Salsa just steps from Cuba
MIAMI - Café Mystique is in an unassuming hotel off the highway near the airport. Unless you have a reason to seek it out, you would not know it is there.
But every Thursday night, Mystique hosts what may be the largest rueda de casino in the city. That style of salsa came out of the casinos, or nightclubs, of Havana and Santiago de Cuba in the 1950s and is a weekly ritual for aficionados in this city where the dancing still keeps close step with its Afro-Cuban roots.
Dancers gather in a huge round and trade partners, passing them down the circle in elaborate turns with names like "el besito" (the little kiss), or "el sombrero" (the hat).
In Miami, nightclubs where the party starts at 9 are dubbed "early vibe." Most spots are empty until about midnight, and don't close until 5 a.m. Bouncing from club to club, you can keep going until lunchtime - a period club promoters call "after hours." Five nights a week a lively salsa scene is taking place somewhere in the city.
Bachata, merengue, and the ubiquitous reggaeton have taken a bite out of salsa's market share in local clubs. Nonetheless, the salsa circuit, with its live bands, still packs dance floors around the city. Add to that some of the best-known teachers and schools in the country, and you have the makings of a rewarding long weekend of dancing.
"Our style is more social," says Rene Gueits, an instructor whose Salsa Lovers school in the Olympia Heights neighborhood is one of the city's oldest. Unlike the flashier New York or West Coast styles, in Miami, Gueits says, "You can dance with any girl. As long as she has a good beat, you can lead her into anything."
Gueits is talking about dance steps that people from New York and Los Angeles come to learn, with turns that mark the Miami style, he said. "What they want are our patterns. It's like putting on more beautiful clothes."
Salsa traces its roots to the spiritual dances of the Afro-Cuban religion called Santería. Henry Herrera's Salsa Racing studio is one of the city's institutions for classes, but Herrera himself devotes a large amount of his time to the ritual dances of Santería, into which he was born in Cuba.
On a fall afternoon in his bungalow on Miami's outskirts, he demonstrated parallels between salsa and dances performed in Santería rites. "People jumping in straight to salsa without learning rumba and Afro [Cuban] - that's why they don't have, what? - flavor," he said. "It's like learning to run before walking."
Herrera founded his first studio in 1995 and took the name Salsa Racing in 1999 because he and most of his instructors rode fast motorcycles. When they showed up at the now-defunct Starfish Nightclub wearing motorcycle gear and helmets, people would say, "Here come the salsa racers," he said.
Herrera talks easily about the evolution from Cuban forms of dance and music and their later iterations in Miami and New York. But older generations of immigrant musicians and dancers are more hesitant, concerned about stoking political tension in any connections to their homeland, said Hunsul Lazo, owner of the massive record store Museo del Disco on Calle Ocho, Miami's Cuban boulevard.
For many refugees the generic "salsa," first used by Cuban musicians to describe the "flavor" in music, has been a politically comfortable replacement for terms like "Son Cubano," or "Habanero," which technically describe much of the typical Cuban-influenced salsa music, Lazo said.
But outside Museo del Disco, cultural and political boundaries are blurring in Miami's multiethnic Latin music scene, Lazo said. "The new guard is winning."
"The Latin community here is huge," said Nelson Llompart, leader of the band Raices, which plays every Friday night at Mojito's, a salsa club west of the city center. "We have people from everywhere."
Galen Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.