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A BREAK FROM THE ROUTINESalsa dancing at Bella Ciao
A BREAK FROM THE ROUTINESalsa dancing at Bella Ciao

They're no longer in the limelight. Salseros in the city have shifted from clubs and bars to quieter venues such as coffee shops, terraces, auditoriums and gyms

If it's Wednesday, it must be Elvis. If it's Friday, Shakira. Sunday? Try Aventura.

Last year, city salseros revelled in the limelight, dipping and spinning in time to flashing cameras and appreciative audiences.

However, as city bars and clubs realise hip hop and house are more profitable, social dancing has been forced off the main stage. Ironically, this seems to be making it even more popular as salsa and jive dancing addicts constantly look for, and find, new venues: terraces, coffee shops, auditoriums, gyms.

Chennai's passionate dance community has been resourceful enough so far to organise dancing through the week. It's a new chapter in the city's dance style.

Lourd Vijay, founder of the LVDS dance school and this year's ambassador to The Hong Kong Salsa Festival, says there has been a global decline in salsa clubs. “New York is the centre of Salsa, and even there only 10 clubs are left of the 110 there used to be 10 years ago,” he says, adding, “It's the same in many parts of the world — Hong Kong, Singapore. In fact, Singapore's only major Salsa club now is Union Square, and it's run by the government.

Changing scenario

The reason clubs give for not promoting salsa is that it's not profitable, since dancers don't drink, and alcohol is, of course, a main source of revenue. “When people dance through the night they need endurance,” says Lourd, explaining why salseros don't hit the bar. “Also, a lot of dancers — and I know many women in Chennai who tell me this — look at salsa as a cardiovascular activity, so they won't want to drink for sure.”

Dance clubs abroad charge for water, which dancers obviously drink in huge quantities. Another trend is stocking chilled juices, and healthy food, which have proved to be popular. This is how socials, where dancers hire DJs and get together in venues such as barns, church halls and auditoriums, are doing increasingly well the world over.

In New York, they're becoming bigger than the clubs. Jimmy Anton's Social Dance, for instance, which runs between the unusual hours of 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month has become one of Latin dancing's hottest spot.

Chennai's slowly seeing a similar, if quieter, surge in underground dancing of this sort. Kokila, who runs the Academy of Modern Danse, where she teaches salsa, has been holding socials for years now at the Russian Cultural Centre (where AMD is located).

Sriram Gopal, a fervent supporter of earthy Cuban style salsa, which is danced far less than the showy LA style in India, calls himself the “original underground.” In a bid to avoid getting “political” his dance classes are obstinately independent, unaligned to a school or venue. “We don't even have a name,” he laughs. “I still feel salsa's not about making money. The profits here are making more friends, and getting to dance.”

He began his classes in a friend's college auditorium. “I keep getting calls from people saying, ‘We don't want to go a class. Find a place, so we can just dance.” Today, they operate from High On Caffeine (HOC), in Adyar, on Sundays between 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. “People come by word of mouth,” he says, adding that dancers need to be vouched for before they're let into the groups in salsa is a fairly intimate dance. “Not a word of advertising. No brochure. No stark outsiders. We've got about 80 people, and expect it to grow.” In classic underground style, it's laid back, relaxed and comfortable. “People come in, have an iced tea or sandwich, dance for a while…” After that, everyone's off to Havana, which has opened its doors to the dance community on Sundays from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. Salsa, Jive, Bachata, Zouk — this is the best time to see it all, as the floor gets packed with hi-voltage moves.

Arun Srinivasan, who heads LVDS in Chennai, keeps track of the many venues, encouraging his students and friends to turn up. “The scene's picking up,” he says, discussing how he expects this movement to get much bigger as more dancers join the community. “People who come to my class — even the beginners — want to start dancing in a social setting.” He adds that the afternoon sessions have also turned out to be an advantage, “Students in hostels, people with early deadlines … They can all come here.”

Why take all this trouble to get a few hours of familiar music? “On Monday morning, we all need to go back to work, and our regular lives,” says Sriram. The frequent dancing breaks are the equivalent of oases in the desert. Short, but powerfully refreshing.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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