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San Francisco Salsa Congress 2008: Review

By Maya/SalsaLoca

Just a few weeks before the beginning there was no info posted on the congress' website, no usual buzz or big names passed around and I got worried...until the opening night.  I showed up at Cafe Cocomo at 9:30 after watching 1.5  films from the Latino Film Festival's closing weekend.  It was early by the club's standard, but too late for the congress opening.  Cars were flooding the streets, parking spots close to the club were gone and the dance floor was already packed.   For the first time there was not one, but 2 lines to get in! Wow!

If you couldn't stretch your legs in the next half hour you were out of luck - by 10 it was so crowded I had to move upstairs and by 11 pm even the balcony was full.  That's when we regretted not using the outdoor dance floor that the club installed and then removed for lack of action. Thank goodness Cocomo expanded its interior space and covered everything with wood floors.  But even that was not enough.

On the opening  night those floors were sweating from hundreds of feet moving to the best music they ever heard from  Johnny Polanco.  This  band is sensitive to dancers' needs limiting songs to reasonable lengths and even responding to the growing popularity of on2 dancing  by adding a few classic mambos to its repertoire.  Moreover, DJ Fred played his best session ever.  He changed his selections adapting to the dancers' crowd, but a quick polling of non-dancer regulars confirmed that even "non-mamberos" preferred these choices.

SF salsa scene is gradually evolving, the best local band (quality wise) Avance is no longer drawing huge following due to their outdated and fast paced repertoire of romantic salsa.  Club DJs do include occasional mambos in their selections, but it was surprising  to find out  the majority of dancers and social butterflies prefer more sophisticated music.

According to many attendees, music wise the opening night at Cocomo was the best.  Fri night many dancers complained of the fast, monotonous and  super long songs.  DJs continued with fast-paced music between sets and disappointed  mamberos who are now a majority. Eddie Palmieri was much better, but  long songs in short sets left frustrated dancers sweating on the floor with a few partners.  Jimmy Bosch's music was great and not as stretched out.  Dancers want to support the bands, but unless performing musicians take their needs into consideration there will always be calls to switch to DJ music.  Another idea would be to provide an alternative DJ room - not just a hallway - for mambo or salsa fans as opposed to the band's style.

It seems, most dancers don't realize the importance of music in their performances.  Several teams edited their songs to speed up the tempo and ended up with "chipmunk" voices.  Do they think no one would notice? With millions of songs  of every length and tempo it's simply inexcusable.  If performers only knew how much bad music takes away from dancing.  Another common problem: bad mixing.  Most salseros just stick 2-3 song sections together without any thought given to fluidity.  In the past, when I complimented Al and Edie on their smooth un-noticeable transitions she said a professional did their mixing.  If you don't have the $$$ it might be worth spending time to choose blendable songs and learn how to edit with audio software.   Callejeros,  a group from Utah presented a funny routine using a delightful song with an unusual theme.  It's unclear if they mixed it or not, but it sure sounded like one smooth piece.

Best of all is to avoid this problem altogether by choosing songs incorporating the music style you want. Tito and Tamara chose a beautiful modern arrangement of a Tito Puente classic. This is not what you'll hear in club setting, but there are tons of compositions using all kinds of styles and funny arrangements in Latin music forms. One example is Klazz Brothers  arranging classical  music in  salsa, cha-cha, boleros etc. Many Latin bands also incorporate flamenco, tango, hip-hop - you name it in their arrangements.   Years ago I saw Banana Boat Song by music comedian Stan Freeberg enacted on stage that left the audience rolling under their seats.  It's not dancing, but it's an example of creativity. Here's its cartoon version:  (By the way, if you like comedy routines Freeberg  (check Tele-vee-shun) and Weird Al Yankovic are worth exploring)

But I digress.  Thanks to the congress we can compare local dancers to visiting salseros, and even respected luminaries confirmed that Bay Area has come a long way.  This year, the dominance of flashy LA style ended and many previous show-offs simply disappeared.  Most leaders did not even ask and simply started dancing on2 confirming that SF is now closer to NY than LA.  But this year the audience was not so generous with applause.  Are we getting jaded seeing good dancing?  Judging by responses, spectators want more than good technique.  Something unusual and different, even if it's not salsa, was appreciated more than great style  Last year cha-chas spiced up several routines, this year boleros prevailed.

