London with a Latin Beat

Santiago, who until recently lived in Puerto Rico, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco

Bodies absorbed the blasts of trumpets like steam as couples orbited each other, tethered by fingertips. Hips, infused by the fluttering of conga drums, resembled rubber pendulums. Hundreds of feet trotted fluidly across a vast, wheeling dance floor.

You can keep the changing of the guard and the crown jewels. What seduced me on a recent trip to London was the city's Latin dance scene, which local aficionados say has grown tremendously in the last two years.

So while by day I paid obligatory visits to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, I was just killing time until night fell and the real fun started.

What I found was an English salsa craze, a fever for the music and dance of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. Salsa originally developed into a distinct style in New York during the '50s and '60s, according to musicologists. Its popularity has since spread to far-flung corners of the world, from Tokyo to France. Now it has taken root in this unlikely soil.

From my first nocturnal foray into salsa clubs, I was pleasantly flabbergasted.

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Spanish lyrics filled the air as I pushed through the swinging doors into the cavernous Notre Dame Hall, a French Protestant church hall in Leicester Square that twice a month becomes a dance venue teeming with salseros, as the die-hards of the genre are known. "I think it's quite funny that I don't understand the words," one woman declared to me, nevertheless intoxicated by the singer's voice.

A deejay was spinning hits from Latin American crooners: Puerto Rico's latest chart toppers Marc Anthony and Victor Manuel; Cuban stars Los Van Van and Charanga Habanera; the Dominican Republic's Jose Alberto (a.k.a. El Canario); and Colombian idol Jerry Galante.

I felt as if I had discovered a tropical oasis behind the proverbial London fog. Latin dance clubs have proliferated here. Neon signs around the city now flash the names of more than a dozen clubs dedicated exclusively to salsa, and many more that mix salsa into their regular lineups. With just a few nights in town last spring, I decided to make the rounds, using "Time Out!," a popular guide to trendy London night life, to check out which clubs were featuring salsa (look under the "Other Moves & Grooves" section). From there, I asked deejays and salsa promoters for advice on what was hot: Rumba Pa'Ti, Salsa Palladium, La Finca, and Cuba. One happy surprise was how inexpensive they are, particularly in ultrahigh-priced London. Most clubs charge admission of $3 to $8, and many throw in a dance lesson for the price. Even with the cost of drinks and tapas, a salsa night in London is a budget night.

At Notre Dame Hall, the biggest and most popular of the London venues, the salsa gig known as Salsa Fusion was sold out the night I was there. Although they were turning people away at the door, dozens stood in a long, snaking line down a cramped stairway to the subterranean club, hoping they could get in if anyone left early.

The only reason I was able to get into Salsa Fusion was because of Elli Galvani, a local music promoter and dance instructor whom I met previously at Salsa Palladium, another Leicester Square club that is around the corner. Galvani had cleared me with the dour bouncer at Salsa Fusion, where she said the best London dancers come to strut their stuff every other Saturday.

And I was surprised at how good that stuff was, especially considering the Brits were not raised on Latin music. Even if, in my admittedly biased point of view, they could stand a bit more lubrication in their moves, many displayed a remarkable degree of skill. And the most advanced among them put many Latinos to shame.

Frankly, it was amusing to witness such abandon from the English, who aren't exactly known for their smoldering passion. But apparently that's the appeal.

"Salsa is the perfect antidote to everything about Britain, which is generally dreary and boring," confessed one 33-year-old Englishwoman I danced with. She said she also enjoyed the novelty of dancing in pairs.

Some of the stuffier-looking couples were sheer fun to watch: Imagine younger versions of, say, Margaret Thatcher and John Major possessed by the spirits of Carmen Miranda and Ricky Ricardo.

The well-dressed crowd, I should hastily point out here, was quite diverse. There were plenty of African and Indian Brits among the dancers. I even spotted a few turbans bobbing around. Other Europeans filled out the ranks, with a smattering of Asians. And of course there were Latinos, mainly Colombians and Cubans, out in strong force. Even London's reigning salsa champ, 22-year-old Parry Zerky, a Spaniard of African and French descent (he danced professionally with Cuba's Ballet Nacional) was there, leading his partner through a series of fiery combinations with intimidating ease.

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Almost all the London clubs offer at least one dance class during one of their salsa sessions before opening the doors to the public. And the classes are packed. "On a Monday night [at Salsa Palladium], we'll get 120 students and have to start turning people away," Galvani said when I visited her class. "When I started out about four years ago, I'd get maybe 10 students."

It's the classes that have sustained the salsa dance phenomenon, observed Ara, an Iranian deejay who goes by a single moniker at Salsa Palladium. "The Colombians brought salsa to London, the Cubans added more flavor to it, enough Brits noticed it, promoters took a chance, and dance classes got the people hooked," he said. Group classes generally last an hour, just before the club opens.

