these couples in the corner.  It’s hard not to be swept away by that . . .

Comment #6: Sunday’s my favorite night of the Congress.  Fewer people - more space for dancing!

Comment #7:  Clothing: For Classes, be comfortable! There is no need to dress up.  You just want to wear comfortable clothing, and good shoes (again, that are comfortable).  It's hard enough to learn during the classes - you don't want your clothes to be an added issue.  For the nights, you'll see a huge variety in dress.  They'll be people in sweats and tennis shoes, and they'll be people dressed to the nines, with beautiful suits, and glittering dresses.  My take is - dress comfortable, but upscale.  I wore nice slacks, but I stuck with my dancing shoes. ;)  However, this is a place where you can dress your absolute nicest if you wanted to.

Comment #8: Water: Bring it or buy it! I brought a backpack and my own water.  I still ended up buying water at the event, but it was $5 instead of $50!  You CAN bring a backpack to both workshops and nightime dances.

Comment #9: Food: If you need to go cheap - bring it again, but I was pleasantly surprised by the food, but then again, I love black beans and rice (which they served all day, and all night).  After midnight they serve eggs (yum). 

Comment #10: Always book the hotel through Monday night! You don’t want to travel on Memorial day.  The Congress gives you a special rate on the hotel - use it for one more day and relax.  Even if you have to work on Tuesday morning - my best is to catch an early flight on Tuesday.

Comment #11: This year was not as well run - in regards to most of the details - as previous years.   Things like late busses, sporadic music, no sounds from TV monitors, etc . . . These were reasonably small gripes (at least for me).

Comment #12: Lots of booths, and people selling all sorts of things from videos, to t-shirts, to shoes.  I actually thought there would be more stuff on sale - and I didn't end up purchasing much (but I did get a SalsaHolic towel).  I thought there would be more people selling CD's, but alas there were only a few CD's for sale (although, Ahi-Nama was there with some great Timba selections).

Ok, I'm running out of steam!  Great Congress - My Congratulations to Albert Torres and Maya (recently married) for putting on such a stellar event (just days before their wedding).

Albert Torres (the tireless), San Francisco's very own Naomi, and Maya, Albert's Wife!

Photos courtesy of Gil and Naomi, visit their site for flash movies and more photos, MamboSf!

As always, comments and feedback are always appreciated!  Feel free to write to salsacrazy@salsacrazy.com .

 

 

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