"Salsa is everywhere"

1 - Madrid  2 - Santiago de Compostela and La Coruña  3 - Porto  4 - Lisbon  5 - Málaga  6 - Oslo  7 - Bern  8 - Geneva  9 - Zürich  10 - Paris  11 - Stockholm  12 - Swiss Alps (Zermatt to Chamonix)  13 - Nice

Intro  --  Salsa Stories  --

 Salsa styles around Europe  --  Thoughts and Future Plans



This trip, my second voyage to Europe, was during the summer instead of the winter.

I taught in Porto, Lisbon, Oslo, Bern, Geneva, Zürich, and Paris.  Also, while passing through as a tourist, I checked out the salsa scenes in Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña, Málaga, Stockholm, and Nice.

Good weather seems to make everything look better.  Many more people were out on the street -- walking around, eating in outdoor cafes, etc.  I'd say it was much a better time to be a tourist.  But there were some drawbacks: the trains, bus and airplanes were much fuller (although not impossible.)  Hotels were harder to find in the very popular areas.

However, I would say, for dancing salsa, winter is a better time than summer.  Europeans go on vacation during July and August.  In the cities, many of the people are away, and the salsa clubs are not nearly as full.  I had plenty of offers for teaching in May and June, but very few in July and August. My favorite salsa club from the last trip, the Buena Vista Social Club in Stockholm, in July, was surprisingly empty.  Salsa may come from a hot environment (the Caribbean), but at least in Europe, it seems to thrive more in the cold!

Salsa Stories



Tuesday evening ... May 8, 2001 ...  on a flight from New York to Madrid ... to begin my second trip in Europe ...

The plane is packed, and despite requests for an aisle or window seat, I ended up sandwiched in a center seat between two guys.  To my left was a young guy, joking around in rapid Cuban-sounding Spanish with some other guys nearby.

But first I started talking to the guy on my right.  It turns out he is Cuban-American, lives in Miami and works for a company that helps recent Cuban immigrants find jobs in Florida.  He also is a salsa dancer.  What a coincidence I thought.  So we had a lot in common and talked for at least a couple of hours non-stop.  I don't think I've ever sat next to another salsa dancer on a flight before!

Then, I remembered about the guy to my left.  I turn around, and he's sleeping -- quite deeply.  In fact, he slept through most of the rest of the flight.  Just before the plane lands, he wakes up.  I started a conversation with him and found out that he was Cuban.  In addition, he and his friends on the plane are part of a salsa band.  His name is Catalá and he tells me that they will play that night at a salsa club called "El Son."  I think to myself, "Well, I struck out twice last time in Madrid, despite getting some advice about where to go. (See my Europe 2000 trip report.) What are the chances that this place will turn out to be any better?" But at this point I was so surprised by the identity of my neighbor on the plane, that I figured I just had to go ... and in yet ANOTHER coincidence, I discovered that this club was located only a few blocks away from my hotel in Madrid that I had previously booked.

So that night I walk over to "El Son", and sure enough, there was Catalá and the band. This club turns out to be much, much better than the two clubs I had gone to on my previous visit to Madrid!  The music was great and there were plenty of good dancers -- a totally different experience than before.

The dancers there told me to go to another club, "Randall", on the next night.  Even better. Great music and great dancers. Later that evening I briefly went to a place called, "El Negra Tomasa."  There was a small son band playing.  No dancing really, but one of the most authentic Cuban atmospheres I have ever seen outside of Cuba.

On my last trip, I nearly concluded that Madrid didn't have any good dancing. Now, it's near the top of my list -- all of this thanks to the guy sleeping next to me on the plane!
 


 

Santiago de Compostela is in the north-west corner of Spain, far away from the two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona.  Santiago is an absolutely beautiful old city with some amazing architecture.  I went out dancing at two clubs there and didn't see any good dancers.  Then I met up with an internet acquaintance, Gonzalo, and he took me on some sightseeing.  He said, "we don't have a lot of dancers in this region of Spain, but the ones who dance the most go to a club called, D2: Pa' Gozza' in La Coruña, about an hour away from Santiago." I arrived and saw a small bar with a little bit of room for dancing ...

