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A SALSERO IN NEW YORK

By David Paris

(dparisman@aol.com)

David Paris has a vast background in teaching and performing salsa in the US and around the world. Internationally, Dave has taught and performed in the International Salsa Festival in Italy; the World Dance Festival in South Korea and the Salsaweb festival in Canada. In the New York City, he is the founder, co-director, and choreographer for Mambo Theatre Dance Co; former principle dancer and instructor for Razzmatazz dance co; founder, director, and choreographer of Razzmatazz Junior; and a member of the New York City Latin Hustle Lift Team. You can find more information about him on his website, www.thesalsaguide.com.   After the staff of www.salsacrazy.com and www.salsaroots.com  talked with him during our last dance adventure back East, Dave kindly sent us this article about the Mambo/Salsa world of New York City.

 What's it like to be a salsero in New York? This is the question everyone always asks me when we travel.  Well, of course I wind up rambling for hours about the tough culture, the "On 2" obsession, the quality of dance and musicians, all of the terrible romantic relationships I've had, and so on. It's a topic I love sharing because the New York experience is unique in so  many ways.  In part 1 of this article, I decided to write about my experience this past weekend.  In part 2, I address different aspects of the New York Salsero culture: dance classes, New York Attitude, and why we think we are so great.  In part 3, I interview other famous New York Salsero's about their experiences and how they spend their time this past weekend.
 


PART 1: A Weekend in the Life of a New York Salsa Dancer

 SATURDAY

I went to bed early on Friday night, because I have a show Saturday night at 7:30, but I get a call at 3 in the morning from an ex-girlfriend.  No, no booty call, and what's worse, I don't get back to sleep until 7 in the morning.  Ouch.  At 10, my doorbell rings for a private.  We do some work for an hour, and then he tells me how dancing will solve his problems with his girlfriend.  His girlfriend loves to dance, and he hates how his girlfriend touches every man in the club but him.  So that was his motivation to learn how to dance.  Women usually learn how to dance for the love of movement.  Men usually learn how to dance for the love of holding women who move.

At 11, I do my second private, feeling very tired.  I go back to sleep at 12:30, sleep through my ballet class, which I don't mind missing.  Every ballet teacher I've ever known has always been mean and denigrating.  I think  it's a requirement for ballet instructors.  This teacher works at the International Ballet Center and works with me and a member of her group on lifting and couples work.  Anyway, I miss class, and wake up at 2.  I'm performing with Mambo Theater in the Charanguando fest in the Bronx and we're supposed to meet at 3:30. I'm wondering if 3:30 is purposely set early so when the notorious latecomers arrive, there will still be time to rehearse.  I show up at 3:30 anyway to be safe.  The show is at Hostos college in a beautiful theater with Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto, and some old  Cuban bolero singer whom I never heard  of, but everyone else in the group knows him, so I pretend to be impressed.  The band Orquesta Broadway tuning up when all the dancers arrive, late of course.  We check out the stage.  And then wait to practice.

It's an hour before the show and we go out to get some wine and beer. We're in the South Bronx, so a liquor store is never far.  I guess the only interesting cultural aspect to this trip is that the liquor stores and small grocery stores (called bodegas) have bullet proof partitions between the
cashier and the customers.  I bet it's not like that in Idaho.

Around 8, the show starts and it's a sold out show.  We dance for four numbers every 30 minutes. The women go on first, and the crowd roars.  I  could tell it was going to be a fun night.  The audience was actually more impressed with the movement of our body, than any turn patterns.  I guess that was because the audience all danced old school style.  But really, it didn't really matter what we did, because when you dance to good, live music, the crowd always loves you.  There was one funny moment though, when Ray did a 3 minutes jazz solo on the conga, and we were on stage dancing.  He hit the conga once every two bars.  That was challenging.  Slow motion salsa.

