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L.A.'s spin on salsa

Times Staff Writer

Salsa dancing can be an addiction. Incurable salsaholics openly admit their metabolic need for regular polyrhythmic fixes, lest they start feeling restless. In the worst cases, they go on extended salsa binges, lost weekends of endless dips, spins and spectacular neck-drops they may not remember in the morning.

Thousands of these hopelessly hooked hoofers converged on Los Angeles last week for the biggest dose of salsa dance mania in the free world: the fifth annual West Coast Salsa Congress. They came from as far away as Argentina, Australia and Japan, all for a sleep-deprived five-day marathon of workshops, flashy performances and concerts by first-rate bands.

One woman drove from Las Vegas with her husband flat on his back recovering from surgery, stopping along the road to relieve his discomfort with massages.

A mother from Mexico postponed paying her rent, utilities and her son’s tuition so she could pay for the trip (about $1,000) and perform with her troupe.

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And a salsa DJ from New York who couldn’t afford airfare spent 78 hours on a Greyhound bus, arriving sore but raring to go at 10 p.m. Tuesday, the eve of the congress kickoff.

“I’m here,” said Julio “El Rumbero” Perez with a laugh, jokingly rubbing his backside. “That’s what’s important.”

There are other salsa festivals around the globe, but salsa fanatics flock to Los Angeles as the unlikely Mecca of this sensual Afro-Caribbean dance form. In the last few years, the city has stolen the salsa spotlight with a flashy and aggressive style developed by a small group of now-famous dancers, especially the renowned Vazquez brothers, Francisco, Luis and Johnny.

The worldwide popularity of their L.A. style was on display during the congress, which ran Wednesday through Sunday at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood. Amateur but ambitious performers from all over the world used some variation of moves first introduced by dancers at local clubs before L.A. was on the salsa map.

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“I remember some people didn’t want to let us into the clubs in the early days,” recalled Francisco Vazquez after his sensational performance Saturday with his partner, Monica Gonzalez. “They said it was a circus.”

Vazquez and his brothers, working-class immigrants from Guadalajara, now spend much of their time teaching and touring in Europe. They’re among a small group of L.A. salsa superstars -- including Josie Neglia, Joby Vazquez (who, with husband Luis, co-founded Salsa Brava), Janette Valenzuela and Laura Canellias -- who unwittingly launched a global dance movement when they visited the original salsa congress in Puerto Rico in 1997.

Their brash and flashy style was an instant hit. The brothers brought a Mexican street sensibility and a menacing, pachuco edge to a dance that has roots in Cuba’s elegant danzon. The women added grace and fashion with their own clothes and shoe designs.

Salsa purists knock the L.A. style for its Hollywood glitziness and look-at-me antics, which often resemble gymnastics or drill-team acrobatics. But defenders remind critics that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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“Well, the place is packed,” noted the congress’ promoter, Albert Torres, who started as a dancer and instructor. “We [dancers] have never gotten paid much, but all we’ve ever wanted is respect.”

Paradoxically, this is the event’s biggest year despite a devastating slump in the salsa recording industry. More than 4,000 people each night turned out to see a dizzying series of short performance routines, followed by nightly concerts featuring major old-school salsa acts, such as Ray Barretto and Oscar D’Leon. The heartiest souls could dance their soles off to DJ music until 4 a.m.

“I’m overwhelmed and overjoyed,” said Torres, a former drug addict and gambler who found redemption in salsa music, where he also found his wife and business partner, Maya. Torres sponsors 14 annual congresses in cities around the world, from Toronto to Tokyo. The growing circuit allows top dancers to travel constantly, turning their names into trademarks to sell everything from T-shirts to instruction videos, where the real money is. At her booth this week, Neglia said she grosses $300,000 annually selling inexpensively produced dance tapes, mostly through the Internet.

“I don’t mean to brag, but women changed their entire way of dancing because of my videos,” said the voluptuous teacher, surrounded by young female fans wanting a snapshot with her.

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Every year, routines get more kinetic and costumes more outlandish. Some men threw their partners in the air and over their shoulders, as easy as tossing a pizza. Dancers dressed as court jesters, flappers and hillbillies. Even Batman danced with Cat Woman, played by Edie “The Salsa Freak” and Al “Liquid Silver” Espinoza.

In the supportive spirit of the congress, even mediocre acts got encouraging applause. Most dancers, especially beginners, don’t get paid to perform. So nobody gets too snooty about sloppy choreography or ideas that don’t quite work.

Congress participants from 45 countries often fused other music and cultures into the extremely malleable salsa mix. One male team, Guatemalan and Japanese partners, dressed as samurai warriors with clanging swords keeping the beat.

One of the week’s most exciting acts was a couple from Mexico City, Victor and Gaby, who imaginatively fused two entirely unrelated dance styles, smooth salsa and the bouncy quebradita. The demands of combining unrelated syncopations forced them to produce some of the most truly original moves of the week, and earned them one of the biggest ovations.

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“That shows you how salsa is so powerful,” said performer and teacher Peter Ohio, a Japanese American from San Francisco who incorporates martial arts into his steps. “It’s not really part of my culture. I don’t even understand Spanish. But it’s such a sensual dance that people deep inside just relate to it.”

The theme of Torres’ congress, “Creating Unity Through Salsa,” sounds Pollyannaish. The scene has its jealousies, rivalries and controversies. But salsa has truly become a multi-ethnic global melange. George Watabe, a pioneer of salsa promotion in Japan, led a contingent of 300 dancers from his country. Some of them defied warnings from corporate employers that they’d be quarantined upon their return because of the SARS scare. Relaxing in the lobby of the Airport Hilton, the congress headquarters, the gaunt and bespectacled Watabe said he believes in the power of salsa to transform his society.

“Japanese people are so shy,” he said. “We bow, but we don’t hug.... But touching and holding is a very nice communication. That’s why I’m changing Japan by dancing salsa -- so we can be more open and friendly.”

Salsa student John Davila, a mechanical engineer from Burbank, has more personal reasons for learning salsa. This is the third congress attended by the trim, balding grandfather, who wore a T-shirt with a slogan that’s more boast than threat: “I’m that dancer your mother warned you about.”

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Davila struggles with complex new mambo steps during a mass workshop in a huge hotel ballroom. He practices salsa four nights a week, twice at formal classes and twice at clubs. And he’s determined to get better.

“God almighty, it is totally an addiction,” says Davila, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx. “I really want to bring myself to another level of salsa dancing. I’m Latino in my heart and in my blood, and I’m finding that other countries are taking off with it. So I think, ‘Wait a minute! That belongs to me. I want to reclaim it.’ ”


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