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It was a sticky, humid day at the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but this did not stop Puerto Rican bomba y plena musicians Viento de Agua from giving a dynamic performance that had the audience on its feet dancing.

Here is a video I made of Viento de Agua performing a plena. I did not catch the name of the song, so if anyone knows what it is, please comment. Plena is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music that we were told has its roots in the sound of a train. You can certainly here this underlying “chugging” sound in the music. Plena is one of the many caribbean styles that lends its rhythms and styles to salsa and merengue. It is characterized by the use of percussion instruments and vocal harmonies to form the rhythm and tune.

The second half of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs July 1-9 on the National Mall. The three featured themes this year are:

  • Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture
  • Wales/Cymru

and my personal favorite…

  • Las Americas: Un Mundo Musical / Music in Latino Culture
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It’s a snowy, dreary day.  And to boot, you’ve got a case of the Mondays. Where is spring? Where did all this white stuff come from? Here’s a little something to get your week off to a happier start: a salsa dance-off between Tropical Gem and Utribe.

Here, to brighten your Monday morning, is the amazing Santo Rico salsa company.

Thanks to Salsa Gigolo for bringing this to my attention.

Salseros dance to the music of Orquesta Ashe at Adams Morgan in DCSometimes when you’ve been doing something for years, you think you’ve thought all the thoughts there are to be thought about it. But an outside perspective can reveal new insights.

Here are three insights into salsa which encapsulate what I’ve always loved about it in a very concise way:

“1) salsa dancers, men and women of all ages and sizes, take pride in their bodies;

2) dancers seek partners who match their skill level, not those who are the best looking;

3) after taking only two lessons […one can learn enough] to follow the rhythm of the dancers.”

This is excerpted from an article by Carrie Hagen of phillyist (read the whole thing, it’s a good article), who accompanied my friend and salsera/writer extraordinaire Mathina to a mambo social. What she captures with these three observations is the 1) accepting, 2) egalitarian, and 3) accessible nature of salsa and salsa culture.

While my salsaholic days are long over (going out dancing at least 2-3 times a week), and I am lucky if I make it out once a month, salsa is still an important part of my life.

Salsa is an old, familiar friend to me. Going out on a week night, I just have to grab my shoes, make sure I look halfway presentable, and go to the club. Salsa doesn’t even really require a warm up. The walk from the car to the door will do it.

Salsa is one of the few things in my life where I’m able to be truly present in the moment. I don’t have to think about anything other than being right there in the moment with my partner. Just like riding a bike, no matter how long my absence has been, the steps come automatically to me, as do the minute weight shifts and flourishes. It’s fun and I can bring whatever style or attitude to the table that I brought with me that night.

Salsa will always put a smile on my face. Sometimes it makes me feel fun, flirty, sensual, and sassy. Sometimes it makes me feel light and graceful. Sometimes it just feels as nice as hanging out with an old friend. It’s thanks to her I really fell in love with dancing in the first place. By now, I know I will always have salsa; and salsa will always have me.

Seriously, the cha cha is so easy:

You go, Barack step back, cha cha cha, Barack step front, cha cha cha

If it’s too hard at first, just Biden’ your time, it will get easier!

This is one of the sillier photoshopped images of the politicians going around. It is nice to have some levity, not to mention some dancing in this ever more intense and dirty campaign season.

Early voting has started in many states. Here in Virginia, it began on the 15th. I cast my vote for Obama today, and it feels so good! If you need information about voting and early voting, go to Vote for Change and they’ll tell you when and where you can vote in your state.

Speaking of dancing with the candidates, I leave you with this now-classic clip of Barack Obama on Ellen:

Read the first two installments in this series:

~~

We finally started learning the choreography after a few weeks of vocal rehearsal. It was a very exciting day for me; after all, it was the whole reason I had embarked on this project. Of a cast of 36, five women and two men had been cast as dancers. All but one of the women were significantly younger than me (teens/early 20s), and I was the oldest, and also the only one who did not have years of ballet training under her belt. This became a source of apprehension when the choreography turned out to be largely ballet-based, rather than in a more familiar idiom to me such as jazz or salsa.

