Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

SOLAR SALSA: Checking Out Manchester Salsa 1

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!

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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.

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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!):

http://www.carltonbooks.co.uk/books/products/travels-on-the-dance-floor-one-mans-journey-to-the-heart-of-salsa-1

 

 

JUAN FORMELL: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC

 

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.”