The Smooth World of Salsa

by Jorge Chino
photography by Avra Goldman


Nowadays, a ghost travels throughout Europe; it is the ghost of socialism,” Karl Marx states at the very beginning of his Communist Manifesto. At the onset of the new millennium, what travels throughout Europe, and the world, isn’t the idea of socialism but salsa, the hot Caribbean rhythm. What can be heard at thousands of radio stations, clubs, barrio streets and parties is salsa.

Meanwhile, with clubs and classes throughout the world packed to capacity, salsa has prevailed as the most addictive dance by catching the popular fascination over and over. Salsa evokes an irresistible zest for life.

Salsa is a kaleidoscope of hypnotic Afro-Caribbean rhythms that escape definitions. As Willie Colón said once: “Salsa is an idea, a concept, a way to face music…”

Just sit down, read, relax and imagine you are listening to Carlos Santana’s latest album “Supernatural,” winner of eight Grammys. Enjoy the song Smooth: with a cha-cha-chá flavor: “…I can change my life to better suit your mood…cause you’re so smooth...” You may want to try last year’s sensation Candela from the Buenavista Social Club instead. Shall we dance? ¿Bailamos preciosa?

The Basic Salsa Move

“Take up a close contact hold. The man is standing with his right foot and the woman with her weight on her left foot. It is customary for the man to initiate the dance by dancing a left foot tap on count four. Keep the steps small and under the body.”

— from “Salsa!” by Paul Bottomer, Lorenz Books, New York

Don’t think that salsa dancing is about sex, though it could be. The passion and strength of salsa dancing is difficult to match. It is not like ballroom dancing where you have to measure every step you take though there are couples like that in salsa. Traditionally, when people dance salsa they can forget about structure and let the music possess them. Usually, one can tell who is having a great time by looking at their faces and the sweat rolling down their bodies.

Emotions can run very high when dancing salsa, and sweat difficult to avoid. According to some men I interviewed for this story, orgasms while dancing do happen. Although no woman admitted it, I’ve seen a few in very compromising situations.

For many, salsa dancing was first a family affair involving sisters, brothers, cousins, parents, and los abuelitos at home gatherings. One of the pains of modern life is that all the great fun is done outside one’s family. At clubs, the pleasure one gets from dancing salsa is overwhelming whether you dance on a tiny floor or at the majestic Mayan Club AKA the Salsa Palace in Los Angeles or at the Copacabana in New York.

If you have not “salsa-ed” yet and decide to give it a try, be careful — it might get ya. You may risk becoming one of those smooth characters known as Salsaholics.

The Body Wave

“Start with the basic step. The woman starts with her left foot forward and the man lifts his left arm, turns her around and brings her toward the middle of his body, makes the waves on five and six, and launches her on seven and eight.”

There are as many salsa dancing styles as there are people who dance it. There are some styles loosely defined as West Coast style, Cuban Style, New York style, Puerto Rican style, and even Central American style. To make things more complicated, there are dozens of rhythms and types of music.

Ironically, while the whole point of dancing salsa is to have a great time, it can be a painful or daunting experience — for both men and women. At some clubs, women sit around all dressed up, waiting for a miracle: to be asked to dance. Men, tired of rejections or for lack of skill, sit around holding up the whole bar. Lack of self-confidence or expertise can make dancing a frustrating experience. But once you have the basic skills, dancing can be the most delightful experience, like walking in the sky. Dancing can be like singing poetry with your feet.

The Tunnel

“Start with the basic step, then switch hands, man brings woman under his arms and does a gancho turn. One, two and close.”

Born in the Caribbean, salsa has its base in the Cuban son. It traveled from Santiago de Cuba to Havana and became the standard for the whole Caribbean region since the 30s and 40s. It wasn’t folk music, it was a live rhythm willing to change and adapt itself to new environments.

The original son had a specific structure. When it grew up, the son started loosening up and gaining freedom, until it became something called salsa. A salsa song can start with a guagancó, pass through a Puerto Rican bomba and end in a bachata.