I don't know how they all do it -- these people in that corner of Spain -- but there were a very large handful of very good dancers, both men and women.  I danced until I was ready to drop, enjoying every dance.  A lot of Cuban style with plenty of NY/LA styles mixed in.  I couldn't believe it!  It was just a small place in a small city. The usual pattern is that in a city with many salsa dancers, there are usually just a small percentage of dancers who dance really well.  In other cities with less salsa, usually this percentage is even smaller.  This place did not fit the usual pattern! Instead, the majority were dancing very well, which is something I have hardly seen anywhere in my life.  I was in shock.  The lesson learned: you just never know when it comes to salsa! As Ruben Blades sings, "La vida te da sorpreses ... sorpresas te da la vida."
 


 

Salsa is relatively new to Portugal. During my stay in Porto, the country's second largest city, I didn't have to time to visit a single salsa club, but was told there were very few options.  In the workshops, most of the dancers there had been dancing for a very short period of time, but were nevertheless keenly interested in this dance they keep hearing about.


Flyer for workshops in Lisbon

Even in the capital, Lisbon, I had heard there weren't many places to go out salsa dancing.  So, by this time, I wasn't expecting much. However, what I discovered, was an exploding salsa scene.  I only had time to visit one club, so I don't really know the whole scene at all, but this club, "Art'Z," was great. It is a beautiful space and right by the water. I met and danced with a large number of women who danced very, very well.  In Lisbon, they are mixing all of the major styles of salsa. They were even incorporating elements of jazz and others dances and doing it well.  I was very impressed. Many of the women were absolutely excellent followers and the style of both the men and women was as good as almost anywhere else.  These people were open-minded, creative and knew how to have lots of fun.

I was also really impressed with Lisbon.  It's a beautiful city.  I also visited a place called Sintra just 30 minutes by train from Lisbon. It is a castle of a former king and queen set on the side of a small mountain in the midst of a super green forest.  It was almost like a place out of a fairy-tale.
 


 

Have you ever heard how Spaniards stay out really late?  I wrote about this in my last European trip report.  In Barcelona, often clubs didn't start until midnight.  That was northern Spain.  Southern Spain is different. In Málaga, we got to a club at 12:30 at night.  We hear the music, but nobody was inside the club.  The place was dead until about 1:30am when things started to pick up.  By 3:00am the place was packed. At 3:30am we were ready to leave, exhausted from hiking, the beach and the hot sun that day. An internet friend I met there said, "Why are you leaving so early?? -- things are just starting to get good around here!"
 


 



Demonstrating "reverse-side dip" in Oslo workshop

In Oslo, I saw a style of salsa I've never seen before - Dominican style.  There is a Dominican man living in Oslo, and he dances unlike anyone I've seen before.  It's a very, very fast style with lots of spins for the woman and lots of rotating cross body leads.  Some of the turn patterns looked somewhat like those in New York  However, the basic step was totally different.  I could not figure it out by watching and neither could anybody else in Oslo, even though they see it all the time.  I suspect he may be (at least sometimes) dancing on a three count instead of the regular four count that is used everywhere else in the world that I've ever seen.  It wasn't just him.  He had a bunch of video tapes of salsa contests in Santo Domingo, that were on Dominican television.  All of the contestants were doing exactly the same style as he.  I think it's ironic that even though Cuba and the Dominican Republic are neighbors and share the same language, etc. their dance styles couldn't be more different.  Anyway this is a very unique and exciting style, and I suspect, not seen much outside of the island.  If anyone is more familiar with this style I'm describing and could educate me more about, I'd love to hear from you.


 

It was great to finally visit Paris.  I stayed with a fellow salsera in the town of Versailles about 30 minutes outside of the city.  The very famous, "Château De Versailles" was just a few minute walk away, and what a treat that was! Unbelievable!  I visited the inside of the building first.  However, what I liked the most were the gardens in back of the palace, which are over 8 km in circumference. The gardens were full of statues and other works of art. For me it was the perfect synthesis of nature and art.  Whenever I felt like it, I would head out of my host's house and go for a walk through the grounds. I felt like a king, and it was magical!


Château De Versailles

Now comes the story of my most thrilling moment of dancing salsa on the trip ... I had just gotten to Paris at three o'clock. My host, Babs, really wanted to show me the salsa scene in Paris that evening.  I was kind of tired, plus not very motivated because she told me this place had a bad dance floor and it was Monday, but I ended up agreeing to go.  We arrived at the 'Pachanga' nightclub, and it was pretty hot and humid and there were a lot of people.  It was my first night out in Paris and I always wonder about the level of dancing.  I saw some pretty good dancers there, and expected this, as it was Paris, one of the cultural capitals of Europe.  Anyway, Babs mentioned to the door person to have the DJ announce my presence to help advertise my workshops in Paris on the weekend.  I hardly thought anything of it ...

