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Parent Getaways: Hot to Trot: Searching for Salsa in Puerto Rico

I love to dance, whether it’s a wild and crazy La Vida Loca solo or a tamer tango for two. Unfortunately, my better half doesn’t share my enthusiasm. So I’m often practicing a solitary shimmy in our living room. But there’s hope. He loves Latin music. He played drums in high school. And ever since Ricky’s Cuban band played the I Love Lucy show, he’s favored that traditional sound of conga and bongo mixed with cheerful blasts of horns.

So why not take him for a weekend fling in Puerto Rico, where Ricky and J.Lo and Marc Anthony touch down for fun, and where Salsa —the hottest dance since the Twist—has become the current craze? “It’s in our genes,” laughed one native explaining this obsession. After all, it was citizens of this southern isle who picked up the Cuban rhythms of Afro-Caribbean music, transported them to Puerto Rican dance clubs in New York City, added a few instruments to syncopate the beat, and carried the dance back to the island. Today, little girls beg for salsa shoes and even old-timers percolate the steps in their sleep.

“But you need rhythm,” protested my husband, whose exercise these days consisted of arm bends between the popcorn bowl and the remote. “If you don’t have rhythm, all the practice in the world isn’t going to help,” he insisted. No matter. Salsa meant “Spice it up.” And we could do with a little of that along with some Puerto Rican sun, rum and sizzle. So we embarked on our own February thaw and flew to San Juan to learn a few steps and discover why salsa—the dance as well as the food—had become so hot.

Landing on this “Isle of Enchantment,” (as all license plates boasted), and strolling through the 500-year-old Spanish capital of Old San Juan, we quickly absorbed the sensuality of the place. Crimson and purple blossoms tumbled over filigreed iron balconies. Cobblestone streets, embedded with ceramic blue tiles brought over as ship ballast, led to squares embroidered with hanging trees. In the central Plaza de Armas on a late Friday afternoon, men set up dominoes, kids chased pigeons and couples ducked into doorways or arches for a passionate embrace. Though Puerto Rico is officially an autonomous American commonwealth territory, these scenes suggested that the capital was a stage set for Latin-style romance.

And everywhere, music. We heard jazz coming from boutiques selling leather, and pop and rock from stores perfumed with Panama hats and hand-rolled cigars. In the square, an elderly man and his cassette player were serenading anyone who passed. As the evening began to glow, guitar and horn sounds drifted from restaurant doorways. Trumpets sounded from the balconies of apartments. No wonder that the island’s national animal is the tiny coqui, a tree frog who sings a love song to his mate all night long.

But we couldn’t dally. We had only a few days to search for salsa. Our first stop was Sala, a hot new restaurant with gauzy white curtains, red leather seats and the juiciest shrimps I’ve ever consumed. After dinner, seven musicians from the All-Star Salsa Congress band set up to play their energetic music. Maybe, we northern spirits could attempt our first hot dance. But other couples, dressed for dancing in slinky shirts, barely-there tops and strappy sandals, beat us to it. “It looks so easy,” said my husband watching one woman in a tight red dress, her long hair tied up in a topknot. “But I know it’s not.” The moves became trickier. Men leaned into their partners to kiss them on each beat, or twirled them around a few times before they stepped together again.

“It’s a bit intimidating, for a beginner, isn’t it?” I asked a Puerto Rican patron, suddenly becoming shy about tripping onto the floor. He waved my worries aside. “Anyone can do salsa,” he said. “There are no set steps,” he explained. And he set out to imitate variations from around the world—the fast Miami or Cuban style, the gymnastic moves from L.A., even the stiff upper body movements of Canadians who attended the popular salsa convention each July. We laughed but decided not to make fools of ourselves—yet. Besides, by San Juan standards, the night was young. This city was known as “Nightlife Capital of the Caribbean” and we wanted to check out other clubs. “It’s like an addiction,” our new friend warned. “Once you’ve tried it, you’re in it forever.”

