Arabic salsa?


Salsa in Amman is far from dreary; on the contrary, it is robust, popular, and the favourite venue, Trader Vic’s restaurant/bar in the Regency Palace Hotel, is a great Friday night. When I was there it was too smoky for comfort, which was par for the course in the Middle East. But if you want to dance……perhaps it has changed.

I had eventually realised that the salsa dancers in Amman were not Muslims, but Christians. This would not have been a surprise to most people, given the fact that not only were men and women dancing together, but the women were dressed in a decidedly non-Muslim fashion. In contrast, most of the Palestinian women I worked with dressed conservatively, particularly those living in the refugee settlements outside Amman.

Friday night at Trader Vic's

Working beside Palestinians was a life-changing experience – as most travel is, when you have the time to allow for the absorption of all those cultural differences.

Dabke dancing, for one. I tried, and I failed. I mean, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with Dabke dancing, it’s a wonderful expression of Arabic tradition, it can be lively or subtle, fluid or dynamic. One telling factor, though, is that men dance with men, women dance with women, in a line. It is a celebratory dance, a performance dance. The communication is between the leader and the squad, not between partners. A spectacle, but lacking an essential feature, the sensuality of partner dancing.

Though partner dancing in Jordan has its own eccentricities; even the hottest salsa was restrained. Close contact of the kind I found later in México was non-existent, and the dance was always very polite. It was as though sex had been stripped from the dance; while it was fun, it never really smouldered. If you can picture dancing bachata at arms length…….

I was visiting one of the Palestinian settlements outside Amman one weekend, chatting with women over lunch in the hairdressing salon. Yes, hairdressing, despite the hijab. Getting my head around that was difficult enough, without the women asking me to teach them salsa.

Now wait just a minute here. You want me to teach you salsa? You can’t go out at night on your own, you can’t dance with a man unless he is family, you dress in traditional clothes – and you’re wanting to learn salsa?

Ok now first of all, tell me what you know about salsa. Well, it seemed that there was quite a lot of dancing on the TV channels emanating from the Emirates, especially from Dubai. They had seen the dance, they liked it, it looked like fun. Right. But if you can’t go out to dance, how will you enjoy this new skill?

And that’s when you realise all over again that there are so many ways of looking at the world, so many ways of dealing with what life offers. These women might never get to Trader Vic’s on a Friday night, might never walk up to a gorgeous bloke and whisk him out onto the dance floor, but their enthusiasm to embrace this alien and extremely sexy dance form was real and infectious, even if it did come from left field and present a few challenges.

With music, tea, and hilarity we set about fashioning Dabke dancers into salsitas, at least for a time. They loved the music, they followed the rhythm, they eased into the steps, and we ended up with a kind of hybrid, a salsa in line, or perhaps a Dabke with hips. We could have taken the world by storm – but sadly, as far as I was concerned, it would only ever be danced behind closed doors, in the privacy of the home – just as, outdoors, the elaborate, bouncy hairstyles would always be hidden under the hijab.


next: moving across the world

learning salsa – Jordan

It’s not that I decided the Middle East was a good direction in which to head in order to satisfy my hunger to learn this elusive Cuban salsa. No, it’s just that work took me there. I wanted to go away again as a volunteer with Australian Volunteers International. I first scoured the vacancies, and anything that looked promising – I needed to ensure there would be salsa. Obsessions have to be fed. Ok it wasn’t the only criterion, I found the region itself fascinating, it is a truly beautiful part of the world, desert and stone and the beginning of agriculture. But could I last two years without dancing? No.

Happily there was a confluence of ideals – working and dancing in Jordan. Even in the time before facebook it was still possible to gather information across the globe, and there it was – a salsa school in Amman. I didn’t think too much about the contradictions inherent in this juxtaposition. That is possibly not a surprise to those who understand my level of obsessiveness. Other more sensitive souls did point out that salsa in a Muslim country was a bit, well, weird. I didn’t care, I just wanted to dance.

The school offered classes, both group and private, and a weekly social dancing night. Cuban? Oh yes, we teach Cuban. For those of you who are wondering, English is the second language of Jordan, after Arabic, so communication wasn’t a problem. As I was to find out, though, Cuban salsa was.

As in my home town, I found that what people considered to be Cuban salsa was thought of as a lesser being, a minor form of the art. What was taught and danced was the more choreographed form, and very definitely linear in shape. So choreographed, and so linear, that we even manufactured a Christmas show…..that’s right, a Christmas salsa show in a Muslim country. Fabulous.

