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A Week in Amsterdam

I had to spend a week in Amsterdam for work (at the WWW 9 Conference), which gave me a good excuse to check out the Amsterdam salsa scene. So, before setting off, I had a quick look around the Web to see if I could find a guide to salsa in Amsterdam. I was lucky to find a site called Salsa Dancing in Amsterdam, which sounded like what I wanted. It's run by Edwin Hautus and has an excellent list of clubs, together with days and times, addresses, prices and short descriptions. Edwin's site listed over twenty clubs in Amsterdam, so it looked like I had plenty of choice.

A New Way of Dancing

Before going any further, I'd better just mention that I came across a new way of dancing salsa while I was in Amsterdam. I thought I had salsa in all its forms, pretty well sussed. I can dance on 1 and on 3, I can get by in Eddie Torres 2, I know some Casino style stuff, some LA style stuff and other odds and ends. So, I'm dancing in this club in Amsterdam, feeling that there are no surprises left for me, when all of a sudden everything starts feeling wierd. It takes me a while to understand what's happening, but eventually I figure it out ... my partner is breaking forward with her right foot!

Just for those of you who haven't encountered all this jargon, I'll just briefly elaborate. Think of the basic on 1 style of salsa: beat 1 you put your left foot forward, beat 2 you transfer your weight back onto your right foot, beat 3 you step onto your left foot and beat 4 you pause or tap or kick. Well the action of stepping forward with your left and then transferring your weight back onto the right is called the break. And because this happens on beat 1, this style of salsa is called breaking on 1. For those familiar with Eddie Torres style, we can look at the same idea: beat 1 you move your right foot forward a little, beat 2 you move your left foot forward beyond your right, beat 3 you transfer your weight back onto the right foot and beat 4 you pause. So, the break action is still there, but this time it starts on beat 2 (which is why Eddie Torres style is said to break on 2). The thing to note about both these examples is that the break happens with the left foot. The style I encountered in Amsterdam was on 1, but the break was with the right foot. So, beat 1 you put your right foot forward, beat 2 you transfer your weight back onto your left foot, beat 3 you step onto your right and beat 4 you pause or kick or tap. It's like watching your normal basic step in a mirror.

In some clubs, most of the dancers broke with the right, whilst in others, only a few people danced in this way. The way I coped with it, was that if a woman could only dance this way (and some could dance either way), I would use a more Cuban style, breaking back with both feet and doing Casino style moves. This seemed to work well, but of course, this only works if you're leading. If you're a woman, you may well have to break forward on the right if that's the way the man is leading (or learn the Dutch phrase for 'can you break forward on the left please')!

Sunday

I arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon and since the first day of the conference was the Monday, I thought I'd be sensible and get an early night. However, this idea didn't last very long and before I knew it, I was in a taxi speeding towards my first Dutch salsa experience (and for those of you who have caught a taxi in Amsterdam, you'll know that speeding is the right word).

The first club I'd chosen to visit was called El Centro, in Borgerstraat, which wasn't far outside the centre of Amsterdam, but wasn't in a tourist area. It's a club, all by itself, with houses all around it. As it turns out, I was really lucky choosing El Centro on a Sunday as my first club to visit. It only cost 6 guilders to get in (less than two quid ... all the clubs seemed to be cheap to get into). I went in and found myself in a large wooden-floored room. The bar was at the door end of the room, with the DJ booth next to it. Around the edge of the floor there were seats and some tables. There was also a pretty good air-conditioning system, so the place didn't overheat. Most importantly, the music was really good and the place was packed with dancers. I had a great time in El Centro, everyone was really friendly, I got loads of really good dances and really enjoyed myself. The music was mainly salsa, with some merengue and some bachata thrown in. There were plenty of tunes I recognise and quite a few I didn't. Overall, the music was not quite so uptempo as in, for instance, London, with a fair amount of more laid back Cuban stuff.

Another good thing about El Centro was that by the entrance there was a table with loads of flyers on it. Most of these were for things which would happen after I left (I missed seeing Grupo Niche by a couple of days), but you might get lucky and find something good to see. There was also a free newspaper, called Salsa, which had some articles in it (in Dutch, unfortunately) but also had a lot of adverts for clubs in Holland.

El Centro closes at 1am on a Sunday (well, on the Monday, I guess) and my resolve to get an early night had definitely disappeared. I had the address of another Sunday night club, called Cafe Meander, in Voetboogstratt (near the city centre). This place was open until 3am and had a live band, so I decided to go on there. It cost me ten guilders to get in (about three quid). Unfortunately, the place was pretty empty. I caught the band's last set, not long after I arrived and they were very good. Apart from the band, the DJ played good music, with a fair amount of Timba. This wasn't such a success from a dancing point of view, since there were very few people there and there were maybe twice as many men as women (although if you're a woman visiting Amsterdam, this may be a good thing). I had a few dances and this club was one where most of the women broke with the right foot. Apparently, this club is usually much more crowded and I was just unlucky with the night I went along. As I said, the band was good, the DJ was good and there was a reasonable wooden dance floor, so I can see that on another night it could be really good.

Cafe Meander also had some flyers, notably a monthly guide to salsa in Holland, called Uitgaansagenda K-Salsa in de Randstad. This had listings of regular events and one-off events, together with adverts for clubs, dance teachers and other things.