In the projects I’ve been involved in, I now realize I was spoon-fed the choreography. The sequences would be taught in small sections over the course of a month or more, going back over each section to make sure it was solid before embarking on the next. On the other hand, our big dance number for the show was taught to us in its entirety in the space of two hours. No doubt this is how the pros do it, but I’m most definitely an amateur and I quickly realized I was going to have to up my game.

We were basically expected to have learned the choreography in that one session. In the next practice, the singing and non-dancing parts were added in. We would come back to a few rough patches just a couple times more, but we never went through the piece more than twice in any subsequent rehearsal. Add to this my own personal paranoias about being too old, too inflexible, too slow to pick up choreography, and too weak ballet technique, I entered a several-week crisis of self esteem. At each practice I thought to myself that there must have been some mistake and they were probably regretting casting me as a dancer. One day, I misread a new version of the casting sheet that was handed out and thought they had replaced me on another dance number due to my poor progress on the first one. As it turns out, I had looked at the wrong line and I was still in there, but my deflated brain was playing tricks on me.

What did I do to address these insecurities and limitations I was mired in? In addition to practicing in any spare moment (at least the parts I could remember without help), I changed my dance class schedule. Rehearsal was four days a week, and on the other days I had the energy I attended basic ballet classes in an attempt to focus my technique and apply any new insights or knowledge to the choreography. I also took every opportunity to ask my fellow dancers questions about the choreography and technique in general. Finally, the assistant choreographer offered me the opportunity for a one-on-one hour in which to polish the combination, which made a huge difference. With just about two weeks to go to opening night, I finally felt comfortable with the choreography, and with just a few days to spare, was able to relax into it enough add my own personal style and be more aware of all that was going on around me.

Why was this such an emotionally trying process for me? Well, there was a lot of truth in my insecurities– it was harder for me than the younger, more experienced dancers. Also, I am a perfectionist by nature and I hold myself to a high standard. Even if my pay or job are not on the line (keeping in mind this is a volunteer, community production and I have no real career aspirations in this area), I always want to do the best possible job I can. I don’t want to let anyone down– not my fellow cast members, not the production staff, and not the people who come to see the show. I don’t want to let myself down either, thinking I could have practiced more or tried harder. That said, seeing myself rise above those barriers in the end made the whole undertaking extremely gratifying. While I’m not the best, I’m my best, and in the end I’m dancing for me, because I love doing it, period.

Stay tuned for more installments on putting all the elements of the show together and the performances.

I said in my last post that I’d be writing about a new challenge I’ve embarked on and the new experiences and lessons that have come with it. What is it you ask? Ok, the title of this post gives it away, but all I have to say, is: Broadway, get ready, ’cause I’m on my way! Not so fast, this is community theater.

A little while back, a coworker who’s heavily involved in community theater forwarded me an audition announcement. They were looking for dancers. The musical, only one of my favorites of all time, was one that I knew backwards and forwards, having listened to the soundtrack a bazillion times with my sister when we were younger.

It was an opportunity I’d sort of been waiting for in the back of my mind. Unless you count being in the orchestra pit in high school way back in the day, I’d never done theater before. A lot of musicals have some amazing dancing, and they look like so much fun. More fun than some of the dance performances I’ve been involved with, dare I say…I figured the dancing in it would be latin-ish, so I might have something to bring to the table. The one catch was that I would have to sing, but my coworker assured me I just needed to be able to carry a tune. That I can do, though I can’t speak to the quality.

Bottom line: I had nothing to lose and figured the audition process would be a fun experience that would fortify me for the future. I had absolutely no expectation of making the cut. In the end, I think this gave me the ability to be relaxed and to be myself.

First, I had to pick a song. I’ve got a low range, so I went with Big Spender from Sweet Charity. Another good choice, as it allowed me to show my sassy side. I downloaded the sheet music and the song and sang along with it a bunch of times by way of practicing.

When I got to the audition I had to fill out a form stating availability, experience, part auditioning for (dancer, of course), and some other stuff including my “age range,” basically the ages I felt I could convincingly portray. I asked about this and was advised to go ten years younger and ten older. As I waited to be called I asked the other auditioners if they had any advice, since it was my first time. “Be charismatic” seemed to be the main tip.

