Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
4 - 10 May 2000
Issue No. 480
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues


Salsa nights

Latin fever is sweeping the capital. Pascale Ghazaleh dips a toe gingerly into a new and spicy subculture
Front Page

I could have danced all night: top, Hugo Patyn and Carolina Garcia in Luis Bravo's Forever Tango, ballet in 1950s Biarritz. Below, merengue and more at El Gato Negro
Dance, in one form or another, was intrinsic to my childhood and adolescence. As soon as I could walk, my mother, the eternal optimist -- endearingly convinced that her efforts would eventually serve to make me less alarmingly clumsy than I already threatened to be, aged two -- pressed me into one of those classes called Creative Movement for the Kiddies, or Toddlers on Your Toes, or one of those catch-all terms that do little to prepare hapless initiates for what will inevitably turn out to be an excruciating exercise in humiliation. I don't remember, I've blocked it out, but I am told (this is a particular favourite in family lore) that, during the end-of-year recital, to the vengeful laughter of parents who could already envision their chubby, knock-kneed offspring executing flawless pas-de-chats at the Conservatoire, I dropped out of an inane Ring-Around-the-Rosie formation and went to cuddle up to a small boy who was eating potato chips in the audience, blissfully unaware of the mayhem surrounding him. This may well have been a harbinger of things to come.

Still, my mother pressed on, undaunted, and, while chips never lost their fateful allure, I did dance: jazz, modern, ballet, you name it. I remained resolute on one point, however: while my skinny classmates flung each other into the potted plants to the frenetic beat of Rock Around the Clock, I sat smugly on the sofa. I had enough trouble trying not to trip over my own feet; I saw no reason why I had to factor someone else's Doc Martens (not to mention sweaty palms) into the equation.

As later adolescence set in, my peers and I favoured increasingly anti-social steps. No one would have been seen dead attempting to rock and roll. At one point, we even stopped slow dancing.

Still, ten years on, the idea of dancing with a partner -- and, better yet, executing carefully planned steps that left no room for the often hideous results of improvisation -- remained strangely attractive. Besides, my friends were all trying salsa, and loving it. So I signed up.

FRIDAY 7 APRIL: The class is being held at Simply Red, a tiny bar/restaurant on Gol Gamal Street, off Gam'at Al-Duwal. The setting is not ideal: it seems like we'll be tripping over tables as we master the basic steps, but it is dim enough to avoid total embarrassment. Reem, the instructor (known to her fellow salsa aficionados as Bebe), is impressively well organised. She demonstrates three fundamental steps to our motley crew of beginners. We strain to imitate her. The basic move seems to be a little shuffle to the back, which involves shifting one's weight onto the back leg, then doing the same to the front.

I glance surreptitiously around. One of the other women gets the step down pat quite quickly, but her platform sneakers -- crippling gear in the best of circumstances -- are hampering her movements quite seriously. Reem seems undaunted, clapping out the beat as she demonstrates the step over and over. I notice that most of the men are taking the easy way out: instead of shifting their weight onto the appropriate leg, they simply extend alternate legs back and forth. This causes the pelvis to rock back and forth in an entirely un-salsa-like manner (ideally, the torso should remain centred, I learn), and is oddly reminiscent of a cat reluctantly preparing to cross a large puddle.

Once we have repeated this step a dozen times, we move on to other variations. The members of the advanced class are giggling in a corner, inordinately pleased at the idea that there are others even more ridiculous than they are.

We get the hang of it eventually, however. Now it is time to try it to music. The salsa beat is tricky and, when we pair up, I will discover yet another of the many fundamental differences between men and women, viz.: most men have no sense of rhythm. That's right, none. The small room reverberates with vociferations as toes are crushed mercilessly. Oh, for a pair of platform sneakers.

As the beginners sit recuperating in a corner, the advanced class takes the floor. They definitely have an advantage: greater self-confidence. Plus, the couples have actually acquired the knack of moving as a unit. Well, more or less. I watch glumly as Reem and her assistant, Shadi, gallop across the floor in a spirited and eminently graceful demonstration. Reem tosses her head, dips, twirls and spins with abandon. I go home.

