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San Francisco Salsa Festival 2009: Review

By Maya/SalsaLoca

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 skill.

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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