Well, not the show, just the thought of it. The show itself was somewhat lacklustre, possibly because of the last-minute stage fright of one of the cast, and since there were only six of us that was significant. Happily Jordan is not an alcohol-free country so possibly not too many people noticed.

it's probably a good thing that it was dark

The standard of salsa was much higher than in Vietnam, not really a surprise given the proximity of Jordan to Europe, or the relative isolation of Vietnam. Yet the continual put-down of Cuban style was frustrating, especially since the school had a lively rueda group. I mean to say – la rueda, can’t get more Cuban than that – the most fun you can have standing up – then why don’t we learn more of these steps in partner dancing? And what is the basis of the ambiguity towards the dance of Cuba; on the one hand students clamouring to dance la rueda, on the other teachers neglecting the style in favour of others. Beats me.


next: surprise in Jordan

learn salsa – Vietnam?

You might consider Vietnam to be about the last place you would look for salsa, and in fact you’d be right. But I was going there on a holiday, to spend Christmas with my daughter in HoChiMinh City, no harm in looking. And there it was – Salsa in Saigon, website and all. Do you remember how it was when you were first learning, when you simply HAD to dance? That’s where I was. The thought of being without that fantastic ‘good exercise’ feeling for more than a month was untenable.

So a quick hello to my daughter and a request for a road map, let’s go to this place, they are doing classes in a restaurant called La Habana, gotta be good.

Wrong again. Well ok the classes were happening, but at an absolute beginner level and more LA than not, though the class was advertised as Cuban. Because I had the basic steps off pat and could keep good time, I was at a higher standard than the other learners. Too frustrating. The Vietnamese learners were fun, very friendly and welcoming, but without some good partners to provide the challenge……

Social dancing. Ah, that’s what I’ll do. A weekly event downtown. Through a darkened doorway and up some stairs to the first floor, along a corridor – and you know not to expect too much from the toilet facilities, though there were no rats in evidence.

The music? Either too fast or just right (my trek through Latin American music was still a work in progress). The dance? Strictly LA. I hung in there, doing all the right things – changing into dancing shoes after I arrived, smiling at strangers, standing at the edge of the floor, keeping time with whatever bits of my body felt like moving – whatever it took to appear if not professional at least a keen amateur.

It worked, I danced as much as I wanted to. The partners provided a challenge, but as in my home town, my challenge was to stay in that straight line when I really wanted to move around more, or at least not be so restricted. My problem? I’m not a passive follower…..

The fascinating thing about Saigon was to see the Vietnamese dancing up a storm in this alien musical form. When I lived in Lao PDR I was conditioned to the honeyed romantic popular ballads of the region, and Vietnamese pop music was very similar. Not to be danced to, but for sitting on park benches and gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes. But salsa – wow! Something completely different.

A bit of cognitive dissonance, the slender Vietnamese bodies instead of the lush dancers I’d seen on YouTube in videos made in Santiago de Cuba during Carnavales. But the joy was there. The look might be different, it might not demonstrate the same sensuality, the dance might not evoke the same awe, the steps might be more clinical, the ladies might be clothed less shinily, but no matter what the differences, people who dance salsa show the joy, wherever their cultural roots lie.

Xmas Eve, HCMC; no street salsa here


next: if not Vietnam, how about the Middle East?

let’s ask the Cubans

I think perhaps that getting to know the music was not as important to others as it was to me. Some folk might consider that I became obsessed with Cuban music. I prefer to regard it as a healthy interest, seeing as it led to healthy exercise.

But still the main interest at this stage was the dance itself, or more the fact that despite having a plethora of teachers we were not able to progress on the Cuban salsa front. Asking the Cuban people who lived in the town seemed like a logical approach to the dilemma. Could they help? Would they teach?

Well no, they weren’t teachers, even though Mano came occasionally to help Di in her classes. They had other lives to lead, and came to the venue to enjoy themselves, not to spend time with hopefuls, young or old. They were gracious, though, and invited me over one Sunday evening, just to chat. Didn’t learn much about Cuban salsa, but had a great night. Food, wine, and the Cuban equivalent of Spanish, 98% of which was incomprehensible (and still is, three years later).