The shows were shorter and showcased mostly the best talent.  PB&G and Salsamania are now world class performers; Ricasalsa rose to its best defending their title as the best Bay Area group.  2 Salsamania alumnus followed their own paths.  Carlitos moved to Las Vegas and created a team that showed  tremendous improvement this year.  Giju and his newly formed Beyond Dreamz company featured a flamenco band and dancer in addition to his live singing as well as salsa dancing.  It was a creative if not  very cohesive idea that deserves to be explored.  
You can always expect something unusual from Seaon .  Last year, it was singing and dancing to his favorite song; this year it was a Tribute to Earth video that accompanied his afro style dance. As always, his team in beautiful original costumes looked like a pro thanks to high standard expected from them. These guys are not allowed to set foot on stage until they're ready to match their master.

Another unusual number that was highly praised by the MC Albert Torres had nothing to do with salsa.  It was a modern dance by Marco and Haridian from Italy.  World champ Oliver from Australia with his Greek partner Vasiliki danced to a Greek-Arabic tune and Knzo from France presented an African solo accompanied only by live congas.   This wide range of music and dance at congresses shows the accepting nature of salsa whose origins are rooted in different cultures.

Competitions were as tight as ever. Amateurs were so good there was almost no distinction between divisions. 3 couples participated in pro On1 division and  the first and second place winners were so close yet so different the audience divided over their placement.  What do you appreciate more: professional level technique, performance and drama or less perfect but fun routine? As it turned out, drama rarely wins over fun in salsa in spite of the competition requirements and a Boston couple won placing Ricardo and Tianne from SF second.

When I answered "good" to someone's question about his performance he specified: good or "salsa good"?  That distinction is not as senseless as it seems. A few dancers underlined the salsa "street" quality, less perfect but more fun.  It's a viable argument - for a social dance that stays "on the street", but if you want to elevate it to the competition level than wouldn't you say your standards should be more stringent?

Those higher standards seemed to be acceptable in On2 division with another Salsamania prodigy Luis and his ballroom trained partner Anya taking the first place thanks to their impeccable professional performance even though Salsamania's "prima salsera" Liz and her Canadian partner presented a routine that looked livelier.

Pro Jack&Jill competition proved that point when Anya and her partner chose a slow song while everybody else picked a fast one.  She was able to "dance" to it, showcase her abilities in both technique and playfulness; she could improvise and observe the music accents.  Anya and David tied with Orlando and Emily thanks to Orlando's connection to the audience and funny tricks, but dance-wise Anya was the reigning queen.

You wouldn't call Oliver and Luda's routines "fun" and particularly creative, yet they keep winning world competitions thanks to their polished executions.  Colombian couples are the ones who can satisfy all tastes: hot, fast-paced "samba-within-salsa" Colombian style, creative and fun; yet they dance like it's part of their DNA - with flawless technique and performance.  John and Joanna's first place in Cabaret division was indisputable.

With Swinguys and Al the Liquid Silver absent and Ismael Otero not presenting any humorous routine, someone had to step in.  Albert Torres' jokes are often witty,  Jack&Jack encore filled the gap, but the most hilarious creation came from the video team who edited the MCs's movements to match a cha-cha.  Too bad it was not announced and played while waiting for competition results so most people missed it.  Next time these gems should be part of the program! :-)

Finally,  there seemed to be general consensus that we never get enough social dancing - even if it goes until 4 am. Even at that time the dance floors were full.  As always, everybody was striving to catch a dance with the best and the most attractive, but my  Gentleman' Prize for visitors this year goes to Nery Garcia from Florida. This is a gorgeous young dancer whose style always attracted spectators and who could dance with anyone, yet he was not only very gracious when asked, he returned for  more. 
Also worth noting, the gap between advanced visitors and local dancers disappeared.  There are so many good dancers in the Bay Area we don't mind dancing with each other :-)

