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Sweeping the World Off Its Feet

The explosive L.A. style of the controversial Vazquez brothers is reinventing the art of salsa dancing.

November 15, 2000|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Friday night at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. The ballroom is packed. Puerto Rican band leader Tito Nieves is playing and salsa lovers throughout Southern California have made a pilgrimage to see him.

A skinny kid in black leather walks in. The crowd parts. It is Johnny Vazquez, one of three famous salsa-dancing brothers, and a reigning salsa champion.

He starts an impromptu line dance on the floor, and people jump up to join him. Smiling, he calls out the steps for those behind him, moving faster and faster, dancing as though his body has no bones.

Behind and around him dancers follow his every move--a demonstration of the Vazquez effect on salsa. Where Johnny and his brothers have led, Los Angeles and the world have followed.

Salsa, a variation of mambo, has its roots in Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican music and dancing. Mambo had its heyday in New York in the '40s and '50s, when Cuban immigrants to New York fused their music with elements of jazz. Salsa had a resurgence in the '70s and has been kept alive by professional dancers and teachers, particularly Eddie Torres of New York, the "Mambo King." Although salsa did not have many rules to start with, what conventions did exist have been smashed by the Vazquezes.

Traditionally, a man leads a woman through a series of turn patterns, hips and torso swaying in an S-shape to the rhythm. At several points during the music the man lets go of the woman and both do fancy footwork.

What distinguishes the Vazquez brothers, Francisco, 30, Luis, 28, and Johnny, 21, is the sheer drama they bring to the floor. They have filled salsa with tricks--splits, spins, neck drops and multiple dips. Their style is Hollywood--flashy, sexy and dangerous; the barest hint of violence hovers around their feet as they enact bitter love scenes and street fights on the dance floor.

Not everyone likes it. Detractors carp that the brothers have added drama but not soul. But for better or worse, Vazquez-style salsa has become synonymous with L.A. style, and L.A. style is revolutionizing the salsa world.

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The Vazquez brothers, raised in a family of 12 children, grew up in a Guadalajara neighborhood whose crowded streets were a canvas for their early athletic and artistic attempts.

They rallied the neighborhood kids into soccer teams and organized family singing groups, often while surviving on scanty meals of tortillas and milk.

Seeking a way out of poverty, Francisco crossed the border illegally seven years ago in the back seat of a friend's lowered Monte Carlo. "My friend told me that if I wanted to get across I had to dress like a gangbanger because that's how Americans look," he said. He donned baggy pants, a huge T-shirt, a bandanna and slept as the car crossed the border without incident.

He showed up unannounced on an older brother's doorstep in Long Beach, only to find the same desperate struggle he had left. "My brother was like, 'Oh no!' when he saw me, because he was barely making it," Francisco said. "The next day he woke me up at 5 a.m. to go find a job."

Francisco found work at a carwash, where he earned only tips. After the owner agreed to pay him $25 a week, he rushed home to tell his brother. "He said, 'Are you crazy? Do you know what just a hamburger costs in this country?' " Francisco says, laughing at his naivete. "Together we earned $300 a month."

One night shortly after he arrived, a girlfriend took him to a salsa club in Orange County--and he soon learned that he is not a natural.

"What takes people now one lesson to learn? It took me months," Francisco said. "Women would leave me on the floor because I didn't know any other steps."

It is difficult to picture, because today when Francisco dances, he may start out to the rhythm of the conga, switch over to follow the piano, then playfully match his footwork to the flute--all while leading, dipping and spinning his partner.

Every man who learns to salsa endures a period of purgatory. Performance anxiety for novices can be intense: Typically, a woman comes into a man's arms, then waits for something to happen. He desperately tries to remember the moves he just learned. Meanwhile, it dawns on her that she is doomed to a lackluster partner for the remainder of the dance.

That could be a tragedy for a man like Francisco. "Let's face it," he said, "men dance to get women, and women dance for men."

Though unmarried, he has slowed down a little.

"I'm not the player I used to be," he sighs. "But it's the price of what I do--you meet so many wonderful people and the dance is so intense that your feelings can take over."

After Francisco had settled into a routine of dirty cars, English lessons and meager meals, Luis showed up.

"I was like, 'Oh no! We don't have any money!' " Francisco says. But they began going out dancing each night, hitting three or four clubs an evening. Soon, a cycle began: Francisco and Luis would copy other dancers, put their stamp on the steps, and other dancers would copy them.

Seduced by Salsa's Allure

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