While the music was changing, dancing gained some of that same freedom. Dancers like Cuban Pete, Lenny Dale, Joe Piro, Papo Conga and many others became legends in places like the Palladium, Tropicana and Colgate Gardens.

The Wrap

“Start in a double hand hold, palm to palm, and dance to a complete backward basic to a count quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow.”

— from “Salsa!” by Paul Bottomer, Lorenz Books, New York

“What is that?” the King of salsa music, Tito Puente, used say about salsa making a face in disgust. He never approved of the name. “Salsa means sauce, a condiment, a food… When they call it salsa, you don’t actually define what rhythm is. That’s why I don’t particularly care for the word. However, they call me the ‘King of salsa,’ so I’ll go along with it. I’ve been playing the same music for the last 30 or 40 years.”

In 1963, a man known throughout Latin America as “El Bárbaro del ritmo” died from cirrhosis of the liver. Benny Moré, a peasant from Lajas, Cuba, had taken his voice and music to every corner of the world. Around the same time, on the enchanted island of Puerto Rico, Ismael Rivera was singing bombas and plenas with the same success as El Benny. Ismael Rivera, El sonero mayor, became a master of the montuno — not bad for someone who used to claim he didn’t know anything about music.

Meanwhile, salseros such as Mario Bauzá and Willie Colón were able to capture the vibrant pulse of the Bronx, and other cities. Musicians like Juan Formell in Cuba and Eddie Palmieri in New York became very popular. Palmieri at the piano and Formell on the bass helped transform salsa music by incorporating wild new sounds. Palmieri even jumped up on his piano and would pluck the strings.

The Freeze

“Start with the basic step, then switch hands and do a tunnel. At the end, the woman freezes in an open position.”

In the 60s and 70s, young Latinos could have found in rock music a way to address their despair or happiness. They played their own music instead. Urban guerrillas and streetwise gangsters were the irreverent characters of these young musicians like Rubén Blades. Along with the bad boy of salsa music, Willie Colón, Blades created spectacular operas with their music.

The salsa of Rubén Blades was meant to serve as a chronicle of everyday life, something like a newspaper that runs stories of crime, drugs, political events, prostitution, solitude and happiness. The Panama-born Blades began painting the painful reality with his music that was not very welcomed by promoters at first. Not until they became a great commercial success. Songs such as Pedro Navaja became hymns to Latinos of large urban centers.

The 1970s salsa boom was a double-edged knife. It brought an unprecedented success to the musicians and promoters. That created a need for promoters to issue more albums with old works from Benny Moré, Arsenio Rodríguez, Celia Cruz, Sonora Matancera and others with new arrangements.

Salsa music reached its zenith of success with Fania Records and The Fania All Stars. Europe and the Far East became a bonanza for salseros. But success also caused a lack of experimentation and creativity. The salsa movement went into a crisis.

The Neck Drop

“The man takes the woman for a semi-turn and puts his right hand behind her right shoulder. Then he turns her back keeping his hand on her shoulder. As he turns her clockwise, he lets her drop and brings her up quickly before she hits the ground.”

Jazz festivals in Paris and Newport offered outlets to salsa bands when the salsa movement started losing ground to rock and disco music. Salsa musicians began migrating to jazz bands too. “Not an easy task,” says Ray Barreto, one of the most prolific and influential Latin percussionists in the history of modern jazz.

A pioneer of the early salsa movement, Barreto released nearly two dozen albums with the Fania label. “The Fania years were fun,” he said with a laugh. “But while I had the privilege of working with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Tito Puente, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, there was a downside too. I discovered that after some twenty years with Fania I had become typecast as a ‘Latin artist.’ That turned out to be extremely limiting when I tried to interest jazz labels in signing me.”

Around the same time, something called “Salsa Erótica” arrived, each song with indistinguishable sounds and lyrics. It’s purpose was to attract more dancers by playing a slower and more erotic rhythm. Dancers did not have to sweat, and sinceit was slower, more people could dance to it. Salsa Erótica did not last, though, because one could tell who was singing or who had written the lyrics. It was Salsa-Muzak.

