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The Los Angeles Salsa Congress

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I'd decided to take a holiday in Los Angeles. I had a friend who'd moved out there to work a few months earlier, so I figured I could hook up with him, do some sightseeing and enjoy the warm weather. Then I found out that the last weekend in May, Memorial Weekend, would be the West Coast Bacardi Salsa Congress. Well, that fixed the actual date of my visit. My plan was to go out a couple of days before the Congress (to give me a chance to adjust to the time zone), spend the weekend at the Congress, then hook up with my friend and spend the next week and a half doing the sights. So here are my comments and recollections about the Congress and the clubs I visited in Los Angeles.

Arrival

I knew that some friends from Sheffield would be at the Congress and they were flying in on the same day as me (the Wednesday before the Congress), but I was amazed when they ended up on the same flight as me out of Dublin, just across the aisle and a row in front. The three of them (Dave, Maxine and Dawn) had plans for Salsa clubs to visit that night and the next. So, my original idea of taking it easy for my first couple of days in LA quickly went out of the window. I find it difficult to say 'no' when someone asks me if I want to go to a salsa club.

I can't say that the flight went quickly (it lasted about eleven hours), but eventually we landed at LAX airport. We'd already been through US immigration at Dublin, so we were spared the long queues at LAX (a good reason to fly Aer Lingus to the US in the future). My luggage had managed to accompany me all the way from Manchester, so my holiday was off to a good start. I met up again with the Sheffield salseros on the other side of customs and we made plans for the evening. They wanted to go to a restaurant/club called El Floridita. They had hired a car and kindly offered to give me a lift to the club. As it turns out, this was very generous of them when we discovered the distances involved in driving around LA. Without their offer, I'd have been stranded in my hotel for the next two days.

Wednesday Night at El Floridita

Dave, Maxine and Dawn were staying in Santa Monica, while I was staying near the airport. On the map, it didn't seem like far, so the plan was for them to come to my hotel and then we'd drive out to El Floridita (at 1253 N Vine St). Well, my advice to anyone planning on driving in LA is to leave plenty of time for your journey. On this first trip in LA, our quick drive ended up taking well over an hour and most of that was spent driving along the same road (a road in LA can go on for over ten miles, seemingly with traffic lights on every crossroads).

We eventually arrived at El Floridita, paid our entrance fee and went in. It's quite a small restaurant, with a wooden dance floor, a stage and tables around the edge. When we arrived, there was a band playing and what seemed like hundreds of people crammed in. It turned out that this was a special event, planned as an appetiser for the Congress. Albert Torres (the organiser of the Salsa Congress) was there and made a brief speech, pointing out other guests from the Congress such as the legendary Cuban Pete. I also met someone from Washington DC who I'd met at the first Salsaweb Congress. There was a really good atmosphere in El Floridita with great music from both the band and the DJ. Despite the fact that we'd all been up for around 24 hours, we managed to get in our first dances in LA and our first dances of the visit with American partners!

Dave then very kindly gave me a lift back to my hotel and I collapsed into a long sleep.

Thursday in Santa Monica

I woke up late on Thursday morning, feeling surprisingly bright. The plan was to go to the Conga Room in the evening, but I still had the day in front of me. On the plus side, I had no commitments and I could do whatever I liked with the day. On the negative side, I was in a hotel which was close to the airport and close to other hotels, but not close to anything worth doing!

Fortunately, I was quite close to LAX bus station, so I made my way there to see where I could get to. One bus was called the Big Blue Bus, which would take me to Santa Monica. That sounded like as good a place as any, so I hopped on. One pleasant surprise was that the fare was only 50 cents. As it turned out this was a flat fare for any distance on a single Big Blue Bus. The inhabitants of LA seem to love complicated rule systems for their public transport. For example, you can get transfer tickets to go onto other bus routes, but there is a long list of rules as to which services you needed to pay to get transfers for, which are free and the maximum number of transfers you can get.

After maybe half an hour, I arrived in Santa Monica. I really liked it there (so much so, that I returned to spend a few days there at the end of my holiday). I didn't really do much, just wandered around window shopping, watching the street entertainers (including the psychic cats) and then I grabbed something to eat. The main area is centred around Third Street Promenade, which has got a variety of shops mainly selling clothes, books or furniture and other stuff for the house. There are also some cinemas and plenty of restaurants, coffee bars and fast food outlets. I also picked up a copy of a free listings paper, called LA Weekly, which was packed with things to do (although I had the next few days already mapped out).

