Salsa for the soul

Salsa dancing in London, Barcelona, Cologne, Copenhagen, Vienna...Düsseldorf, Madrid, and Göteborg...

“Why couldn’t you pick something simple…,” sighed my dad. I could see he was surprised – after all, I had spent nearly 30 years keeping physical activity to the bare minimum, and now I was announcing that I wanted to learn salsa dancing. “Won’t you have to wear a frilly shirt?” piped up my mum, presumably hoping that the thought of looking an idiot would put me off for good. “And it’s really difficult – we tried to learn the cha-cha once, but never got the hang of it.”

I suppose it was a bolt out of the blue. I mean, it’s not as if I had a modicum of Hispanic blood and the only word of Spanish I knew was ‘Hola’. I had been hopeless at ballroom dancing at school, with a tendency to plough my partner into the wall, and decided that dancing just wasn’t for me. But one of the receptionists upstairs from where I worked in the British Cement Association in Crowthorne, UK had told me about a local class in Bracknell that took place in a converted wine cellar, which she described as absolutely brilliant. I already knew I liked the music, having listened to Latin Jazz for several years, particularly by Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. In fact, I was in the habit of listening to “Manteca” at ear-splitting volume in the car on my way to work. So, on one freezing November night in Bracknell, I took the plunge and enlisted in my first class.

Needless to say, the first hurdle to overcome was that I didn’t know my left from my right. This has always been a problem and was the main reason why I failed my first driving test. Therefore, the moves in the beginners’ class didn’t go quite as they should have – i.e., I ended up facing the wrong direction or tying my partner and myself in such knots that only the teacher could work out exactly how we got there. It was all jolly embarrassing and I felt like running off and doing something like reorganising my beer mat collection.

But the life-changing moment came after the class, when the lights were dimmed and freestyle dancing was on the agenda. Before I knew it, I was being whisked off my feet by ladies of all ages, shapes and sizes (with a tendency to be schoolteachers). They didn’t seem to care about the fact that I only knew the basic step and kindly taught me one or two extremely simple moves as we revolved around the floor to some of the most intoxicating music I had ever heard – salsa standards such as Celia Cruz’ “La Vida es un Carnaval,” an Hispanic version of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” Tito Puente’s “Peanut Vendor,” which I knew from the hit recording by Stan Kenton’s band, and Issac Delgado’s “Solar de la California,” a fantastic version of The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” Despite the fact that I had promised my parents that I would get home as soon as possible, I just couldn’t tear myself away until the final song was played and went home feeling exhausted, yet happy.

Of course, there was a still a long way to go. Even after my fourth attempt at the absolute beginners’ class, I hadn’t fully got the hang of the four main steps and the left and right confusion wasn’t getting any better. But six months of lessons and dancing with experienced salseras after the class did help and I found myself feeling very much more confident of my few moves. More and more people seemed to be joining the class every week and I made a point of asking them to dance. I certainly wasn’t an expert, but at least I knew more moves than they did! Gradually I got to know the regulars, their jobs and interests. Quite a number of people just came to one or two lessons (including at least a dozen Hungarian au pairs), but others came and stayed the course.

I never actually managed to move out of the beginner improvers’ class, where the focus was on perfecting one or two sequences, yet maintaining a sense of fun. The intermediate class moved far too quickly and seemed to take it extremely seriously, causing me to tie myself in knots. But I looked forward to Monday nights and listened to the Paris-based Radio Latina through the internet for endless hours in the office whilst trying to write technical articles for Concrete magazine.

In 2002, I got the chance to go to Barcelona, Spain to report on a new concrete admixture and managed to persuade the company to pay for an extra night in that fantastic city. I found out about the “Palacio de la Salsa” through the letters page on the Radio Latina website, located just off Las Ramblas. After spending a day visiting museums and getting something to eat, I arrived there at midnight, expecting the place to be packed…only to find that it was totally empty. Needless to say, I stuck around, listening to the wonderful music and watching the video screens. Finally a vision in white turned up - I asked her to dance en espanol and she responded in a thick Mancunian accent that she didn’t speak Spanish. We had a dance, but I finally gave up at 2am as no-one else seemed the slightest bit interested in dancing with me.

I continued regular classes up until I changed jobs in August 2004 and moved to Stratford in East London to become editor of a magazine on sweets and biscuits. One of the first places I checked out was Bar Salsa in Charing Cross Road, but I found the lessons difficult to follow as several were taking place simultaneously. Also, there was more a tendency for people to stick with their friends or partners rather than swap around after each dance, as was the case in Bracknell. There were also large numbers of people who seemed to be non-dancers and there seemed to be some confusion as to what was actually salsa music, as opposed to Reggaeton and Latin House.