The Merengue Turn

“The man dances a basic salsa move to a count of quick, quick slow, quick, quick, slow.”

— from “Salsa!” by Paul Bottomer, Lorenz Books, New York

It would be unfair to talk about salsa without mentioning merengue. Merengue was born when the Dominican Republic was seeking independence from Haiti. According to Johnny Ventura, in an interview published in Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ book “Los rostros de la salsa,” there was a Colonel participating in that war who was a musician as well as a military man. The Colonel decided to create a rhythm to boost his troops’ moral. But the rhythm, which appeared in the late 1800s, became more than a battle cry. The music developed in the countryside and later was carried to the cities.

Merengue was banned by the Dominican Republic rulers until the dictator Trujillo allowed a certain type of merengue song whose lyrics praised him. But when Trujillo was assassinated in the 1960s, merengue exploded and began singing to love and the joy of life. Merengue has developed and become one of the most sensual and popular rhythms around the world, and has produced stars such as Johnny Ventura, Wilfrido Vargas and Juan Luis Guerra. But the impact that merengue has had in Dominican Republic does not end in the dance floor — singer Johnny Ventura recently became mayor of Santo Domingo, where merengue and politics go hand by hand.

Considered by many the king of merengue, Wilfrido Vargas is a mulato who plays the trumpet, sings, and dances like nobody else. A handsome and charismatic musician, Wilfrido Vargas helped make merengue his country’s national pride.

Merengue has also produced one of the most talented and poetic songwriters, Juan Luis Guerra, whose album “Bachata Ros”a captures all the magic of Latin American literature. Beautiful and poetic, Guerra’s lyrics are inspired by the music of the Nueva Trova Cubana and the Beatles.

Guerra’s albums “Areito” and “Ni es lo mismo ni es igual” not only make you dance and sweat, they make you think about the social pains of the world around us. The man with the eternal hat (like Carlos Santana), is a real poet whose music appeals to both the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. If listening to an album by Rubén Blades is like opening a newspaper, to listen to Juan Luis Guerra is like opening a book by Gabriel García Márquez.

But merengue is only one of the many rhythms these musicians master —salseros also play bachatas, montunos, cumbias, timbas, planas, bombas, aguinaldos.

The Coffee Grinder

“The man stands behind the woman while she descends and flexes her knees. The man grabs her shoulder and begins turning her while she starts to ascend clockwise.”

The late King of Salsa himself, Tito Puente, made a rather short appearance at the First Salsa Congress held in Los Angeles in 1999. “What I have to say is… that I’m not Ricky Martin,” said the King, to a cheering crowd. The King was supposed to perform at the second Salsa Congress, but he died just before it took place. And so the 2000 Salsa Congress was dedicated to him.It is quicky becoming an event where one can find the best salsa dancing today.

AlbertoTorres, a man with a distinctive and deep voice, is the Salsa Congress producer. He has presented such legends as Los Van Van, Orquesta Aragón, Maraca and NG La Banda. The Salsa Congress has spread to Puerto Rico, and there are plans to present it in Tokyo and Germany soon. This year’s event in Los Angeles attracted hundreds of the best dancers in the world. There were more than two hundred people attending from Japan alone.

With its motto “Creating Unity Through Salsa,” the Congress also attracts top professional-quality performers. Young Ambition, a group of talented dancers from New York featured an eight-year old girl who kept people on their feet throughout the presentation. Other dance performers included the highly-respected Felipe Polanco from Puerto Rico. This salsero has created a style that has followers all over the world. Many people would fly across the globe just to see Polanco’s feet hit the floor. Other special guests present were Cuban Pete and the Palladium Mambo Legends.

The three-day event, with shows going until four a.m., was a blast. It was interesting to see the beginners try their best in this intimidating environment. Albert Torres, who looked like a high priest as master of ceremonies, has been dancing salsa since he was eight years old. He is a proud Puerto Rican with lots of experience in show business. At the beginning of his career as a promoter, Torres had his problems. “Oftentimes I was homeless and had nothing to eat,” says Albert who received help from bandleaders such as Johnny Polanco. “My life is dedicated to this music where people who participate are from all nationalities,” he says. Albert Torres believes that through salsa, he can unify people from all walks of life and from every corner of the world.

