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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

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.

I haven’t posted any salsa videos in a while. This was a performance I saw Saturday at the Resolution Jam in the Salsa Room (Cecilia’s Nightclub, Arlington, VA). The dancers are Darlin Garcia and Vera Rowe. I enjoyed watching them a great deal; their energy and musicality were amazing.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Darlin Gacia and Vera Rowe“, posted with vodpod

west_side_story_logo

When Joshua Buscher speaks of Arthur Laurents, which he does frequently during our brief interview, it is with the reverent tone of a student quoting the teachers of a master. Which is exactly what Laurents is. At 90, he is very much the hands-on director of the legendary icon of American theater– West Side Story— the show he wrote over 50 years ago.

Since July, I have been trying to line up an interview with someone from the production of West Side Story’s revival. By now the play’s publicist and I have become virtual pen pals. After reading that the play would open for its pre-Broadway run right here in Washington D.C. (in the National Theater, the same venue it first opened at in 1957), I was determined to get the inside scoop on it. Through auditions, the New York rehearsals, and finally DC rehearsals, we continued our correspondence. Finally, just days before the opening of the first preview performance in mid-December, I am on the phone with cast member Buscher, who is enthusiastically describing his experience preparing for this historic revival.

Joshua Buscher

Joshua Buscher

What makes this revival of West Side Story so unique is language. Laurents’ late partner, Tom Hatcher, had seen the play staged entirely in Spanish in Colombia and found that it totally changed the dynamics– the Sharks became the heroes and the Jets the villains. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the two gangs somehow,” Laurents told the New York Times earlier this year, by having characters speaking amongst themselves in their native language.

Adding the Spanish into the show 100 percent makes it work,” says Buscher, “It helps so much with the energy of the show– what it does is makes that barrier of the Americans versus the Puerto Ricans even wider. Some of our audience can’t speak Spanish, so they get frustrated,” adding to the tension the audience will feel between the Sharks and the Jets. In case you’re one of those non-Spanish-speaking audience memeers, don’t worry– there will be supertitles. Although some scenes, such as the one preceding America, are mostly in Spanish, he is confident that the acting and dancing will transcend language.

Josefina Scaglione and Matt CavenaughOne thing I was dying to know was if Robbins’ choreography would be altered at all for greater cultural authenticity. Would the Puerto Ricans be adding some bomba or plena sabor to the dance numbers? Then again, no reason mess with a good thing (no, make that an amazing thing — West Side Story is in my book, hands down, the best dance musical ever, and the best music musical, for that matter). So what if the choreography of America is more flamenco than salsa? Joey McKneely, the reproduction choreographer did change some of the blocking and spacing in the piece to underscore the culturally adversarial give and take between the homesick girls and the girls that are trying to become Americanized (which explains why Anita will at times break into English even with her compatriots). It will be more about that interaction than an “and now folks, here’s the big dance number” performance to the audience; but Robbins’ choreography will remain intact.

This will be Buscher’s Broadway debut. He is Diesel, the “meathead” of the Jets– a surprise not only to me– going by his angelic headshot and cheery voice– but also to his family and friends. “It was kind of a process for me to get into that because I’m not really a meathead,” says Buscher. “But he’s come to life and it’s great. When we do the rumble scene it’s awesome. It’s very empowering for me to jump on stage and be able to protect the guys that are behind me.” Late bloomers, take heart. Although Buscher was a gymnast in his youth, he didn’t start dancing until he got to college, realizing it was important to his development as an actor. The audition process for West Side Story, which was six months long, really improved his technique. That plus an hour-long barre class before each day’s practice and the encouragement of McKneely and his assistant. “It helps that [Diesel] is a fighter because he’s not the most balletic boy; they did a nice job of casting if I do say so myself,” he says with a laugh.

West Side Story Rehearsal (with Cody Green)It is a young company, with many making their Broadway debut– with so much of the cast being made up of teenage gang members, that is a necessity. There are some seasoned veterans, of course, including Karen Olivo (Anita) who was most recently seen in In the Heights. Here’s another familiar face: Step It Up and Dance fans will recognize Cody Green in the role of Riff.

Six-month audition process aside, I want to know the nuts and bolts of getting a Broadway dance musical from studio to stage. “The first week of rehearsals was just dance, that’s all we did,” says Buscher. After a brief meeting with Laurents and the creative team, “literally an hour later we were on the floor learning Dance at the Gym.” Nary a libretto was cracked open for the first full week of practice as the dancers learned all the dance numbers. This allowed the choreography to become second nature so the dancers could focus on acting. Additionally, as lines, songs, acting and blocking were layered on, the choreography gained depth along with the process of character development.

