I’ll be researching my next salsa review later this week. Meanwhile I couldn’t resist posting this superb video from Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera. It was Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba who drew my attention to it, on Facebook.
Alexander Abreu and his band are one of the very finest Cuban bands, but another reason for posting this video is that a lot of the dancing is by MEN. And it’s a great demonstration of something they never teach male students at UK salsa classes: HOW TO MOVE THE UPPER BODY.
Watch a bunch of British men dancing salsa and you’ll mostly see them with slightly-hunched shoulders and flat chests. There’s no dynamism in the upper body.
When I say ‘flat chests’, I’m not advocating that men develop boobs. What I mean is that when dancing salsa, a man needs to expand the chest slightly up and forwards, and push the shoulder blades a little bit back. If you do that, the chest suddenly becomes positive; you look and feel confident, alert, ready for anything: to charm a woman, to handle a fight, to compete and win. (Maybe you don’t need to do any of these things, but when you dance salsa you want to look and feel as if you could!) And the upper body takes a positive part in the dance. Your style will immediately improve. Check it out with a mirror and practise!
Watch the guys in this video and you’ll see what I mean. And when I call this a secret, it’s because you won’t usually learn this in the UK. I had to visit Cuba four times before I was taught this. (And yes, thanks, you can pay me later if you insist!)
Amazingly, I have a photo of the very same domino table that appears in the video, taken in Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana in 2005 – I think some of the same players are there, only a bit younger! Here it is:
Domino Players, Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana, 2005
Anyway, enjoy the video. And if you’ve always dreamed of visiting Cuba, go now and go with Key2Cuba, who will give you the most authentic experience. And in the meantime, you can join me on my first visit to Cuba, and come with me exploring salsa across Latin America and the Caribbean, in my book Travels on the Dance Floor. Just click on this link to get 30% off:
This week I’m writing about Solar Salsa – first of a series in which I plan to review as many Manchester salsa classes & events as I can. There’s so much going on in the city that it’s easy to miss good things. And for beginners it can be hard to know where to start. Hopefully these reviews can help – and I can have some fun doing the research!
Solar Salsa: Special session last year with visiting teacher Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba (centre, in black); Pauline at front, in white
SOLAR SALSA is an easy place for me to start: I’ve been a regular for some years. Classes take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays downstairs at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton (526-528 Wilbraham Rd, Manchester M21 9LD) with Beginners’ and Improvers’ classes at 7.30 pm, Intermediate and Advanced at 9 pm. The style is emphatically Cuban. The main emphasis is on RUEDA: salsa circle dancing, changing partners with someone calling the moves.
Mandy explains the finer points of the next move!
There’s a team of experienced teachers: Pauline and Mandy mainly taking Improvers and Advanced classes, with Mike and Christine taking Beginners and Intermediate.
For me the biggest feature of Solar (and the reason I started going) is that it’s FUN! It’s consistently friendly, totally welcoming and there’s a lot of laughter, particularly owing to Pauline’s incredibly positive attitude. I don’t know how she does it, but Pauline is the most positive person I’ve ever met: I think the title Solar Salsa must reflect not just her belief in renewable energy but her sunny disposition! That’s not to say everyone doesn’t work hard, but the atmosphere is always very happy. It’s a class that’s guaranteed to cheer you up if you need it. No other class I’ve been to is quite so consistently positive. GREAT FOR BEGINNERS!
A close second in importance is that Solar is one of the very few classes which teach authentic Cuban body movement. Mandy goes to Cuba often, works with Cuban teachers and has danced on stage with Cuban bands. She has a full understanding of Cuban styling and ‘body isolation’ – as Mike also has from a male point of view. Cuban body movement is something that very few classes in the UK can genuinely offer. But it makes all the difference: without it, salsa is just a lot of footsteps and arm movements. But once you have the body core movement, the whole experience is different, and even dancers knowing only a few moves become elegant and exciting. There is no substitute.