Tuesday

Monday was a bit of a blank for me. There didn't seem to be much on and the only club I could find listed was the Comedy Club in Max Euweplein (near Leidseplein) and when I turned up at ten, I couldn't find any evidence of salsa anywhere! So, Tuesday was my next salsa night.

Tuesday night, I decided to visit the Cotten Club, in Nieuwmarkt. This is really close to the city centre, so it's convenient if that's where you're staying (but not so convenient for me, being stuck out at a conference hotel in the middle of nowhere). The Cotten Club is basically a pub. As you go in, there's a bar along one side of the room and not a lot of room next to the bar. At the end of the bar, is a small-ish stone floor, where there is a dance lesson, followed by dancing. The music is provided by a CD player behind the bar (operated by a DJ). So, it's not a very slick setup, but it was fun place. Again, there were more men than women (so that's good or bad, depending on your point of view), but everyone was friendly and I had plenty of dances.

Friday

I had a couple of quiet nights and then went out on Friday night (my last evening in Amsterdam). The first place I went was Akhnaton, in Nieuwezidskolk, close to Central Station. Ahknaton has various world music nights, with a salsa party every third Friday of the month. The Friday I was in Amsterdam, they were advertising a Charanga band, so I decided to go along. It cost me 17,50 guilders to get in, which seemed expensive to me, but that was just because I'd got used to Amsterdam admission prices. In actual fact, that was only around a fiver!

Akhnaton has a reasonably-sized, wooden dance floor, with a stage in one corner. In another area, off of the dance floor there was a bar. When I arrived, the DJ was playing various salsa tracks, but there were very few people there and nobody dancing. However, some more people drifted in before too long and a couple started dancing. This triggered a general move towards the dance floor and, pretty rapidly, the dance floor was packed with people dancing. I had a couple of dances and then the band came on. They were a good band, and played music which was easy to dance to, including a number of covers.

Unfortunately, earlier than I would have liked, I had to leave Akhnaton. The dance floor is completely enclosed within the building, with no windows and no air-conditioning (or perhaps ineffective air-conditioning). The club got very hot and stuffy, but I'm used to that in salsa clubs. The main problem was that there were loads of people smoking, and the smoke just seemed to hang around. Eventually, it just got too much for me and I couldn't breathe properly. So, despite the fact that I was enjoying myself and would have liked to stay, I had to leave.

It was still reasonably early and I didn't have anything to do the next day (well, apart from fly home), so I decided to go on to another club. I'd really enjoyed myself at El Centro on my first night in Amsterdam, so I decided to return on my last night. Well, I've described El Centro earlier, so I won't repeat it here. The only difference was that it was much emptier on the Friday than it had been on the Sunday, which meant that it didn't have the atmosphere it had on my first visit. However, there were still people for me to dance with and the music was just as good as it had been on the Sunday.

In Summary

So, to round things off, I'll say that Amsterdam has a good salsa scene, which seems to have quite a strong Cuban influence. Apart from this style where the dancers break forward with the right leg, I didn't have any problem dancing with anybody. The people were friendly and the bands I saw were good. The number of men at the clubs (compared with the number of women) seemed higher than in the UK, but not ridiculously so. I had an excellent time at El Centro (particularly on the Sunday night), but there were plenty of other good clubs too. There were many other clubs I didn't get a chance to go to (for example, I wasn't in Amsterdam for a Saturday night) and over the summer, there is open-air salsa in the Vondelpark on a Thursday evening.

So, what with all the cheap flights to Amsterdam, what are you waiting for? Check out Edwin's web site and then jump on a plane.

Useful Links

Salsa Dancing in Amsterdam
This is a guide to salsa in Amsterdam, written and run by Edwin Hautus. Although I did also check flyers and local salsa papers, this site actually contained all the information I needed.
El Centro
This was my favourite club during my visit to Amsterdam. A great dance floor, air-conditioning, excellent music and a really good atmosphere. What more could you want?
Cafe Meander
This place was a bit dead when I visited, but I was told that I'd just chosen a bad night and it's normally much more lively.
Akhnaton
This probably the most nicely done-up club I visited, with a spacious, modern feel to it. Also a good place to check out if you're into a wider range of world music.

Additional Information

I was contacted in March 2001, by Oye Listen to tell me about their website and magazine:

Dear Ian,
noticed your article on Edwin Hautus' site. Couldn't help to direct your attention to our website www.oyelisten.com. Although in Dutch, you shouldn't have missed this one! Our (paper)magazine is Holland's oldest and in fact, only magazine that gives latin and african music the attention it deserves. We also organise the so-called Latin Dance Beats. We had bands like Orishas, Jovenes Clasicos del Son, Alfredo de la Fe, Maraca, Tony Martinez and Jimmy Bosch (!!!!). Last january we had timba sensation Carlos Manuel over @ paradiso and nighttown, rotterdam. Manuel delivered a nuclear timba set with his smokin' young band. In july there will be a three day festival, with Los Van Van (among others). 6, 7 and 8 of july. (LVV on sunday 8th of july, this has been confirmed last week!).

kindest regards,

Jair Tchong aka Jairzinho

Oye Listen Magazine
Salsa * Brasil * Afro * Latin Jazz
P.O. Box 59690
1040 LD Amsterdam, Holland
tel 31(0)20 616 0774
fax 31(0)20 689 2402

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