Salsa addicts around the world get their ‘fix’

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    Photos by Joel Ball Thousands of salsa dancers and performers from around the world descend upon the Hollywood Casino in L.A. for the Fifth Annual West Coast Salsa Congress during the Memorial Day weekend.

    My feet hurt. My legs are wobbly. My back is aching. And I’m about four days behind in sleep.

    Nonetheless, I feel wonderful.

    A week later, just barely recovering from the Fifth Annual West Coast Salsa Congress, a four-day-and-night salsa extravaganza over the Memorial Day weekend, I am still pining for just one more day, just one more night of nonstop salsa music, shows, workshops and dancing. Even if I can barely walk.

    Proving some naysayers wrong, “salsa is alive,” as promoter Albert Torres stated before a packed house last week during the congress. Torres is one of the biggest promoters of salsa throughout the world, putting together congresses in such countries as Japan, Germany, Australia and the U.K. including producing some of the best salsa events in Los Angeles.

    And this congress brought the world to Los Angeles-estimates are that more than 4,000 people attended the congress each evening, which took place this year at the Hollywood Casino and the Hilton LAX.

    Heavy-hitting salsa legends performed nightly with conga player Ray Barretto taking the stage Friday night (it was actually Saturday morning by the time he stepped out before a fervent audience.) Oscar D’Leon was relentless Saturday night performing some of the most-oft DJd salsa favorites nonstop.

    Torres introduced Barretto, along with Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, two other veteran salseros who performed the blazing finale Sunday night, earlier in the evening between dance shows in a huge tent, specially built in the Casino parking lot for the congress. Barretto spoke about his history in salsa music, mentioning other legendary artists such as Tito Puento and Machito.

    “I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things happen,” he said, waxing about the New York salsa scene in its heyday in the ’50s and early ’60s.

    Barretto also spoke of the happening L.A. salsa scene that followed, how it died down, and then how people like Torres helped to nurture salsa-the dance and the music.

    Although some critics say the low record sales in salsa music and the lack of up-and-coming salseros that could be as great as the legends like Barretto and Puente mean the genre is dying, turnouts such as at this congress and salsa events around the world won’t let it go. New talent exists, and people like Torres and other promoters are working to support their growth.

    And the party

    starts

    The congress kicked off May 21 with the West Coast premiere of “Latin Madness,” a musical/dance comedy. The show tells the tale of the birth of Latin dance from its Afro-Cuban roots to the New York madness in the ’50s with such iconic dance palaces as the Palladium, through the ’70s disco scene where the hustle was given a Latin flare to the present. The show was entertaining with comedians Herb Quinones and Rich Ramirez narrating and a very professional and well-trained dance troupe illustrating everything from the mambo to hip-hop. The dancing brought the audience to its feet.

    The opening monologue, however, by Maria Costa from her “Macho Men and the Women Who Love Them,” had the audience roaring with laughter as she depicted the lusty, insatiable, frustrating and passionate draw of a relationship with a Latin man. It was just a tantalizing taste of her full show.

    Latin dance, or salsa, has evolved into a partner dance complete with amazing flips and tricks, and complicated patterns that would pretzel-tie anyone who tried them without hours of practice.

    The performances each year at the congress, and at other venues throughout Los Angeles during the year, become more extravagant (flashy costumes and routines alike) and awe-inspiring, with dance troupes vying to top themselves and each other. Many shows use themes from movies such as “The Matrix” and “Chicago,” others blend the history of their country’s culture with salsa, and some use what seems like an idea pulled from the sky.

    And this year was no different.

    From a mime routine to slick, classically beautiful women in bolero jackets to a cowboy-themed number executed to the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the shows varied wildly and brought enthusiastic applause.

    The one performance that brought the audience to a standing ovation Friday night didn’t even use salsa music (which causes one to wonder whether you can call it salsa dancing). The Salsa Brava Kids from L.A., to the beat of a Michael Jackson tune, were slick, sexy and right on time (dance time, that is.) They hit their marks, and strutted their stuff, knowing they were the coolest act around. One young female performer, who looked no more than 11 years old, worked the closest camera with such intensity and focus, she seemed ages beyond her years.

    While the dance performances were going on in the tent, hardcore salseros were working it on the huge ballroom dance floors in the Casino and on temporary floors constructed on a patio under an awning outside. (The performances took place the last couple of years on this patio. This year, they were filled constantly with dancers, as well as inside, and with the tent filled to capacity-the Fire Marshall had to at times deny entrance to the shows-it was a wonder how Torres managed to cram everything into space in previous years).

    Dancers got their fix-till 4 a.m. each night.

    It was heaven for the salsa addicts.

    As one L.A. regular said, as we gazed out over the packed floor with whirling, sweaty salseros, “Isn’t this wonderful?”

    Yes, it was.