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‘It’s a big salsa family’

In Dubai’s booming salsa community, a dance teacher tells his story

  • Alexandra Chaves/Gulf NewsRic Banks practises with one of his students at his Al Barsha dance studio.Image Credit: Gulf News
  • Fady DeebImage Credit: Gulf News
  • Julia StarkeImage Credit: Gulf News
  • Ric BanksImage Credit: Supplied
  • Roberto JimenezImage Credit: Gulf News
  • Sandra WilsonImage Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

“Salsa saved my life,” said Ric Banks. A dancer for over 10 years, Banks’ transition into making a career out of teaching salsa was prompted by the unlikeliest of reasons - an investment venture gone awry.

In 2012, Banks moved to the UAE from London to start a garage business, but after two years, his partner turned on him and ran away with the money, leaving him broke and alone. Despite pleas from his brother to return to their home country, Pakistan, Banks was determined to stay. So he came up with a plan: use his salsa skills, which he developed for six years in the London salsa scene, just to get by. It was initially a practical step, as it allowed him to receive cash payments upfront. After he found students through social media, Banks managed to scrape together Dh3,000 from 10 indivdiuals.

“When I got the Dh3,000 in my hand, I cried. I cried a lot, because I always used to take salsa as a passion. As something on the side, you know. But this was something that really saved my life and helped me fight.”

For nine months, Banks lived in a rundown building in Ajman with taxi drivers, shuttling back and forth to Dubai for his classes.

He became enamoured with salsa while studying in London around 2006, but never took it up as a profession. After the garage incident, however, his point of view changed completely. He decided he was going to pursue salsa: “For years, I was doing all the calculations, business theory, marketing, strategy. Then I lost everything. So now, I’m going to do what I like. Since then, I decided to do salsa full-time.”

Now, he runs two dance studios and hosts three to four salsa nights a week at different locations in Dubai, each night averaging about 150 to 180 people.

Through his classes, Banks has created a community of salseros, the Spanish word for ‘salsa dancers’, across the UAE, who are brought together by their love of music and dance. One such salsera is Julia Starke, who was introduced to salsa through a friend. Recalling that night, she said: “The music, the vibe, the passion and all the people dancing was so crazy, I just found it amazing.”

Soon, Starke, an events manager from Germany, became part of the community. “It’s a big salsa family. Once you start to dance you get to know so many people, all of different nationalities, and we meet up for the parties, too, which is great. This community extends outside of salsa, too, into your private life. A big group of us just went to Oman for the Eid holiday, so these people really become friends.”

During classes, Banks tells students to switch partners after every song, so the students are regularly in rotation, and everybody gets a chance to dance with everybody. That explains why Fady Deeb, a salsero and university teacher, managed to make friends right away. He said: “I didn’t know anyone there, but with salsa you can meet all the people and you can become part of a family so easily, and you will know everybody within a short time.”

And like a family, the students of salsa look out for each other. Because of the dance’s reputation, there are perceptions that it could potentially invite individuals who don’t have the best intentions. However, male and female students alike say that these are rare cases, as dancers are keen to protect their salsa ‘kin’.

Deeb, who has been dancing salsa for five years, said: “When you begin to dance, it’s not about the girls. It’s about enjoying it, dancing, learning new techniques, socialising. This salsa community is like a family; we all know each other. The girls are like our sisters.”

Ric Banks agreed and noted that he would be the first one to step up against anything suspicious. “I will not let it happen. I tell them really nicely, ‘Guys, my girlfriend is here. His wife is here. His sister is here. It’s not happening here.’ In my nights, they call me Robocop.”

British expatriate Sandra Wilson, who started eight months ago, has full faith in Banks’ measures. She said: “Ric really encourages the family and community feeling in his classes... he keeps a really close eye on any strangers who come in and may have those kinds of intentions, although it happens really rarely. It’s completely safe.”

Wilson, a finance director, is all praises for her salsa experience. “It’s fantastic joining this community. You can go out almost every night of the week and be guaranteed to see people you know from class there who will dance with you. It’s a real community for all ages.”

It seems salseros are a social bunch, always on the lookout for a chance to dance. Roberto Jimenez’s profession as a pilot means he’s constantly on the go. Wherever he is, however, he searches for a salsa community: “Dancing will always be a part of my life. Even when I’m travelling for work, I just search for a place to go.”

On his list are Adelaide, Geneva, and Copenhagen. “I can go around the world now and find a place to dance, and for that I need to thank Ric [Banks]. He has helped me to be more confident, not just in my job, but in my life, too.”