A taste of Philly Salsa

Courtney Starbuck

Salsa is spice. Salsa is a hot summer night. Salsa is an intoxicating rumble of congas, maracas and horns. It is flowing skirts and strappy shoes gliding over a dance floor. It is sexy; it is passionate. It is vertical foreplay to a Latin beat. It will make you sweat, and it will make you smile. Some even say that it will change your life. But just what is salsa?

Salsa is a collective term that includes most up-tempo Latin music. Although there is some controversy as to where it was “invented,” it is true that many cultures have influenced today’s salsa.

Its Spanish and African roots date back to Spanish colonial days in the West Indies, when slaves from Senegal and West Africa could only practice their religion through drumbeats and rhythmic movement. These were combined with European influences and refined in the 1950s in New York, when musicians from the boom of Latinos from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic each added its own special touch, further extending salsa’s cultural influence. Since then, salsa has been fused with everything from funk and R&B to jazz and rock. Fundamentally, salsa is six steps danced over eight counts of music. Once the basic step is mastered, crossovers, turns, lifts and dips are added, allowing the dance to range from up-close and personal to all-out performance. It is one heck of a workout.

The number of salsa clubs are growing rapidly; however, this sharp rise in popularity comes as no surprise. According to the 2000 Census, the Latino population is the fastest-growing minority group in the country, accounting for 12.5 percent of the overall population. (According to the Registrar’s unofficial count, Villanova’s Latinos constitute slightly over 6 percent of the overall full-time undergrad population.) Latinos recently surpassed African-Americans, who constitute 12.3 percent of the U.S.’s nearly 282 million people. As a matter of fact, Latinos and African-Americans make up more than half of the populations in the country’s 10 largest cities, including Philadelphia.

Where is the best place to salsa in Philly? That depends on what you are in the mood for. Christian Ramirez, a senior communication major from Puerto Rico, said that there are several spots in Philly that each offer a different salsa “flava.” His pick is Monte Carlo, an upscale bar located on South Street. Monte Carlo offers salsa every other Thursday night until 2 a.m. and attracts an ethnic mix of students mainly from the University of Pennsylvania. Cover, however, is a little pricey $12 for the gents and $10 for the ladies. And make sure to dress to impress. “They won’t let you in if you’re wearing jeans,” Ramirez said. If you are looking for a cheaper, more laid-back setting, the Five Spot on Bank Street has salsa on one floor (hip-hop on another) on Thursdays and Saturdays. It is open until 2 a.m., and the cover charge is $5 for everyone.

On Wednesday nights, Brasil’s Nite Club on Chestnut Street offers a free salsa lesson from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. followed by dancing until 2 a.m. Brasil’s is a cheap and fun way to experience salsa for just $5 at the door. If you like a mostly urban crowd, La Gran Manzana on North Delaware Avenue is a place to check out. Cover varies from night to night, and it is open until 2 a.m. as well.

Where should you go if you are new to the salsa scene? Ramirez recommends that beginners try Monte Carlo because the experienced dancers at La Gran Manzana can be intimidating. According to Ramirez, the cheaper the cover, the better the dancers. If you are interested in checking out salsa, places like Brasil’s offers free lessons. The basic steps are not difficult to get the hang of, but it is best to learn from someone who knows how to do them right.

Ramirez agrees, and adds that you should allow yourself be led by the more experienced dancer. Whatever your level of expertise, the most important thing to keep in mind about salsa is that it is all about attitude.

Take it from Ramirez: “Don’t get frustrated, and just remember to have fun!”