Putting her eager students through their paces before the mirror at Salsa Palladium, Galvani enthusiastically and patiently grounds them in the basics, adding more complicated moves over time. A much more intimate place than the huge Notre Dame Hall, Salsa Palladium even has plush--if a bit tattered--couches for lounging in between songs. And because the evenings start with a club full of students, it's a lot less intimidating.

Galvani concedes she had to adapt her teaching methods to suit the British. She says they are unaccustomed to the salsa rhythm, danced in syncopated three-step phrases with a pause on the third beat. Quick quick, slow . . . quick quick, slow . . .

What struck me about the classes is how even the most awkward beginners approach the challenge with uninhibited enthusiasm.

"The English are very serious and dedicated students," observes Ramiro Zapata, a Bolivian dance teacher who learned salsa in London eight years ago. Now he manages nine Latin dance clubs, teaching at three of them as well as running Tropicana, a Latin music production company in Piccadilly Circus.

"They listen and practice. It's easier to teach the English than the Latinos, who think they already know how to dance," Zapata said, taking a break from a class at La Finca, near London's northern edge.

It was a bit of a hike to get to its North London location, but La Finca turned out to be a great little place. For starters, there's a decent restaurant downstairs where you can start your evening picking at an assortment of tapas, Spanish hors-d'oeuvres, while listening to flamenco music.

The dance club is upstairs, rather small and separated into several levels. You have to step down onto the main dance floor, as if it were a sunken living room. It's a lot more fun to dance at a slightly higher altitude in the back, on the tiny elevated stage next to the deejay booth. There's a railing to make sure you don't twirl off the stage. Bit of a drop.

Things really start to heat up at La Finca between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. And Zapata is usually around then too, to play his role as impresario, encourage his students, plan dance contests and promote his other clubs.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see any live bands on my trip. But Zapata told me London has even spawned its own groups, mostly made up of Colombian artists, but counting some solid British musicians as well. The top of the local crop includes La Clave, Roberto Pla, Tumbaito and the all-woman band Salsa y Ache.

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The highlight of my salsa sorties took place at Cuba, in Kensington, which features Latin music six nights a week.

I didn't expect it to be my favorite club. The crowd here was a little younger than at the other places, and a little more pretentious. But I arrived in a foul mood after seeing a foul theater production and was determined to turn the night around.

After fortifying myself with a couple of rum and Cokes, I asked the most attractive Englishwoman there to dance. What a pair we made! We were absolutely terrible. But she didn't know it and I never let on. We were off beat, off balance and would have offended anyone who knew how salsa should have been danced.

But she was so enthralled by the steamy music that it didn't matter. I said a few words in Spanish, rolled an R or two, and she took me for an infallible authority. As far as she was concerned, I was the Baryshnikov of salsa.

I maneuvered us out into the middle of the dance pack and carved out some space. We executed moves that will hopefully never be seen again. But it was the most enjoyable dancing I did in London. We kept it up shamelessly until she had to go back to her husband, who was pouting at the bar, and call it a night.

And so it ended, my whirlwind tour through London's Latin underground. Maybe it wasn't Havana or even Miami, but finding tropical rhythms in the land of fish and chips made this trip to London memorable in unexpected ways. And, as my plane back to the states took off and the English countryside fell away, I kept checking for palm trees.

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GUIDEBOOK

Ole! London

Salsa clubs I visited (note: Most paid dance lessons include admission to clubs. Admission prices range from $3 to $10.):

La Finca: 96-98 Pentonville Road; near Falwell's Theatre in North London. Local telephone 071-837-5387. Underground stop: Angel. Converted pub with a tapas bar downstairs. A rustic, fun scene in the salsa dance bar.

Cuba: 11 Kensington High St.; tel. 071-938-4137. Underground stop: Kensington. Near Kensington Market, Hyde Park. Latin music six nights a week, trendy crowd.

Salsa Fusion at Notre Dame Hall: 5 Leicester Place; tel. 071-837-3752. Underground stop: Leicester Square. Salsa on first and third Saturday nights. Old ballroom-like dance floor. Tickets sell out early.

Salsa Palladium: Next to Equinox Club on Leicester Square. Underground stop: Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus. Saturdays only. Small, friendly, top-notch music.

Other clubs recommended by salsa aficionados:

Rumba Pa'Ti: Tuesdays at Bar Rumba, 36 Shaftbury Ave., in West End; tel. 071-287-2715 Underground: Piccadilly Circus.

El Barco: On the Thames at Temple Pier, Victoria Embankment; tel. 071-379-5496. Underground: Temple. Bar, club and Colombian restaurant on a boat.

Sunday School at Villa Stefano: 227 High Holborn, next to Holborn Station; tel. 071-405-3198. Underground: Holborn. Sunday nights only for salsa; Latin music other nights. Some of the most serious, flashy dancing in town. High glamour factor for hard-core salsa.

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