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Extreme Salsa in Cali, Colombia

By Bill Fink

Here we teach the alphabet of salsa,” says the director of Tango Vivo y Salsa Viva, Cali, Columbia’s, championship dance school. “Each step is like a letter you can use to make many, many beautiful words.”

I’ve come to Cali to develop my dance vocabulary by learning a few phrases of the local language of salsa. Since the 1950s, Cali has been a world center of the fast-paced rhythmic music and moves of salsa caleño. Like the nation of Colombia, salsa caleño is a meld of Caribbean, African and indigenous influences, a high-speed passionate dancing whirl. Visitors come to soak in the beat, watch the experts and join in the fun by taking classes at one of dozens of dance academies in Cali. The final exam is the best part: practicing steps with locals in nightclubs all over town.

At the Salsa Viva school, located off an unassuming side street in downtown Cali, I enter past their five world championship trophies. Their dance studios host kids’ classes, intense competitive training and private lessons like the one I have scheduled. My instructor is roughly the same size as their trophies, her compact gymnast’s body tightly wrapped in a black-and-red leotard. I tower above her, worried I will confuse my left from right and trod on her money-making feet.

She says we’ll try five basic steps during our half-hour lesson, but given my fumbling, we stop at three. She plays a tape of salsa music overdubbed with a guy counting “One two three and five six seven eight,” while she leads me patiently through the back-to-back, Cuban and “latadance” steps. With limited English, she guides me with encouragement and cautions of, “Hands steady… keep the pressure… NO MOVING SHOULDERS, oh, good, yes, yes!” Despite myself, I am able to combine these A-B-Cs with a spin move to form my first tentative sentences of salsa without injuring either of us.

Visitors can book lessons at Salsa Viva, or Cali’s other championship academies such as El Mulato y Su Swing Latino and Pioneros del Ritmo. After a lesson or two, it’s best to test newly discovered dance skills at popular salsa nightclubs such as Zaperoco, Tin Tin Deo and at clubs in the legendary Juanchito district, known for its salsa nightlife. For the ultimate in salsa immersion, come see the “Salsodromo,” the opening dance extravaganza of the Feria Cali street festival, a five-hour, kilometer-long salsa explosion that occurs every Christmas, cementing Cali’s status as the home for extreme salsa.

Photo by Chris Willis