What I did learn from talking to them was the more instinctive, less structured nature of their dance. No, that wasn’t a surprise, but it pointed out how wide the gap was between us and them, between the salsa students and the native speakers, as it were. They didn’t need the techniques that we used, the counting, the names of the movements, the choreographic sequences; they had been doing this all their lives, like walking.

this could be me, couldn't it?

Their expectation, based on life experience, was that everybody who went dancing could, in fact, dance. Whereas when we went dancing, apart from having fun, we would also hope to find someone with talent who would teach us something new on the night.

At this stage I had been learning for around a year, from several different teachers. Ok, I might have been a little ungainly, a little old and opinionated, but I still had a great sense of rhythm. I was frustrated in my attempts to learn the salsa of Cuba and I had no idea why it was so difficult for the local teachers to include it in their repertoire. Perhaps they weren’t native speakers, but they were teachers, for heaven’s sake.

My son, my ready-made partner, went to live in another city, pursuing studies rather than salsa. No partner, no Cuban salsa. If only I could undergo a rebirth and emerge as one of the intrinsic dancers…..

Failing that – what wasn’t available to me became my goal. Time to look over the fence, check the other side, see what was there.

next: Vietnam? Jordan?

the music or the dance

this is what we wanted to do

At the beginner level of salsa, there are few options available on the floor; you do what you can, and check out the better dancers, try not to show the envy, and start to adopt preferences. Gradually, to me, the music itself became as important as the movements. If I couldn’t shine on the floor, I could focus on the music for a while. I noticed that while there were some songs that forced the issue as far as getting up – any partner would do – there were other songs that had nowhere near the punch.

Like many people of my generation, growing up with the Cuban revolution on news broadcasts, but never really knowing what happened later, I was beguiled by the Ry Cooder production of the Buena Vista Social Club music, by the romance surrounding the musicians of that period. Yes, yes, I know, it’s kind of like the old adage that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia, and Buena Vista is now regarded by the musical cognoscenti as an example of regrettable, neo-colonial exploitation. Or something like that. But let’s face it, it did serve to start some people on a musical trek without equal. To the music of Cuba.

My trek started with Buena Vista and moved through World Music and Putumayo and various Cuban compilations available at the local DVD stores. It took a while, but eventually my son and I could differentiate between the songs from Cuba and from elsewhere. Not always, and not with a great deal of accuracy, but at least we understood that the differences existed. And we found that we liked the music from Cuba more than from, say, Puerto Rico. At the same time we were beginning to discern the differences between the two most discussed dance styles, LA and Cuban; one showy and lending itself to spectacle, the other more languid, but more responsive to the music. We were listening to Cuban music; we wanted to dance Cuban dance.

Our cosmopolitan teachers, though, had different ideas, possibly because they didn’t want to step outside their lines. The strict spatial rules of LA salsa don’t apply to the Cuban version, except in formation when dancing la rueda de casino. (Aside: I didn’t know about la rueda at this stage, of course. It is one form of Cuban salsa where discipline is paramount). The teachers gave us merengue, from the Dominican Republic, bachata, from the Dominican Republic, and on occasion samba, from Brazil. Not to forget cha-cha and mambo, the geneses of which were a matter of discussion.

When we asked, we were told that Cuban was ‘too messy, too circular (?), too many complicated turns’, or alternatively ‘too easy, not complicated enough’. As if that wasn’t confusing, there was also a major paradox evident in the attitude towards Cuban dancers. When they turned up at the venue, they were majorly sought-after as partners – everybody wanted to dance with them. Why? Because they were, well, good. And, well, different. I also like to think of it as because they didn’t dance in straight lines, but in fact were more fluid; more obviously driven by the music. And they danced with such joy.

What I didn’t understand was why, in our classes, we were listening to Cuba, or Venezuela, or Puerto Rico, and dancing California. It didn’t make any sense, and it also smacked of elitism of the worst kind. Like, thanks for the music, but we’ll take over the reins now and improve on the raw product. Add value. It seemed to me that not enough credit was being given to the source of the music as the source of the dance.

But then I’m a musician manqué, I have my own prejudices.

What I have since come to realise is that in my innocence I had stumbled unknowingly into the mire of the salsa wars.

next: let’s ask the Cubans

salsa: starting to move

The teachers were an adventure in themselves.

