by Rita Hargrave
On a balmy Wednesday evening, I jump out of my car and race up the street towards a narrow doorway. Roaring trombones and steady bass tones suck me down a spiral staircase to a basement level club. This is what I need to unwind after 10 hours of struggling with screaming schizophrenics and hollow-eyed alcoholics in my psychiatric clinic - a night of salsa dancing.
I sit down at the bar and order bottles of Calistoga spring water. For now, I am content to watch the lesson the narrow dance floor, sticky with spilt margaritas. Couples in a ragged circle do their best to follow a pair of instructors to the basic "quick-quick-slow, quick-quick-slow". The men wear baggy, black jeans and Nike sneakers, while the women are clad in flowered Capri pants and platform wedgies.
As the beginners start to clear the floor, the music switches from the lilting groove of Victor Manuel to the roaring trombones of Sonora Poncena. The experienced dancers, mostly couples in their 40's, 50's or 60's, stream onto the floor. The men sport black guayaberas and Floreisheim shoes and the women flaunt dark chiffon dresses or pantsuits.
A 60-ish couple sweep by in a steamy embrace, their feet whirling and flirting with the syncopated piano vamp. At the same time, a young couple charge across the floor like a runaway speedboat, spinning and twirling, before finally crashing into the older couple.
These salsa fender-benders happen a lot lately - dancers even knock each other to the floor. It's a clash of styles between salseros and mamberos.
The salsero, usually over 40, dances on the first beat of the music. He generally likes moving to medium tempo grooves, leading his partner in circular patterns as she promenades around him, showing off her rolling hip swings. He releases his partner to break into freestyle dancing, encouraging her to feed off his energy, play with the musical grooves, and dance in the moment.
The mambero, on the other hand, is a 20-30-ish dancer who focuses on the second beat of the music. He usually dresses in faded blue jeans, T-shirt, and white jazz shoes. He thrusts his partner back and forth in a linear fashion (called "dancing in the slot"). The mambero's style is quick and aggressive, peppered with spins, dips and acrobatic tricks that consume a lot of real estate on a crowded dance floor. Mamberos import Prue-rehearsed routines (borrowed from dance troupes) to the clubs, adding a competitive, performance-like edge to a once predominantly social dance scene.
The tension between salseros and mamberos, (a.k.a The Mambo Wars) has added a contentious air to clubs. Mambos establish a beachhead on one part of the dance floor, cordon it off and protect it. I have seen mamberos (male and female) refuse to dance with partners who dance on a different beat or have a different style.
In spite of this, more unites mamberos and salseros than divides them. They all love salsa. In fact, it wasn't until the community began to splinter into hostile camps that I realized what salsa meant to me - a community, not just a dance. We enjoy each other's company between dances. Fellow salsa fanatics (a.k.a. Salsaholics) ask about your new job, notice you have dropped 15 pounds, or say that you look tired.
I have invited men and women from the salsa community to my house for dance parties, birthdays and Christmas parties. I've gone on shopping sprees with my female dance buddies, hunting for salsa clothes. I have traveled to Cuba, Europe and South America with fellow salsa lovers. I met my plumber, my carpenter and my gardener on the dance floor. Even though the Mambo Wars have recently produced less goodwill and gentility on the scene, I continue to go out dancing four times a week, and I keep coming back to kiss and hug old friends, sink into the arms of new partners, and let the drum rolls stir my soul.
Photo by Marcy Mendelson from Salsa at Little Baobab photo story.