There you have it - till next year, and remember: to dance is good, but to dance "good" is better :-)

Maya Salsaloca

PS And what about comments from the street? Formerly lively forums on the Bay Area website are now barely breathing so I checked for postings about the congress. Here are some highlights:

Excerpt from SalsaForums - "Nothing beats SF when it comes to organizing. It continues to be by far the best organized congress (especially given its big size) in every respect.....Social dancing was below par for me. First time I had to resort (emphasis is mine)to dancing with some of the locals at the congress (this statement shows what this poster thinks of SF dancers). I will say the quality of leaders was better than quality of followers, compared to previous years, in the dancer's corner.

Overall I had a great time and experience. For me it was different because I am from the East Coast and never get to see West Coast teams so it was a nice change. The live bands were amazing. Every night you had a solid band playing and only San Fran and Puerto Rico do that. Other congresses I have been to only have a live band on the Saturday night.

I have been attending the SF congress since (evenings only) since 2006 and I liked the last one most. The music was superb. (I would have come and pay the same money just for an 90 minutes Eddie Palmieri show and had a good time.)

The amount of big names and great dancers was overwhelming. I could just stand for half an hour at the edge of the dance floor and look at some of the pros and it was not boring at all. Masters' Jack and Jill was awesome and hilarious.

I've heard that the organizers - Ricardo and Michelle - are good at listening to feedback..I actually liked NYC congress a lot more than SFO congress. And NYC was a lot more bang for the buck with good workshops.  But SFO was definitely better organized - no doubt.  Despite my criticism, the bands were eminently listenable. If only they'd opted for live bands 1 out of 3 days, it could have greatly satisfied all types of dancers.

"In the lobby, there was a lot of social dancing going on during the shows. ( I am not sure it was intended, but it was nice  ) They should have this at every major congress because there are a lot of people that want to dance rather than watch performances.

I would even like to see a DJ playing in the lobby while the band or a DJ is in the main ballroom so you have more space and don't have to be a slave to the 20 minute band songs."

I saw the amateurs' final only and all of you were totally amazing. Last year, there seemed to be a huge gap between the level of the pro and amateur rounds. This year, the gap seemed to vanish...

I would say that some couples in the amateur were even more fun to watch than the masters.

For five minutes every night, grab a beginner. It's a moment of your time that shapes salsa careers, and will never be forgotten. ( signature)

Bands were great, but like everyone else said, the songs were generally too long. Johny Polanco was the exception... I was really impressed with Jimmy Bosch on Sunday; probably the best live salsa music I've heard. Shows were entertaining, but WAY too long for my taste. The 1st each evening, from 8:30 to 10:00, were okay. But having another at 11 after only an hour of dancing, and then having it last until 1am? I also wasn't thrilled at having the time stretched out by the 2 MCs' bantering...

Workshops: Others have stated that the instructor lineup wasn't as good as in previous years, but I was really happy with it. I especially liked Dave Stein, Oliver & Luda, and Junior & Emily. My favorite was the 'techniques in lifts' workshop on Friday.

I thought the song length was much better on Saturday than Friday. I think we should all email Albert Torres Productions to ask them to talk to the performers about the song length.
I thought Johnny Polanco had the song length just right on Thursday night

Music: I liked both Friday and Sat night bands, but Sat was a bit slower and more jazzy, which for me was more enjoyable.

Eddie Palmieri is my absolute favorite (when listening to latin music). I like songs that build up and change a lot. I'm not so impressed by long monotone music that just keeps repeating itself (like Friday evening).

However I'd agree the Johny Polanco was by far the most danceable music of them all. I generally prefer DJs to live, but they are an exception

I have attended three congresses this year - west coast at LA, NYC and SF. I think SF was still better than other two overall...

Maya SalsaLoca 
San Francisco


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