With only two permanent dance venues there was a competition for naming rights, as it were. The most ambitious – or hungriest – teacher claimed the table nearest the stage at the live music venue, or on the edge of the floor at the DJ venue. Students clustered, providing a wall of followers and excluding riffraff. Secondary teachers had to make do with second choice tables, or gathered their students and moved away from the floor to a distant part of the venue, perhaps intending to parlay a more sophisticated approach – we don’t need the spotlight, we shine. Intermittent, more casual teachers generally had to be content with a casual table; their students were usually transient, perhaps in town for a few nights, not a serious threat to the status quo.

As a novice I often crossed these invisible boundaries but never had my hand slapped. The separations were more a matter of form than of substance; the student pool was too small to support a prolonged cold war. And in fact the student pool was quite fluid. I think most of us moved from one teacher to another, either to investigate different moves or simply on a whim. We were an incestuous lot.

The field we had to choose from was cosmopolitan. A young man from Central America who provided a range of dance styles, Paco was the closest we had to a professional dancer and teacher. Margarita had taught in Miami, and claimed that she taught ‘authentic’ dance, Cuban style. Tall and graceful Franz, a hobbyist teacher, described salsa from the perspective of the number of beats to the minute in a particular song; here in Australia we liked to dance to a slower beat than in Europe, it seemed. Perhaps it was just too hot to bother speeding up. We were a great disappointment to Franz.

Peter, from England, was a champion of linear salsa and brooked no other, and Di, Australian, was heavily influenced by her first teacher, also from Central America. There was also a Cubano who sometimes joined up with Di but it was a sporadic arrangement, late this week, early last week, not here next week.

I took classes from all of them. Small wonder I became very confused.

I had the basics ok, could move backward and forward, side to side, left turn, right turn……converting the techniques into something enjoyable was the issue. Happily my son had joined me in classes, so the frustration of being led by a rhythm-challenged person was overcome.

As we practiced and became more confident we could relax a little, go more often to the venues, start to enjoy the environment, stretch our salsa wings. And start to ask questions.

where I was heading - hopefully

next: the music or the dance?




learning salsa: the adventure

first steps, colleague & partner

It started in Far North Queensland in 2007. Through various metamorphoses, and via some interesting places, it has ended, I think, in Santiago de Cuba. Ended, because I don’t think I could find a better place to hang my dancing hat, and my dancing shoes, let’s face it, are a little worn.

Facts at the outset: I am well over 50 (read over 60), generously built (read weigh more than the average), have a great sense of rhythm, always loved to dance but didn’t pair up with the right person. Visual kinesthetic, can’t sit still to music, there’ll always be some bit of me moving or tapping.

When a colleague of mine suggested one day that we take some salsa lessons, I was up for it. Didn’t know anything about salsa, but it sounded like fun. From the very first moment I was lost, in a manner of speaking. I do understand there are some folk who aren’t immediately overwhelmed by the rhythms of the music, and I do empathise. After all, I’m not overwhelmed by golf, or riding a bike. But salsa, moving to the music, drew me in, totally, straightaway.

Nowadays I understand that I actually came quite late to the salsa phenomenon, much of the world was already dancing. As a newcomer I emulated a sponge, stood in awe of the ‘professionals’, and wondered how long it might take me to catch up. But learning, or trying to learn salsa, in a smallish town like mine was, as they say, a challenge. With two, or three, and sometimes four teachers, it should have been a doddle, but I soon found that the world of salsa was fraught with complications. There were jealousies and politics amongst the teachers, loyalties and politics amongst the students – and a decided preference amongst all the players for a particular approach to the dance.

People who had been learning for a while spoke of a ‘Cuban’ style, mostly in a derogatory fashion, as a kind of lower caste. I had no idea what they were talking about, and when one of the teachers spoke instead of ‘street’ salsa it became even more confusing. In my town, the salsa that was followed by almost everybody was the linear or LA (Los Angeles) style.

Why linear? In time, I came to understand that this had fairly strict rules of behaviour, based on straight lines, therefore linear. It seemed to me to be an unforgiving kind of dance, without a lot of room for individual differences. Those of us who were linearly challenged were frowned upon, and there were lots of rules to follow. You must spin, you can’t fall out of line, you should hold your hands in a certain way and whatever you do don’t criticize the men; just follow their lead.

Well sure, I knew that following was a given, but I also thought that men should be taught a) how to lead, and above all b) to understand the need to acknowledge the compelling beat of the music. How difficult could it be?


next: starting to move