Spawned by the 1920s folkloric Son Cubano, which fuses Spanish guitar with African rhythm and translates literally as ‘Sound of Cuba’, Salsa dancing swept the globe within a decade. And, like the sauce from which it derives its name, it remains one of the spiciest today.
“Salsa is quite an intimidating dance,” says Jimmy Campbell, a former professional footballer whose niftiest footwork is now reserved not for the pitch, but for the dance floor. “It’s very sensual; very exciting. There’s a lot of energy around it. It’s not like modern dance, where people don’t even look at each other and there’s no passion.”
Intimidating can seem an understatement, especially to non-dancers. Shuffle into position opposite the slender Scotsman at what feels like a perfectly respectable arm-and-a-half’s length, and DJ Jimmy, as he is known in Cambodian Salsa circles, responds by taking your hand, guiding it gently to his shoulder, and then yanking you closer than most Catholic priests would ever sanction.
The ice has officially been broken.
Welcome to “Salsa Explosion,” Cambodia’s very own Cuban curio. Initially born of one man’s frustration at the stop-start nature of many Salsa-dancing courses, it has fast become the local focal point for footloose Latinophiles.
Three years ago, en route back to Cambodia following a stint in Australia, Jimmy, manager of Phnom Penh’s FCC during the early 1990s, “read on the internet that there was some Salsa going on here at Gasolina and I thought ‘Great! There’s stuff going on.’ But there was nothing going on – the internet news was all old, so I thought ‘I’m going to try to raise the profile of Salsa.'”
It is, he insists, the ultimate social leveller — capable of transcending boundaries both geographical and linguistic.
“Salsa brings people together,” he says. “It’s very social; you can take it anywhere in the world. Don’t know anyone in a city? Find a Salsa night. Can’t speak the language?” (He smiles and graciously extends both hands, palms facing upwards — the universal sign for ‘Would you like to dance?’). “You can make friends with people pretty quickly.”
His claims are borne out by business partner and fellow Salsa instructor Ariel Reyes, a former TV performer from the Philippines who mastered the Cha-cha-cha, also Cuban in origin, at the age of three.
“Salsa is about the guy making the girl look beautiful and sexy,” he says. “The guy is actually the one driving the girl. You don’t make yourself look good; making your partner look good is what makes you look good.”
The language of Salsa, it seems, can also be applied socially.
“It’s quite masculine and it shows that you know how to handle your girls,” Ariel continues, by now grinning broadly. “The girls can follow you just by holding your hand. You can actually feel it; make them do whatever you want.”
Asked whether there’s a danger that such manipulation could spill off the dance floor and into daily relations, he laughs.
“What’s more important are the values you learn in dancing in general: patience; ethics. You respect your partner and the rest of the group. If one of you doesn’t look good, the whole thing doesn’t look good, so you have to teach everything you can to that person; support them. Dancers have to trust each other. There are lots of nice values you can learn from Salsa and take into your day-to-day life.”
Be advised, however, that it may prove addictive.
The Salsaholic, as defined by www.salsa-phnompenh.com, can be found in every Salsa community.
“His alarm clock beeps in a clave rhythm, he drinks his coffee while listening to El Gran Combo and drives to work with Salsa spilling out of the windows of his car … If you get into his car after a long night of dancing Salsa, he will put Ismael Miranda in the CD player before putting the key in the ignition to cover up the unbearable silence.”
You have been warned.