However, one of the perks of my new job is regular European travel and, in January this year, my boss and I drove to Cologne in Germany for the International Sweets and Biscuits Fair, where we had an exhibition stand for several days. As ever, I had done my research and found that there was a club called Le Petit Prince, just off the main road, called the Hohenzollernring. Architecturally, it was extremely interesting – turn of the century. It was also very cheap to get in – only three euros – but the music was brilliant and before I knew it I was spinning the frauleins, some of whom seemed quite impressed! Initially, I decided not to say anything and indicate I was English, but it was only when someone spoke to me in German that I started to chat. She was a violinist in the Cologne Symphony Orchestra and I spent the evening chatting to her and finding out what it was like to live in the city. I did go back the following night when the club seemed to be populated by genuine Latinos. I didn’t get many dances and gave up when I noticed men being led out of the club. The reason for this became apparent when I was nudged by a hand clutching a police badge. That’s right – the place was being quietly raided by the Cologne Drug Squad.

A month later I went to Copenhagen, Denmark to see two manufacturers of chocolate machinery. My research paid off again and, the night I arrived, I ended up in Club Mambo, in a turn-of-the-century former department store. The Danes proved very friendly – one partner even declared that I was “fantastic,” so I ended up going again on Sunday, which was the “strictly salsa” night. I barely sat out a dance, and a Swedish lady who just loved dancing told me about another venue in a café in another sector of the city. The Café Frederiksberg is one of the most unusual places in which I have danced to date – again the building was around a century old and comprised a bar and theatre, with two enormous plastic rhinoceri hanging off the walls! Very bizarre – but again, I barely sat a dance out.

In March, I went off to Vienna, Austria to see a waffle machinery manufacturer and a chocolate company. This proved to be home to one of the best salsa clubs I have visited to date – the Floridita, located in the heart of the city. For a start, entrance was free, but it was plushly furnished and there were videos of Tito Puente being played on large screens. This time I spoke to everyone – only one lady didn’t speak English – and I met people from Australia, Scotland and Estonia, many of whom seemed to work for government agencies.

In April, my boss and I hit the autobahns again to visit Düsseldorf for the Interpack Trade Show, where we were manning an exhibition stand for a week. Salsa is very popular in Germany and I had already found out that I would just miss the annual Düsseldorf Salsa Fever Days extravaganza at the newly built Nord-Rhine-Westphalia Tanzhaus (dance house). Nonetheless, I did manage to make it to the monthly salsa party and spent most of time with a lady called Wendy, who had been kicked out of her own house by her daughter who was celebrating her 16th birthday. She hadn’t salsaed before, and I had a most enjoyable evening teaching her the steps it had taken me three years to perfect.

Then in June I went off to Madrid, Spain, to see one of the country’s best-known sugar confectionery manufacturers. Sure enough, I managed to find the city’s best-known salsa club – the Tropical House – located in the north of the city in the entrance of a multi-storey car park. Once again, I found the Spanish experience rather demoralising – people tended to come with each other and there seemed to be large numbers of non-dancers. However, I had a dozen dances with some extremely short non-English-speaking senoritas, which made some moves rather difficult.

Most recently, I went to the beautiful city of Göteborg in Sweden for the weekend and, within a few hours of arrival, was in the northern city suburbs dancing in a converted sail factory to an excellent local band that specialised in salsa versions of Tamla Motown classics and Beatles songs. Once again, the Scandivanians were friendly and enthusiastic, and I will never forget inflicting my triple-turn on a hysterical Swedish lady to the strains of Lennon & McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love,” sung in Swedish. The next night found me in a club that constituted part of the Folk Theatre. I attended a class held entirely in Swedish, which was perfectly easy to follow, and barely sat out a dance all evening.

So what has salsa done for me? Well, it’s a universal communication device that transcends language. All salseras and salseros are part of a fraternity where the bonding factor is love of this infectious music and dance form combined with the Latino lifestyle. It’s a great way to meet people of all ages and professions, and in foreign cities, it is a chance to mingle with the locals and get something of a flavour for the place. I admit that I’m not the greatest dancer – I really need a few more lessons. But salsa has opened many new doors for me and I am pleased that I made the decision to learn this wonderful dance.

- Neil Watson