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'Saucy' Latin dance attracts new enthusiasts
( China Daily)
Updated: 2005-11-29 10:25

As winter arrives, urbanites are trying different ways to keep warm and get rid of the chills.

Besides hotpot, another much-recommended recipe is available salsa dancing is in fashion, especially when participants can dance with beautiful women or handsome men to amazing Latin music.

'Saucy' Latin dance attracts new enthusiasts
Salsa-lovers practise dance steps at Wang Lei's salsa workshop in Beijing. 

Top venues for this type of dancing is Latinos or Caribe, two of the main Latin bars in Beijing. Latinos is located by Chaoyang Park, while Caribe is in Sanlitun.

Every Thursday night, fans enter a fascinating world of salsa, which not only immediately warms up the body, but also makes many fall in love with Latin music and dancing.

Sometimes, top salsa dancers from Hong Kong, as well as the United States and South Korea offer dazzling performances in distinctive styles at such events as the Beijing Salsa Festival earlier this month.

For a whole week, fans gathered to watch several excellent salsa artists, including US pair Del Dominguez and Leah Patterson; solo dancer Gag, of South Korea; and DJ Henry Knowles.

The event's dance hall was packed with dozens of salsa enthusiasts from Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou almost every evening during the festival. Some dancers wore gorgeous, sexy outfits, but others dressed in comfortable jeans.

It did not matter if visitors could not dance; they could simply enjoy a bottle of cool beer while swaying to the beautiful music.

Dance origin

Most Chinese are familiar with Latin dances. A non-dancer would know the cha-cha, tango and rumba from TV.

But salsa is new and many may associate it with a drink or a strange, exotic fruit.

Literally translated, salsa means "sauce" in Spanish. The dance first appeared in Cuba, which was once a transfer station for the slave trade between Africa and North America.

Many weak slaves were left in Cuba and put to work there. They created a simple dance while working to accompany the beating of crude tools.

They had to bend a little when dancing, but their feet appeared to be stuck to the ground because of the iron chains on their ankles. These characteristics are still retained in modern salsa.

Salsa has spread across the world, especially after jazz music became its accompaniment. New York salsa thus emerged in addition to the original Cuban style.

"You may say that all Latin dances look hot and spicy. But salsa distinguishes itself with an easy-going and gentle pattern," said Zhang Zhu, a Beijing woman in her 20s. "Unlike other sport dances, it is well received by society."

Zhang works at an IT company in Beijing's central business district. She started to learn salsa a few months ago. She performed with her partner, Huang Changjun, at Latinos during the salsa festival. Though not as skilful as other dancers, she still enjoyed herself.

Zhang belongs to a small group of salsa fans who have been devotees ever since the dance gained popularity among white-collar workers in Beijing four years ago.

It then spread to Shanghai and Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang Province.

Salsa has become part of people's exercise routine and helps them relax or lose weight, as does yoga and ballet.

Special training courses for salsa are available at fitness centres and Latin bars with a dance hall and music to attract beginners.

"For a long time, Latin dances were not part of my life. The turning point in my mind was a trip to Florida in 2003," said Zhang Zhu.

"We were wandering along the street and there were dozens of Latin-Americans dancing to music played by a band in a square," she recalled.

She said she noticed a sweet girl enjoying a slow dance with an elderly partner.

"It reminded me of the romantic tango between Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, and a beautiful woman in the 1994 movie "Scent of a Woman," Zhang recalled.

The girl then turned to a young man and started a more exciting dance.

"Her hair was thrown about and she looked energetic. I had never thought that Latin dances could be so easy and natural. I later learned that they were dancing the salsa and that's when I started to dream of dancing like them one day," she said.

Quite a few of Zhang's dance classmates have become obsessed with dancing the salsa in Latin bars like Latinos. They have been captivated by performances given by experienced dancers who teach salsa in clubs. The Chinese did not hesitate to sign up for the elementary courses and often more difficult classes.

Most dancers say they were fascinated by salsa music before the dance itself.

"I never went to a ballroom before I started studying salsa. I didn't like the music there; it was so noisy and disturbing. However, it is totally different in Latin bars. Salsa music feels comfortable; it feels like it's massaging your body and releasing all your tiredness," said Zhang Zhu.

Huang Changjun, Zhang's dancing partner, describes the music as free and graceful.

"It is so appealing that I want to listen to it over and over again," he said.

Another main reason for the enthusiasm for salsa is the atmosphere.

"Zhang often refers to Latinos as a magical place. Although singers perform the same song every night, they present the audience with a variety of styles. And DJs produce mysterious music. The happy tunes give us so much energy," Huang said.

But the real magic comes when people actually start to dance.

A translator who identified herself as Lisa Zhang said she started to dance salsa two years ago. Before that, she had ballet lessons.

"I am not a slim woman and so for me ballet was not suitable. Most importantly, I couldn't dance ballet after class," she said.

But she can dance salsa in bars.

"Dancing salsa makes women more sexy. It softens the body and keeps us feminine," she added.

Huang Changjun said: "I've got to understand more about my body by dancing salsa. Why? Because it is a dance in which you need to control your waist as you sway your shoulders. You have to wake up all the parts of your body, but make them move separately. That is not an easy job to do naturally," he said.

Most salsa learners are satisfied with simple training; they feel contented just to be able to dance.

As they move to higher levels, people often find it a bit boring as they do not have enough time, or patience, to practise more complicated dance steps.

Salsa is best enjoyed when it is a tool to make new friends and fill leisure time.

However, there are those who take the dance very seriously.

Salsa mania

To be recognized as an expert dancer, dancers must be able to combine diverse dance patterns from two or three salsa coaches from the East and the West, and develop a new style of their own.

"You will definitely stand out among the other dancers if you do that," said Lisa Zhang.

There are also opportunities to join salsa dance troupes. For instance NG (New Generation) was founded by Wang Lei and his wife, who goes by her stage name Xiang Xiang. They are ready to share their rich experience with fans.

They were once members of Phoenix, the earliest salsa dance troupe in Beijing, and perhaps the first on the mainland.

Established a year ago, this troupe is led by "Manbo" Jack Dunn, a top salsa artist from the United States, and a Chinese woman who studied salsa in Europe for several years. She goes by her stage name Zhen Zhen.

Wang owns a small workshop in downtown Beijing and his troupe has attracted people by providing them with the chance to take part in exchanges with dancers from the rest of the world.

Zhang Zhu and Huang Changjun are attending a three-month special course give by Nalnari and Yein, well-known salsa partners from South Korea, at Wang's workshop.

"We are trying to push forward the development of salsa in China. And we need to invite more great salsa dancers from other countries and help local salsa teachers to advance to a higher level," Xiang Xiang said.

So far salsa has been well received in only a limited circle of people in big cities.

The comparatively high tuition fees are on reason: the average fee is between 60 and 100 yuan (US$7.4- US$12.3) for each class.

And it is noticeable that women show more interests in salsa than men. The number of men attending Wang Lei's regular salsa class is less than one third the number of women. That means most of time they practise solo dances.

"There should be more men coming to dance salsa. But I think it is like this because men prefer an hour on an exercise machine," Huang Changjun said.

"Salsa is a fine companion, just like my dog. It is, in fact, a psychological need," he said. "I danced disco in my teens. Now I enjoy salsa in Latin bars, and in my 40s and 50s, it's likely to be jazz."

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