When people hear the word “salsa” they might think its a Mexican tomato paste to dip your chips in. Others may have heard that it is a type of Latin dance. What people may not know, however, is that salsa dancers do not consider it just a dance but rather a way of life. For many, salsa is friendship, love, passion, stress-relief and community.
While its origins can be traced back to the days of slavery in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Colombia — it was introduced to the UAE roughly 15 years ago. A British woman by the name of Tami Fowler began salsa classes in Dubai and that is where many of the UAE’s most experienced dancers got their start. Slowly over the years it began picking up steam.
Alex De Smet, from Belgium, has opened a dance school along with her partner James Castro, a British national, called the James and Alex studio. “I started classes with Tami and eventually began practicing for a local student team. Before I knew I was dancing salsa practically every single night,” she told the weekend tabloid! .
“Back then we were a very small community, we all knew each other, and the level was very low. After struggling for many years the overall level of the community began to improve, there was more exposure and getter demand,” she explained. “We had outgrown most studios in Dubai so it was time to get our own place and last year we did just that,” James said.
The spread of salsa in Dubai has had a domino effect on other emirates with Abu Dhabi hosting its own annual festivals as well. “The Abu Dhabi scene is growing month by month and there are plans to open a school here,” says 33-year-old Lebanese national Joe Hanna. The sales manager took his first class Abu Dhabi in 2002. Now he travels around the world DJing and various festivals. “Salsa changed my life, changed my personality made me more open as a person. Sometimes it’s the only thing that can make me feel happy and free,” Hanna said. For Ziad Nassif, a 36-year-old post-production producer from Lebanon, salsa was a way to meet new people after moving to the UAE.
“Twelve years ago I started taking classes as a great way to socialise, feel good, and break away from daily stress. Since my family lives thousands of miles away, it helped me to be part of a warm, supportive family,” he said.
Because of its addictive nature, dancers end up socialising and befriending other dancers who share their passions. Dancers admit they see their non-dancer friends less and less because they want to spend all their free time dancing. In the UAE, deep friendships have formed within the community and many see their salsa community as a home away from home. When 33-year-old architect Cinta Cabrera moved to Abu Dhabi from the Spanish Canary Islands, she did her research before coming. “The first thing I did was search online for places to dance salsa and when I came here I already had a group of friends waiting for me,” she said.
For others, salsa did not only help them find friends, but they found love. Lebanese national, Abdo Abi Hanna, met his wife Diana David through salsa. “I started taking classes six years ago and was immediately hooked. My fellow salseros became my core group of friends as we shared the same interest. I started shopping for salsa music and went to all the salsa nights, it was an addiction,” he explained. Abdo met Diana, a Colombian national, in Dubai where she was giving classes. After being friends for two years, they fell in love and have been married for two years. “I credit salsa for us meeting, sometimes I wonder if I didn’t learn salsa, would I be with her? I’m glad we share a passion for music and dance, it really strengthens our bond,” he told the weekend tabloid!.
“The good thing about salsa is you can go nearly anywhere in the world and there is a salsa community there where others share your passion,” says Dmitri Matalka, a -year-old Jordanian dancer who works in real estate. “I always research salsa nights wherever I’m travelling. You meet amazing people and stay in touch, so whenever they are in the UAE we take care of them. Its like a global family really,” he said. “I’ve been to festivals in Europe, Malaysia, India and the Middle East. Our community in the UAE is diverse. We have so many different nationalities and no one looks down on anyone. People are respected for their ability to dance,” he explained.
Thirty-three-year-old Omar Chen, from Taiwan, has lived all over the world but he says salsa in the UAE is unique. “There are many different styles here, such as Los Angeles style, New York style, Cuban style and Colombian style. While the styles usually do not mix in other parts of the world, here all the different schools support each other’s events,” he said.
One such event is the Dubai International Dance festival which kicked off this week. The festival has now entered its 5th year and is immensely popular in the Gulf and the region, with many people from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia travelling all the way here to attend it. Festival producer Ahmad Abdullah, who has been on the UAE scene from the beginning told the weekend tabloid! that the festival has put Dubai on the international map. Originally from Somalia but born and raised in the UAE, Ahmad, better-known as “Ahmad Salsa”, is proud of how the salsa scene has grown in the UAE.
After putting together several successful festivals, Ahmad says more and more people began to take notice and follow Dubai’s lead. Now, salsa has expanded to other GCC countries. But it was Dubai which started it all, Ahmad says. “In the early days if you wanted to dance salsa, you had to go to Savage Garden in Bur Dubai. Now, on any given day, there are several different places you can dance salsa.” Of course, learning the dance is not easy, but just like everything else it takes times to master.“People often get intimidated because it seems complicated and hard to learn,” Sara Sharouf, event coordinator for the festival told said. “Some people think ‘oh that will never be me’. But the dancers that stick to it and don’t give up end up being some of the best dancers in our community. Its incredibly inspiring,” she says.