Then after having danced just two songs, the DJ announced my presence.  I was sitting down at a table half ignoring it. Then my host had me meet the DJ.  The DJ then asked me if I wanted to say anything in the microphone.  I was thinking, "Great!  I just got here to Paris, I'm some dumb American who doesn't speak French, and he wanted me to talk to this crowd of salseros. No thank you."  Then a big circle started forming around the dance floor and the crowd was definitely expecting something.  I was still like, "no thank you."  Then people started cheering and clapping.  I told the DJ I had absolutely nobody to dance with.  Also the floor was not very good, and I hadn't even brought my dance shoes. Instead, I was wearing these rubber soled shoes that I usually only walk into salsa clubs with.  But I was starting to wonder how I would ever get out of this ...

A few seconds later the DJ said he had somebody for me to dance with.  And, as the French really do say, "Voilà!", and some woman stepped forward.  I looked at this woman, who was looking like she was about to have a lot of fun.  Of course the main thing I was worrying about was how she danced. I asked her what style she dances, and she responded, "all of them."  The crowd was waiting and egging us on. I was just concerned about if this woman (whom I met for the first time in my life about 40 seconds ago), and I, could dance OK together.  I also wasn't really warmed up.  What music would the DJ put on? But then I just felt like, "WHATEVER!", and about two seconds later the music started, and I just grabbed her and threw her into a free spin while I spun myself.  Then I turned around to face her, picked her up, did a cross body lead and continued ...

Anyway, it turned out this woman, whose name is Nadege, was easily one of the best dancers I've ever had my dancing arms around.  She was totally relaxed, moved with lots of style, and her arm tension was almost unbelievable -- totally relaxed when I wasn't leading any moves and exactly tense enough when I did lead something.  I danced with her as if she were a long-time dance partner.  I started pulling off some of the fanciest moves I knew. After a couple of minutes, with everything working out fine, I asked if she danced "on 2", she nodded, and I switched in mid-song to "on 2."  No problem!  This woman was doing it all.  She even starting doing some despolote.  What a talent.

The crowd totally loved it. I was in a bit of shock -- I had just pulled off one of my best dances ever, with someone who had just been thrown at me.  But this, for me, is what salsa is all about.  Two dancers -- a leader, a follower, music, and just ... dance.
 


 

After all the workshops were over, I went to the Swiss Alps.  Not for dancing, but for some serious rest and relaxation.  The way I got this rest and relaxation was by hiking everyday up some really steep mountain pass and down the other side.  This tired me out so much all I could do was rest and relax.


Proof that life exists outside of salsa clubs ...

My buddy, Jorge, from my home town of Boulder, CO, came out to meet me.  Jorge is one of my precious few non-dancing friends left.  It makes my heart content to know that I am still capable of having long conversations that don't involve discussing THE TOPIC: S & S (Salsa and Son that is!) What he may lack in dancing ability, he makes up for in ability to hike up-hill.  Dancing and hiking are not the same thing, and I had to drag "my sorry ass" up the hills and suffer.  "Come on Eric!, it's beautiful up there."  "Jorge, man, this is rough.  Where's the nearest salsa club?"  "Eric, if you would stop practicing another one of your stupid moves using your backpack as your partner, you might make it up this hill before dark." Actually, I did a pretty good job of forgetting about salsa for a little while.  It was the first time, since I got seriously into salsa about 7 years ago, that I had gone so long without dancing.  I was wondering if I was going to forget anything.
 


 

After hiking, I returned to Zürich, with strong legs, a mountain tan, and an early sleeping schedule.  My first experience back in the salsa world was a short salsa cruise. This was awesome -- I wish my home town had it.  It was a three-hour cruise through the lake of Zürich. It was just like a club, except that you can't be late and you are stuck on the boat for the entire three hours, whether or not you like the music and dancers. It cost just a little bit more than a regular club, about $10 per person.  Anyway, I tried my first dance after about a three week break.  It felt strange!  "Is the boat rocking a lot?", I asked.  "No, not really."  I guess it was me.  Fortunately, I got my normal "feeling" back the following night.  I still don't know, given this was my first time ever dancing on a boat, whether or not it was me, or the boat, or both.
 


