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New York Salsa Dance Congress 2007:

A Review of the New York Salsa Congress

By Maya

My first time dancing in NY, the mambo capital of the world, was quite an experience.  I dipped right into it after landing, dropping off the luggage and heading to club Cache where the opening night party was held on Wed. Aug.29.  It was packed with dancers who would draw a crowd at SF clubs any time.  Wow. 
Are they all from NY or is it the cream of the crop coming out from the woodworks drawn by the congress’ appeal?  That was the question to be answered.  There were some visitors, but most were “nuyokas”, mambo on2 dancers, and they were impressive. 
The congress featured many activities prior and post the weekend including 2 cruises (one before and one after), sightseeing tour for visitors, socials etc.  The first cruise held on Tuesday before the congress had a live band and an open bar - all you can drink to your heart’s content - for $40. The second cruise organized by Luis Zegarra, who is also the main honcho behind the NY Salsa Festival, was $35 with optional dinner for $10, and was packed with locals and visitors.  The leisurely boat ride along the spectacular NY skyline is not to be missed.  Added to it was a salsa show inside with a few impressive performances.  Even carpeted floors did not dampen the spirit of the social dancing that followed.  Too bad, it had to end so quickly. 
Held at the gorgeous NY Hilton in mid-town Manhattan where rooms cost +/-$300 per night, even discounted congress price of $198 per night was not cheap, but that did not deter hard core salseros - the congress room block was sold out in June!  3 other hotels had to be added and were sold out as well. 
From the start, you could tell the congress was very well organized: everything running smoothly; events starting on time. The main ballroom was spacious and beautiful with 3 superb dance floors where you couldn’t even see the joints, a smaller carpeted area in the front as well as the spacious entry hall were reserved for vendors. 
For the first time, an adjoining ballroom was booked for a hustle congress and competition as well as a smaller dance floor for the West Coast swing dancers who often add other dance styles to their events.  Reno Dance Sensation is becoming increasingly popular with salseros, but for a salsa congress this was a trend setting event.  It’s about time salsa aficionados woke up to the appeal (and even necessity) of other dance forms: they boost creativity and burst inflated egos, especially when witnessing the incomparable technique of swing performers. (remember Benji - winner of So You Think You Can Dance?) Besides, it can be cheaper to pool resources and lower the costs for all.

The credit for the success of this year’s congress deservedly belongs to John “Choko” Knight - who took over after David Melendez passed away.  This down to earth guy could not be mistaken for a  “suit” - he wears his own brand Ts - but his uncanny business sense, willingness to learn from mistakes and ability to see the forest for the trees will make sure this first time success does not go to his head.  Many entrepreneurs and promoters fail trying to save pennies and loosing $$$ in the end.  Choko’s generous but savvy ways will attract dancers and assure the congress’ future appeal.  Attendees’ overwhelmingly positive comments will help spread the word. 
My favorite night of the congress was Thursday with Charanga America and Grupo Latin Vibe.  The first band, relatively unknown in salsa circles, was surprisingly good (and will put to shame SF’s own Charanson).  Grupo Latin Vibe demonstrated masters at work, full of creative arrangements and intricate improvisations.  Even the DJ Luis Rollin’ Rivera who played between the sets was picking some of the best mambo selections.  It was perfect. 
Fri to Sun nights were more appealing to the fans of fast and energetic songs.  It was surprising to hear mostly salsa - not mambo - even at the socials for the on2 crowds. Many of those selections were too fast to do anything creative - you could not do much more but run through the music.  (Great for non-imaginative crowd on speed. ;-)

Also for the first time, the congress featured Sunday night competition for professional couples.  Out of many participating duos there were some big names including Ismael Otero with his Israeli partner.  Who won?  A flamboyant pair from Puerto Rico and Venezuela Kevin Fernandez and Liselotte who got a cheerful ovation in spite of a slight fall. Third place went to a flawless Colombian couple whose stunning technique and footwork got a standing ovation (many booed when their 3d place was announced)   Second place was given to San Francisco’s Salsamania alumni Luis Aguilar and his NY partner Anya who were announced representing New York.  It was a mistake that has never been corrected - too bad.  Luis was amazing - precise, elaborate with perfect execution and timing.   
Most non-competition performances were forgettable with a few notable exceptions.  Another congress’ first: an all-girl group of Egyptian dancers - not salseras from Egypt, but American belly dancers.  If only they knew when to stop. 
Al Liquid Silver dressed as James Brown was entertaining as usual, but his new partner Carla looked like she had nothing to do with it and did not want to be there in the first place.  A German couple presented 2 interesting routines combining various music styles and choreography.  2 sisters, age 11 and 17, danced a creative routine choreographed by Eddie Torres and were stunning in their technique and performance.