The emphasis on Rueda is something that might not suit everyone. It’s a very good way for beginners to learn, but some people find it daunting to start couple-dancing alone when they’re only used to dancing rueda. The Thursday classes try to emphasise couple dancing more, but still the rueda emphasis can creep in. If you hate rueda, this might not be the class for you.
Numbers of dancers are currently good: classes are well-attended without being crowded and generally there’s a good balance of men and women. In the more advanced classes there are normally some female leaders: great if you’re a woman and want to learn to lead, not quite so great if you’re a woman and really want to dance all the time with guys!
Classes are good value: currently £6 for the whole evening, no matter if you take one class or two; plus you get some free dancing – usually about three tracks between classes. That said, there isn’t a great deal of free dancing.
(Check out the video above, with Los Van Van and Key2Cuba: can you spot Mandy (orange, pink and green dress) in the rueda?)
A couple of things to watch out for: (1) Classes begin very punctually (unusual in the salsa world)! If you’re not on time you’ll miss the warm-ups. (2) Dancing is mostly on carpet – though this isn’t nearly as much of a problem as you might think. It’s a thin hard carpet and mostly I forget I’m on it. Plus this is due to change: a new floor is supposed to be installed sometime soon. But if you have knee problems and need a totally smooth floor it could be a deterrent.
Overall this is a fun class, good value, excellent for beginners, with an authentic Cuban connection. Points to consider: Emphasis on Rueda; short period of free dancing; dancing on carpet. RECOMMENDED.
And finally: to cheer up your winter with a salsa adventure in Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico and Miami, why not read my book Travels on the Dance Floor, availabl;e by following this link (quote code DANCE for a 30% discount!):
If you ever came anywhere near salsa, as dancer or listener, or ever went to Cuba, you will have heard the music of Juan Formell, who died on Thursday 1 May.
He was the leader, composer and bass player for Los Van Van, the greatest Cuban band of the past fifty years and arguably the greatest Cuban band ever. The style of music he created with Los Van Van – a blend of rock and jazz creatively integrated with Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures over a base which is essentially son – was unmistakable and influenced every other artist who has worked in the mix of styles and sounds we now know as ‘salsa’.
A modest presence with short grey hair who combined a quiet, concentrated manner with a genial, welcoming smile, he was an unmistakable presence whenever the band played, and was largely responsible for both the wit and inventiveness of their songs, and the incredible precision of their playing. Los Van Van’s standard of musicianship – honed by the magnificent Cuban musical education freely available to all children with ability – was staggering to those used to the amateurishness of European pop musicians. Formell clearly ran a very tight ship, but he had a tremendous sense of humour – see for example the video below, directed by Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba, where he plays the role of a hapless tour guide, abandoned by his tourist charges who all go off to dance after loading him with their belongings. His work with the band was also profoundly based in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería – the delightful video for Chapeando shows the band led through the jungle and the human ear by Eleggua, the boy-god who opens the way for us through life’s difficulties, and the lyrics also celebrate Yemayá, the bountiful sea-goddess who provides us with fish – necesitamos tu produccion, Mama as the song says. Chapeando is probably the best album produced by any Cuban band in the past half-century. I saw Los Van Van live several times, in the UK and also in Cuba (see Travels on the Dance Floor for an account of one of their concerts in Havana), and their performances were full of incredible energy and joy as well as musical richness and precision. It was hard for anyone used to European bands to understand how they could go on playing and singing (and dancing!) with such energy for two and a half or three hours.
I’m sure the band – recently directed by Juan’s son Samuel – will go on and be as good as ever. But Juan’s achievement remains huge, and above all joyous. He gave happiness to so many people and his recordings will go on doing so. As he said himself, “My life has been entirely dedicated to music, and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”
When I first went to Cuba and took private dance lessons in Havana, I thought I knew something about salsa. So I was amazed when the teacher totally disregarded what I thought I knew, and simply started showing me how to move my own body. As I wrote in Travels on the Dance Floor,
In the UK, salsa is too often taught as if it’s a matter of footwork and moves – arms and legs. What I learned in Cuba is that the movement inside the body is far more important than the movement outside it. Once you’re dancing from your heart, your kidneys, your hips, the soles of your feet, and the earth, then the ‘moves’ can be added. But with just the moves, you’re not dancing Cuban salsa, your’re just prancing about.
