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Flashy and Sensual? Definitely. Shameful and Passe? Maybe : It’s the Latin Rhythm of Lambada

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If lambada has marched triumphantly through the French Riviera and the Costa del Sol and even newly liberated East Berlin, can the San Gabriel Valley be far behind?

As a matter of fact, the fast, sexy Brazilian dance has already snaked its way into the glittery dance clubs along the San Bernardino and Pomona freeways. Lambada has lifted people from Glendora and West Covina out of their seats and set them to grinding pelvises with strangers.

The other night at Pepper’s, a City of Industry nightclub next to the Pomona Freeway, lambada instructor Bakari Santos set the lambada machine in motion once more, like a juggler spinning plates on sticks.

“Let’s have fun with the planet, let’s have fun with the cosmos!” urged Bakari (lambada dancers often drop their last names). A tall, limber Brazilian, he was dressed festively in yellow headband, yellow sash and baggy trousers.

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He and partner Leticia Martinez gave a twirling demonstration of the dance, their thighs entangled, their hips churning together like the chamois drapes in a drive-through carwash. Then they called for volunteers to learn the dance.

Some of the customers were dubious. “It’s the closest thing to sexual expression without actually doing it,” sniffed Greg Schell, a drafting teacher from Rosemead, looking warily at the dance floor. “For me to make some of those moves, I’d have to carry an ice bucket.”

But Bakari was not to be denied.

Fantuzzi and the Flexible Band, an energetic septet led by flamboyant guitarist Luis Fantuzzi, set down an infectious beat, singer Cecilia Noel warbled the familiar “Lambada” song and Bakari drew the dancers, one by one, to the floor.

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“Don’t be shy, don’t be shy,” he said. “I’m shy too . . . " Someone on the sidelines snorted in disbelief. The instructor shook his finger in mock warning. “If you don’t get up, I’ll have to go and get you up.”

Soon, Bakari had a row of dancers doing basic lambada steps, a sliding side-to-side three-step with exaggerated hip movements. “One-two- kick, one-two- kick!” shouted the insistent Brazilian in accented English, as both he and his miniskirted partner Leticia joined the line.

It was easy, the instructors insisted. But when the dancers paired off, it became apparent that novice lambadeers come with varying degrees of ability. Bakari danced with East Los Angeles College student Lupe Mendoza, inexpert but energetic and quick to learn.

“The rhythm is more or less like salsa,” enthused Mendoza afterward. “Except you’re closer (to your partner). There’s more body movement.”

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But Leticia, a professional dancer who appeared in the recent lambada movie “The Forbidden Dance,” found herself careening around the floor with a stumbler. Game but uncoordinated, the man appeared to be strenuously fending off Leticia, like an unwilling participant in a bar brawl.

“Maybe Americans are a little shy,” said the Los Angeles-born Leticia after the dance, resting her feet on the rungs of a high stool. “There’s a lot of hip movement, which makes it difficult for some people.”

Did this sensuous new dance just sail in from out of the blue?

Not exactly, say those who promote it. Depending on whom you talk to, it originated in either Northeastern Brazil, Bolivia or Peru. It may have been banned at one time or another in Brazil or Bolivia, and it has swept like a hot wind through the U.S. East Coast and Western Europe.

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Some say it was a popular street dance in Bahia, on Brazil’s northeastern coast, or a sacred ritual dance among Bolivian Indians. Some say it’s the concoction of European promoters.

“We’ve had lambada for many years,” contended Noel, a sultry singer of Peruvian and Brazilian parentage. “It’s a combination of music from Bolivia and Peru, with a merengue feel and with influences from Southern Brazil.”

Regardless of where the dance originated, dance instructors say, it’s new, it’s fun and it’s probably good for you.

“It’s excellent exercise,” said Leba Shana, who presides over a weekly lambada night at Wings, a West Covina club. “You use muscles that you don’t normally use. It’s done wonders for my figure. Since I started dancing lambada, I’ve lost 3 inches from my waistline.”

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But most agree that lambada has not conquered the hearts of American dancers the way it did with dancers in Europe, where the original lambada song sold more than 4 million records last year. The Pepper’s crowd, in fact, was one of the skimpiest of the year, said club manager Mike Ryan.

“The people here are not as curious as Europeans to learn about other cultures,” Bakari said.

The dance, which arrived in the United States about six months ago, borne along on a massive publicity campaign, is running into some stubborn resistance, promoters acknowledge. Maybe Americans are a little inhibited about wiggling their hips, some say. But those who seek to profit from the lambada craze--club owners, dance instructors, record producers and fashion designers--worry that the dance’s sexiness has been stressed too much.

“The media say that it’s like making sex,” complained Bakari. “That’s not quite so. It’s a sensual dance. Sensual not sexual.”

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But others insist that there’s no other way to interpret all of the pelvis rubbing. Tito Puente, the patriarch of Latin band leaders, who also played at Pepper’s last week, described the dance as a transient phenomenon.

“Can you imagine somebody coming up to you and saying he wanted to dance lambada with your wife?” he said animatedly. “He’d get killed !”

Lambada instructors insist that women don’t have to go “all the way” with the dance. “You don’t have to grind,” Leba said. “We tell the girls: ‘You determine how close you get, ladies. If it’s someone you know and like, then get right up there. But you don’t have to be intimate.’ ”

The crowd under Bakari’s tutelage soon warmed to the dance, particularly after experienced lambada dancers joined them on the floor. Alberto Torres, a La Habra factory worker, danced a chaste version of the dance with his partner. “It’s hard to do, but you can have fun,” he said.

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“I gives you a chance to dance close again,” added Laurie Bess, a nurse from Ontario.

Ed Alvarado, a financial consultant from Huntington Park, was one of the most nimble lambadeers. A tall, dark man with the sculptured features of a young Fernando Lamas, Alvarado led a succession of partners onto the floor, spinning them skillfully in asymmetrical circles until they seemed to topple in his arms, then forcefully drawing them toward him as he kept time to the beat.

“I like a real, real, fast motion,” said Alvarado between dances, standing coolly at the edge of the dance floor, a single rivulet of sweat coursing down one cheek. “If you do the same thing over and over, it gets real boring.”

By late in the evening, even Schell, the skeptical Rosemead instructor, was out on the floor, dancing in quick, sliding movements--like someone sneaking through a forest, darting from tree to tree. For a moment, it seemed that everybody was moving in unison under the club’s multitiered lighting system, which hovers over the dance floor like the bottom end of the spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

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Bandleader Fantuzzi, an ebullient man wearing leopard-spotted clothes, surveyed the scene. “It’s lambada-me night!” he shouted over the music. “So don’t bodda me.”


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