After exhausting the possibilities of Third Street, I wandered down a couple of streets to get to the beach and then wandered along the pier. Partly, this was to suss out a place called the Boathouse, which I'd heard was a good Salsa club for a Sunday afternoon, but it was mainly just to soak up the atmosphere and the good weather.

After these diversions, I grabbed a Big Blue Bus back to the airport and returned to my hotel for a quick nap and to get ready for another night of Salsa in LA.

Thursday Night at The Conga Room

Dave again picked me up from my hotel and we made our way to the Conga Room in West Hollywood (5364 Wilshire Boulevard). In complete contrast to El Floridita, the previous night, the Conga Room was a big, flashy nightclub. Everyone was really dressed up; glamourous women and well-dressed men. There was a large dance floor, with a bar at one end and a stage at the other, where the band was on.

We met up with the rest of the Sheffield lot (two of whom had arrived in Las Vegas a few days before and then drove across to LA). Super-Mario from London was also there, showing off his wide repertoire of moves to the delighted locals.

I had a couple of dances with Dawn and Maxine, but it wasn't that long after we arrived that the club closed. Apparently clubs in LA close quite early during the week (so people can get to work the next day).

I liked the Conga Room and really fancied returning, but I didn't get the chance (maybe next time I'm in LA).

Friday Night at the Congress

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Friday, I packed up my stuff and moved from the hotel I was staying in, to the Congress hotel, the Crowne Plaza (about 200 yards down the road), unpacked again and got myself settled in. Come the evening, I went down to reception to catch one of the minibuses which had been laid on to ferry everyone backwards and forwards between the hotel and the Hollywood Park Casino where the Convention was held.

The Hollywood Park Casino is part of the Hollywood Park Racetrack, where people who've lost money on the horses get a chance to make it back in the casino (or vice-versa). The outside of the building is pretty spectacular, with fifties-style architecture and dancing fountains. The inside is less memorable, but it's a large building with several floors. Plenty of space for Salsa, with loads of room left for other stuff too (for example, there was also a Soca/Reggae night going on a few floors up).

The room we had for the evening was big, with two reasonable-sized dance floors separated by a couple of yards of carpet. There was a stage in one corner of the room and bars scattered around the edge (which bizarrely shut before the end of the evening). Adjoining this room, was a covered, outdoor area, with a dance floor at one end, a stage at the other and rows of seats looking at the stage. The basic plan for the evening (and the following two evenings) was that dance shows would take place on the outside stage and bands would play on the indoor stage. These alternated, so there were a load of dance performances, followed by tbe band, followed by more dance performances, followed by another band. Gaps in the proceedings were filled by the DJ (Henry Knowles out of Copacabana, Manhattan).

Personally, I feel that at events such as this, the organisers try to cram in too much (there were loads and loads of dance teams there) and I'm always left feeling a bit rushed (sometimes, I just want to relax and dance). However, it has to be said that Albert Torres managed to get a spectacular array of performers, many of whom just amazed me.

Anyway, I enjoyed Friday night and both bands were really good. They were Orquesta Expresion Latina (from Seattle) and Orquesta Son Mayor (from LA). I had some very enjoyable dances and, at around 3:30, I went back outside and caught the minibus back to the hotel, where I went to bed tired and happy.

Saturday at the Congress

Saturday kicked off at 9:15 with a cardio-salsa workout with Laura Canellias. I didn't even think about trying to get to that! I wandered over at the far more respectable time of 11:00.

The workshops ran from 10am until 6pm, lasting an hour each with a fifteen minute gap between them. As usual, there were three streams of workshops; beginner, intermediate and advanced. One thing which I thought was good, was that they stated what skills a beginner, intermediate or advanced dancer would have, rather than what happens at other events I've been too, where they say that an advanced dancer is someone who has been dancing for 173 years (or whatever). For example, this is what they call an advanced dancer:

You've gained control of your body balance, timing and footwork and are able to move quickly from one pattern to the next. Men: You have the capacity to remember and lead a series of moves with continuity and styling. Ladies: Multiple turns, spins and ducks are no problem for you. You move like a Salsa diva! Intricate footwork is challenging, but fun for you. It will not frustrate you or give you a brain meltdown.
Anyway, I went to an 'on 2' shines workshop before lunch (all of which I forgot, within 5 minutes of leaving the workshop). I then went to a Salsa lecture, which may seem a strange thing to do, but I really enjoyed it. It was given by Max Salazar, who has been recording the Salsa scene since the fifties. He's got stuff on just about every chapter of Salsa history, but the lecture concentrated on the New York Mambo scene, centred around the Palladium club. There was also a panel, consisting of people who were there at the time; Cuban Pete and the Palladium Mambo Legends.