Rehearsals started in New York City, going about six hours a day, six days a week for five weeks. The whole cast moved to DC for the final two weeks of rehearsal. After the dances were learned, important acting moments were added in, and vocal rehearsals. “The way Arthur and Joey McKneely work is they fill it up right in the beginning so you have time to grow,” says Buscher. Additional character development occurred after hours, as The Jets hung out together socially to get to know each other and figure out their relationships in the gang. Quoting Laurents again, he says, “He wants this to be an acting show. He says the dance number’s kind of nowhere if you’re not acting from somewhere.”

Arthur Laurents addresses the cast of West Side Story

By the time the cast got to Washington they felt comfortable enough with what they had to do to start taking more artistic risks. The hard work “pays off when you get the show at a place where you’re allowed to try new things on stage because you’re so comfortable with what you’re doing. That is where a show should be.”

With just hours remaining before his big Broadway show debut, I ask Buscher what we can expect. I’ve been able to tell from the tone of his voice during our conversation that there is a great deal of excitement and satisfaction with the process and anticipation for what is to come.” There’s a very high bar for this show and all of this are taking it on with full force. We are young we are energized and we’re dancing the crap out of this show.”


West Side Story runs through January 17, 2009 at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale through Telecharge (800) 447-7400, www.telecharge.com) or at the National Theatre Box Office (202-628-6161 www.nationaltheatre.org. It will open on Broadway on February 23.

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.

…is grabbing a table in the perfect September sun on the Woodrow Wilson Plaza to listen to live salsa by Verny Varela and his orchestra. Even better than dessert…a post prandial dance. Trust me, it makes your day sooo much better (and is much better for you). Your TPS reports won’t look so bad after that.

Live! on Woodrow Wilson Plaza: noon-1:30 pm, Monday-Friday, June-September. Totally free and another reason to love DC.

There is a nice (albeit brief) article about Juan Luis Guerra in the NYT today that addresses the problem of world music (“music whose lyrics we can’t understand”). The music sounds great and perhaps hints at something exotic, different; but without understanding the lyrics we may be missing out on something huge.

Guerra–one of the musicians whose music I most enjoy both listening and dancing to– is an excellent case in point. His music is eminently pleasing to listen to, but did you realize that that infectious dance beat obscures a biting criticism of the state of healthcare? That the deliciously romantic melody and smooth singing belie a striking use of language and poetry? Upon every listening I gain a new insight into the Spanish language, Dominican culture, musicality, and meaning.

When I became fluent in Italian, Italian music was no more “world music” to me, but a whole new world of pop, rock, rap, R&B, folk, and more. When I learned to dance salsa, merengue, cha cha cha, and bachata, and to comprehend the Spanish words, tropical music was no longer “world”– or even “Latin” music to me, but four new distinct genres of music with their own musical and rhythmical structure, and tradition of political expression.

To be honest, the term “world music” rather grates on me, and I avoid its use whenever possible. The same thing has happened to dances not originating in the European or American traditions in the U.S. Anything that does not fit neatly into the categories of ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, or ballroom dance are “world dances,” discounting the rich tradition and meaning behind each one of them.

…is that one of the contestants (the high school teacher from Miami…forget the name) danced to one of my favorite salsa songs, Aguanile by Hector Lavoe. It’s great to see such a good salsa song get mass media exposure.

The Tony Award nominees were announced today and the cat in the front was so excited he threw his feather headdress in the air and made some purrfect jazz hands. The black cat in the background is all like, “Fosse is sooo two decades ago, it’s all about salsa and hip hop on Broadway now. Let me see you shake your caderas.

In the Heights, a musical featuring some amazing salsa and hip hop dancing (at least from the youtube clips I’ve seen) that has broken the mold for Tony nominees, leading the pack with 13 nominations. I’ve been so excited to see it and now these accolades will ensure that I’ll have to wait even longer to snag tickets. Dear Producers, let it be known that I will shamelessly promote your musical on this blog if you comp me tickets to In the Heights. I would like to see Celia as well.

I find that I’m often apologizing for not having posted in a while. My general goal is to post at least three times a week and to stay up-to-date with a core group of dance blogs on my feed. But that can’t always happen. I travel quite a bit for my job, and two thirds of the places I go are small and rural towns. Internet access can be iffy there and my days are so long that there’s no time for writing.

