Salsa is spice. Salsa's a hot summer night. Salsa is a rhythmic jumble of congas, bells and horns. It's hips and feet, flying over a dance floor.
Salsa is an international music and dance craze that's finally finding its bearings in the quiet burg of Colorado Springs thanks to a handful of dedicated teachers, an outstanding live orchestra, a little dance venue with a big heart and hundreds of dancers itching to shake a leg.
It's upright foreplay to a Latin beat. It'll make you sweat and it'll make you smile. Some say it will change your life.
On Friday nights, Cascabel's, a local Mexican restaurant in a strip mall north of Garden of the Gods Road, swings with a salsa beat. Tables packed with dining patrons take a back seat to the activity on the dance floor come 9 o'clock.
Orchestra Sabroso, a nine-piece salsa orchestra that frequently swells to 11 members, sets up along the side wall, horns in back on risers, percussion players up front. On this particular Friday night, Seth Bueno, son of orchestra leader Dennis Bueno, has his fingers taped. Last week the beat got so hot he cracked a few bones beating on the congas.
Women dressed in swirly skirts and strappy heels linger around the edges of the small dance floor. Regulars toss back a drink and greet one another in wide embraces.
At a table near the door, local salsa instructor Hector Diaz holds court with his partner Linda, his beautiful 25-year-old daughter Marcie and his students who have come out to dance.
"I have the coolest dad," gushes Marcy. "I can only dance with him."
On the dance floor, Stefano Filatro, another local instructor, warms up. Dressed casually in loose khakis and a T-shirt, Filatro's powerful upper body moves with ease, his narrow hips motoring as he prompts a 60-ish woman through the basic six-count step.
The orchestra strikes a sudden first note and Filatro is joined by a young woman in a red dress. Her hair pulled back in a neat bun, her posture prim and erect, she could be a fourth-grade schoolteacher, a nurse, a business executive.
Suddenly they fly together in a red-hot haze, all precision and angles to the rhythmic sequence of the band. She is magnificent, twirling with speed and ease beneath his raised arms. Their eyes are locked as their moves increase in difficulty and intricacy. Filatro never stops smiling. A few inches behind him, another dancer shadows his moves, dancing alone.
The dance floor fills quickly. It's Friday night and the crowd is here to dance.
Spice it up
Salsa is nothing new except in its relatively recent, newfound popularity.
Basically, it's an umbrella term that encompasses most up-tempo, danceable Latin music. Its roots are Afro-Cuban, dating back to Spanish colonial days in Cuba when slaves from Senegal and West Africa could practice their religion only through drumbeats and rhythmic movement. Those beats eventually combined with European influences and evolved into street dances.
One salsa legend credits the name to Cuban songwriter Ignacio Pilerio whose song "Echale Salsita" was born when the composer tasted food that lacked Cuban spices. It needed salsa -- sauce, spice.
But salsa was refined and evolved in New York City in the 1950s with the large migration of Latinos from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rican musicians added their unique touch and extended salsa's cultural influence. Both dance and music were infused with the energies of jazz and big band.
In 1962, salsa got a huge boost with Secco Records' recording of Joe Cuba's Stepping Out LP. By 1976, Billboard magazine published an issue dedicated to Latin music with a 24-page supplement called "Salsa Explosion." By the late '70s, salsa had largely abandoned its barrio roots in favor of more commercial, often sentimental love lyrics termed Salsa Romantica. The sound was more pop and less folk.
Since then, the original Afro-Cuban rhythms have fused with everything from swing to be-bop, rhythm and blues to funk and rock.
Fundamentally, salsa is six steps danced over eight counts of music. Once the basic step is achieved, crossovers, turns, lifts and dips are added, allowing the dance to range from up-close and personal to all-out performance. And it's one heck of an aerobic workout.
Its international reach is sweeping. A simple Web search shows 139,000 salsa sites on the Internet featuring lessons and clubs in Amsterdam, Paris, Hamburg, across South America, in Tokyo, Honolulu, Singapore and Hong Kong. In the United States and Canada, a thriving salsa scene pulsates in every major city.
And now Colorado Springs joins the movement.
Born in Cuba in 1961, at age 10 Hector Diaz was sent by his parents to a Catholic orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado. Diaz recalls that it was snowing when he arrived in the brown, lifeless place where he lived for four years with his sister and a group of Cuban kids.
"No nuns spoke Spanish and none of the kids spoke English," says Diaz, who eventually found his way to Colorado Springs. In 2000, he finally returned to Cuba for a visit.