The lecture was fascinating, with photos of the singers, musicians and dancers, together with other material such as flyers and posters. There was also a musical accompaniment of rare Mambo tracks from the period. At the end, Albert Torres said some very moving words about what Salsa means to him (and from the nods in the audience, obviously many other people too). For Albert, and many others, Salsa is part of their cultural identity; a connection to their culture. I can't hope to say here what Albert said, but the basic gist of it was that in his youth, he tried to be American and not Puerto Rican. He danced Hustle, while Salsa was his parents' music. He spoke English and not Spanish. However, Salsa was there in the background and it left him an open door, so that when he was ready for it, it was there for him. Then, through Salsa, he found a way back to his parents' culture, back to his culture. He learnt to speak Spanish, he looked into his heritage and took pride in his culture. And many people in the audience clearly felt the same way.

I should also say that Albert was very keen that today's youth get the same chance that he had to get in touch with their culture. He was of the opinion that there were some types of Salsa that are being produced today that aren't too popular with the older salseros, but if it got younger people interested in Salsa, it was a good thing. One example was DLG, whose Hip-Hop influence might put off more conventional dancers, but can attract a younger crowd. Another example of Albert's interest in this area was that he arranged a special workshop led by Nadia Torres (Eddie and Maria Torres' 15 year old daughter), only for those aged 5 to 17. In fact, in his welcome to the Congress, he quoted Cachao who said: All I ask is for the youth to maintain the tradition. Albert Torres is clearly a man who cares passionately about Salsa; its present, past and future.

There was a lunch break after the lecture and then more workshops. I saw a couple from Italy (Sergio and Sonia) take an advanced workshop, but I decided to opt out of it, since it seemed to consist mainly of dips and drops (and I was after stuff for a crowded dance floor). I had a look around the stalls selling videos, dance shoes and dance clothes, then made my way back to the hotel, to get ready for the evening.

Saturday Night at the Congress

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The arrangement for Saturday night was the same as for Friday, with loads of dance shows, alternating with live music, with a DJ rounding things off up to 4am. I'll just list some of the shows which stuck in my mind. First off, I have to mention Cheerful Salsa, representing the UK. There were (obviously) a load of display teams from LA like Salsa Brava and Los Rumberos. Also from LA (but before that, from NY) was Saeon Stylists Dance Team, who put together an incredible show, worthy of any music video you might see on TV. New York also had a strong presence, with the Eddie Torres dancers and Angel Ortiz, to name just two. From New Jersey, Caribbean Soul put in an appearance, led by Ismael Otero. The Palladium Mambo Legends and Cuban Pete also put on performances. There were also non-American teams. such as the Japanese team Ritmomania Japonesa and a team from Singapore. I also got to see Jillian from Los Jovenes del Barrio singing Telephone (and really giving it some).

I should also say that the performers were really friendly and didn't keep themselves apart from us punters. During the course of the weekend, I got to dance with many of the performers and they always seemed happy to dance.

The live music on Saturday night was provided by Johnny Polanco y su Conjunto Amistad and, from Puerto Rico, Andy Montanez and his Orchestra.

Sunday Afternoon at the Boathouse

I got up late on Sunday morning and decided to give the workshops a miss. I'd heard that Sunday was a good day to wander around Santa Monica, so I once again boarded the Big Blue Bus and headed for the seaside. Well, I'd heard right ... there were all sorts of street entertainers there and an incredible number of people just wandering around like me. As I wandered towards the pier, I heard Salsa drifting up and then I remembered that Sunday afternoon was Salsa afternoon at the Boathouse. Well, I had to check it out!

The place was brilliant. It was in the downstairs bar, with a reasonable-sized floor (which rapidly become incredibly crowded), loads of dancers and great music. The only bizarre thing about the place was that there was a large outdoor area, but it is illegal to dance out there (it's not the club preventing you, it's the police). So, basically, people danced inside and then went outside to cool down (and considering the temperature outside in Santa Monica was in the mid 20's, that gives you an idea of how hot it was inside). The other thing that was good (UK clubs take note) was that there was a supply of free iced water for you to help yourself to.

