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2006 SF Salsa Congress Review

By Maya (Nov. 25, 2006)

The 5th annual San Francisco congress that runs in November is over and, as usual, many dancers’ week of rest that follows is accompanied by a depressive void – no more shows to see, workshops to attend, people to watch and, most importantly, dance with accomplished masters from all over the globe (or at least dream about it).

Organized by PB&G Dance Company the SF in association with Albert Torres Productions this salsa event of the year is quickly becoming a deserving competitor to its more prominent counterpart in LA: visiting salsa luminaries, quality bands, varied workshops etc.  Even more importantly, thanks to Ricardo and Michelle’s PB&G and its volunteers the event runs without a hitch.  Plus, it’s all self-contained in a beautiful Marriott hotel in Oakland.

The opening night party in the most popular salsa club in the Bay Area (voted best in the city and 2d best in the country) Café Cocomo was overflowing with locals and guests who could use free shuttles to and from the hotel.  All 3 available dance floors were packed and the huge fans running in several corners were struggling to alleviate sauna-like atmosphere.  Popular local band Avance was not making it any easier playing “speedy Gonzalez” songs.  Nevertheless, at 2 am everyone was leaving with a big smile on the face.

The first congress shows during the evening were promising.  White Boy Wonders from San Diego teased the female audience and Rumba Cha from San Jose charmed everyone with their creative rendition of a delightful old cha-cha. Their repeat performance in the Friday night show line-up got a standing ovation.  The cha-cha was superb; choreography was responsive to the music and simple, but imaginative and the execution was smooth.  This number was great, but it would have been a gem if costumes and presentation reflected the humorous side of the music and choreography.

One group that burst on the salsa scene a few yeas ago captured the magic of a successful performance – Swinguys from Milan, Italy.  Last year it was Americano, voted the best performance at the London congress; this year it was a 7 min. routine Tutti Frutti.  Swinguys get a standing ovation every time they perform even though at least half of their routine has nothing to do with salsa.  What’s their secret? The right, and tight, mix of catchy music, unconventional moves, just the right amount of tricks spiced up with humor and all of it presented with showmanship extraordinaire.

This is not the only road to ovation.  Some salsa performers rely on their superb technique, some prefer acrobatic tricks, some choose intricate group formations.  Stage routines that combine them all with any degree of success are not that frequent so audiences are usually very appreciative of them.  One great example is a passionate and impeccably executed number by a couple from Venezuela who took the 2nd place in the Cabaret Division.  The song was so dramatic and their expressive performance was so perfect that judges made an exception and let them perform in the upcoming World Salsa Competition in Las Vegas. They deserved to tie with the first place winners – an incredible couple from Puerto Rico.

Humor especially is lacking in salsa performances. (I’m not talking about hilarious spur-of-the-moment spoofs by Ismael Otero & Co).    This year only one group besides Swinguys incorporated it in their routine.  Los Callejeros from Salt Lake City dressed up and danced as chickens to reflect the music they chose.  It was not a technically perfect performance, but they too got a stand-up applause from the audience.  What does it tell ya? Salseros should relax and stop taking themselves too seriously. 

And finally, the most important ingredient of all, whatever you call it – energy, the joy emanating from the performers (either true or very believable fake).  Proven on every dance show we know and repeated by the judges like a mantra: if you’re having fun so will the audience.

The choice of music alone can make or break a performance.  A great danceable song perfect for a club might not be good enough for a stage.  An engaging tune that makes the audience clap and stomp their feet even before you start dancing can be half of your success right there.  Ricasalsa nailed it with their cha-cha intro a few years ago and Swinguys pick a winning song every time. Mambo Romero chose one of my favorites La Lucha by Mamborama, but its multiple accents and strong percussion were a stark contrast to the group’s smooth gliding style they’re famous for. When MR picks the right music like they did for one of their past winning routines (Caravan) they can truly shine. 

Many other memorable performances, primarily by local talents, wowed the audience: 2 boys from Sacramento, Salsamania, Son de Mania, PB&G, Junior & Emily and others. Lalo and Viri of Rumba Cha took 1st place in Amateurs,  Dakin and Kayono  got 2d and Isidro and Sheila placed third in Professional division. Former Salsamania member Carlitos (now in Las Vegas) and Margo tied with Hector and partner for the first place in Jack&Jill open.  Naturally, they all had a lot of support from the audience, but that does not mean they didn’t deserve high marks.  The level of dancing in the Bay Area improved tremendously and visitors and judges took notice. PB&G won the title of World Salsa Dance Championship 2005-2006, Team Division, in Las Vegas. Salsamania took the second place.  Junior and Emily placed 2nd in on 2 division and are known all over the world. 

However, here’s one comment I received from a congress participant:

“I was delighted to see that the Canadians (Salsarica from Calgary) won in the Professionals.  Their routine had plenty of classic salsa moves …footwork and isolations, working the shoulders and hips. I felt that others, especially the San Francisco competitors, were just doing spins and what I call "flips and dips", and I can watch figure skating competitions for that experience. I feel like the salsa style is getting lost in favor of gymnastics. But, then, they are very young and, I guess favor athletic prowess over intricate footwork and moving the body sensually to music (which was so enjoyable about the Canadians).”

Many of us would dispute this view.  However, it comes from an audience member and diligent performers should take notice of all the opinions whether they like them or not.  After all, it’s the viewers, not the judges, that have the final say.

Nice additions to the congress this year were Jack & Jill competitions for Masters (instructors) and everybody else.  Only a small number of spectators showed up to see the general competition, but the seats were full when the pros took the floor. Wouldn’t it be fun to mix them up and see what happens? J  I bet folks would buy congress passes just to see that competition.

Winners determined by judges (and the audience’s applause) were mostly Bay Area dancers.  In Master’s division, Salsamania’s John Narvaez placed third leaving behind such renowned luminaries like Cobo Brothers, Ismael Otero and Jason Molina. The winners, Victor from Mexico and his partner Jessica, charmed everybody with their quebradita moves he’s famous for. Even his switch from on 2 to on1 in the middle of the song did not influence the judges’ decision who went along with the audience’s favorites.

San Francisco’s newest transplant from LA Seaon Stylist made a brief appearance on the dance floor to showcase his incomparable follower’s style and promised that his local group will wow everyone at the next year’s congress. 

Another pleasant congress surprise was a music video showcasing multiple talents of Giju, a Salsamania’s dancer, who is also an accomplished singer. (  Featuring several local dancers, this professionally filmed video incorporated salsa music and dance into Indian-style pop.  With its future release in India and other countries, it will help popularize Bay Area salsa beyond the US borders.

A word about the bands and DJs.  New Swing Sextet from NY and Sonora Carruseles from Colombia are magnificent professional bands.  However, judging from the forum and DJ comments most dancers would prefer New Swing Sextet.  As mambo gradually spreads in the Bay Area, fast tempo and long songs annoy many dancers. A night of DJ music was a welcome relief and we had a chance to enjoy a variety of songs and meet a new DJ, a superb dancer and the friendliest partner Shaan who is known as “London’s best kept secret”. 

I finally discovered the secret to an enjoyable social dancing experience: hoping to partner with great visiting leaders, but being just as happy with folks you already know.  I’m delighted to say that here in the Bay Area we have nothing to feel inferior about.  However, it is still a fussy market based on looks and skills.  Maybe congresses should revive “taxi dancers” from the past who will join the rank of volunteers to dance with the “unknowns”?

The general after-congress buzz was overwhelmingly positive.  Too bad, we’ll have to wait another year to repeat the experience.

Maya Salsaloca

To dance is good, but to dance good is betta…


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