I’d asked my friend if I should dress the part, and she told me not to as you don’t know what they have in mind, so it’s best to be a blank slate. When I got there, all the women seemed to be wearing red dresses (going with the latin-ish theme). Though I was dressed to dance, I was also funnily enough wearing a red shirt with black pants.

We were brought into the audition room in a group of five. I was to go last. As each person finished their audition, they left the room, so I actually auditioned in front of the judges only. I’m not sure if that helped my nerves or not, but I focused on charisma, and tried to move as naturally as I could while singing, despite having noticed the others stood still while they sang. Then again, none of the others seemed to be trying for a dancing part. A couple sashays and arm flourishes actually elicited a couple saucy “oohs” from the judges so I think that tactic worked. After the singing, the judges were most concerned about rehearsal and performance conflicts. One girl immediately got cut because she would be in Greece for a month during rehearsals (duh). After that was verified, each person was asked to do a chaine. Except for me– they said since I was a dancer I obviously knew how to do chaines and I could do choreography during callbacks.

I was a little miffed that I was all dressed to dance and couldn’t even do a chaine, but also a little psyched because it seemed I was making callbacks. Sure enough, the call came pretty soon that I was to attend callbacks a few days later. That’s when I started getting nervous. I hadn’t actually planned on making it that far!

At the callback, all those trying out for lead and dance parts had to learn a combination. It was moderately challenging and technical and took me a couple times to learn fully. Definitely more ballet than latin. I thanked my lucky stars I’ve been going to ballet class lately. Thinking back to the advice I got, I tried to focus on charisma, and on really nailing the moves that felt natural to me. It was impossible to tell what was going on– there were a number of expressionless judges and they kept assigning people to different places in the lines and moving the lines back and front. I have no idea how they kept track of anything, nobody even appeared to be taking notes. They may have been but it almost seemed they were going on memory alone.

I should note that there were tons of women that auditioned and not so many men. The dancing of the men left, for the most part, much to be desired. It was clear that as usual, the fiercest competition in dance is among women.

After the dancing portion, everyone else was brought into the room and we had to sing an excerpt from one of the show’s big choral numbers. No harmonizing was required, and the director moved rather quickly through the room to see how each person was blending with the group. Again, no visible note taking. I have no idea how they did that with so many people trying out. It was eerie.

At that point the audition was over. . .I honestly had very few expectations for myself. Not because I thought I did a bad job, but because I’ve never done theater before, and there were so many people auditioning I didn’t know if I’d stood out or would meet their casting guidelines. Still, I felt hopeful to have the opportunity for a new experience, and for a musical I love so much on top of that.

Stay tuned for the next installment to see if I got the part!

From Dance Metro/DC:

Dance/MetroDC is proud to present our second annual Dance Is The Answer event! During National Dance Week 2008, area nonprofit dance organizations have united to introduce, energize and excite the public to the benefits of dance. From April 25-May 4, 2008, over 120 free classes, performances, workshops and open rehearsals will be available from over 30 organizations to help you experience that Dance Is The Answer.

Dance Is The Answer to achieving and maintaining good health
Dance Is The Answer to reaching weight management goals
Dance Is The Answer to finding an inspiring creative outlet
Dance Is The Answer to enriching your social life
Dance Is The Answer to deepening your connection to community


For listings of Free Classes and Workshops, click here.
For listings of Free Performances and Open Rehearsals, click
here.