Shaka Brown and his troupe Clavekazi always stand apart thanks to their creativity and original ideas.  This group never fails to entertain the audiences who get tired of watching the same salsa pattern remixes show after show.  Shaka is just as inspiring in his social dancing, but most importantly for the ladies, he’s an approachable and gracious leader. 
Dave Paris and Zoe were spectacular as usual; there were a few other noteworthy presentations, but the kings of the shows were kids from a Puerto-Rican school trained by Jason Molina.  It was incredible to see 40 youngsters age 11 to 19 without a shred of the usual kids’ awkwardness - their styling could match some of the best adult dancers!  Kudos to the dedication of the parents and guardians - 90 in all - who were willing to make the trip to give their kids a chance to perform. 
Now to social dancing.  One huge plus for the congress - shows did not take forever and left plenty of time for dancing.  This part will make or break any congress.  Never mind the bands, the shows, the perks etc. if dancers don’t have a chance to meet and dance with each other. 
However, there is a taboo topic everyone knows about, but no one mentions: many skilled salseros (and salseras) are not that generous when it comes to social dancing.  NY has a bad reputation in that regard and during my 10-day stay, I could see why.  One advice sent by a fellow San Franciscan to his peers: “If you’re planning a trip to NY to dance,  - don’t”     NY dancers might be less arrogant when visiting other cities, but here on their home turf with the abundance of skilled (and gorgeous) partners they can be picky and outright rude. 
I’ve had some great dances with mostly non NY salseros.  The top prize goes to a bunch of visiting fellow canucks from Montreal - they were polite, good-natured, fun, amazing dancers and, most importantly, never refused a dance to anyone.  I was asked only by a couple of guys who knew me and a Londoner who did not.  I had to ask others.  One New Yorker, Levi, was kind enough to remember and invite me at one of the socials I attended after the congress.  That’s it.   
On the other side of the spectrum were refusals.  I heard many excuses in my 9 years of dancing, but the one by a short balding fella in red jacket and leopard print shoes was as “creative” as his outfit: “I just came back from the washroom”.  The prize for the rudest salsero, however, goes to one of the Santorico dancers, who when asked, first made a face of torture then rolled his eyes, then danced leading like a drunk with MS. (Yes, Santorico, - you’re reading correctly - get a grip!  There are no idols when it comes to social dancing and if there are, they‘re meant to be broken, but I‘m sparing their names - for now…;-) 
One particular incident is so telling of the salsa attitudes.  At the congress and many socials that followed there was a visiting Moscow “Barbie” - a gorgeous blonde who just started dancing on1 a few months ago.  It was amusing to watch a stream of guys lining up for her at every social.  But shockingly enough, only a couple of leaders adapted and switched on1, all others kept going on2 while she was struggling.  What was it, lack of leaders’ etiquette or inability to dance on 1? 
To lift the spirits, I went to a  lindyhop dance (original swing) known for friendlier crowds. 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not laying it heavy on NY “cliques”, we all know there is one in every big city with a sizable dance community, including swing (both lindy and West-Coast) and especially tango.  We need to face the problem and find solutions so that out-of-towners can feel welcome, especially during a congress. 
Perhaps, an old lindyhoppers’ tradition of a welcome dance for the visitors can be introduced whereas the DJ invites newcomers to assemble in the middle of the floor and local dancers switch to dance with them.  Not only will it help them feel better, it will also demonstrate their dancing skills and alleviate the fears of advanced dancers who are reluctant to invite strangers.  Maybe NY congress at the center of the biggest salsa community can become a leader in that regard and bring about the change most of us would welcome.  Isn’t it the true key and the true meaning of a successful congress? 
Maya Salsaloca 
San Francisco


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