Salsa Salsa

photos: Thierry Gicquel

MONDAY 10 APRIL: Tonight is practice night. The different classes gather and, with a little luck, feel like they are dancing for a brief, enchanted instant. Then someone loses the beat, foreheads collide and reality sets in. I dance with Mo* for a while. He is perspiring freely, and has my hand in a vise-like grip. Reem explains that the man's hand must not be clenched around his partner's if he wishes to avoid breaking her wrist during the turns. Mo grits his teeth and loosens his hold. We plod back and forth for what seems like an eternity. I comfort myself with the idea, heartily supported by my comrades in the advanced class, that women should dance with more advanced partners. Leaving Mo in mid-plod, I head determinedly toward Shadi for an empirical test of my new theory. Shadi is a good dancer, no doubt about it. Admiring and envious rumour (which he confirms) has it that he has only been dancing for seven months. Yet he moves like a seasoned salsero. I feel almost light as he guides me expertly through a few steps. Still, I can't help getting just a tad suspicious when he breathes a small sigh of relief as the song ends.

The women sit together and bemoan the shortage of men -- men who can dance, that is. Always a firm supporter of women's emancipation (besides being a seasoned wallflower), I rope Rico into the cause. He is more ambitious than I judge strictly necessary, and is soon threatening to dislocate my arms as he tries out a whirl. When I shriek in surprise, he assures me that he has practiced this at home. "This is salsa with rock and roll," he informs me.

The dance ends, thankfully, and my friend Didi sashays by. With much hilarity, she leans over to tell me: "Incidentally, that wasn't salsa music -- it was merengue!" So that's why I kept bumping into his knees. I drop Rico like a hot potato and flee.

I don't want rock and roll. I want a salsero who will make me dance like Jennifer. She is a great favourite with the three or four men who actually salsa like experts. Even the women in the advanced class are grappling with major insecurities here: they warn me that the really good dancers only like to dance with salseras who know what they're doing. I suggest that we take the toro by the horns and ask them to dance. After all, we're here to have fun, aren't we? They look at me in amazement and disbelief.

I am slowly realising that there is a whole salsa subculture out there. People take this thing very, very seriously. There are nights at Simply Red and others at El Gato Negro. The instructors teach the steps in different ways. Pepe tells me that those who are taking classes at El Gato don't start dancing right away, the way we do. They take longer, and learn more intricate steps, before being unleashed on the unsuspecting masses. Pepe should know: He comes to Simply Red on Mondays and Thursdays, and goes to El Gato Negro on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

The more fanatical salseros go to workshops, hone their steps, polish their technique, practice for hours. They do other things, too: Shadi, for instance, is a race-car driver in his spare moments. I am really worried by this point. I was already feeling gloomy. Now clinical depression is setting in. I watch Jennifer dancing with Rami, who has the look of ecstasy I normally associate with moulids. She looks far away, as if she didn't even have to think about what her feet are doing, let alone the possibility of her elbow connecting with Rami's eye.

There is a bright point in the evening. As another merengue pulsates through the night, Shadi whips me onto the dance floor. I try to follow his prompting and miraculously avoid spraining my neck. This is more like it. Maybe a good salsero is the answer after all...

FRIDAY 14 APRIL: Didi told me the third session would be a turning point and she is right -- quite literally. We try out turns in which Rico tries to have me spin deftly under his arm. Unfortunately, I keep tensing up and almost give him concussion several times. He is patient, but I have the feeling he is gritting his teeth, somehow. We switch partners and try the "cuddle", which requires the woman to execute a half turn towards her partner, whereupon they both do a little shuffle step back, then a half turn away and repeat the shuffle face to face. The timing is crucial and the whole thing has to be done at breakneck speed. My new partner and I get it down pat. The problem is, we don't know how to carry on from there -- we are caught in an infernal cycle of half-turns, back and forth. I am getting dizzy.

Later, I sit with Rico and his friend and we chat for a while. I discover they are both undergraduates at 6 October University. When I was an undergraduate, 6 October University did not exist. I am beginning to feel seriously old.