 

 After the show, it's midnight and I head to Bernard Martinez's social.  I want to buy some CD's from Choco, who has the greatest collection of old style jams on earth.  Some of the CD's are for Carolyn's birthday.  She's my partner in mambo theater. When I get to Bernard's, it's a dancers night.  Ismael and Danny from Caribbean soul are there, with Gina and April, Milton, Cobo, like 20 ex-razzmatazz company members,  the mambo mamas and papa, and plenty of other excellent dancers.  It's 1 A.M. by the time I get there, but of course I stay til the end.  Take the subway home at 3 A.M.  That's one the best things in New York: 24 hours subway service.  It used to be more dangerous, but I never have any problems. You do meet some crazy people, many of them whom smell bad, but if you keep to yourself, you get home alright.

I fall asleep at 5.  You know, it takes time to get wind down, music still pulsating in the blood despite having an exhausted body.

SUNDAY
I wake up at 1 P.M., and my brother, whom I live with, tells me I'm lazy and that I should get a real job.  Physically, I'm a little wrecked, but I force myself on the exercise bike and watch the Salsa Congress from 1999. Usually, I swim afterwards, but I'm too tired, so I skip it. I go to
rehearsal with Carolyn, at 3 P.M.  We are doing lifts and tricks.  We never  rehearse more than an hour or an hour and half with this stuff, unless we wind up gossiping about the scene, or some other nonsense.  We rehearse at a sports club, to save money, and to take great classes.  That's one great thing about New York.  Not only is it full of great salsa instructors, it's also full of great dance instructors.  These people who teach in the gyms are often in between gigs on Broadway, and are on the top of their craft.  So not only do we get rehearsal space (sharing company with fitness balls), but we get to take great jazz, ballet, hip hop, and belly dance classes.

At 5 P.M., we head to Djoneeba studios to take Afro-Cuban class.  These classes have become very popular in the salsa community lately.  I find that interesting because usually New York salsa focuses on partner work, footwork, and timing.  Afro-Cuban dance is primarily individual, uses the entire body, and changes timing according to the music and how a dancer interprets the music.  Perhaps that's why Afro-Cuban classes are becoming so popular, as they are filling the gaps in people's style. Yes, I said it.  There is a gap in New York style!!!  But I'll say more about that later in my random rant section.


At 7, we head to Jimmy Anton's social, which is the best social dance event in New York.  When outsiders come to this scene, they usually notice two things.  First, they notice that the entire floor is full of almost 300 quality dancers.  It's really an incredible sight, better than congresses because there are no video cameras.  Second, outsiders notice that all the top dancers are in a corner, separating  themselves from everyone else.  The energy in this corner is full of skill and showmanship, but also pretension and clique-ish energy.

Now the thing I always tell people is that Jimmy's is actually the least pretentious of any of the New York Salsa socials!!!!  Non-New Yorkers are always shocked to hear this, and so of course, like a veteran of many salsa wars, I do a history lesson.  For now, I'll save that history lesson for part 2.


 

 

We leave at 9 P.M.  The social runs from 5-9, but up unto recently, many people didn't get there until 6:30 or 7.  That's a crazy part of all these dance scenes, in every city, and many other countries.  Dancers seem to think it's cool to come late.  Well, not only is it more expensive, it cuts the night into half.  I never have understood this.  Even if I follow the same late pattern myself.  Anyway, we leave Jimmy's to go eat at a diner.  Usually you find out a lot about people in these situations.  One, everyone starts bad-mouthing whoever is not there, and two, you find out the extent of how crazy the people are in your scene.  Everyone in the scene is crazy, you have to be to spend so much time perfecting this dance.  But some are definitely weirder than others,
and it becomes clear who started dancing because they have no social skills.  I like  these events because you learn more about the people in your community, but I'm too tired, so I go home.

I get home at 10.  My brother says I'm a pussy for not playing football.  He knows I stopped playing because I don't want to get hurt.  I asked him how many girls where playing with him, and that ends our conversation for the night.  I head to the internet, answer like 50 e-mails from Stephanie, and drift asleep eventually, excited about doing it all over again.


 Part 2: Thoughts and Impressions of New York Salsero Culture

Number one, there are so many quality dancers. There are over 200 or 300 excellent dancers who look ordinary here, but would be superstars anywhere else.  You also have some of the best teachers in the world, including Eddie Torres, Addie and Angel Rodriquez, Freddie Rios, and countless others. Then, there is the incredible music scene.  So many of the top Salsa bands reside here, and they play in the clubs all the time.  You have over 120 Latin clubs in the metropolitan area, and at least one club a night devoted to dancers.  So to be a New York Salsero is to have tremendous resources and if you were born here, you take it for granted.

