Tenth Annual Chicago International Salsa Congress
Latin dance starts conversations and holds histories.
This article previewed the 2011 Chicago International Salsa Congress. Click here for the 2012 schedule of events.
In a Mercedes-Benz showroom, four teens dressed to the nines, sensing Facebook gold, take turns posing for snapshots beside a gleaming silver AMG SL 63. Getting no attention at the opposite end of the room is a black and red 1956 Corvette convertible, its keys on the windshield. Thanks to the connections of Latin dance–lover Michael Santana, 49, the launch party for the tenth annual Chicago International Salsa Congress—filling the Westin O’Hare Thursday 17 through Sunday 20—is in the sparkling car dealership at North and Bosworth Avenues.
The teens belong to a group of nine couples who’ll dance in a showcase at the event. Their posture is excellent and the boys treat the girls with old-world courtesy. Spontaneously, two of the kids practice complex hold changes and blindingly fast spins.
Many have attended the Congress for years. Some are cofounder Saladeen Alamin’s dance students at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Since the first Congress, Alamin and his wife, Rosita Ragin, have included an Emerging Artists Showcase in the weekend’s events, inspired by what they saw at Puerto Rico’s congress in 1999.
No such thing existed when the Corvette was new and these two were teenagers. When we meet at a Loop Starbucks, the spouses tell me they found Latin dance in long-gone South Side nightspots such as Basin Street, a.k.a. the Clubhouse Lounge, and the Roberts Show Club. Alamin, a Chicago native, formed a partnership called the Mambo Deuces and went on the road when not tending bar and waiting tables. Mambo, traditionally danced on the clave (second beat of each phrase), was then the dominant style of Afro-Latin social dancing. “They called him Cha-Cha George the Solo King,” Alamin says of his fellow Deuce, “and my name was Smokey, Smokey the Cha-Cha King.”
Ragin was living in Brooklyn but summered in Chicago with two adopted older sisters, South Siders who knew club owner Herman Roberts. “I was 15 the first time I went [to the Roberts Show Club],” Ragin recalls, grinning. “They’d dress me up to look older and stay one on each side of me. I got to see Dinah Washington live. Brook Benton. Ahmad Jamal.” With precise notation of artists, dates and venues, Ragin takes eight minutes to race through the history of Afro-Caribbean music and dance in the U.S., the effect the Cuban embargo had on it and the cultural exchange that resulted from big bands on the leisure circuit playing hotels in Chicago, Havana, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York and San Juan.
“Salsa” became a catch-all term by the late ’90s, when dancing on the clave had almost disappeared in Chicago and other U.S. cities in favor of the more aggressive approach of moving on each first beat. Alamin teaches his students to dance on the clave. “Because it’s the response beat,” he explains. Ragin jumps in. “It’s a conversation that way.” Alamin nods emphatically in agreement. “Salsa’s not really a dance,” he says. “It’s just something that’s hot.”
Ragin first saw Alamin perform at Basin Street in 1965. Fifteen years later, they met. “I was living on the North Side,” Ragin says, “hadn’t danced in ten years, and my friends dragged me out to this tiny little bar [Ms. Bonnie’s Lounge, at 75th Street and Ingleside Avenue]. The music was really bright and I saw a few people I remembered from Basin Street. This tall gentleman walks up to me and I recognize him immediately. I thought, No, I’m not going to dance with this guy.”
Ragin grabs Alamin’s hand and grins again.