About 150 dancing couples from across Europe stopped in mid-twirl or -shimmy, dropped their jaws and nailed their eyes on a giant video screen.
That's how salsa impresario Albert Torres recalls the scene at the Scandinavian Salsa Congress in Goteberg, Sweden, when the participants first caught sight of the fleet-footed style of salsa dancing practiced in Cali, Colombia -- 18 calenos pumping their legs as if they had solved the problem of perpetual motion.
Torres had already witnessed similar epiphanies when he showed that video in Tokyo, Sydney, Atlanta and in Wellington, New Zealand. And he's likely to see another in Southern California when about 50 dancers -- this time flown in from Cali -- again challenge the laws of physics to a clave beat at the ninth annual West Coast Salsa Congress on Thursday through Sunday at the Radisson Hotel at Los Angeles Airport. The event is expected to draw up to 7,000 spectators, many of whom will have come to dance.
Cali, a city of more than 2 million in Colombia's southwest, is probably best known in the U.S. as a cocaine cartel stronghold. But it also has produced two first-place and two top-three finishers in the first two years of the World Salsa Championships, aired on ESPN International and produced by a group called the Salsa Seven, with Torres at the reins.
One of the \o7caleno\f7 champions from those events, a group known as Swing Latino, will be showing off its stuff this week, while two other groups, Constelacion Latina and Nueva Dimension, will be among those competing for a spot in this year's championships, slated for Dec. 12-16 at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
"I've been showing it all over the world," Torres said the other day, referring to the video of the Colombians that amazed the dancers in Sweden and that was filmed at the second global showdown, in Las Vegas last December.
"It's what everybody wants to see," the Brooklyn-born and Puerto Rican-raised globe-trotter added from the apartment he keeps in Santa Monica, where he had just arrived from a salsa event in Bulgaria to prepare for this week's events.
Beyond the buzz surrounding their style, the salsa moves created in Cali during the last four decades make for a compelling tale of global culture's unpredictable pathways.
The forerunners of today's piston-footed, acrobatic cadences came to Colombian shores in the 1940s via U.S. sailors, who showed the Charleston and other steps to black bar-hoppers in Buenaventura, Colombia's Pacific port city. The \o7portenos\f7 adapted those hops, leaps and flips to Caribbean music, particularly Cuba's sounds.
Three decades later, the country's political and cocaine violence pushed the children of those dancers over the Andes to Cali, a bustling crossroads in a fertile valley.
New York and Puerto Rican salsa also hit Cali in the 1970s, and the city moved to the sound of timbales, congas and brass as if it were home-grown. With drug cartel backing in the 1980s, the music became home-grown, as up to 100 salsa \o7orquestas \f7were formed, seemingly on every corner.
Along the way, ongoing migration from Buenaventura and surrounding areas produced one of the largest \o7invasiones\f7, or urban slums, in Latin America: Aguablanca.
Now it's the children of Aguablanca who keep alive Cali's particular style of salsa dancing, athletic below the waist and seemingly twice as fast as the styles practiced in New York, Los Angeles and the Caribbean. With dancers worldwide taking notes, it's as if an exotic flower kept in a hothouse for four decades had finally been revealed.
The success \o7calenos\f7 have seen, combined with the growth of the championships, is leading thousands in Cali to dream of hopping and stepping out of misery.
Riding the wave of popularity that dance competitions have seen worldwide, Torres has gone in three years from fielding competitors from 12 countries to expecting entries from more than 35 countries this year in Orlando. The Salsa Seven has picked up contracts with ESPN and its parent company, Disney, along the way.
Dancers from Cali, says Torres, "are the future of salsa."
Last weekend, Luis Carlos Caicedo spoke over a crackling telephone line about how the future looks from where he teaches, a working-class barrio in Cali.
Caicedo has been shaping what could be called the future of the future for 11 years now, directing the dance academy called Nueva Dimension, where the students start at age 3. During that time, the enrollment has swelled from eight to 300.
Caicedo had just gotten back from rehearsal after 10 p.m. Saturday, preparing a group of 28 of his best dancers, ages 8 to 18, for this week's event. The oldest will be dancing in front of judges for a spot in this year's world championship.
"For them, it's like the American dream to a salsa beat," he quipped, with a surprising amount of energy for a 47-year-old who had been dancing for eight hours.