The Houston Salsa Congress

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Friday, after work, I already had my duffel bags in the car, and a few pair of dancing shoes packed. So, at five o’clock, I opened my car trunk and hoisted some clothes and hangers up to the office bathroom on the seventh floor—and started making my transformation into “salsa vixen.”

Half an hour later, I emerged from the super conservative law firm in a tiny leopard print dress and some black, Givenchy fishnets. I’ll be different, I thought. Little did I know that four hours away, in the Sheraton Houston Hollowbrook Hotel, for the 8th Annual Houston Salsa Congress, I would find at least a hundred women wearing some form of fishnets, and, yes, ALL of them, donning a similar leopard-print dress.

In the Congress dressing rooms, dancers with gems-studded stockings, sequins on their satin pumps, and rhinestones in their hair, adjusted shoe straps, fastened long, fake eyelashes, and lined and re-lined eyes and lips. Faces were flawless, skin smooth and tan, and costumes sparkled with glitter.

I arrived late, and found a lone empty seat in the middle of the audience. Peering over and between heads, I tried to catch a glimpse of the dancers on stage—spinning and shaking shoulders and doing splits under the bright lights. The audience whooped and whistled as both professional and student teams displayed their talents, and by the time the performances were over, the audience was more than ready to hit the dance floor.

As volunteers and congress workers cleared the ballroom of chairs to make room for social dancing, I ordered a plastic cup of “vino tinto” from the bar and took a break on a couch in the ladies restroom. Women of all nationalities and backgrounds came in to look in the full size mirror—adjusting shirts, pulling down skirts, re-applying makeup and giving a quick peek at the rear-view. I chatted with an Italian woman and her Spanish teacher, as well as a woman from Africa, and a long-legged white girl in pink lace hot-shorts who looked like a full-blown model.

Glass of wine down, I made my way back to the dancehall just as the New Swing Sextet came out on stage, each in demure black suites, finding their respective place behind the bongos, bass, and piano. However, as the music started, it was the song of the vibraphone, and the round, satin-covered drum sticks bouncing across white keys, that filled the room with a chill yet euphoric, New York-style salsa. No loud horns and in-your-face tempo. Just laid back, smooth jazz from ages past—like music for dancing on tip toes.

One of my first dances of the night was with handsome Karisma dancer, Carlos Hernandez, of New York. Whom I met one night while commenting on his red plaid pants. His dancing is passionate and unique. He spun and swayed and brought me to complete stops. Then he broke out complicated footwork, dipped me, and turned me this way and that, until all I could do was try to follow, and watch in awe the spectacle I was observing. He comes up close to you, looks directly in your eyes, and then is off in his own world. Low to the ground, and then back above you, as if he owns you.

Later on the carpet, I watched him dance with Desiree Godsell—one of the most original, soulful and creative dancers I’ve seen. Originally from Houston, Texas, she now lives in New York and dances with Griselle Ponce in Jersey’s Finest. Together, she and Carlos twirled and twisted on the carpet, like a spontaneous freestyle rap—each one cutting the coolest line they knew, and the other responding with something even better. Their faces emoting sheer pleasure, and Desiree kicking into the air and then dropping down to the ground in guaguanco, and then spinning on one leg. The best of the best. I stood against the wall, grinning from ear to ear, enjoying my gin and tonic, and what I felt was the best seat in the house.

Saturday night, the dancers came out in their sharpest attire—cats from New York, Chicago and Dallas wearing blazers and bow ties, with tight pants and loafers. Hair slicked back and diamond earrings. The women all in small things that showed lots of leg. As the ballroom filled for the performance, seats were quickly taken, and afterward, swarms of people stood around the seating area, spilling into the hallways, drinking, talking, and having to be shushed during announcements.

The energy was high and only continued to escalate as Boston performers turned out to represent in true style. Masacote gave a high-class performance to Latin Funk, with an organic feel—cool and modern, and different from what you normally see on the stage. Instead of sequins and spandex, Ana Masacote in her tan sheath dress and fur rimmed collar was like Salsa on Saks Fifth Avenue.

Later, Hacha Y Machete performed one of my favorite routines— with a powerful, dark and sultry piece of music that combines perfectly with their raw energy and leg-shaking, fist-pumping choreography. By the end of their performance, you were ready to jump up and holler, and the audience did just that.

After all of the performances were over and the chairs were cleared for social dancing, I grabbed Darlin Garcia, and walked in on his sharply-suited arm, happy and ready to dance. Mr. Darlin is a smooth and perfect lead—one who dances with you at the level you can handle but always pushes you to do things you never did before. A true gentleman, he dances with all sorts of women, not just professionals. I see him on the dance floor grinning and getting down with any level of dancer, and one can see him dancing not just with his partner, but more with the music itself, as if the clave and tambor were the only thing that mattered, and all else was secondary.

By the time four o’clock rolled around, I had already taped and re-taped my blisters. The Band-Aids that I had wrapped around my toes had fallen off somewhere. The water jugs all empty and bar closed, I sat in the hallway waiting for my ride until the dance floor was cleared. Hallways stood empty, and ballroom doors were locked. Flyers from upcoming salsa congresses were strewn about like confetti, and everywhere were night pass wristbands, hair ties, and an odd dance shoe—lying around in the aftermath. My ears ringing and body completely dehydrated there were energy drink posters with hot Latin babes on the walls, and the Bachata room vacant when it had been so thick and heavy with sweat and sensuality. I felt like back in the days when I went to raves and there was always that side jungle room—all dark and earthy. These Congresses are the Latin version of those raves that young American kids used to do. But whether your musical taste is House music and Trance, or Salsa and Bachata, I think people everywhere will always find a place to go out and dance until the sun comes up. It’s just something we dancers do.

by Christina Gates

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Click here to view the 2010 Houston Salsa Congress videos

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