“I’m basically a human being who is sensitive, and who has a passion and love for life and music,” Torres said at the Congress. These days, he has sponsors such as Seagrams, DaimlerChrysler, Bacardí and Domino’s Pizza to help pay the event’s expenses. “They do not want to give that much money, but they are coming along,” he said. “We are planning an event that will cover the whole Asian region.”

“My childhood was a tough one on the streets,” says Albert, who grew up in New York, “though not due to my parents — a lot of it I brought on myself.I didn’t want to listen or dance to my Mom’s music. I was dancing to Hustle, the dance of my teenage years.” Albert was slowly turned on by the sounds of the Caribbean.

The Pachanga Cross Swivels

“Dance a backward salsa basic in a double hand hold. The man is now standing on the right foot and the woman on the left foot.”

— from “Salsa!” by Paul Bottomer, Lorenz Books, New York

The Hollywood Casino and Racetrack does not have as graceful and famous name as the Palladium of the 1950’s. It’s not a club with limos parked at the entrance, but during the Salsa Congress, it had other things going for it: It featured great bands, great performers, and attracted salsa lovers from around the world.

“I am so influenced by my Latin friends. My co-workers say I don’t look Japanese at times,” says Maika Ito, who came from Japan and works as a technical translator at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. “I feel very, very good. When I like the song, I dance naturally happy,” says Maika. “I didn’t like to dance since I was shy. Then I gradually started liking salsa more and more, and got addicted,” Maika says. She now dances in a performing group from Northern California named RicaSalsa.

“Japanese people are for the most part very low key, formal and gentle. It seems kind of weird that they like salsa dancing,” she says. Maika shared the floor at the 2000 Salsa Congress with the numerous Japanese people who came to the event. Maika frequents Alberto’s Club in Mountain View, California, which competes with other venues such as Café Cocomo and Rockapulco for the best salsa floor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Exit

“The man dances the backward salsa basic without the tap, but on the third step, he moves forwards on the right foot.”

— from “Salsa!” by Paul Bottomer, Lorenz Books, New York

A year before he passed away, Tito Puente summed up the “State of Salsa” at the 1999 Salsa Congress:

“The music today is getting a lot of recognition throughout the world. Now, people don’t worry about bilingual problems. The people love our percussion; they love our Latin-American rhythms. They accept this music in all the places, in countries like Japan, Singapore, and Bangkok.

“The music is accepted by everyone. Latin jazz, in particular, caters to a lot of non-Latin people through jazz festivals and jazz concerts, and universities with jazz bands. I can foresee our music getting more and more recognition, and the younger generation coming to love this music.”

Last year, the “sudden” Latin Explosion left the mainstream media exhausted from covering this traditionally-neglected sector of the entertainment world. The explosion was short-lived. According to industry statistics, this year salsa music sales have gone down 25 percent. But salsa has always bounced back, rejuvenated, and with new strength.

Beautiful romances do start and also end on dance floors. Marriages end and start in the whirlwind of passions called salsa dancing. It can be a prelude to beautiful things and, sometimes, bad moves. Whether people see in it a foreplay or just plain fun, salsa dancing keeps bringing excitement, pleasure and passion to our lives.

Thank you for dancing with me!


© 2001 El Andar Magazine


My Top Ten Salsa Albums

Ray Barreto,
Que viva la música

Fania Records.

Mario Bauza y su Orquesta,

Sony Records

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar,
Buscando América
Wea/Elektra Entertainment

Willie Colón y Rubén Blades,
Fania Records

Oscar D’León,
El sonero del mundo RMM Records & Video

Fania All Stars,
Live at the Cheetah Fania Records

Cheo Feliciano,
José “Cheo” Feliciano
Vaya Records

Juan Formell y Los Van Van
Anda, ven y muévete

Grupo Niche,
Llegando al 100%
Discos International

Juan Luis Guerra, Bachata rosa
Karen Records