 

The last stop was Nice, on the French Riviera.  There were more tourists there in one spot than I've ever seen in my life. There were more hotels with no vacancies than I've ever seen in my life as well. We checked out the salsa scene.  There were about two clubs or so, both with live bands and very good music, but not much dancing.  One of the places had a salsa show with a couple dancing most nights of the week.  OK, I thought to myself, "Who knows for sure, but chances are they will not be very good dancers given the apparent lack of much salsa dancing in Nice."  And yet in another "salsa surprise", this couple put on an excellent show.  They were dancing what I would call extremely authentic Cuban style, while seamlessly mixing in L.A. moves. I was very, very impressed. In the world of Salsa you just never know.

Salsa Styles around Europe



While in Europe, I noticed that the New York and Los Angeles styles have become even more prevalent.  As I wrote before, I believe most places started out with Cuban style and the NY/LA styles were slowly creeping in. Madrid was the only place I saw without any significant NY/LA style.  They dance the most authentic Cuban style I have seen in Europe, and some do it very, very well.  As in Cuba, the women in Madrid move very well with a 'sabor' that I haven't found elsewhere. In other parts of Spain (La Coruña and Málaga), it was still mostly Cuban but with other visible elements. I have heard that in Valencia there is mostly NY/LA style, but I haven't yet had the chance to dance there. In Portugal, they are mixing the styles very well, and I believe salsa is new enough there so that no one style has taken hold.  Returning to Oslo, I saw more NY/LA style than the previous time.  In Switzerland, I saw a slow but very deliberate change towards NY/LA style.  In Zürich, Cuban style still predominates, but NY/LA is slowly starting to catch on.  In Bern, a very influential dance teacher has decided to switch the emphasis on what he teaches, from Cuban to NY/LA styles. This could end up having a ripple effect. In Geneva, I saw a salsa scene that has been around for less time than in Zürich.  And fitting into the general pattern, it's almost all Cuban style. I'm sure in time, the NY/LA styles will start to catch on. In Paris, there is practically an avalanche towards dancing NY style.  I suspect what happened in London, will happen in Paris as well, where a previously dominant Cuban style will give way to a NY style.

I am trying not to have a bias here. I am only reporting what I have seen. Personally I love both Cuban and NY/LA styles, and couldn't live without any of them.  My favorite dancers are those who I can lead into moves from any style.  With partners like that, it is lead and follow dancing at its best, and I like to pick moves and styles based on the music, my mood, and the connection I have with my partner.

While traveling, I constantly encountered variety in salsa dancing.  Although each city may dance more NY/LA style or Cuban, each place has its own dialect of these styles.  In addition, each person dances differently and has their own set of moves.  I almost always encounter people doing cool moves I've never seen before.  I usually try to learn a few new moves each place I go. The problem, of course, is remembering them all.  I always write down these newly acquired moves in what has become a gigantic list.  Someday soon, I'll make some more videos with these moves and all the variations I make up from them.

Thoughts and Future Plans
 

I'd say salsa has really become a world-wide phenomenon in the last few years.  Salsa is everywhere.  From time to time, I hear salsa music when I walk by the entrance of restaurants, bars, etc., even though they are not dance clubs.  This is something that I didn't experience just a couple of years ago. I hope all of this doesn't pass as a fad, as it has for many other dances. However, I suspect that this dance may endure, as others have not.  All over I meet people, like myself, who truly love this dance. I will, as long as my body allows me to, dance salsa.

My plans are to continue to travel with salsa.  I will be going back to Europe in October and November for more workshops and a festival.  Then possibly some trips within the U.S., Canada, and even the Caribbean.  In the near future, I especially hope to both give workshops and travel in Japan and other parts of Asia. And, time allowing, I will make more videos on various topics.

If you are interested in my coming to your city to teach salsa workshops, I'd be happy to discuss it. More information on this can be seen on my World Touring page. Please email me anytime.

I feel incredibly blessed to be able to travel. Getting to meet all these people in so many different places is wonderful. And being able to stay in peoples' homes in different countries is really a dream come true. I want to thank everybody for having me as guests in their homes: João (Porto),  Paula (Lisbon), Friederikke and AK (Oslo),  Barbara (Bern), Carlos & Chantal (Geneva), Oliver (Zürich), and Babs (Paris).


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