Sunday, 20 November 2011

Buenos Aires - Salsa edition

Many come to Buenos Aires for tango and you can see why – the town is steeped in the tradition and although not all are familiar with the steps most can identify with the culture and seem proud of the way this distinctive dance has imbued the city with its music and powerful images and style. You can see the dance hall 'milongas' everywhere and there is a strong following among the 30+ age group followers. Many people visit the city just to learn and practise tango and I met one in her 60s English lady in who comes for 6 months every year to take private lessons and dance 2 or 3 times a week in milongas.

But I didn't come to Buenos Aires for the tango, rather I was keen to sample the local salsa scene. I now count salsa as one among other forms of enjoyment, exercise and as a way of meeting people in a friendly and generally uplifting environment. At its best it can be exhilarating and fun and the challenge of learning has multiple layers rhythm, steps and expression, I love it. In Buenos Aires there is a vibrant salsa scene and some great exponents - but many just dabble for the odd night out or as a change from tango and milonga forms. Cross Body or LA style seems most popular but expect to find it fused with the more exuberant cuban style salsa.

Azucar Abasto is a large dedicated salsa venue in the Abasto area on Avenida Corrientes. In the UK salsa is largely to be found in halls and bars and it is doubtful that we could easily sustain a dedicated club/school (may be worth a try though). I have been to Buenos Aires salsa 5 times now and generally enjoyed the contrast with the South London scene; although the teaching is a bit sketchy the price is very reasonable. On entry the cover is generally 25-30 pesos or between £3 and £4 and for this you can take advantage of a set of lessons typically of 3 Rueda, Merengue, Bachata and then invariably Salsa, each lesson being about 70 - 80 minutes with a 10 minute break and some free dancing. There are generally 2 or 3 levels of classes.

At Azucar I hung with the intermediates and although it was a fairly young set it wasn't exclusively so. They are open at least 5 nights a week and publish a somewhat inaccurate diary. The teaching was less explicit than in the UK and I struggled a bit with unfamiliar combinations but it was survivable. There was some free dancing between sessions but a lot of people were standing around watching and only participated in the classes. Everyone was friendly and the girls patiently adjusted my moves and the frequent repetitions finally imparted the desired combination.

La Salsera is a similar but smaller club/school in the same area and had a more mixed age group and floors of dancing but it basically offers the same diet as Azucar.

Another night I went to La Viruta which is really a tango/milonga place with, as it were, some salsa on the side. This was poorly taught and most of my partners found difficulty in following and my lead. I guessed that they were more comfortable with tango and I'm not sure the two forms coexist comfortably in one's body. It did however enable me to watch a milonga lesson (milonga confusingly being both a place where tango is taught and danced and itself a form of tango). At beginner level it looked fun – but I couldn't envisage confusing myself more with the different steps and timing so I just watched and enjoyed. The entry here was 30 pesos which paid for salsa, milonga and tango lessons. I recall dancing with one partner who I assessed as having almost no natural salsa rhythm but then saw her in the top of 5 levels of tango class she looked totally in her body and following her partner across the dance floor in complicated and stylishly flowing steps.

On one of my long walks I came across Club de Espana a large club/function room on the 12 lane road 9 de julio. Upstairs I found a small class of around 8 people taught by Estaban a happy and versatile instructor. I did a couple of classes which included a medley of salsa, regaton and merengue and I would have gone back to the class for more the following week had I not been going to la Bomba a lively drumming show in an open air venue! Anyway here is a video of the move!

When Mark, my non salsa dancing pilot friend flew in from London he took me to a football game between Argentina and Bolivia and in return I took him to a salsa club, Belgrano. On arriving at 10.30 pm we were way to early for the action but on returning shortly before 12 we sat down to a 3 course meal of dubious quality - there was no entry charge – just pay for what you consume we were told. We were firstly entertained by a 2 piece salsa band with singing, some percussion and keyboards/drum machine. They were actually pretty good and a few people danced – some of them very well. After the meal they cleared away the tables and lessons were commenced by a cuban team of 3 muscular guys with huge energy and gusto – this was fun and Mark joined in enthusiatically. After a fun warm up the lesson was a bit rudimentary but it got everybody going and there was free dancing afterwards. Mark was tired as he had flown in that da, losing 3 hours in the time change so as we left at about 3am while others were just arriving and I believe at that time paying a modest entry fee.

My final dance experience of the week was in fact tango. My friends Johanna and Chad were offered an introduction to tango as part of their hostal package. Ana the manager of the hostal gave us a brief but insightful history of tango in Buenos Aires illustrated with several examples of the music. We were then whisked off to Milonga Maldita which was over in the clubby district of San Telmo. On arriving we were led through an inconspicuos door to a large first floor venue with maybe 100 or so people and an already ongoing beginners lesson. Some, like me were total novices whilst others were clearly experienced exponents of the form. I seemed to get paired with a succession of students from Warwick University all of whom were tense and very conscious of their body and personal space. Tango is pretty up close and personal and you lead via body contact and English reserve just doesn't do it. After the class which was given in both English and Spanish there was an interesting and creative 6 piece band and singer followed by disco. Like me none of the other beginners felt sufficiently accomplished to return to the dance floor and most who did seemed very capable and we enjoyed watching them.

Finally, arriving back at my apartment in the Congreso I decided to briefly check out my local salsa club only 2 blocks away. Entry was 25 pesos but that included a soft drink. It turned out to be mainly cuban salsa but people were well into it and there were some lively dancers and someone's birthday party was in full swing – I watched for a while, had one dance then hung up my Buenos Aires dancing shoes and went back to my apartment to sleep and then pack.  

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