If you were in his shoes Step into these shoes

Eddie Torres: inspiration or showman? Whatever the truth, the man can dance. And he's showing us how salsa really should be done. By Philip Sweeney
Given their countries' hostile relationship and the fact that many Cubans feel salsa is a Cuban roots form misappropriated and renamed by US Latino opportunists, you might expect Homero Gonzalez to be less than enthralled by the arrival in London of Eddie Torres. Homero Gonzalez is Cuban-born and trained, formerly lead Afro-Cuban dancer in the company of Havana's Tropicana, the Sadler's Wells of Latin cabarets, and since 1994 one of London's most eminent teachers and practitioners of Afro-Cuban dance - or salsa, if you insist on using the catch-all hybrid term. Eddie Torres is Spanish-Harlem-born, self-taught and, for a decade and a half, the leading teacher, choreographer and practitioner in New York of the glitzy stylistic pot-pourri that is state-of-the-art New York salsa - a product he's now bringing to London for the first time.

Sitting in a Euston corner cafe after his Sunday afternoon class, Homero Gonzalez plainly feels Eddie Torres and he are on the same mission, however. "London is a salsa disaster," says Homero, through a mouthful of scallop. "The women aren't respected - you see them with bruises, mangled; the men learn a step or two and then they think they can improvise, flinging their partners around without knowing the correct holds. They need to re-study all the basic patterns that go into salsa ... son, rumba, mambo..."

"Eddie Torres is simply going to reinforce what Homero's doing," says Homero's wife and dance partner, Max. "He's going to raise the general level; and, as people see what you can do and what you need to learn, they're going to come to Homero. They do already, by the way. Other salsa teachers come to him on the quiet to be taught steps."

Over at the Sobell Sports Centre in Islington, Eddie Torres confirms his standard-raising effect. "Right now in New York, the educated dancer is kind of swallowing up the street dancer. At the Copacabana nightclub, you'll see all the Eddie Torres-trained dancers in one corner and they all know how to break on two and all the turns. They make everyone else feel real mediocre."

Eddie and his dancers - Maria, Delisle, Glenda, Duplessey, Wilton and company (as possessors of Eddie's video Salsa Nightclub Style will know by heart) - are in T-shirt and denim workshop mode. Later on in an Islington nightclub they perform, the guys in restrained tuxedos and the girls in enough sequins to deflect a wire-guided Milan missile. Below Eddie's surprisingly corpulent frame - he shows a keen interest in obscure British real ales and is allegedly not averse to the odd platter of rice and beans - the eye travels to a pair of snazzy little tight shoes, soft white uppers, ornate black patent toes and heels, canvas soles apparently. These are Eddie's "wingtips" from Capizzio of New York, the mark of a "black belt from the Eddie Torres school". Only Eddie and a handful of his top students wear these. "A lotta guys would stay away from these shoes, because they carry a sense of respect ... if you wear these, you've gotta be able to live up to them."

In the great gym of the Sobell Centre, the hundred workshop participants arrive, dividing themselves with considerable confusion into beginners, levels two and three and Masterclass. The latter ends up containing half- a-dozen teachers from the UK salsa scene, which has boomed over the past two 2 years, but also unexpected elements such as an 83-year-old retired travel agent who, for all his admirably dogged shuffling, is plainly not going to make the Capizzio wingtips, unless it be via the first recorded mambo miracle.

None of the top London teachers has turned up. Not Homero Gonzalez. Not Elder Sanchez, the energetic Colombian ex-drill sergeant with a batch of packed classes and his own video, Sensual Salsa. Not Ramero Zapata, the tall Bolivian with a predilection for salsa romantica - wimps' salsa to some tastes. "I don't think Elder Sanchez would come here," someone remarks. "I mean, he's like the Godfather of London salsa dancers."

A whole new crop of instant teachers is here, though: Robert Charlemagne, Eddie Torres-sized former Top of the Pops dancer recycled Latin; Tom Harnanz, Madrid-born British Airways fraud investigator moonlighting as salsero- in-residence at Harlington Community Centre; Sergio Jamasb, Italian-Persian software developer with a string of brand-new classes across tropical suburbia - Esher to East Molesey - after only 10 months as a novice student of both Elder Sanchez and Homero Gonzalez.

"OK, girls in front, men at the back. I wanna just do the basic time step, followed by contrary motion," says Eddie, and we're off, three steps forward, three back, short step on five, long on six, AND one, two, three, AND five, six, seven ...

As the day goes by, it transpires that Eddie's basic step differs slightly from the London norm in omitting a foot-tap on the fourth beat, but is otherwise pretty close to the approximate lingua franca salsa template applicable from New Jersey to Bogota. Stylistically, the New York moves are closer to the undulating Cuban mother-form than to the Cali variant, with its emphasis on fast footwork, endemic to London's big Colombian community. What is clear, as we progress through the turns, the variations, the arm movements to inject "style, attitood and pizzazz", is that Eddie Torres is both an excellent teacher - patient, precise, insistent - and a rigorous analyst of the minutest details of his craft.

Eddie Torres was, in fact, the first analyst of modern salsa dance, and this is the key to his success. He began dancing in 1970s New York, when the old genres - mambo, cha-cha-cha, etc - and their ballroom teachers were disappearing, and the tougher new street-hybrid based loosely on all of them, salsa, was emerging. "I was a street dancer at first. I didn't know about timing and those things ... I was probably hurting a lot of girls. But then I started to refine and analyse."

The catalyst was June Laberta, a ballroom teacher 30 years Eddie's senior, who partnered him at the Corso nightclub and encouraged him to study and name the steps, and then create his own. Eddie Torres now has over 300 steps annotated and named: the Suzy-Q, the Half Flare, the Grapevine, the Kick-pivot. Since the early Eighties, he has been choreographer and troop leader for the stage routines of a basket of top New York bands, notably that of the veteran timbalero Tito Puente, who adopted him in 1980.

What is Eddie Torres's impact on London, finally? Reactions around the salsa classes the following day range from "inspirational" to "vapid and glitzy". Various teachers talk of incorporating Eddie Torres's moves into a new advanced class. Elder Sanchez, relaxing over a glass of iced water after his 200-strong class at the Villa Stefano on Sunday, reflects. "I'm sure he's a good dancer. So is Homero Gonzalez, a brilliant dancer. But you've got to remember salsa is a street music, and a lot of people just want to learn a few basic moves for the club."

What is worrying Sanchez and some of the other established professionals is the sudden creation of dozens of new self-appointed teachers, and Sanchez has approached the International Dance Teachers' Association asking for backing for a new salsa teachers branch, to regulate the scene. For would- be occupants of Capizzio wingtips, this is going to mean exams and re- sits, attitood coaches and pizzazz crammers. And a lot more masterclasses from Eddie Torres, one would surmise.

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