A special thank you to all our participating organizations:

American Dance Institute, Rockville, MD
AVAdance, Washington, DC
Bowen McCauley Dance, Arlington, VA
BlackRock Center for the Arts,
Germantown, MD
Capitol Movement Inc., Washington, DC
CityDance Ensemble,
Washington, DC and N. Bethesda, MD
ClancyWorks Dance Company, Silver Spring, MD
Capitol Region Educators of Dance Organization,
Washington, DC
Dance Place,
Washington, DC

DC Dance Collective, Washington, DC
Dhoonya Dance, Arlington, VA
Expressions Dance Theatre,
Clinton, MD
Dream in Color Dance Studio,
Alexandria, VA
Harman Center for the Arts, Washington, DC
Indian Dance Educators Association,
Washington, DC
Jane Franklin Dance,
Arlington, VA

Joe’s Movement Emporium, Mt. Rainier, MD
Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC and Bethesda, MD

Kathy Harty Gray Dance Theatre, Alexandria, VA
Knock on Wood Tap Studio,
Silver Spring, MD
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Takoma Park, MD
Maryland Youth Ballet, Silver Spring, MD
Mason/Rhynes Productions, Washington, DC
Momentum Dance Theatre, Washington, DC
National Dance Educators Organization,
Washington, DC
Publick Playhouse,
Cheverly, MD

Sitar Arts Center, Washington, DC
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
The Washington Ballet, Washington, DC

Thanks to everyone who came out last night for the Tribute to Women in Salsa at Zanzibar. I had such a great time performing and it was nice to do a little social dancing again after a too-long hiatus.

From the feedback I got, everyone loved the Birds of Paradise, and my hat goes off to Irene Holtzman for her amazing vision and choreography. And thank you Talisa for doing my hair…I seriously wish I could wear my hair like that every day.

Congratulations to Andrea Brachfeld and Judith Condezo for being last night’s honorees.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of the other groups since we were backstage. I saw a a lot of video cameras rolling, so if there are any videos out there, please share and I will put them up here.

…you know, the guy that comes to the salsa club with no intention to actually dance. He only comes away from the bar during merengues and reggaetons to, um, invade your personal space.

Now, thanks to Usher, that guy has his own theme song.

The 2008 Tribute to Women in Salsa showcases salsa performances by all-female groups, and will honor women who have made a contribution to salsa music, dance, culture, or community. It is organized annually by the fabulous Eileen Torres and has become an integral part of the DC salsa calendar.

Tribute to Women in Salsa

With performances by:

Dance In Time

Salsa Fuego Student Group

Clavekazi’s Birds of Paradise

SalsaVive

Salsa Fuego

Joie de Vivre Salseras

Wednesday, April 2

Show will start some time after 9pm

Zanzibar on the Waterfront
700 Water St SW
Washington, DC 20024
(202) 554-9100

closest metro stop: Waterfront (green line)

Admission: $5 before 10pm, $10 after 10pm

Free salsa class, 7-8pm

Please note that Zanzibar does not allow jeans. If you must wear jeans, I think they have relaxed that policy a little but they will charge you double.[update: according to Beto’s comment, jeans are now allowed]

[Full Disclosure: this is a shameless self-promotion post…I will be performing in this event. Hope to see you there!]

We have a question from a reader, Maria (great name, btw!) who points out that the tango shoes she’s seeing are a lot sexier than salsa shoes. She wants to know if she could use tango shoes for salsa.

I have a tanguera friend who does wear her tango shoes to the salsa club sometime, so I know it’s possible.

Can we hear from anyone with experience in this? What are the characteristics of tango shoes? When I think of good salsa shoes, I think flexible suede sole, reinforced heel, and an ankle strap that holds the shoe securely to the foot. Does your average pair of comme il fauts come close to this?

salsa partneringTwo contrasting experiences of late highlight the delicate balance required for good dancer partnering.

Experience #1: Excessive desire for contact

I recently went to Havana Village (a salsa club in DC), which is not my usual scene for salsa. There’s just a little too much meat market sprinkled in amongst the dancing for my taste. While some great dancers go there, there are some not so great ones in equal measure. Havana is in a narrow townhouse in Adams Morgan, and thus the dance floor is tiny, with no room for bad floorcraft (which nevertheless abounds). Many of the guys who go there are also not necessarily looking for just a dance.

It is a challenge to the dance connection when other agendas are present. What I mean by that is that although salsa is a sensual dance, sensuality is the quality of the movement in salsa but romance is not the purpose of the dance. It’s difficult to describe exactly what goes into a good connection other than to say it requires both partners to be absolutely in tune with each other, and responsive to cues and movements from the other. Bringing in other intentions that do not arise from that place actually interfere with the connection.