It was late but the streets were packed. Music drifted from windows and doorways. A restaurant chef had set up an outside barbecue and was cooking midnight snacks grabbed up by passersby. At the Rumba Nightclub Discotèque, about 30 couples practiced salsa on a crowded floor. True, there didn’t seem to be any set moves or age barriers. Women pushing 60—held in by spandex and hair clips—danced just as intently as youngsters dressed in tank tops, tight jeans and high-heeled salsa shoes. “It’s a great combination,” my husband said as we lingered. “The horns and percussion I mean.” I was keen to try some moves but still, he resisted. Perhaps after our salsa lesson tomorrow, my dancing partner would be more inclined to join in.

After a delicious breakfast of mallorcas, Danishes sweetened with icing sugar, and eggs at the diner style Bombonera bakery (serving the best coffee in the Caribbean from beans grown exclusively for them), we shopped for salsa CD’s and saw the sites, including an impromptu trip to Pinones forest to see “watchable wildlife” as our map promised. Sure enough, a pair of iguanas scurried in front of us — a huge striped male and a female, who looked as if she’d tucked a red hibiscus flower behind her ear. “Even the iguanas dress up here,” I said to my husband. It turned out she was just eating the flower. It disappeared as she munched.

I coaxed my husband back to the city to Rosita and Mariano’s studio. For 25 years, this vivacious couple has been teaching dance and performing. They enthused about the history of dance in Puerto Rico and threw their heels up and their hair down as they showed us variations. Before salsa, there was the plena, a musical newspaper whereby news and gossip was passed from town to town through song and dance; the bomba, an African-based dance where movement dictated the music; and the rumba, a ballroom-style pairing featuring sexy hip movements. For all, it was the clave, the rhythmical pattern of beat from Afro-Caribbean music that was constant. Some of their students, energetic 13- to 19-year-olds, thrust out toes and hips like professionals. “I’ll never learn this,” lamented my husband. But Rosita wagged her finger. “It’s very simple,” she said. “You have to feel it,” she added. “Don’t worry, given enough time, I can teach anyone how to do salsa.”

Ready to try a few steps, we dressed up on Saturday night and hit the lobbies of the grand hotels along Isla Verde beach. Sequins and backless dresses and jeweled high heels were in abundance but so were the line-ups for dancing spots. My hubby was delighted that we could escape into the adjoining casinos instead and turn our attention to winning a jackpot for future trips. When handfuls of quarters came flying down to us from a one-armed bandit, we cashed in and headed down the beach.

In the nearby Loiza district, amateur chefs and outdoor cafés had set up kettles to cook fried green plantain, pumpkin fritters and fish wrapped in banana leaves. At Soleil, a seaside eatery, we devoured yucca mafongo stuffed with peppers and onions and conch and a creamy coconut dessert that translated into “one who trembles.” My husband’s feelings exactly when the band began to play. The sound wasn’t salsa but we had to try the dance. Perhaps some twirls by ourselves—out on the sand or in the surf. It couldn’t get more romantic than this with the wind and the waves echoing the music.

In the end it was our taxi driver, Ricardo, who explained the secret to salsa. He had learned it at his mother’s knee when only a kid. He turned the radio to the Latin station, and snapped his fingers to the beat. “It’s the clave rhythm,” he explained as he snapped one, two, three—pause, and four. “You listen to the beat, he said. “You learn how to move to this count of four. Only then, do you listen to the music.” Aha, so that was it.
The next morning, my husband excitedly called out that we could have huevos rancheros smothered in salsa delivered to our room. This was his kind of salsa. But I had an even better idea. I unwrapped our new CD’s, inserted them into the disc player and turned up the volume. The bongos began, then the horns. The Spanish voices picked up the beat and let loose. We opened our balcony doors to the ocean and danced, in private oblivion, around our room. Salsa had entered our lives. And we were hot to trot.

For more information:
Contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Company at 1-800-667-0394, or visit www.gotopuertorico.com. To join the 7th Annual Salsa Congress in summer of 2003, welcoming beginning to professional salsa dancers from around the world, call 787-274-1601 or visit www.salsacongress.com.





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