It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

Anna Blundy hits the hot spot to find out why Brits are catching salsa fever
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ISOBEL MUNOZ is gesturing through the smoke and music to tell the story of her parents' persecution and torture in Pinoch-et's Chile and their subsequent exile to Britain. Here the Latin American community, she says, has been growing for years. And most of them appear to be cram- med into the Salsa Restaurant on Charing Cross Road, central London, this Thursday evening.

Isobel is a salsa dancer. She says she grew up knowing how to do it. "I dance to forget about everything. You just get into the music and feel it go through you," she says, wiggling her hips to demonstrate the four- step salsa move. She performs on Wednesdays at London's Bar Madrid, but now that salsa has become as popular here as it has long been in New York, she says, she often dances every night.

Kojo, a trainee chartered accountant who minds the door, fell in love with salsa when his DJ friend Ramiro taught him how to do it. Now he helps Ramiro out at the club every Thursday, tapping his feet to the beat and smiling as he affably refuses entry to more insalubrious types. "Either you've got the rhythm or you haven't," he explains. The club's other DJ, 23- year-old Colombian Fernando (nicknamed Fercho), says that since salsa took off among white Britons about a year ago, clubs have been springing up all over the place.

Isobel fans her face and looks towards the undulating dance floor. "Can you feel the heat?" she asks. Most people at the bar are ordering iced water, and sweat is soaking the men's New Romantic shirts and the women's diaphanous blouses.

Isobel's fiance, Juan Jaiber, a Venezuelan-born taxi driver,pours beers from a pitcher, tochase fierce shots of aquadiente. Braver Latinos approach the beautiful Isobel for a dance. She declines, and they shrug and slope off in resignation, gold crosses swinging.

The few Britons in the club are conspicuous by their faintly inappropriate dress and inability to dance the salsa with the merest suggestion of passion. But most of the 300-strong crowd isLatin or black. "The Trinidadians and Jamaicans are really good at it," says Isobel, "because it is the same basic hip movement as their dance, soca. The English find it impossible to loosen their hips." Youths with hooded tops, baggy jeans, huge trainers and patterns shaved into their heads expertly glide round the room, whisking demure partners in floral prints through the throng.

"You have to feel the rhythm. That is not something you can learn," she says, smiling fondly at her mother, Carmen, who is sipping her beer and looking around for a potential dance partner. Isobel scans the room for people to illustrate her point; those who had learned perfect technique and were deftly twirling, swaying their hips and clicking their heels but who, she insisted, didn't feel the music.Their moves did suddenly look stiff and mechanical compared, for example, to her fiance's. He was writhing and swaying with a beautiful Latino woman in a tiny flowery dress and red shoes. He was perfect. His expression was impassive - he could have been waiting for a bus - and his feet, hips and arms were interpreting the romantic Colombian ballad the band was playing.

The Bolivian DJ Ramiro took a break and let the band have the stage. A large number of Latin men in traditional Hispanic garb (puffed-sleeves shirts and sombreros) struck up a two-step merengue about someone whose blood boils when he sees his girlfriend dance. "The whole point of it," explains Isobel, "is that in quite religious communities where you are not allowed to do anything, you get out the sexual tension in a sensual dance. So I don't mind if my fiance dances with other people or even likes them, because I know it's not going to go any further than that."

Although the dance is fast, flamboyant and sexy, steam rises from the semi-naked dancers, and bottles of clear spirit flavoured with lobster claws, insects and grass line the bar, salsa is a family affair. People of different generations and communities crowd together to dance rather than drool at each other, and the atmosphere is unthreatening. It evokes an era of fluttering fans, dance cards, chivalrous men and blushing virgins. The music and the warmth and friendliness spiritually separate salsa venues from their host country, and stepping out among the obstreperous drunks of the West End at 1am, I felt as if I had left Isobel and Juan dancing together in a Mexican cabana.