Specifically– and I’m using specific examples from my recent Havana Village experience:

  • When you gaze deeply into my eyes searching for me to return whatever it is you’re feeling for me, that does not help our dance connection.
  • When you throw me into wild dips and drops without first having established a trusting, balanced partnership, that does not help our connection.
  • When you try to increase the intimacy of our contact by pulling me closer or trying to move your hands below my waist, that does not help our connection (and may perhaps reward your efforts with a push or a slap).

When the man I am dancing with is trying to get something else out of the dance other than just dancing with me, it quite frankly puts a big wall between us.

Now, you have probably witnessed or experienced deep eye gazing, crazy tricks, and intimate contact on the dance floor where it looked or seemed perfectly natural. However, I guarantee you that in each case, the action arose out of the bond that had already been established between the dancers, whether out of an existing relationship, the experience and trust built from dancing together more than several times, or in some rare cases, the chemistry is right from the very first dance.

Experience #2: Fear of contact

contact improv from DC improv festivalIn my modern dance class today, the choreography included a few very brief moments of physical contact with other dancers. One, in which we leaned against each other lying on the floor, and the other in which we provided brief support in a layout and assistance in standing up.

Trust me when I say that I have not heard so much giggling since my friend Stephanie’s first grade birthday party sleepover. We were all grown adults in this class, and yet it seemed that most (some who I might add have professional dance experience) felt embarrassed or uncomfortable with this sudden contact required by the choreography.

Being a salsera and all, I felt like a fish in water with the contact; however, the awkwardness does start to be contagious when one’s partner is erupting in fits of giggles.

Where does this fear of contact come from? I have witnessed the same thing at play in beginner social dance classes because it is indeed something that takes some time and exposure to get used to (but in the end becomes the most beautiful aspect of the dance). In our daily life, we do not often come into physical contact with each other and often consciously avoid it. We are not so accustomed to making the eye contact necessary for effective partner communication, and to sustaining touch against the body or hands of someone we don’t really know or have not ever had that sort of contact with.

As experience #1 shows, that very intimacy we are apprehensive about in experience #2 it not what effective partnering is. Once we get beyond those apprehensions and into the dance, we realize that this physical contact is actually pretty neutral territory. It’s territory that requires trust and an acute tuning-in to one’s partner. It’s true that other things can arise out of the partnership, but that requires the intention of both halves, and it’s not something that’s going to happen during a brief combination in class.

I’ve never done contact improv, but I’m curious to try it out to test this hypothesis. I also think that I’ve identified a need in the DC adult dance education arena for a partnering class in modern and ballet. In the meantime, I would highly recommend that classically trained dancers seek out some partnering “cross training” in social dance such as salsa, swing, tango, or ballroom to break down some of those feelings of discomfort.

Oh, and don’t go to Havana Village or you might get the wrong idea about those salseros!

patrick swayze dancingThose first actors a girl gets a crush on early in life will always have a special place in her heart. Thanks to his amazing role in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze was one of my first silver screen loves, and may have contributed to my preference for bad boy types. Thus, the news that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer saddens me.

The vast majority of my traffic over the past week or two has been generated by people looking for pictures and news of Patrick (via this post)– so to all my new readers that found their way here thanks to him, and of course, for Johnny Castle himself, here is a little compilation of some of his finest dance moments.

One Last Dance: I haven’t seen this one but it looks like it’s got some great dance scenes in it, and of course, Patrick…

Patrick’s cameo in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. His dance partner, Joann Jansen is also making a cameo– she is actually the film’s choreographer and the story line was based on her own life.

I could only find a crappy quality one but I could not omit the Silvia and Mickey scene from Dirty Dancing.

And of course, the Dirty Dancing finale, the scene we’ll never forget…

Finally, no dancing here, but I had to end with the most deliciously crappy scene in the history of cinema, co-starring Patrick and the stupidest, most beautiful man on earth (and my other first love, ever since Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), Keanu Reeves. I give you the final scene from Point Break

Vaya con dios, Patrick; may you get well soon!

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