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San Francisco Salsa Festival 2009: Review
If you couldn't get enough dancing at the SF Salsa Congress in November
and resigned to waiting a year for the next one, rejoice - the annual SF
Salsa Festival will satisfy your craving for more. The inaugural edition
run at the end of March proved that local salseros are far from being
saturated. The 3 day event boasted healthy attendance even in the recession
when many will think twice before spending $35-45 for a dance. At least you
could save on parking as it was surprisingly easy in the evenings.
Held at the Cathedral Hill hotel in the heart of San Francisco in a large
ballroom with superb parquet floors it sure felt like a congress. The
opening night party at Cafe Cocomo featuring the popular local band Mazacote
was packed with dancers. Friday night Bay Area salseros had the floors
rocking with the sounds of alternating DJs and Saturday night, after a full
day of workshops dancers were enjoying Bay Area All Stars band. Beginner to
advanced couples mingled on the dance floor. There were so many new faces
you couldn't tell if they were visiting or new to salsa. Even a lindy-hop
dancer showed up and stayed for the full event.
The workshops were well attended and taught by mostly local instructors
representing many Bay Area dance teams. Lunch break was not wasted and
featured a discussion panel about the history of dance and music with the
radio personality and reporter Chuy Varela who has been hosting a Latin jazz
radio program for many years. Other participants included band leaders Louis
Romero and Eric Rangel.
A welcome addition to classes was a percussion workshop where the
participants had a chance to learn the basics of conga, bongo and timbal -
great for ear and rhythm training. If salseros had more interest in music,
a lot of timing mistakes could be avoided, dancers would be less fearful to
improvise and music connection would improve.
The shows with mostly local talent demonstrated once again how far we have
advanced as a salsa community. The host company Salsamania, PB&G, Ricasalsa,
Seaon's dancers are now world class performers. San Francisco's own
returning champ Luis Aguilar with his ballroom pro partner Anya, Enrique
and Elly, Liz and Paolina can proudly represent Bay Area wherever they
perform and compete.
But what distinguishes a congress or festival from a glorified social are
visiting dancers and luminaries. Even though there weren't that many
out-of-town salseros (in time the word will spread) the first SF Salsa
Festival did not disappoint with the selection of star
performers/instructors. In addition to the familiar names of Billy Fajardo
and Katie Marlow, the organizers introduced new faces coming to the Bay Area
for the first time.
Former Eddie Torres dancer Adolfo and his Italian partner Carla (a Tropical
Gem alumni), long-time performers and instructors from Boston Ana and Joel
were impressive, but the true sensation of the festival was a same-sex
couple from Philly Eli and Yen who brought the roof down in their Fri and
Sat night performances.
Eli Torres, who is one of the best followers ever, has an unparalleled
dancing technique unmatched by any stars we all know and respect. This
diminutive dancer with a slim build never had any dance training and never
took lessons - he learned salsa by watching others and yet his mastery in
both leading and following is uncanny. The audience gasped and cheered
watching his fast multiple spins on one foot (like a couple of lindy-hop
girls I witnessed a few years ago). No other salseros demonstrated that
But technique alone does not a good dancer make and this couple certainly
got it all: performance skills, musicality and glorious stage presence. Too
bad ESPN would not allow a same-sex (even non gay) - couple to be featured
in its shows otherwise Eli and Yen would have won the world salsa
competition hands down. In spite of all the admiration, both of them are
down to earth accepting dance requests with a smile from just about
anybody. And what a thrill it was dancing with them!
Nobody seemed to be missing out-of-towners though. The level of local
dancers has grown tremendously; Bay Area salseros gravitated towards on -2
dancing, but many east coast mambo lovers notice that we "have our own
style" or, to put it bluntly, we're stuck in the middle: dancing on 2 in LA
style without the body movement and responsiveness to mambo beat. But how
can one develop that elusive mambo feeling when, with a few exceptions,
local bands and DJs still think SF crowds prefer salsa so they're frequently
playing the same tired selections we heard for years? Could it be one of the
reasons the majority of advanced dancers disappeared from clubs?
Overall, the 1st Annual Salsa Festival was a success: well organized and
well attended. To allow for more social dancing a record 5 am closing set a
new standard. There was no complaints about all DJ night on Fri. To cut
costs it would be a viable alternative to expensive live music. A few minor
details like more seating for the shows and dances, bigger font in the
program and prices stated in the promotional materials can be corrected in
the future, but it was clear the festival is here to stay as long as the Bay
Area dancers support the event.
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