Salsa dancing is not an extreme sport

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Attention all rude and narcissistic salsa dancers who bumped, elbowed and butted my wife and me on the dance floor last Sunday at Paseo Colorado, the Pasadena mall that hosts free music events in its courtyard: Salsa is a social dance. It’s not roller derby, bumper cars or sumo wrestling. So try not to clobber the guy next to you, crash into other couples or force fellow dancers off the floor.

One couple was so oblivious to those around them that they nearly trampled my 5-year-old son, who was innocently standing on the sidelines holding my wife’s purse. Another was so intent on showing off that they kept swinging wildly into our space and finally just took it over when we decided to leave in mid-song.

We haven’t been out dancing as much as we used to since our boy was born. But this outing showed that not much has changed about the showy salsa dance crowd in Los Angeles, who think we’re all there just to watch them. They perform like they’re perpetually auditioning for a role in the next cheesy Hollywood salsa movie, or “Dancing With the Stars.”

Although salsa showoffs can be found anywhere, the lack of dance floor etiquette is a distinctly and revealing L.A. problem. It’s here over the past decade that a group of young, audacious street dancers developed a flashy style marked by jaw-dropping acrobatics and death-defying (especially for the woman) dips, flips, spins and neck drops. The L.A. style became so popular that people flocked to classes, hoping to learn the tricks that get all the oohs-and-ahhs from audiences, not to mention that special admiration from the ladies.

It got so bad that one night club, the Granada in Alhambra, actually bans such stunts, despite having one of the region’s largest dance floors.

The club is owned by Enio Cordoba, a champion competitor who also operates Let’s Dance LA, where I once took lessons. He says he has actually barred one or two professional dancers from his club.

The showoffs -- the ones who arrive with their posses and proceed to hog the floor -- are bad for business, Cordoba says. They always want to get in free, don’t spend on drinks and sometimes start fights. Plus, they scare off good customers, the social dancers, who get intimidated by the hot shots.

“When we stopped the flips and dips, our numbers went up,” he says. “If you’re a jerk, I don’t want you in my club. For every guy I throw out, I get three who are glad they’re gone.”

Cordoba doesn’t disguise his contempt for those he believes responsible for this trend: a popular trio of Mexican siblings known as the Vazquez brothers, Luis, Francisco and Johnny, who led a dance team here known as Salsa Brava. The name says it all. Their moves were bold, even fearless. The team dissolved in 2004 and the brothers moved to Europe, but their legacy lives on.

I took lessons from Luis at a studio in Long Beach, and I admit their style was dazzling. That was eight years ago, and I’m amazed how many salsa classes are still packed with eager pupils -- and more multicultural than ever. But a lot of dancers still aren’t being taught the difference between competing on stage and sharing the floor in a club. Nobody told them that the true tradition of salsa dancing, epitomized by the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who invented it, values elegance and economy. The goal is to never stray outside the boundaries of a single tile square, or bailando en un solo ladrillo, as so many songs extol.

People still talk about the time that bandleader Johnny Polanco nearly got his trombone knocked down his throat by a dancer doing flips at El Floridita, the restaurant in Hollywood with a tiny dance floor. Polanco, a hulking figure, took the much smaller and thinner dancer outside for a little chat.

The alleged offender was none other than Alex Da Silva, a star of the local scene. I caught up with Da Silva on Thursday night at Mama Juana’s in Studio City, where he teaches a weekly class. He says the trombone incident was a case of mistaken identity. Da Silva does admit he and his posse used to invade nightclubs and show off, to try to get attention, but those were the old days. “Now that we’re much older, we don’t have to show off anymore,” he says. Standing in the street lights outside the club on Cahuenga Boulevard, he didn’t look much older than when I first saw him compete in the 1990s. The Brazilian-born dancer had just moved down from San Francisco and was wowing fans with his smooth turns and tricks.

In Thursday’s class, he had students wrapped like pretzels in a combination of twists and turns that only Houdini could have worked his way out of. Later, some people cheered when a couple tried some low dips, in which the man bent the woman back, her head almost touching the ground. Never mind that they always lost the beat with that move.

“The professionals, we know how to do all the tricks without hurting someone and invading other people’s space,” Da Silva says. “But a bunch of amateurs doing all this crazy stuff, they can hurt themselves.”

It all comes back to the teachers. Laura Canellias, an award-winning veteran, emphasizes etiquette in her classes.

On Wednesday night at J Restaurant and Lounge downtown, she good-naturedly stressed to her students the need for courtesy on the dance floor. “Ladies, you’ve got stilettos and you could put a hole in someone’s foot,” warned Canellias, who also teaches ethnic dance at Santa Monica College. “So take itty-bitty steps and exercise good floor craftsmanship. It’s not about flash. It’s about communicating with your partner.”

Some teachers are not so conscientious. Cordoba cites one reckless instructor who showed men judo moves to trip their partners and force them off balance so they could not resist being dropped or dipped. Cordoba says his studio teaches defensive moves so women can avoid that twinkle-toe trap.

In salsa dancing, etiquette is mostly up to the man. He must anticipate every move, look over his shoulder and protect his partner. “He’s driving the car,” explains Cordoba . “All accidents are his fault.”

Everybody crashes now and then, and I’ve had my share of mishaps. But an accident requires an apology. Not like that guy in Pasadena who backed into me, shoved me into my wife and didn’t even turn around when I repeatedly tapped him on the shoulder.

So I just waited for him to move. I knew his ego was too big to stay in one spot.