Looking around, I noticed that a load of dancers from the Congress had the same idea as me and were also showing their stuff off in front of the locals. Ismael Otero and his friends in particular were attracting a load of attention (and rightly so).

Anyway, after a very enjoyable afternoon, I caught the Big Blue Bus back to my hotel and got ready for the final night of the Congress.

Sunday Night at the Congress

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Sunday night was my favourite night of the Congress. It may have been because I'd just had a really good afternoon and so I was all psyched up for the evening. It may have been because I'd got to recognise some people by now, so I got asked to dance by a couple of people I'd danced with on other nights and it was generally easier to get dances. However, the biggest thing was, I think, the DJ competition which took the place of the second and third band slots (the only band of the evening was Orquesta Costazul).

In the past few months, Henry Knowles has been to the UK a few times and we've now seen his seamless mixing of Salsa, making one track go on for 15 minutes. It has to be said that this is something we take for granted in other types of club, but in Salsa clubs we're happy for a DJ to just stick on one track and then start up another when that one ends. Anyway, it seems that there's now an interest in DJ'ing techniques (on the Sunday, for example, Henry ran a workshop on how to mix for Salsa). The DJ competition is the natural conclusion of this and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Basically there were a load of DJ's who signed up for the competition and they each got 15 minutes to show off their mixing skills. At the end, the dancers got to vote for who they thought was the best. Basically, it meant each DJ was trying to show off their best music in 15 minutes, so as dancers, we got hours of really, really good music. I hope that other events take this type of competition on board.

As I said, Sunday was my favourite night and a great way to end the Congress.

The Mayan

After the Congress, I stayed in LA for another week and a half, spending a lot of that time with a friend from Liverpool who had moved out to LA about three months earlier. During that time, I only went to two Salsa clubs (my friend wasn't interested in Salsa). One of those was the Boathouse (I'd had such a good time there that I had to go back ... and I had an equally good time on my second visit) and the other was the Mayan, which I felt I had to visit because I'd heard so much about it.

The Mayan has Salsa nights on a Friday and a Saturday and I went on a Saturday. I'd seen an advert saying there was a band, so I thought I'd check it out. I eventually found the Mayan (it's at 1038 S Hill St, in Downtown LA) and was waved into a car park opposite by a guy waving fluorescent sticks (like you see inside clubs). I had a car by then and I have to say that I can't see any other way to get around LA; taxis are dead expensive and I'd been advised not to use public transport at night. After negotiating the queue, the metal detector and the frisking, I eventually got into the Mayan (somewhere I'd been hearing about for over a year).

The Mayan is an old movie theatre, dating from the 20's or 30's (I think) and was built with a pre-Colombian feel, including large Aztec-style sculptures on the wall and large, bright paintings of dragons. It's similar to other cinemas of the time based on earlier civilisations, for example Mann's Chinese Theater and the Egyptian Theater, both on Hollywood Boulevard. The insides have been removed (like the seats and stuff) to create a huge dancefloor, with a stage at the front, bars to the sides and video screens on the wall.

When I arrived, the band was already playing their first set and the place was full of people dancing ... I mean, an incredible number of people dancing ... more salseros than I'd ever seen in my life! After the band finished, the DJ started playing for the crowd. To begin with, the music was normal club music, stuff like the Vengaboys and other chart music. After maybe 20 minutes of that, they started on Merengue and there was another 20 minutes of that. Then, the DJ moved onto Salsa and played 20 minutes of Salsa. The band came on for their second set after that.

The Mayan is definitely a club to visit when you're in LA, but I reckon that it's the sort of place you want to go to in a group, rather than by yourself.

That wraps up the Salsa part of my trip. For those of you who feel that there's nothing apart from Salsa, feel free to leave now. The rest of you, read on ...

A Couple of Quiet Days

As I said, a friend had moved out to LA a few months earlier, so I was going to spend a few days with him. He picked me up from the Congress hotel at noon on the Monday. I don't know what he made of the people hanging around outside the hotel practising shines! Anyway, it turns out that he didn't live in LA, but in a place called Costa Mesa, which is in Orange County, about an hour's drive away. So, we drove out to his place, dumped my stuff and then went out to the beach. After wandering around there for a while, with me filling him in on all the gossip from back home, we went back to his place and I took the opportunity to wash my clothes at his apartment's laundromat. It's amazing how many clothes you get through at a Salsa event! We then went out to spend the evening in his local.