It’s hard to find that kind of teaching outside Cuba. One of the few who really does teach it is Kerry Ribchester, and it was great to have her back in Manchester this past week taking some workshops in all the things that go together to make a really great dance experience: body movement, attitude, really feeling and using the music, and relating in a warm and living way to your partner – the most important person in the world for the five minutes of that particular dance.
Kerry has huge experience of dance, having danced professionally in Brazil, coached Madonna and Kylie in onstage movement and – most importantly – visited Cuba to work with Cuban dancers several times a year for the past fifteen years. She has produced award-winning music videos in Cuba, and she communicates a depth of knowledge about dance I haven’t seen anywhere else, and she makes it really fun. Amanda and I never miss a chance to go to one of her workshops.
We took her class with Solar Salsa at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton on Wednesday, and Amanda was also able to go to Kerry’s Saturday workshop at Sunshine Studios where they worked on the four ‘layers’ that make up the rich ‘cake’ of salsa: the Orisha dances of the Afro-Cuban gods; the Rumba (the competitive Afro-Cuban street dance which is all about attitude and maleness and femaleness); the Son – elegant social dance of the 1940s and 50s – and salsa itself, the spicy sauce that mixes them all.
Kerry’s workshops are highly recommended:
She also heads Key2Cuba, http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html which provides the best and most authentic Cuba trips for people who want to sample the culture and meet the people as well as enjoy the dancing. When I go to Cuba alone I usually do it independently because I’m good at handling the many hassles you always have to go through contending with that complex culture; but Amanda and I have been twice with Key2Cuba – most recently in March 2013 – and I recommend the trips strongly. No other dance tours have anything like the level of authenticity and local contact that you get with Key2Cuba.
Cuba is changing fast and if you’ve dreamed of going there, you should do it soon. And if you want to go with a group, Key2Cuba is the one to check out. http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html
Lorraine, Kerry and Noel - Hail to the Trinity of Cuban Dance Teachers!!!
Another great night last night at Les and Lorraine’s SALSA REPUBLIC in Chorlton, Manchester. Particular highlight this time was a workshop by Kerry Ribchester. Kerry is Director of Key2Cuba, an award-winning producer and director of Cuban music videos, and one of the country’s leading dance teachers and choreographers.
She’s an old friend of many of us in Manchester, and it was really exciting to have her here in her home city, giving us an intensive workshop in Rumba, Son and Salsa – and how to blend the three together. And she was joined, unscheduled, by Noel Hernandez, another leading teacher who just happened to be there and, as an old friend of Kerry, joined in. It was challenging but great fun and an excellent, confidence-building workout.
Amanda and I went to Cuba with Key2Cuba in 2008, shortly after I published Travels on the Dance Floor, and it’s certainly the most authentic and intimately Cuban holiday it’s possible to have with any tour provider. Most of my own travel has been solo and independent, but if you prefer to go with a group, and to have intensive salsa and Cuban dance classes laid on, plus transport to the best clubs and many other good things, key2Cuba is the way to go. It leaves other operators way behind.
Salsa Republic (run by Les Murray and Lorraine H. Mason) are this year offering not only their excellent monthly salsa party but are inviting a leading dance teacher each time, so you get the workshop as well as the party. The value is astonishing – last night we paid £10 for the whole evening. That basically means a Kerry Ribchester workshop for £3 (as usual, the party alone was £7). So look out for the next Salsa Republic – don’t know yet who the teacher will be but it will be good.
Meanwhile – don’t forget LOS VAN VAN, Leeds, 2 March! See you there!