Then there’s the fact that I tend to be more inspired to write when I am surrounded by dance. I seek out dance opportunities on the road when I can (more on that later), but I am missing out on my normal classes on rehearsals. I was on an airplane during the last episode of Step It Up and Dance and anyway, it seems most hotels I stay in do not carry Bravo tv in their lineup.

Then there is my at-home routine. Missed classes mean that I’m constantly struggling to get my body back into top dance shape, and missed rehearsals can mean missed performance and casting opportunities. My family and friends are important to me, and being away so much means that I may miss additional classes and practices to spend quality time with them.

If you are like me, just trying to balance (as the subtitle of this blog says) a passion for dance with real life, I’ve put together a list of some of my own strategies for balancing your traveling lifestyle with your love for dance.  Even if you don’t travel too much, some of these things can apply to you whenever you travel.

  1. Take care of your body. Just about every hotel these days has a gym, and if they don’t they usually have an agreement with a local gym. Going for a run on the treadmill will help you maintain cardiovascular endurance, and it also helps me be wide awake for those early morning meetings. As for stretching, I try to do short yoga sequence before bed, maintaining flexibility and centering me before bed. I’m not so good about working out at home, but I find that the close proximity of the hotel gym (or a yoga studio: see my post Keeping Balance on the Road) motivates me to work out every day.
  2. Travel can be a minefield of junk food– acknowledge it and do what you can to minimize the damage. I was going to entitle this one “watch what you eat” but I wanted to practice what I preach. Sometimes it can be impossible to avoid eating fatty simple carbs when that is your only option, and the cookie tray/candy dish that comes out mid-afternoon can be hard to resist. Acknowledge that this is a challenge and try to load up on fruit and other healthy options when the opportunity arises. Even in the most rural haven of fried food, there is usually a salad and a vegetable side dish on the menu. If you don’t follow this one, at least you’re working out every day at the gym! It behooves all of us to eat healthy for a variety of reasons, but mine is seeing my bloated, lethargic self wearing nothing but a spandex leotard in the floor-to-ceiling mirror at the next ballet class.
  3. Take advantage of the alone time to practice. Usually all I want to do when I get back to my room is conk out on the bed and turn on the boob tube, but taking even just 10 minutes to go over some complicated steps or practice a barre sequence can make a big difference and will make you feel like you did something. I hardly ever have time to practice at home. Even if I’m alone at home, I feel guilty about laundry or dishes (or writing in my blog!) but you don’t have those pressures in the hotel room. Take advantage of this precious time.
  4. Go to class. Although I said 2/3 of the time I’m in small, rural towns, I didn’t mention that the other 1/3 I go to large cities. Chances are, any city with a population over 100,000 is going to have some opportunities for dance. Do your research before you leave so you can schedule appropriately. For classes, a google search for “[city name] adult dance classes” will pull up some local dance schools offering evening classes for adults. Make sure you call ahead to make sure they take students on a drop-in basis, and that classes will be offered the dates you’re there. It is often hard to make this work, but doing your research in advance will at least keep your options open. It is also great for your development to study with different instructors in different cities.
  5. Social dancers: this is your golden opportunity! If you are a social dancer– salsa, swing, etc, travel may be one of the very best things for your growth and confidence as a dancer. Most large cities have at least one opportunity each night of the week for social dancing. Here again, google is your friend (i.e., “detroit salsa”). My strategy when I walk in the door is to ask the organizers where the serious dancers hang out. More often than not, they will introduce you to the best dancers, who in turn will be excited to dance with someone outside of the same old group. Living in a city with a large a vibrant salsa scene (DC), it is fun and confidence-boosting for me to travel to smaller cities where I can be a big fish in a small pond. Every city has its own distinct style of social dancing, and exposing yourself to new styles and new partners will help you improve by leaps and bounds. See my account of Salsa in Seattle for an example of this.
  6. About 4 and 5: bring some extra cash and a shot of courage. Getting out there to find classes and clubs in an unfamiliar city is not always easy. It may entail a pricey cab ride and you have no idea once you get there if it was worth the trip (see The $52 cha cha cha). Obviously, have your wits about you and ask around about the neighborhoods you are going to to make sure it is a safe place to go on your own. But don’t let being alone be your only excuse. Chances are, if you show up and put yourself out there, you are going to be glad you did.

Happy Trails!

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.

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