The fight for the soul of salsa It's war on the dancefloor

The British dance establishment wants control over the teaching of Latin rhythm. It faces fierce resistance.
Click to follow
You can hear the rat-tat-tat-tat of the salsa beat being stomped out with ever more emphatic determination as each opposing camp takes up its position. It is the sound of the burgeoning British salsa dance scene as it splits in two. If they ever made a movie about it they might call it "Dirty Dancing", were that title not already claimed.

At stake are the spoils from and control of salsa dance teaching in this country, and its commercial spin-offs. Some salsa teachers want to link up with the long-established British dance scene through the United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing (UKA), which is tainted in some people's eyes by its links with moribund ballroom dancing. Others are more sympathetic to a nascent association of salsa-teachers that stresses cultural purity through an adherence to salsa's Latin roots.

The once nearly lost art of partner or social dancing in Britain has been undergoing a steady revival for about a decade. We are becoming ever keener on dances such as ceroc (a French form of jive), line dancing, tango and, most popular of all, salsa. In every major city and in numerous towns throughout the country salsa has taken root, appealing to urban twenty-somethings and middle-aged housewives alike. You come across salsa in The Archers, where friends Ruth Archer and Ushar Gupta attended salsa classes and a salsa club. And in early March the cast of EastEnders willbe seen learning how to dance salsa. An estimated 10,000 people attend regular weekly classes in London.

The schism cuts straight through a salsa scene that, if you'll excuse the pun, is still finding its feet. All salsa dance teachers want to reap the benefits of increasing popularity; they are divided on how best to do it.

On one side are those who believe that the industry must be regulated in order to safeguard the livelihoods of teachers, the standard of dancing and the safety of participants. On the other are those wanting a looser framework that permits diversity and does not fall under the control of the larger dance movement, while staying as close to the clubbing scene as possible.

Each camp straddles the Latin/ Anglo divide, but the racial/cultural issue has on occasion been used as a weapon. The ballroom-linked UKA intended to launch its teaching qualification - and its bid for control - last November at the Paragon Hotel in Earl's Court, London. They had to abandon a public meeting because of intemperate interruptions. One heckler shouted at Paul Harris, a UKA committee member, "You've no right to be here; you can't dance; you're white." It's not a view either side would wish to associate with, but it shows how high emotions ran.

What was billed by the UKA as "Salsa - the Main Event" was just one of many mostly ballroom dances featured at their London Congress. There were cups, medals and trophies proudly displayed there, the very paraphernalia that raises the hackles of the salsa purists. As one respected teacher put it: "We had the feeling we didn't belong."

Joseph Davids, a promoter of Latin shows and salsa events, is committed to neither side, but he criticised the UKA for its disastrous attempt to win over the 300 salsa teachers invited to the Paragon Hotel. "They had a whole array of medals and awards on one wall and everybody walked in and said `ballroom'. And they said, `we're not, we're not'; but there were all these ballroom medals there and there were all these guys sitting around in their pink suits with dress shirts. They did a show, a cabaret, with lots of people jumping up and doing lots of ballet kicks, and that's not salsa."

There is a warning from history. Latin dance was first introduced to Britain in the Forties directly from Cuba, by Doris Lavelle and her partner Monsieur Pierre. But it became bastardised and is now known as British Latin American, having been slowed down for British tastes.

Paul Harris, a disciple of Doris Lavelle, says he has been a salsa fan since the Seventies. He is a choreographer and has written a book notating salsa dance steps. This has controversially become the UKA's guide syllabus for its recently instituted salsa examinations forteachers, though one wag damned it as "critically unacclaimed".

Harris explains: "Because I know dance notation, and because I know authentic Cuban social dance and what went wrong with it, the UKA approached me to notate salsa. The reason for that was because the British Dance Council were getting inundated with calls from people asking for salsa. And they weren't allowed to give out telephone numbers of unqualified teachers."

He claims that he has suffered "serious racial abuse" that would not be tolerated if it were anti-Latin.

Harris was a key player in bringing three of the most respected salsa teachers into the embrace of the UKA - Nelson Batista, Elder Sanchez and Xihomara Granados - all of whom have been awarded honourary fellowships.

"What people fail to see is that by joining the UKA we are getting recognised and giving it some value," says Batista, who came to this country 12 years ago from his native Cuba. "All the Latin people I know in London, especially those involved with the Latin scene, they couldn't put a sandcastle together. We are still very Latin in that way.

"I prefer to be part of an official scene. The UKA can't teach me salsa, but they can teach me a lot about organisation. There are more than 100 so-called salsa teachers in the UK... but a lot of them haven't got a clue."

Batista believes that about half of what he calls the decent salsa teachers in the UK want to join, and disputes charges that linking up with the UKA will lead to the "ballroomisation" of salsa. "The more we expose salsa to an existing dance scene, the better we get." He is happy for salsa to adopt the ways of mainstream dance, with its medals, certificates and diplomas.

One of Batista's colleagues at the UKA is Ansell Chezan, who started teaching ballroom dancing in 1966. "We are not touching the salsa movements at all, otherwise it would be bastardised, as the rumba and the samba have been," he insists. "It's their teaching abilities that we are concerned with... some of these people can't even count the music."

Quality, according to the opposing salsa teachers, will look after itself in a free market, where poor teachers are soon driven out of business. Their primary fear is being dictated to by an organisation they see as unrepresentative; that and the trickle-down effect of ballroom dance teachers taking a salsa qualification as a means of earning a better living, and dominating a scene that owes its vitality to grass-roots clubs.

Elissa Ernst, born in Colombia, has been teaching salsa for 12 years, and is leading the opposition to the UKA from her base in Reading.

"Salsa is not just a dance," she says. "It is a way of life rooted in Latin culture." She believes that introducing a system of competition ignores the fundamental ethos of the dance. "We are very, very concerned that the most valuable aspect of salsa, which is the feeling and the freedom of expression and the spontaneity of the dance, is going to be lost. They are going to pollute the natural feeling of salsa.

"If ballroom dancers want to teach salsa they need to come to the clubs; they need to understand a bit of the culture before passing a test and starting to teach."

Ernst and fellow independently minded salsa teachers are this weekend meeting in London to set up the rival Professional Association of Salsa Dance Teachers.

"The movement is split," she says. "I hope the problems we are facing are not going to affect the salsa scene. We Latin people feel incredibly flattered that British people want to learn salsa. We are very glad about that, provided they do not dilute its authenticity."