Sauce of inspiration: Salsa was originally the music of South American slaves but now liberates Londoners. Susannah Lewis is seduced by Latin rhythms

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The Independent Culture
Something's happened to me this summer. I've stopped eating, lost half a stone and catch myself slinking about the office with a grin that's positively indecent. I've been seduced by a passion that's taking hold of otherwise rational people all over the place. I've got salsa fever.

After years of spinning the same old line about 'always wanting to learn', all it took in the end was one telephone call and me and my mate Jen were climbing the wooden stairs at The Finca, Islington, known to the initiated as Bar Tiempo.

On the highest wooden platform, a figure emerged from the shadows. 'That's Elder', someone said, 'the maestro'.

He looked around the room, taking the measure of his disciples. Elder is Colombian, and profoundly Latin: skin the colour of burnished bronze, cropped black Afro hair offset by strikingly elegant Roman features and a look in his eyes that threatens to possess your soul in five seconds flat. But the point of no return came when the music began and Elder started to dance. I knew then that all I wanted to do, and for as long as it takes, was learn to dance like that.

The true epicentre of this storm is the music. Salsa, (meaning 'sauce' in Spanish), is a fiery cocktail of African rhythm, East Coast jazz and sultry Latin balladry. It can be slow or earth-movingly fast and wild. The first time you hear it, it propels you to your feet - passionate and addictive.

Robin Jones, of UK aficionados King Salsa, explains: 'The roots of the music originated in Africa. During slavery, the music was carried to the Caribbean, to Cuba and Puerto Rico . . . then to America in the post-Castro era. The name 'salsa' emerged as a marketing handle in the late Sixties.'

Elder started two years ago with two students. 'It was difficult because nobody could believe in the rhythm. There were just two teachers - now there are about 20 and all of them good.' The basic steps are not difficult, but learning to interpret them stylishly, reflecting perfectly your partner's every move, is the key. For a woman, Elder insists, the requirements are simple: to be soft and flexible, sensitive to the slightest cue, able to spin energetically on the spot for hours at a time. And 'to be always lookin', and smilin', at your partner'. A man needs to be masterful with none of that English squeamishness about 'givin' it Wigan' with the old hips.

Julia White, director of Strictly Salsa, to be broadcast on Carlton TV in September, says: 'You can dance elegantly, closely . . . with a man you don't feel attracted to, and you don't feel threatened by it. But, when you are attracted . . . '

'Some men just want to show off their virtuosity, dancing at you, not with you.' But then salsa, unlike the lambada, is about male prowess and female gracefulness. 'It is fast and wild, but you never have to lose control.'

Going to classes is just the beginning. 'You see the same group of people,' Julia says. 'It's not tacky. You can feel safe as a woman, even on your own, and you can be very feminine. It's also cheap because whoever's classes you go to, they always tell you which clubs to go on to and when you follow the teacher, you go in free.'

Elder (071-835 0137 / 0956 223736) teaches all levels at Bar Tiempo, Islington, N1 Weds; Villa Stefano, Holborn, Suns; Club Piers, Peston Street, Brighton, Fri and around London. King Salsa's album, 'Chango', is available from Parrot Productions

(Photograph omitted)