Ava Apple laughed when I told her this. "I wouldn't recognize these people in their regular clothes," she admitted. Clubgoers seemed to revel in the role-playing. One woman who preferred not to be identified said, "Salsa can be a substitute for romance -- the pursuit and rejection, the conquering and being conquered."
Apple advises the newcomer to take a few studio lessons first, since lessons at the clubs can be unfocused. But what lessons to take? Salsa on one or salsa on two or Casino Rueda? "Some people are fussy about the differences," Apple said. "There are many different timings to salsa. We refer to breaking on one, breaking on two." This is just a matter of dancers stepping and pausing at different intervals, she told me. "The majority of people on the West Coast do what is considered L.A. style, which is breaking on one. On the East Coast, the New York style breaks on two. The other difference between L.A. and New York is the look of what we do. The L.A. look is bigger and flashier; the dance tends to be circular, using up more floor space. In the New York style, the patterns are more complex and a little more toned down. Some people say the New York style is mambo and the L.A. style is salsa. Casino de Rueda is different. It's Cuban and sort of like salsa square dancing -- you dance in a circle and change partners. The San Francisco style now is very much a mixture of L.A. and New York."
Gabriel Romero was less diplomatic. "The L.A. style is way more removed from the roots. It's like saying Britney Spears is soul the way James Brown is soul. It's not that Britney Spears isn't good, but she's not James Brown. Salsa on two is sexy. It's earthy, musical, and sophisticated. It's about a connection to the music. It's not about the spatial movement."
Some clubgoers expressed annoyance with the current salsa-on-two movement, complaining that the common language in the clubs is changing. But Lisa Newsome, who dances salsa on one, had no clue there was even a controversy. Gabriel Romero emphasized, "There's room for everybody. Salsa is a transformation of being. People go to a salsa club and become somebody else. It's in the sexuality of the dance. The roles of the men and the women. The skill of the leading and following. The rhythmic connection with the music." Sign me up.
Alexandra D'Italia is a writer in San Francisco.