MONDAY 17 APRIL: The practice session starts late. A satellite channel is filming a programme on the salsa phenomenon. My friend Carmen tells me she found out about salsa from her sister, who took her to a salsa club in Montreal. Someone else says her sister is taking classes in Amman. Obviously this is a craze, and I am part of it! I'm so excited.

The anchor is practicing steps with Shadi. The idea is that they will film her dancing a little routine with him, then she will thank him and say: "It looked difficult at first, but I think I'm going to stay the course." Her eyes are fixed firmly on her feet as they tromp back and forth. I have noticed that myself: I am incapable of looking into my partner's eyes (as one is supposed to -- "Communicate," Reem says), and find myself looking at his ear instead. When Shadi and the anchor are done, she springs away from him as if electrocuted. He kisses her hand -- an improvised move -- and she yanks her arm away so fast I feel sure she has dislocated a shoulder. She collapses in giggles. The others look on, bemused. One of her colleagues calls out: "That's gallantry, that's part of salsa." "Can we just shake hands?" she replies.

When the satellite crew pack up their gear and go, we tentatively shuffle toward the dance floor. I look up and Rami -- aka the god of salsa -- is standing in the doorway. My overriding ambition these days is to dance with Rami. Irene waves at him as I make the mistake of confiding in her. She confirms the rumour: Everyone agrees that "he makes you feel like you can really dance." Is this an opportunity to be passed up? Obviously not. Irene kindly intercedes, but I am petrified. Rami is an amazing dancer; surely he will not take kindly to my stepping on his feet and tripping him up as he tries to coax me along? He is very kind, however, and tells me seriously: "I want you to do me a favour: just relax." Ha. I immediately step on his foot. He winces. I apologise profusely. He smiles gamely.

Blushing furiously, I sit down and watch Lara dance with Shadi. She is truly incredible. There is no doubt: when real salseros dance, you understand what the steps mean -- what they are there for. Their feet barely move; there is just a suggestion of the back and forth step the beginners are executing so carefully. We are conscientious and terribly earnest; they are inspired. Lara swoops and dips. We applaud ecstatically. I feel something akin to despair: will I ever be able to forget my feet and just dance?

Then the miracle happens: Rami asks me to dance again. I expect he has been nursing his bruised toes in a corner, and is now intent upon exacting revenge. But no: he is giving me a second chance! I understand the meaning of redemption at last.

Out on the street, I am buzzing with energy. Tomorrow is Tuesday: maybe I'll give Gato Negro a try...

TUESDAY 18 APRIL: Irene, my partner in crime, meets me at a party downtown. We stay for an hour, but our feet are itching. On to Gato Negro... It is 11.30, and the place is hopping. We head down the long corridor and into -- well, the pit. The atmosphere inside is intense: sweat and cigarette smoke and a pulsing beat. It seems highly democratic -- the tiny dance floor is packed with dancers mincing enthusiastically to a merengue, which allows some scope for improvisation -- but when the salsa starts the pecking order is revealed. There are actually women dancing in high heels. Not stilettos, granted, but still shoes I could not walk, much less salsa in. Cropped trousers and halter-tops are de rigueur. Irene, Nadine and I stand at the edge of the floor and gossip, tapping our feet forlornly to Una Fan Enamorada and Tu Me Vuelves Loco. It is clear that there is a Catch-22 situation at work here: the good dancers prefer to dance with each other (go figure), but how does one become a good dancer if one finds no one with whom to dance? We ponder this dilemma while trying to avoid what seems like a room full of potentially life-threatening elbows.

The crowd is packed four deep around the pit and Irene takes a deep breath and grabs a potential partner. He complies willingly enough, but the awful truth is soon revealed as he grasps her hands and gyrates frenetically. Irene smiles bravely and soldiers on as he leers at her. We sit out the rest of the evening and flee as techno takes over and the serious stomping starts. Well, Friday night is just around the corner...

* Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the sensitive, squeamish and/or just plain clumsy.


   Top of page
Front Page