One of the things I find strange in America is how much stuff I recognise from movies or album covers or TV. The first time I went to America, simple things like the 'walk'/'don't walk' sign or a school bus fascinated me, because I'd seen them so many times on film or in photographs and now I was seeing one for real! I'm much more blasť about these things now (on the outside, at least), but walking into my friend's local was like walking into a bar in a hundred movies (usually starring Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds). There was a massive bar, three pool tables, loads of neon beer signs on the wall and a jukebox which only seemed capable of playing Country music. Not the sort of place I'd want to go to regularly, but it was interesting to visit.

After a couple of days in Costa Mesa, it was time for me to become a tourist again, so I hired a car, packed up my stuff and headed for Hollywood.

Hooray for Hollywood

Hollywood has to be one of the least glamourous places I visited in LA. I was staying at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard (across the road from Mann's Chinese Theater) which still had traces of its elegance from earlier times. It was built in 1927 and was the site of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Apparently its Cinegrill club (which still hosts acts today) was a hangout for people such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Errol Flynn and Salvador Dali. It's meant to be haunted by Marilyn Monroe (who lived there for 8 years) and Montgomery Clift. It had to be said though, that outside the hotel, Hollywood Boulevard can only be described as seedy.

However, Hollywood was an excellent base for me to explore LA. They've recently built a metro line coming out to Hollywood (well, most of it ... there are a couple of stations still to open later this year). This takes you to Downtown and then to anywhere else you want to go. It was clean and easy to use during the day (ignoring another complicated ticket system), although I did use my car during the evenings and at night. I also walked around Hollywood itself, looking at things like Mann's Chinese Theater, the Egyptian Theater (which was holding an animation festival at the time), the Capital Records Tower (which is built to look like a stack of records) and various Art Deco buildings.

I also drove up to the Hollywood Hills to see how the rich people loved (nearly getting squashed by someone driving what looked like a tank) and around Griffith Park, particularly to look at the Observatory, as seen in Rebel without a Cause.

The company my friend is working at, got us free tickets for a baseball game, so I managed to experience another typical American activity. It was a local derby; the Anaheim Angels (from Orange County) playing the LA Dodgers. I can't say that I found baseball exciting, but it was a pleasant experience. It was kind of like a social event rather than a sports event; a picnic type of feeling, with a game which happens to be going on at the same time. The crowd were doing all sorts of things while the game was going on, for example there seemed to be an unending supply of beachballs, which the crowd knocked around. There were also things happening between innings, like a competition to find the scruffiest car in the parking lot, the prize for which was a new car! On my way home, I experienced another delight of LA life, the unexpected delay on the freeway (resulting in me moving around 1 mile in an hour).

The other 'organised' thing we did was to go to a comedy club. We decided to go to the Improvisation in West Hollywood (8162 Melrose Avenue) which was having a standup night. We got to see about a dozen standups, all doing about ten minutes each. The standard was quite varied, with some I really liked and others I didn't. I do think that we were quite a tough audience though. The really great thing though was at the end, when the compere announced that there was a special guest and Damon Wayans walked in! He then did about an hour of really good material.

After my few days in Hollywood, I went out to Santa Monica to spend the rest of my holiday. This is where I want to go back to, next time I'm in LA. I walked down to Venice Beach, which was an interesting place (although Muscle Beach was nothing like I imagined it would be). One stall was giving out free tickets to tapings of TV shows (although I didn't find it soon enough to make use of it). I spent most of my time just doing tourist things, shopping, writing postcards and stuff like that.

This was also when I went back to the Boathouse. I had just as good a time the second visit as the first (in fact it might even have been better). I met up with some of the people I'd met at the Congress, which was nice. The other thing which added to the atmosphere was that this Sunday was the day of the LA Lakers' deciding game to see whether they would get through to the NBA finals. During the evening, the DJ kept fading down the music and telling everyone the score, which either brought groans (early in the game) or cheers (towards the end of the game and at full time).

Final Thoughts

I hope this has given you some ideas for things to do in LA. I'd say that you've definitely got to go to the Boathouse and I'd also recommend the Conga Room. Just for the experience, I'd also say you should try the Mayan.

I'd just like to finish by thanking Albert Torres for organising the Congress.

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