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Destination: England

London with a Latin Beat

Those stiff upper lips loosen as Britons go crazy for salsa rhythm and dance

October 12, 1997|WILLIAM SANTIAGO | Santiago, who until recently lived in Puerto Rico, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco

LONDON — Bodies absorbed the blasts of trumpets like steam as couples orbited each other, tethered by fingertips. Hips, infused by the fluttering of conga drums, resembled rubber pendulums. Hundreds of feet trotted fluidly across a vast, wheeling dance floor.

You can keep the changing of the guard and the crown jewels. What seduced me on a recent trip to London was the city's Latin dance scene, which local aficionados say has grown tremendously in the last two years.

So while by day I paid obligatory visits to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, I was just killing time until night fell and the real fun started.

What I found was an English salsa craze, a fever for the music and dance of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. Salsa originally developed into a distinct style in New York during the '50s and '60s, according to musicologists. Its popularity has since spread to far-flung corners of the world, from Tokyo to France. Now it has taken root in this unlikely soil.

From my first nocturnal foray into salsa clubs, I was pleasantly flabbergasted.

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Spanish lyrics filled the air as I pushed through the swinging doors into the cavernous Notre Dame Hall, a French Protestant church hall in Leicester Square that twice a month becomes a dance venue teeming with salseros, as the die-hards of the genre are known. "I think it's quite funny that I don't understand the words," one woman declared to me, nevertheless intoxicated by the singer's voice.

A deejay was spinning hits from Latin American crooners: Puerto Rico's latest chart toppers Marc Anthony and Victor Manuel; Cuban stars Los Van Van and Charanga Habanera; the Dominican Republic's Jose Alberto (a.k.a. El Canario); and Colombian idol Jerry Galante.

I felt as if I had discovered a tropical oasis behind the proverbial London fog. Latin dance clubs have proliferated here. Neon signs around the city now flash the names of more than a dozen clubs dedicated exclusively to salsa, and many more that mix salsa into their regular lineups. With just a few nights in town last spring, I decided to make the rounds, using "Time Out!," a popular guide to trendy London night life, to check out which clubs were featuring salsa (look under the "Other Moves & Grooves" section). From there, I asked deejays and salsa promoters for advice on what was hot: Rumba Pa'Ti, Salsa Palladium, La Finca, and Cuba. One happy surprise was how inexpensive they are, particularly in ultrahigh-priced London. Most clubs charge admission of $3 to $8, and many throw in a dance lesson for the price. Even with the cost of drinks and tapas, a salsa night in London is a budget night.

At Notre Dame Hall, the biggest and most popular of the London venues, the salsa gig known as Salsa Fusion was sold out the night I was there. Although they were turning people away at the door, dozens stood in a long, snaking line down a cramped stairway to the subterranean club, hoping they could get in if anyone left early.

The only reason I was able to get into Salsa Fusion was because of Elli Galvani, a local music promoter and dance instructor whom I met previously at Salsa Palladium, another Leicester Square club that is around the corner. Galvani had cleared me with the dour bouncer at Salsa Fusion, where she said the best London dancers come to strut their stuff every other Saturday.

And I was surprised at how good that stuff was, especially considering the Brits were not raised on Latin music. Even if, in my admittedly biased point of view, they could stand a bit more lubrication in their moves, many displayed a remarkable degree of skill. And the most advanced among them put many Latinos to shame.

Frankly, it was amusing to witness such abandon from the English, who aren't exactly known for their smoldering passion. But apparently that's the appeal.

"Salsa is the perfect antidote to everything about Britain, which is generally dreary and boring," confessed one 33-year-old Englishwoman I danced with. She said she also enjoyed the novelty of dancing in pairs.

Some of the stuffier-looking couples were sheer fun to watch: Imagine younger versions of, say, Margaret Thatcher and John Major possessed by the spirits of Carmen Miranda and Ricky Ricardo.

The well-dressed crowd, I should hastily point out here, was quite diverse. There were plenty of African and Indian Brits among the dancers. I even spotted a few turbans bobbing around. Other Europeans filled out the ranks, with a smattering of Asians. And of course there were Latinos, mainly Colombians and Cubans, out in strong force. Even London's reigning salsa champ, 22-year-old Parry Zerky, a Spaniard of African and French descent (he danced professionally with Cuba's Ballet Nacional) was there, leading his partner through a series of fiery combinations with intimidating ease.

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