Hot nights in San Juan

The tenth anniversary Puerto Rico Salsa Congress heats up San Juan

A pair of competitors at the 2005 Puerto Rico Salsa Congress. Photograph by Charlie Santiago and Julio Costoso/Courtesy www.fotosenclave.comA squad of salseros executes a tricky move. Photograph by Charlie Santiago and Julio Costoso/Courtesy www.fotosenclave.com

Latinos have perfected the melding of sensuality and mysticism in the ritual of the salsa dance. July 2006 will see 1,500 congregants from over thirty countries partaking in a meeting of the senses and the soul at the salsa basilica — the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress.

While congress, or congreso in Spanish, suggests a sedate meeting, there’s a hint of the erotic, too, that will make most wives think twice when their husbands say they’ve got one at the office first thing in the morning. But for most, the Congress offers a haven for self-expression and salsa worship. Each embrace, step, release, and turn is a sacred rite in the salsa ritual.

Benedict Cupid from Trinidad and Tobago has been attending the Congress for several years. “Puerto Ricans love to share their music and their moves with you. They never keep it to themselves. Once you’re willing to learn, they’ll share it with you,” he says.

One thing’s for certain. If you’ve ever been brave enough to show up at a Latin party and you’re not salsa savvy, you’ll definitely be evangelised by the end of the night — two left feet or no.

It’s easy to see why the salsa faithful love to dance. The music is quick and infectious. Salseros speak of a heightened state of reality. It’s this quasi-mystical element that fuels them all night long. But before salsa reigned in the hearts of men — and in Puerto Rico — Afro-Cuban music first fused with “Nuyorican” (New York and Puerto Rican) sounds in the 1970s to create the popular sound “salsa”.

Salsa means “sauce”. And what a multi-flavourful and spicy one it is — so much that three sub-genres emerged: salsa erótica (self-explanatory), salsa gorda (Afro-Cuban and Jazz-influenced salsa), and salsa romántica (light pop).

When it comes to technique, a skilled dancer can deliver a novice from a faux pas and make it look seamless — all trespasses forgiven. Dancers of two schools of thought are always stepping on each other’s toes over the “on one” and “on two” salsa techniques. “The most important thing is the love for the music and the dance,” says president of the Salsa Congress Elí Irizarry, who feels there’s no difference. But Cupid says this is what distinguishes the salsa devout from mere participants. He claims that “on two” dancers — those who move off on the second beat (no mystery as to when “on one” dancers get going) are more versatile, and this flexibility gives them true mastery over their routines.

Salsa dance gurus who’ll be taking the uninitiated in hand this year will include Eddie Torres, Palladium Mambo Legends, Tito and Tamara, and Jorge Santana. And the Salsa Open competition invites participants in two new categories: professionals and under-eighteens. There’ll be daytime activities for senior party-goers and young children. And at night there are two traditional dance concerts plus a disco for anyone in no hurry to get to bed. The grand climax is the finals of the Salsa Open, which will be broadcast to more then twenty nations.

Live musicians will also be there to raise the tempo. This year’s confirmed lineup includes legends El Gran Combo (for whom Irizarry is also tour manager), Sonora Ponceña, José Alberto, a.k.a. El Canario (whose whistling can’t be discerned from a canary’s), Willie Rosario, Bobby Valentín, and Andy Montañez. There’s something to bring out the hedonist in everyone, from blazing trumpets to pounding electronic salsa. Getting in the mix this year will be headliner DJs Pepe Bassan, Pablo Bat, René Irizarry, Pepe and Nick Gurns. Add the US$25,000 total prize money up for grabs and it’s no mystery why salseros stream in from all over to strut their stuff.

Whatever the altar — whether the dance floor, the stage, or the DJ’s turntable — the salsa god is never jealous.

 

The tenth anniversary Puerto Rico Salsa Congress runs from 23 to 29 July. For information, visit www.puertoricosalsacongress.com