Then there's the On 2 factor.  Virtually all the schools teach on 2, the style made famous by Eddie Torres.  Any dance event will be dominated by this style, and the attitude is, if you don't know how to dance on 2, you are not a good dancer.  So to be a New York Salsero, usually means being a on 2 snob.  This doesn't mean everyone dances on 2.  Non-studio dancer who grew up dancing salsa in their homes, learn to dance on 1 or 3, or without a sense of structured timing.  This is most of New York.  But of course, the dancers are the one you notice on the dance floor, and this becomes the predominant style.  Being a New York Salsero definitely means dealing with the New York attitude, and surviving.  If you go to an Eddie Torres class, you see people who know the moves, and aren't very supportive if you don't get it.  If you make a mistake in partner work, you can expect a disapproving look, or condescending comment.  If you survive, it only gets worse on the dance floor.  Not all classes are like this, but the you can see the results in the attitude of some people.

T
he style for New York salsa means dancing clean, spinning with control, and dancing in a slot. This concept isn't understood anywhere in the world as it is practiced here in New York.  Looking cool is more important than looking flashy.  No one does dips or trips, and rueda is very rare.  The dance community in New York frowns upon this.  I think this is a weakness, as people get stuck here in what they are used to.  If you do a turn sequence that a woman is unfamiliar with, she'll think you suck, and give you, or her friend next you, a look of disapproval.  You also see people give very reserved expressions on their face.  I think that's a reflection of New
York culture.  We take the subway with a thousand people, and never look anyone in the eye, or say hello to anyone you don't know.

Being a Salsero in New York means being devoted to shines or footwork. The footwork here is phenomenal because half of every salsa class is devoted to shines.  While I say this is good, I think our community would grow if there was a focus on movement for the entire body.  There is minimalist philosophy for a lot of dancers here.  Many New Yorkers aren't going to do anything different or experimental in their dance, because they are so focused on dancing clean.  This happens because the culture in New York is so tough and competitive, dancers don't want to be a target for criticism by making a mistake or looking different.  The results of this is very little body movement and expression, and a lot of familiar spins and turns.  One criticism of New York dancing is that it all looks the same.  Well, if it all looks great, that's not too bad, is it?

Finally, and as promised in Part 1, I also want to give a history lesson of salsa socials in New York City.  Salsa socials started to become popular around four years ago, starting with Dellile Thomas' social first (Dellile danced for Eddie Torres for 10 years).  Before this, the only dancing
happened on the weekdays, usually Tuesday at the Copa, and Thursday at Latin Quarter.  These nights were dancer nights, but they also catered to non-dancers.  The ladies had to walk around with attitude because many of the men asking them to dance wanted more than a dance.  New York culture is tough.  Women can say no, and men will still try to drag them on the floor.  In fact, many women have said that they can't seem to eager to dance, even if they want to , because they would seem easy.  That was the culture.

There was also tremendous competitive energy in these clubs because people wanted to look good, good enough to be part of the scene of good dancers.  Many teachers taught that the most important part of the dance was to look good.  Everyone was image conscious.   If you weren't,  you weren't going to dance with one of the best dancers.  After my first year of taking classes, I once asked a woman to dance that I knew from taking classes from Eddie Torres.  I thought it was safe, but she said no and walked away. Later, she told me it's animal world and only the strong survive!!  You had to look good, or no one would dance with you.  This put pressure on all of your dances, and that is why there is so much weird energy.

Dance socials changed that.  People would come to dance and not pick up women, and so there was less sexual connotations in the air, and therefore less rejections.  People would be more relaxed, and less concerned about whether they looked good.  They remembered that it's about having fun.  Now there is always going to be some attitude in New York because that's a
part of the culture here.  It's a hard town where people have very, powerful personalities and strong barriers.  But once those walls are gone, New Yorkers are the best to dance with.

So that's it for part 1 and 2.  In part 3, we will hear from other famous New York Salseros, their experiences and thoughts about the culture here, and of course, how they spent their weekends.