But before that, when Diaz was 30, a visit to Miami changed his life, turning him back to his beloved musical and cultural roots. He hasn't stopped salsa dancing since then. Salsa, he says, is good for body and soul.
"It's all about how you feel," he explains. "That's why I'm doing all this dancing."
With his partner Linda Lutz, Diaz teaches a salsa dancing technique he calls Suavemente (doing it smoothly). His business card bears a slogan borrowed from musician Cat Stevens: "... because you're only dancing on this earth for a short while."
About 20 or so students file into the basement ballroom of the VFW Post 4051 in downtown Colorado Springs for Diaz's Monday night class. They range from older couples who've grown round and comfortable together to a newcomer, Federico, a fitness buff with large, tight pectorals. Singles hook up with random partners and change frequently.
Diaz and Linda lead the class through a review of the basic step and cross-body lead, learned last week, then guide them into a more intricate movement called the embrace turn. Hands fly over heads in varying degrees of grace and proficiency. "Hey, he cracked my knuckles," a woman calls out. "My bones are cracking over here."
The level of concentration is intense, but Diaz jokes with his students, reminding them that they're supposed to be having fun. He teases an older couple, asking why they're never out dancing on Friday nights.
"You're always here and you're always smiling," he says, "so I know you're doing it behind my back somewhere."
Diaz is a polite, precise, economical dancer, his arms held in close, his narrow hips swinging from side to side with the precision of a ticking clock. Both he and Linda break in when a couple is having trouble, showing them how it's supposed to feel, then gently bringing the pair back together.
"Get close, get intimate," urges Diaz. For him, salsa is a celebration, a warm embrace.
Originally from New York City, Stefano Filatro worked for a while as a 3-D animator in Los Angeles before finally moving to the Springs. Formerly a competitive dancer, he has been teaching salsa for five years. He pushes himself and his students hard, dancing with pronounced athleticism and flair.
"The greatest gift," he says, "is for somebody to come out of my class and then to see them come out dancing."
Salsa, he says, is the perfect release from whatever bounds life places on you. "Salsa," he says, "will free your spirit."
Along with others, Filatro laments what has been a limited dance scene here in the Springs. To dance with expert partners on a large dance floor and to experience an urban salsa scene, he goes to Denver's La Rumba, a popular club. But he is hopeful about the growing local scene -- at Cascabel's with Orchestra Sabroso and in the increasing number of students seeking lessons.
"Colorado Springs needs salsa big time with the military presence here and the growing Latino population," he says.
Dennis Bueno's Orchestra Sabroso has profoundly helped the local scene with their high production quality and expert musicianship. At Cascabel's, it's easy to observe that as the band heats up, the dancers also crank it up a notch. Both dancers and musicians feed off the energy of one another.
And soon, local dancers will have a new, large dance floor dedicated exclusively to salsa and merengue. Aldo Lombardi, a local businessman originally from Colombia, says his club, The Latin Quarter, will open some time in May. At 3,700 square feet, the club will hold 250 or so dancers and will feature DJs spinning tunes as well as live performers.
It seems that salsa's time has arrived in Colorado Springs. And while we're only "dancing on this earth for a short while," time spent salsa-ing is sure to spice it up -- grounding our bodies while lifting our spirits, all to a pulsing Latin beat.
Hector Diaz's five-week salsa class series costs $35 per person and is held downstairs at the VFW Hall, 430 E. Pikes Peak Ave., Monday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, call 575-0220. Diaz also offers a set of Latin music CDs, three for $10 or $4 each, and a practice video, $15, covering all the movements learned in his five-class series.
Stefano Filatro teaches salsa class at the Academy of Dance, 1600 N. Academy Blvd. Call 573-0858 to register.
Alicia Aragon teaches individual salsa lessons with Dansport Dance Center, 5649 N. Academy Blvd. Call 528-5592.
For a CD or to book Orchestra Sabroso, contact Dennis Bueno at 277-0141.
Salsa dance with Orchestra Sabroso at Cascabel's, 4935-B N. Centennial Blvd., every Friday night from 9 to midnight. For more information or for dinner reservations, call 599-9248.
The Party Zone Night Club, 3958 N. Academy Blvd., holds a short salsa class on Friday nights. Call 598-6108 and leave a message.
The oldest continuous salsa dance scene in Colorado Springs is at King's Palace, 2815 E. Platte Ave. Call 473-7410.
The Latin Quarter, a dedicated salsa club at 1865 N. Academy Blvd. is scheduled to open this Friday, May 3. The club will feature recorded salsa and merengue music as well as live bands.