To most, the word probably brings to mind the more common debilitating fixations such as with alcohol and drugs.
But there are other addictions out there, which may not be considered harmful to the mind or body. In fact, there are addictions that may be good for the physique and help keep one’s sanity intact.
However, the quest is the same-to get the “fix.” A repeated attempt to satiate a longing, a desire that makes one cast aside everyday concerns and responsibilities.
Recently, I went on a quest to fill my need. My need to let loose of my body, my mind, my soul. To let myself engage in an expression that is the ultimate for me-dancing salsa.
For three days and four nights in mid-November, similarly addicted people from around the world descended upon the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco to engage in workshops, dance shows, contests and simply all-out dancing till three in the morning.
It was the First Annual San Francisco Salsa Congress, put on by famed salsa promoter Albert Torres, and San Francisco dancers Ricardo Sanchez and Michelle Castro of Pretty Boys and Girls productions. This is only one of many congresses around the world that salseros (as salsa dancers are called, although the word is used to describe musicians of the musical genre) attend. The West Coast Salsa Congress that takes place every May is one of the more popular congresses, also produced by Torres. For the past five years, the congress in Los Angeles has attracted more than 6,000 dancers and performers during four nights and four days from as far as Japan, Korea and Germany. The San Francisco Congress brought in close to 3,500 people during three days and four nights-respectable numbers for a first time.
Thursday night in San Francisco began with a welcome party at a club called Cocomos, with music by the band Orquestra Borinquen. The tropically decked place was packed with sweaty salseros who danced ’till 2 a.m. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, salseros performed onstage, and off, and danced, some nonstop, ’till 3 a.m. And this was after taking workshops all day. Musical performers such as Jose Alberto “El Canario” (The Canary) from New York, and Los Angeles’ Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad kept the dancers moving nonstop.
Salsa is a word used to describe both the dance and the music. Modern salsa evolved from a blend of Afro-Cuban music and Western musical forms. The present form of the dance itself, as Torres describes, is a blend of the mambo and disco moves from the ’70s. However, every country, or even every state in the U.S., might have a different style. Los Angeles salsa dancers are known for their flashier moves-flips, spins and complicated patterns, while Floridian dancers stick closer to a Cuban style, dancing solo more often, and do group dancing called rueda. New York dancers use fancier, syncopated footwork along with a very elegant, sexier style and patterns. Salsa, in other words, is a mix of dance styles-also including the tango, cha cha and merengue.
The weekend I spent in San Francisco was with a group whose main connection, aside from the dance floor, is through a message board on the Web site, salserosweb.com. The members, who call themselves “chatters,” are worldwide. About 27 chatters in all attended the San Francisco Salsa Congress, some meeting in person for the first time.
I asked the dancers, “Why? Why do you dance salsa, and why do you travel from wherever you came from to dance here? Why do you attempt to find a place to dance every night of the week?” (If I could, I would dance seven nights a week!)
And the answer came back to the idea of addiction.
“We do it for the fix,” said Esther Ramirez, a chatter.
“For the rush,” she added, comparing the satisfaction of salsa dancing to the adrenaline rush athletes receive when competing.
For Phillip Enriquez, who works in the bioscience industry and has been dancing for two years, he says it’s a “passion.” The music “makes me dance.”
But what exactly is it about the dance that feeds these “salsa addicts?”
Is it the physical workout? The sensualness of the dance? Or is it just an activity that brings people together, like the chatters?
Reggie Greene, a traffic engineer, has been dancing for four-and-a-half years.
“It’s a great social activity,” Greene says. “It’s why I’m here.”
Roy Vanmuyen, who attended the San Francisco Congress event with his salsa-addicted girlfriend, at first said, “[Salsa dancers] are a breed of their own. They’re so way into it for someone who’s not of it … it’s hard to see … to understand.”
But then, he says, “I love the music. I love to watch people dance. Someday I’ll learn.”
And of the social aspect, Vanmuyen also noted the “camaraderie” among the dancers, which, he says, makes him “understand what it’s all about.”
Genaro Soria, an eight-year Marine veteran and a salsa dancer for five years, says of the dance, “My body and soul yearn for it.”
Soria, also a chatter, pointed out that salsa dancers are a lonely breed of people. That, outside of dancing, salseros are pretty much loners. For salseros, there are Friends Before Salsa, people who salseros used to socialize with, who don’t understand what “it’s all about.” And perhaps never will. Then there are friends who still maintain contact, but only with a limited tolerance. Any invites to go out dancing are always given the reply, “Maybe next time.” And then there are the barely, or not-at-all, tolerant significant others-husbands, wives, boyfriends or girlfriends. Some might try to understand the need to go out every night to dance with other men or women, but usually fail.
But the truly addicted go, whatever the risks are to their relationships. Even the risks to their work. Napping is a frequent desire, sometimes achieved, by salseros at work. The dream job is one with a swing shift, ending before 10 p.m., just in time to get to the latest dance place.
For Wally Escobar, who is a disc jockey and is well-informed in salsa history, the “main purpose is the music,” as to why he’s out every night of the week.
“The rhythm [of salsa] is so infectious that I can’t get enough of it,” he says.
And Albert Torres, who has danced since he was 5 years old, also compares dancing salsa to an addiction. In fact, Torres, who grew up on the streets of New York, threw aside his love of dance and the music for addictions of a darker kind-drugs and alcohol. He completely gave up dancing for many years.
In an interview at the Sagebrush Cantina in Culver City recently, Torres describes how, after he managed to get away from the dark side, he came back to the dance he learned from his mother, who was a dancer at the famed Palladium in New York City in the ’60s.
Torres, who said he didn’t know if he could dance anymore, passed by a club called Miami Spice, popular in West L.A. in the ’70s.
“One day I heard the music, and I was addicted one more time,” Torres says.
It was there at Spice that Torres was discovered by the producers of the “Mambo Kings,” and went on to dance in the film, and later was invited by Debbie Allen to perform at the Academy Awards.
Dan Klein, a dancer since 1961 and a choreographer (he also worked on “Mambo Kings”), believes the main beat of the music-the clave-is what draws people to salsa. He says it’s a trance-inducing state, comparing it to the beat used in certain religions that use drumming in trance-like ceremonies.
Torres tells in an online interview in 1998 about the religion, Santeria, which was created by slaves brought to Cuba between the 1600s and 1800s to adapt their African religious deities to the Catholic saints, and how the religion’s music and dancing influenced salsa.
Not all claim social reasons, or love of the dance or music for initially becoming involved with salsa.
German Acevedo, a dancer for eight years who works in the entertainment industry (he is the webmaster for salserosweb.com), says he started dancing at first “just to get laid.” Later, he grew to love the dance. He claims he is not addicted, but is somewhere in between the “addiction” and his former reasons for dancing. Acevedo says he now likes the social scene more than anything else.
Klein calls it a “social grace.”
“It’s a way where you can connect on more than an intellectual level. It’s a physical and emotional connection,” Klein says.
Torres, who was first addicted to salsa as a child, says, “It’s better than any cocaine or any drink.”
This weekend, on Dec. 8, a special Salsa Pledge Drive is taking place at the Sagebrush Cantina, 9523 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 3 p.m.- 11 p.m., to raise funds for Burmese refugees. The 100 percent tax-deductible donations will go toward purchase of medicine and medical supplies. The Global Health Access Program, Albert Torres Productions and Laura Canellias sponsor the event. Admission is $5 (all ages welcome.) For more information on Global Health Access log onto www.ghap.org or call 310.836.5321. For more information on Albert Torres Productions events visit www.alberttorres.com.