Sweaty bodies, grinding hips, scantily clad women, and music that stirs the root chakra. Those were my notions of salsa dancing, and that's why I was nervous. But I wanted to learn to salsa for an upcoming trip to Cuba. So I called Ava Apple, one of the Bay Area's best salsa dancers, and arranged to take a lesson. I had visions of her arriving in a candy-red dress with sparkly spike heels. Instead, she wore plaid pants, a T-shirt, and sandals. I admit I was a little disappointed.
We faced the mirror together and she demonstrated the basic steps, which were not flashy and wild, but small, controlled, and delicate. Her hair was dark and her voice was quiet, deep, and soothing, like a masseuse's. She put on music -- Gilberto Santa Rosa's Live from Carnegie Hall. I moved and swayed my hips to the beat. Then she turned to me and suggested we dance together. Even before we took a step, the intimacy of the dance was palpable. I held her, my arm on her shoulder, looked into her eyes, and waited for her to lead. We hadn't even started to cha-cha yet and already it was sensual. It occurred to me that for all the moshing of my thirty-something generation, we missed out on something better. "Just keep the count," she urged. I concentrated on the basic step, and followed her through a turn, another follow-through, and a double turn. Clumsy as I was, I couldn't believe that in less than a half-hour, I was salsa dancing!
Gabriel Romero's slinky-smooth prowl and boy-band good looks have earned him poster-boy status in the salsa scene. At 29, he's already a well-known instructor and performer. "The dance originated in the casinos of Cuba. To this day, the Cubans call it Casino," he told me. "It took flight in Mexico before coming to New York, where it took on more of a big band, jazz orientation. Salsa as we know it today is every bit as American as it is Cuban or anything else."
Like many Latinos, Romero got started in salsa dancing through his family. "But I was more into American Top 40, rap, and stuff like that," he explained. "I was about 18 before I ever went into a salsa club. I was totally mesmerized. I was blown away by the sexiness, the elegance, the whole aura of the dance. The women were feminine and very sexy. The men were confident, macho, well-dressed." Romero leaned forward, his excitement contagious. "It was very nice, but at the same time it had a working-class, rootsy feel to it. It captivated me." I was captivated, too. I wanted to pull a scene out of Fame and dance with Gabriel on a table, but I restrained myself.
"Dress code strictly enforced," I read over and over as I perused the Web sites of local salsa clubs. What to wear? Apple clued me in. "A lot of people dress sexy. It's a sexy dance, and it makes you feel good about your body." A salsa club regular added, "I like to wear little black dresses. If it has sparkles, all the better." But she also warned me to choose a dress with straps, so it stays up. For shoes, medium heels or dance shoes were advised -- closed toe with a strap over the top and a strap around the heel. Men have a dress code also. "It's not uncommon for me to wear a suit and tie to the clubs," Romero told me. "It's all the persona of the dance. There's a strong core of African earthiness to the music, and then there's the Spanish influence -- the matador, the flamenco -- which is elegant and sophisticated in the posture and attire. And you also have the American influence -- the jazz, the swinging, the melodies," he continued. "When you put all this together, it's quite remarkable. And it's reflected in the dress code."
Trouble was, I didn't have any strappy dresses. I donned a pair of fitted, low-riding flares and a tight, black silk top with a sexy lace-up front. My boyfriend wore slacks, a dress shirt, and a blazer. I thought we looked hot.
I envisioned a velvet-roped line, but we walked right into the Glas Kat. It was crowded, but not mobbed. The women were in halter-top dresses, teeny cocktail dresses, sundresses, and two-piece sequined outfits I had only seen in music videos. There was a lot of skin. I might as well have been wearing a nun's habit. People were obviously there to dance, and my outfit was simply too restrictive. I made a mental note to troll thrift stores for something that showed some skin. The men looked classy and elegant -- most dressed in slacks and short-sleeve, button-down shirts. No ripped jeans, no baseball hats turned backwards, and no Gap-wear. There were old people, young people, fat people, skinny people, and a rainbow of ethnicities. Everyone glittered. In the shadow of the Glas Kat's balcony of onlookers, in the echo of the syncopated melody of a live band, I felt as if I had slipped into another era. It seemed like I was on vacation in my own city.
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.